1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

Robert Chambers, revised Robert Carruthers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1840-44; 1879) 2:203-08.



JOHN DRYDEN, one of the great masters of English verse, and whose masculine satire has never been excelled, was born at Aldwinckle, in Northamptonshire, August 9, 1631. His father, Erasmus Driden (the poet first spelled the name with a "y"), was a strict Puritan, of an ancient family, long established in Northamptonshire, and possessed of a small estate, Blakesley — worth about 60 per annum — which the poet inherited. He was the eldest of fourteen children. His mother was Mary, daughter of the Rev. H. Pickering, rector of Aldwinckle All Saints. Dryden was educated first at Westminster, and afterwards at Trinity College, Cambridge. His first acknowledged publication was a poem on the death of Lord Hastings, 1649. Next year he wrote some commendatory verses prefixed to the poems of John Hoddesdon; but his most important and promising early production was a set of Heroic Stanzas on the death of Cromwell (1659), which possess a certain ripeness of style and versification that foretold future excellence. In all Waller's poem on the same subject, there is nothing equal to such verses as the following:

His grandeur he derived from Heaven alone,
For he was great ere Fortune made him so:
And wars, like mists that rise against the sun,
Made him but greater seem, not greater grow.

Nor was he like those stars which only shine
When to pale mariners they storms portend.
He had his calmer influence, and his mien
Did love and majesty together blend.

When monarchy was restored, Dryden went over with the tuneful throng who welcomed in Charles II. He had done with the Puritans, and he wrote poetical addresses to the king and the lord chancellor; Astraea Redux (1660); a Panegyric, addressed to the king on his coronation (1661); To Lord Chancellor Clarendon (1662). The amusements of the drama revived after the Restoration, and Dryden became a candidate for theatrical laurels. His numerous dramas will be afterwards noticed. In December, 1663, he married the Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. The match was an unhappy one; the lady's conduct had not been free from reproach, and her temper was violent. The poet afterwards revenged himself by constantly inveighing against matrimony. In his play of the Spanish Friar, he most impolitely states that "woman was made from the dross and refuse of a man;" upon which his antagonist, Jeremy Collier, remarks with some humour and smartness, "I did not know before that a man's dross lay in his ribs; I believe it sometimes lies higher." All Dryden's plays are marked with licentiousness, that vice of the age, which he fostered, rather than attempted to check. In 1667, he published a long poem, Annus Mirabilis, being an account of the great events of the previous twelve months, 1665-6 — the Dutch War, the Plague, and the Fire of London. This poem abounds in vigorous, picturesque description. Dryden's next work (published in 1668) was an Essay on Dramatic Poesy, in which he vindicates the use of rhyme in tragedy. The style of his prose was easy, natural, and graceful. The poet undertook to write for the king's players no less than three plays a year, for which he was to receive one share and a quarter in the profits of the theatre — said to be about 300 per annum. He was afterwards made poet-laureate and royal historiographer, with a salary of 100 each office, and with the laureateship was the usual tierce of wine. It appears that, in 1684, four years of the laureate pension were due, and the poet wrote to Lord Rochester, First Lord of the Treasury, supplicating some payment to account, or "some small employment in the Customs or Excise." A certain portion of the arrear was paid, and a pension of 100 per annum was granted to him in addition to his salary as laureate and historiographer. Dryden went on manufacturing his rhyming plays, in accordance with the vitiated French taste which then prevailed. He got involved in controversies and quarrels, chiefly at the instigation of Rochester, who set up a wretched rhymester, Elkanah Settle, in opposition to Dryden. The great poet was also successfully ridiculed by Buckingham in his Rehearsal. In November 1681, Dryden published the satire of Absalom and Achitophel, written in the style of a scriptural narrative, the names and situations of personages in the holy text being applied to those contemporaries to whom the author assigned places in his poem. The Duke of Monmouth was Absalom; and the Earl of Shaftesbury, Achitophel; while the Duke of Buckingham was drawn under the character of Zimri. The success of this bold political satire — the most vigorous and elastic, the most finely versified, varied, and beautiful, which the English language can boast — was almost unprecedented. Dryden was now placed above all his poetical contemporaries. Shortly afterwards (March 1682), he continued the feeling against Shaftesbury in a poem called The Medal, a Satire against Sedition. The attacks of a rival poet, Shadwell, drew another vigorous satire from Dryden, Mac-Flecknoe (October 1682). A month afterwards, a second part of Absalom and Achitophel was published, but the body of the poem was written by Nahum Tate. Dryden contributed about two hundred lines, containing highly wrought characters of Settle and Shadwell, under the names of Doeg and Og. "His antagonists," says Scott, "came on with infinite zeal and fury, discharged their ill-aimed blows on every side, and exhausted their strength in violent and ineffectual rage; but the keen and trenchant blade of Dryden never makes a thrust in vain, and never strikes but at a vulnerable point." In the same year was published Dryden's Religio Laici, a poem written to defend the Church of England against the dissenters, yet evincing a sceptical spirit with regard to revealed religion. The opening of this poem is singularly solemn and majestic:

REASON AND RELIGION.
Dim as the borrowed beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wandering travellers,
Is Reason to the soul; and as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here; so Reason's glimmering ray
Was lent, not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear,
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere;
So pale grows Reason at Religion's sight;
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.

Dryden's doubts about religion were dispelled by his embracing the Roman Catholic faith. Satisfied or overpowered by the prospect of an infallible guide, he closed in with the court of James II. and gladly exclaimed: "Good life be now my task — my doubts are done." His pension was at first stopped by James, but it was resumed. Mr. Bell, one of the late editors of Dryden, has stated that the pension was resumed while the poet was still a Protestant, in 1685-6: "the defence of the Duchess of York's paper, in which Dryden for the first time espoused the doctrines of the Church of Rome, appeared late in 1686." We regret to find that this defence cannot be maintained. Dryden's pension was restored by letters-patent on the 4th of March 1685-6, but his "apostacy," says Lord Macaulay, "had been the talk of the town at least six weeks before. See Evelyn's Diary, January 19, 1685-6." And certainly, in Evelyn's Diary of the date specified, is an entry alluding to the talk that Dryden, and his sons had gone over to the Romish Church, by which Evelyn thought the church would gain no great credit. The poet's change of religion happening at a time when it suited his interests to become a Catholic, was looked upon with suspicion. The candour evinced by Dr. Johnson on this subject, and the patient inquiry of Sir Walter Scott, may be noted. We may lament the fall of the great poet, but his conduct is not necessarily open to the charge of sordid and unprincipled selfishness. He brought up his family, and died in his new belief. The first public fruits of Dryden's change of creed were his allegorical poem of the Hind and Panther (April 1687), in which the main argument of the Roman Church — all that has or can be said for tradition and authority — is fully stated. "The wit in the Hind and Panther," says Hallam, "is sharp, ready, and pleasant; the reasoning is sometimes admirably close and strong; it is the energy of Bossuet in verse." The hind is the Church of Rome; the panther, the Church of England. The Independents, Quakers, Anabaptists, and other sects are represented as bears, bares, boars, &c. The Calvinists are strongly but coarsely caricatured:

More haughty than the rest, the wolfish race
Appear, with belly gaunt and famished face—
Never was so deformed a beast of grace.
His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears,
Close clapped for shame, but his rough crest he rears,
And pricks up his predestinating ears.

The obloquy and censure which Dryden's change of religion entailed upon him, is glanced at in the Hind and Panther, with more depth of feeling than he usually evinced:

If joys hereafter must be purchased here
With loss of all that mortals hold so dear,
Then welcome infamy and public shame,
And last, a long farewell to wordly fame!
'Tis said with ease, but oh, how hardly tried
By haughty souls to human honour tied!
O sharp convulsive pangs of agonising pride!
Down then, thou rebel, never more to rise,
And what thou didst, and dost so dearly prize,
That fame, that darling fame, make that thy sacrifice!
'Tis nothing thou hast given; then add thy tears
For a long race of unrepenting years:
'Tis nothing yet, yet all thou hast to give;
Then add those may-be years thou hast to live:
Yet nothing still; then poor and naked come;
Thy father will receive his unthrift home,
And thy blest Saviours blood discharge the mighty sum.

He had previously, in the same poem, alluded to the weight of ancient witness or tradition, which had prevailed over private reason; and his feelings were strongly excited:

But, gracious God! how well dost Thou provide
For erring judgments an unerring guide!
Thy throne is darkness in the abyss of light,
A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.
O teach me to believe Thee thus concealed,
And search no farther than Thyself revealed,
But her alone for my director take
Whom Thou hast promised never to forsake!
My thoughtless youth was winged with vain desires,
My manhood, long misled by wandering fires,
Followed false lights; and when their glimpse was gone.
My pride struck out new sparkles of her own.
Such was I, such by nature still I am;
Be Thine the glory, and be mine the shame!

The Revolution in 1688 deprived Dryden of his offices. But the want of independent income seems only to have stimulated his faculties, and his latter unendowed years produced the noblest of his works.

Besides several plays, he gave to the world, in 1692, versions of Juvenal and Persius, in which he was aided by his sons; and a translation of Virgil, published in 1697, but the work of nearly three years. This is considered the least happy of all his great works. Dryden was deficient in sensibility, while Virgil excels in tenderness and in a calm and serene dignity. This laborious undertaking brought the poet a sum of about 1200. His publisher, Tonson, endeavoured in vain to get the poet to inscribe the translation to King William, and failing in this, he took care to make the engraver "aggravate the nose of Aeneas in the plates into a sufficient resemblance of the hooked promontory of the Deliverer's countenance." The immortal Ode to St. Cecilia, commonly called Alexander's Feast, was Dryden's next work (1697); and it is the loftiest and most imaginative of all his compositions. "No one has ever qualified his admiration of this noble poem." In 1700, Dryden published his Fables, 7500 verses more or less, as the contract with Tonson bears, being a partial delivery to account of 10,000 verses, which be agreed to furnish for the sum of 250 guineas, to be made up to 300 upon publication of a second edition. The poet was then in his sixty-eigthth year, but his fancy was brighter and more prolific than ever; it was like a brilliant sunset, or a river that expands in breadth, and fertilises a wider tract of country, ere it is finally engulfed in the ocean. The Fables are imitations of Boccaccio and Chaucer, and afford the finest specimens of Dryden's happy versification. No narrative poems in the language have been more generally admired or read. They shed a glory on the last days of the poet, who died on the 1st of May 1700. A subscription was made for a public funeral; and his remains, after being embalmed, and lying in state twelve days, were interred with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

Dryden has been very fortunate in his critics, annotators, and biographers. His life by Johnson is the most carefully written, the most eloquent and discriminating, of all the "Lives of the Poets." Malone collected and edited his essays and oilier prose writings. Sir Walter Scott wrote a copious life of the poet, and edited a complete edition of his works, the whole extending to eighteen volumes. A late edition (1870) has been ably and carefully edited by Mr. W. D. Christie.

It has become the fashion to print the works of some of our poets in the order in which they were written, not as arranged and published by themselves. Cowper and Burns have been presented in this shape, and the consequence is, that light ephemeral trifles, or personal sallies, are thrust in between the more durable memorials of genius, disturbing their symmetry and effect. In the case of Dryden, however, such a chronological survey would be instructive; for between the Annus Mirabilis and the Ode to St. Cecilia, or the Fables, through the plays and poems, how varied is the range in style and taste! It is like the progress of Spenser's "Good Knight," through labyrinths of uncertainty, fantastic conceits, flowery vice, and unnatural splendour, to the sober daylight of truth, virtue, and reason. Dryden never attained to finished excellence in composition. His genius was debased by the false taste of the age, and his mind vitiated by its bad morals. He mangled the natural delicacy and simplicity of Shakspeare's Tempest; and where even Chaucer is pure, Dryden is impure. "This great high-priest of all the nine," remarks Campbell, "was not a confessor to the finer secrets of the human breast. Had the subject of Eloisa fallen into his hands, he would have left but a coarse draught of her passion." But if Dryden was deficient in the higher emotions of love and tenderness, their absence is partly atoned for in his late works, by wide surveys of nature and mankind, by elevated reasoning and declamation, and by the hearty individuality of his satire. The "brave negligence" of his versification, and his "long resounding line," have an indescribable charm. His style is like his own panther, of the "spotted kind," and its faults and virtues lie equally mixed; but it is beloved in spite of spots and blemishes, and pleases longer than the verse of Pope. which like the milk-white hind, is "immortal and unchanged." The satirical portraits of Pope, excepting those of Addison, Atossa, and Lord Hervey, are feeble compared with those of Dryden, whom he acknowledged to be his master and instructor in versification. Dryden, with his tried and homely materials, and bold pencil, was true to nature; his sketches are still fresh as a Van Dyck or Rembrandt. His language was genuine English. He was sometimes "Gallicised" by the prevailing taste of the day; but he felt that this was a license to be sparingly used. "If too many foreign words are poured in upon us," said he, "it looks as if they were designed not to assist the natives, but to conquer them." In better times, and with more careful culture, Dryden's genius would have avoided the vulgar descents which he seldom escaped, except in his most finished passages and his choicest lyrical odes. As it is, his muse was a fallen angel, cast down for manifold sins and impurities, yet radiant with light from heaven. The natural freedom and magnificence of his verse it would be vain to eulogise.