John Dryden

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:359-62.

JOHN DRYDEN, one of the great masters of English verse, and whose masculine satire has never been excelled, was born at Oldwinckle, in Northamptonshire, in August 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. John was one of fourteen children, but he was the eldest son, and received a good education, first at Westminster, and afterwards at Trinity college, Cambridge. Dryden's first poetical production was a set of "heroic stanzas" on the death of Cromwell, which possess a certain ripeness of style and versification that promised future excellence. In all Waller's poem on the same subject, there is nothing equal to such verses as the following:—

His grandeur he deriv'd 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. The amusements of the drama revived after the Restoration, and Dryden became a candidate for theatrical laurels. In 1662, and two following years, he produced The Wild Gallant, The Rival Ladies, and The Indian Emperor; the last was very successful. Dryden's name was now conspicuous; and in 1665 he married the Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. The match added neither to his wealth nor his happiness, and the poet afterwards revenged himself by constantly inveighing against matrimony. When his wife wished to be a book, that she might enjoy more of his company, Dryden is said to have replied, "Be an almanac then, my dear, that I may change you once a-year." In his play of the Spanish Friar, he most unpolitely 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 events of the year 1666. The style and versification seem to have been copied from Davenant; but Dryden's piece fully sustained his reputation. About the same time he wrote 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 now 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 £200. These were golden days; but they did not last. Dryden, however, 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 rhymster, Elkanah Settle, in opposition to Dryden. The great poet was also successfully ridiculed by Buckingham in his "Rehearsal." In 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, 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." A second part of "Absalom and Achitophel" was published in 1684, 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 thus poem is singularly solemn and majestic—

Dim as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wandering travellers,
Is Reason to the soul; and as on high
These 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 soon 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 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, have settled the point. We may lament the fall of the great poet, but his conduct is not fairly 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," 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, while the Independents, Quakers, Anabaptists, and other sects, are represented as bears, hares, boars, &c. The Calvinists are strongly but coarsely caricatured—

More haughty than the rest, the wolfish race
Appear, with belly gaunt and famish'd face—
Never was so deform'd a beast of grace.
His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears,
Close clapp'd 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 purchas'd here
With loss of all that mortals hold so dear,
Then welcome infamy and public shame,
And last, a long farewell to worldly fame!
'Tis said with ease, but, oh, how hardly tried
By haughty souls to human honour tied!
O sharp convulsive pangs of agonizing pride!
Down, then, thou rebel, never more to rise,
And what then did'st, and dost so dearly prize,
That fame, that darling fame, make that thy sacrifice!
'Tis nothing then hast given; then add thy tears
For a long race of unrepenting years:
'Tis nothing yet, yet all then hast to give;
Then add those may-be years thou hast to live:
Yet nothing still; then peer and naked come;
Thy Father will receive his unthrift home,
And thy blest Saviour's 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! hew well dost thou provide
Far erring judgments an unerring guide
Thy throne is darkness in th' abyss of light,
A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.
O teach me to believe thee thus conceal'd,
And search no farther than thyself reveal'd;
But her alone for my director take,
Whom then hast promised never to forsake!
My thoughtless youth was wing'd with vain desires,
My manhood, long misled by wandering fires,
Follow'd 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 office of laureate. 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 now gave to the world versions of Juvenal and Persius, and — a still weightier task — a translation of Virgil. The latter 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; and it is the loftiest and most imaginative of all his compositions. "No one has ever qualified his admiration of this noble poem." In 1699 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 he agreed to furnish for the sum of 250 guineas, to be made up to £300 upon publication of a second edition. The poet was now in his sixty-eighth 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 other prose writings; and Sir Walter Scott wrote a copious life of the poet, and edited a complete edition of his works the whole extending to eighteen volumes.

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 Mr. 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 and Lord Hervey, are feeble compared with those of Dryden, whom he acknowledged to be his master and instructor in versification. The bard of Twickenham is too subtle, polished, and refined. Dryden drew from the life, and hit off strong likenesses. Pope, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, refined in his colours, and many of his pictures are faint and vanishing delineations. Dryden, with his tried and homely materials, and bold pencil, was true to nature; his sketches are still fresh as a genuine Vandyke or Rembrandt. His language, like his thoughts, was truly 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." His lines, like the Sibyl's prophecies, must be read in the order in which they lie. 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.