1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

William Howitt, "John Dryden" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:112-23.



DRYDEN should have been transferred to the volume of the dramatic poets if the quality of his dramas had borne any relative proportion to their quantity, or to the quality of his poetry; but it is the latter which gives him his great and lasting distinction. They are his Satires, and Fables, and Translations; his Absalom and Achitophel; his Hind and Panther; his Palemon and Arcite; the Flower and the Leaf; and, in short, all those racy and beautiful stories which he threw into modern poetry from Chaucer and Boccaccio; with his Virgil, and lyrical compositions, and, at the head of these, his Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, that stamp his character with the English public as one of the most vigorous, harmonious, and truly British writers. Dryden displayed no great powers of creation; perhaps the literary hurry of his life prevented this; but he contemplated for years a national epic on Prince Arthur, and probably had he possessed perfect leisure for carrying out this design, he would have astonished us as much with the display of that faculty as he delights us with the masterly vigour of his reasoning powers with his harmony and nerve of style; and with the stiletto stabs of his annihilating satire. But from any necessity of criticism on his genius, the familiar acquaintance of every true lover of poetry with the merits and beauties which have fixed his immortality, fortunately for my space, fully exempts me. Even over the long succession of literary events in his life we must pass, and fix our attention on his homes and haunts. For nearly forty years, from 1660 to 1700, he was before the public as an active author; and on the disappearance of Milton from the field of life, he became, and continued to be, the most marked man of his time; yet it is astonishing how little is known of his town haunts and habits. Of his publications, the appearance of his dramas, the controversies into which he fell with his literary cotemporaries, his change of religion, and his clinging to the despotic government of the Stuarts, we know enough; but of his home life next to nothing. That he lived in Gerrard-street, and was a constant frequenter of Will's coffee-house, Covent-garden, seems to be almost all that is known of his town resorts. Like Addison, and most literary men who have married titled ladies, he did not find it contribute much to his comfort. His wife was Lady Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Berkshire, and sister of his friend Sir Robert Howard. Her temper is said to have been very peculiar, and that she looked down on Dryden as of inferior rank, though he was descended from a very old family, mixed with the most distinguished men of the nobility, and was the first man of his time; but conceit or the blindness of aristocratic pride do not alter the real nature or proportion of things except in the vision of the person afflicted with them. Dryden was the great personage, and his titled wife the little one, and on him, therefore, lay the constant pressure of the unequal yoke he bore.

What, no doubt, rendered the conduct of his wife worse was, the pride of her family on the one hand; and the unlucky connexion of Dryden's brothers with ordinary trades. His family, and that of his mother, the Pickerings, had taken a decided part during the civil wars for the parliament, while that of his wife had been as zealous on the royalist side. Besides this, Erasmus, his immediate younger brother, was in trade in King-street, Westminster; James, the fourth brother, was a tobacconist in London; one of his sisters was married to a bookseller in Little Britain, and another to a tobacconist in Newgate-street; these would be dreadful alliances to a family proud and poor. "No account," says Mitford, in his life of the poet, "has been transmitted of the person of Dryden's wife, nor has any portrait of her been discovered. I am afraid her personal attractions were not superior to her mental endowments; that her temper was wayward, and that the purity of her character was sullied by some early indiscretions. A letter from Lady Elizabeth to her son at Rome is preserved, as remarkable for the elegance of the style as the correctness of the orthography. She says — 'Your father is much at woon as to his health, and his defnese is wosce, but much as he was when he was heare; give me a true account how my deare son Charles is head dus.' Can this be the lady who had formerly held captive in her chains the gallant Earl of Chesterfield?"

"Lady Elizabeth Dryden," says Scott, "had long disturbed her husband's domestic happiness. 'His invectives,' says Malone, 'against the married state were frequent and bitter, and were continued to the latest period of his life;' and he adds from most respectable authority, that the family of the poet held no intimacy with his lady, confining their intercourse to mere visits of ceremony. How could they? how could the tobacconist, and the other tobacconist's wife, and the little bookseller's wife of Little Britain, venture under the roof of the proud lady of the proud house of Howard, with 'her weak intellects and her violent temper?'"

A similar alienation also, it is said, took place between her and her relatives, Sir Robert Howard perhaps being excepted; for her brother, the Honourable Edward Howard, talks of Dryden's being engaged in a translation of Virgil as a thing he had learned merely by common report. Her wayward disposition, Malone says, was, however, the effect of a disordered imagination, which, shortly after Dryden's death, degenerated into absolute insanity, in which state she remained until her own death in 1714, probably in the seventy-ninth year of her age.

Poor Dryden! what with his wife — consort one cannot call her, and help-meet she was not — and with a tribe of tobacconist brothers on one hand, and proud Howards on the other; and a host of titled associates, and his bread to dig with his pen, one pities him from one's heart. Well might he, when his wife once said it would be much better for her to be a book than a woman, for then she should have more of his company, reply, "I wish you were, my dear, an almanac, and then I could change you once a year." It is not well to look much into such a home, except for a warning. Yet the outside of that life, like many others, would have deceived an ordinary spectator. There all was brilliant and imposing. "Whether," says Sir Walter Scott, we judge of the rank which Dryden held in society by the splendour of his titled and powerful friends, or by his connexions among men of genius, we must consider him as occupying at one time as high a station, in the very foremost circle, as literary reputation could gain for its owner. Independent of the notice with which he was honoured by Charles himself, the poet numbered among his friends most of the distinguished nobility. The great Duke of Ormond had already begun that connexion which subsisted between Dryden and three generations of the house of Butler. Thomas Lord Clifford, one of the Cabal ministry, was uniform in patronizing the poet, and appears to have been active in introducing him to the king's favour. The Duke of Newcastle loved him sufficiently to present him with a play for the stage; the witty Earl of Dorset, then Lord Buckhurst, and Sir Charles Sedley, admired in that loose age for the peculiar elegance of his loose poetry, were his intimate associates, as is evident from the turn of The Essay on Dramatic Poesy, where they are the speakers. Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, soon to act a very different part, was then anxious to vindicate Dryden's writings; to mediate for him with those who distributed the royal favour, and was thus careful, not only of his reputation, but his fortune. In short, the author of what was then held the first style of poetry, was sought for by all among the great and gay who wished to maintain some character for literary taste. It was then Dryden enjoyed those genial nights described in the dedication of the Assignation, when 'discourse was neither too serious nor too light, but always pleasant, and for the most part instructive; the raillery neither too sharp upon the present, nor too censorious upon the absent; and the cups such only as raised the conversation of the night, without disturbing the business of the morrow.' He had not yet experienced the disadvantages attendant on such society, or learned how soon literary eminence becomes the object of detraction, of envy, of injury, even from those who can best feel its merit, if they are discouraged by dissipated habits from emulating its flight, or hardened by perverted feeling against loving its possessors." But all this came; and in the mean time the poet had to work like Pegasus in the peasant's cart, for the means to maintain this intercourse with such lofty society. And what did all these great friends do for him? They procured him no good post in return for good services rendered to their party, but the poet's meagre office of the laureateship, which, added to that of historiographer to royalty, brought him 200 a year, and his butt of canary. Poor Dryden! with the cross wife, and the barren blaze of aristocracy around him, the poorest coal-heaver need not have envied him.

Neither did "glorious John" escape his share of annoyance from his cotemporaries of the pen, nor from the publishers. He had a controversy with his friend and brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, on the true nature of dramatic poetry, which speedily degenerated into personal bitterness, and a long estrangement. Then came the Rehearsal, that witty farce in which he was ridiculed in the character of Bayes, and his literary productions, as well as personal characteristics, held up to the malicious merriment of the world by a combination of the wits and fashionable penmen of the time; amongst them the notorious Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the author of Hudibras, the Bishop of Rochester, and others. The miserable Elkanah Settle was set up as a rival of him; and after these rose in succession the hostile train of the licentious Lord Rochester, Lord Shaftesbury, Milbourne, Blackmore, and others, by whom every species of spite, misrepresentation, and ridicule, were for years heaped upon him. Nor did his enemies restrain themselves to the use of the pen in their attacks upon him. One of the most prominent events of Dryden's life is that of a ruffianly attack upon him as he returned from his club at Will's coffee house, on a winter's night. Lord Mulgrave had published a satire called an Essay on Satire, in which Rochester and other wits and profligates of the time were introduced. The poem was a wretched affair; but Dryden, to oblige Mulgrave, had undertaken to revise it. Much labour he could not have bestowed upon it, it was so flat and poor; but Rochester thought fit to attribute it to Dryden himself; and a set of ruffians, supposed to be hired by him and the Duchess of Portsmouth, who had been also reflected on, fell on the poet, as he passed through Rose-street, Covent-garden, on his way from Will's coffee house to his own house in Gerrard-street. A reward of 50 was in vain offered in the London Gazette and other newspapers for the discovery of the perpetrators of the outrage. The beating was, in those loose times, thought a good joke. The Rose-alley ambuscade became almost proverbial; and even Mulgrave, the real author of the satire, and upon whose shoulders the blows ought in justice to have descended, in his Art of Poetry, thus mentions the circumstance with a pitiful sneer:—

Though praised and punished for another's rhymes,
His own deserve as great applause sometimes.

Thus attacked with pens and cudgels by the envious writers of the day, Dryden was nearly starved by the booksellers. On one occasion, provoked by the refusal of timely supplies by Jacob Tonson, he did not do as Johnson did by Cave, knock him down with a quarto, but ran him through with a triplet, describing the bibliopole's person:—

With leering looks, bull faced, and freckled fair,
With two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair,
And frowzy pores that taint the ambient air.

"Tell the dog," said the poet to the messenger by whom he sent these complimentary lines, "that he who wrote these can write more." But he needed not to write more; they were as effective as he could desire. Jacob, however, on his part, could make his tongue as pungent as Dryden could his verse. Johnson, in the Life of Dryden, relates that Lord Bolingbroke one day making a call on Dryden, he heard another person enter the house. "That," said Dryden, "is Tonson. You will take care not to depart before he goes away; for I have not completed the sheet which I promised him; and if you leave me unprotected, I shall suffer all the rudeness to which his resentment can prompt his tongue."

Perhaps the happiest hours of Dryden's life, next to those spent over his finest compositions in his study, were passed at Will's coffee-house. After dinner, at two o'clock, he used to repair thither, where assembled all the most famous men of the time. There he reigned supreme. He had a chair placed for him by the chimney in winter, and near the balcony in summer; where, says his biographer, he pronounced, ex cathedra, his opinions upon new publications, and in general upon all matters of doubtful criticism. Latterly, all who had occasion to ridicule and attack him, represent him as presiding in this little senate. His opinions, however, were not maintained with dogmatism, but he listened to criticism, provided it was just, from whatever unexpected and undignified quarter it happened to come. In general, however, it may be supposed that few ventured to dispute his opinion, or to place themselves in the gap between him and the object of his censure.

Dryden's house, which he appears to have resided in from the period of his marriage till his death, was, as I have said, in Gerrard-street: the fifth on the left hand, coming from Little Newport-street, now No. 43. The back windows looked upon the gardens of Leicester House, of which circumstance the poet availed himself to pay a handsome compliment to the noble owner. His excursions to the country seem to have been frequent; perhaps the more so, as Lady Elizabeth always remained in town. In his latter days, the friendship of his relations, John Dryden, of Chesterton, and Mrs. Steward, of Cotterstock, rendered their houses agreeable places of abode to the aged poet. They appear also to have had a kind solicitude about his little comforts, of value infinitely beyond the contributions they made towards aiding him.

The principal traits of his domestic life have been collected together by Malone. From these, and from the pen of Congreve, we learn that he was, in youth, of handsome form and agreeable countenance; modest in his manner, reluctant to intrude himself on the notice and company of others, easily chilled and rebuffed by anything like a distant behaviour. He is described as most amiable and affectionate in his family, generous beyond his means, and most forgiving of injuries; all noble traits of character. Malone related, on the authority of Lady Dryden, that at that time the poet's little estate at Blakesley was occupied by one Harriots, grandson of the tenant who held it in Dryden's time, who stated that his grandfather used to take great pleasure in talking of him. He was, he said, the easiest and the kindest landlord in the world; and never raised the rent during the whole time he possessed the estate. The two most unfortunate circumstances in his life, next to his marriage, were his going over from Puritanism to Popery, and from the liberal opinions of his family to the adherence to the worst of kings. For these changes it would be difficult to assign any better motive than that of mending his fortunes. But if this were the case, he was bitterly punished for it in both instances. The monarchs that he flattered were Stuarts, and the last of them being driven out, left him to encounter all the scorn, the sarcasms and sacrifices that were sure to come against him with the Dutch monarch of 1688. He was, instead of gaining more from royalty by his change, deprived of that which he had the laureateship and office of historiographer; and saw them conferred, with 300 a year, on his unworthy rival, Shadwell. The change of his religion was equally unpropitious. His sons became more connected with Rome than England. Charles, the eldest, was Chamberlain of the household of Pope Innocent XII, but having suffered by a fall from a horse, he returned to England, and was drowned in attempting to swim across the Thames at Datchett, near Windsor, in August 1704. The second son, John, also went to Rome, and acted as the deputy of Charles, in the Pope's household; he died at Rome. Both of these sons were poetical, and published. Erasmus-Henry, the third son, went also to Rome, and became a captain in the Pope's guards. He afterwards returned to England, and succeeded to the family title of Baronet, but not to the estate of Canons-Ashby, where he, however, continued to live with the proprietor, Edward Dryden, his cousin, till his death in 1710. Thus terminated the race of the great satiric poet.

In the county of Northampton there are various places connected with Dryden. He was of the old family of the Drydens or Dridens of Canons-Ashby, which family there still remains. The poet was born at the parsonage-house of Aldwinkle All-Saints. His father was Erasmus Dryden, and his mother Mary Pickering, the daughter of the rector of Aldwinkle, a son of the well-known Sir Gilbert Pickering, a zealous puritan. It appears that our author's father lived at Tichmarsh, and that his son was horn under his grandfather's roof. At Tichmarsh, accordingly, we find Dryden receiving his first education, whence he proceeded to Westminster, and studied under Dr. Busby, and thence to Cambridge.

Scott says — "If we can believe an ancient tradition, the poem of The Hind and Panther was chiefly composed in a country retirement, at Rushton in Northamptonshire. There was an embowered walk at this place, which, from the pleasure which the poet took in it, retained the name of Dryden's Walk; and here was erected, about the middle of the last century, an urn, with the following inscription: 'In memory of Dryden, who frequented these shades, and is here said to have composed his poem of The Hind and Panther.'"

This spot was, no doubt, the old house and park of the Treshams; that old, zealous Catholic family, of which one member, Sir Francis Tresham, played so conspicuous a part in the Gunpowder Plot. This Sir Francis Tresham had been actively engaged in the affair of the Earl of Essex, and his head had only been rescued from the block by his father bribing a great lady, and some people about the court, with several thousand pounds. This business was so closely veiled, that for some time the direct proofs of Tresham's connexion with the business escaped the hands of the historians. The late examinations into the treasures of the State Paper Office, have, however, made this fact, like so many others, clear. Long ago, also, original documents, fully proving it, fell into the hands of Mr. Baker, the excellent historian of Northamptonshire, including an admirable love-letter by this Sir Francis; who, notwithstanding his narrow escape, again rushed into the Gunpowder treason, being a near relation of Catesby, the prime actor in it. The movements of Tresham in the matter have all the character of those of an actor in some strange romance. From the moment that he was admitted to the secret, Catebsy was struck with inward terror and misgivings. Tresham augmented this alarm by beginning soon to plead warmly for warning the Lords Stourton and Mounteagle, who had married his sisters. A few days after, he suddenly came upon Catesby, Winter, and Fawkes, in Enfield Chase, and reiterated his entreaty. They refused; and then, on the 26th of October, as Lord Mounteagle was sitting at supper, at an old seat of his at Hoxton, which he seldom visited, and to which he had now come suddenly, a letter was brought in by his page, saying, he had received it from a tall man whose face he could not discern in the dark, and who went hastily away. The letter was tossed carelessly by Mounteagle to a gentleman in his service, who read it aloud. It was the very warning which Tresham wished so earnestly to convey to him. Mounteagle in astonishment carried the letter to Cecil the next morning, and thus the secret of the impending catastrophe was out. Once more Catesby and Winter appointed a meeting with Tresham in Enfield Chase. Their purpose was to charge him with the warning of Mounteagle, and if he were found guilty to stab him to the heart on the spot. But while they told him what had been done, they fixed their eyes searchingly on his countenance; all was clear and firm; not a muscle moved, not a tone faltered; he swore solemn oaths that he was ignorant of the letter, and they let him go. This man, when part of the conspirators were arrested, remained at large; while others fled, he hastened to the Council to offer his services in apprehending the rebels. Finally, arrested and conveyed to the Tower himself, there, under torture, he implicated the Jesuits, Garnet and Greenway, in some treason in Queen Elizabeth's time, then retracted the confession, and died in agony, as the Catholics believed of poison. Such was the career and end of this strange man. The family estate passed away into the hands of the Cockaynes, and is now the property of Mr. Hope. Could there be a more inspiring solitude for the composition of a poem, the object of which was to smooth the way for the return of Catholic ascendancy, and that by a poet warm with the first fires of a proselyte zeal?

Amongst other places of Dryden's occasional sojourn, may be mentioned Charlton, in Wiltshire, the seat of his wife's father, the Earl of Berkshire, whence he dates the introduction to his Annus Mirabilis; and Chesterton, in Huntingdonshire, the seat of his kinsman, John Driden, where he translated part of Virgil. In the country he delighted in the pastime of fishing, and used, says Malone, to spend some time with Mr. Jones, of Ramsden, in Wiltshire. Durfey was sometimes of this party; but Dryden appears to have underrated his skill in fishing, as much as his attempt at poetry. Hence Fenton, in his epistle to Lambard:—

By long experience, Durfey may, no doubt,
Ensnare a gudgeon, or sometimes a trout;
Yet Dryden once exclaimed in partial spite,
"He fish!" — because the man attempts to write.

And finally, Canons-Ashby connects itself inevitably with his name. It was the ancient patrimony of the family. It was not his father's, it was not his, or his sons, though the title generally connected with it fell to his son, and there his son lived and died; yet, as the place which gives name and status to the line, it will always maintain an association with the memory of the poet. These are the particulars respecting it collected by Mr. Baker. The mansion of the Drydens, seated in a small deer park, is a singular building of different periods. The oldest part, as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, or perhaps earlier, is built round a small quadrangle. There is a dining-room in the house thirty feet long by twenty feet wide, which is said to be entirely floored and wainscotted with the timber of one single oak, which grew in this lordship. In this room are various portraits of persons of and connected with the family. The drawing-room is traditionally supposed to have been fitted up for the reception of Anne of Denmark, queen of James I. The estate is good, but not so large as formerly, owing to the strange conduct of the late Lady Dryden, who cut off her own children, three sons and two daughters, leaving the whole ancient patrimonial property from them to the son of her lawyer, the lawyer himself refusing to have it, or make such a will. The estate here was, it appears, regained, but only by the sacrifice of one in Lincolnshire. Such are the strange events in the annals of families which local historians rarely record. How little could this lady comprehend the honour lying in the name of Dryden; how much less the nature and duties of a mother.

The monument of the poet in Westminster Abbey is familiar to the public, placed there by Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, bearing only a single word, — the illustrious name of — DRYDEN.