Mr. Dryden was by Descent a Gentleman of a good Family in Northamptonshire; and born, as he himself says, in a Village belonging to the late Earl of Exeter in that Country. He had his Education at Westminster School (being King's Scholar there) under the learned Dr. Busby; and in the Year 1650, he was elected from thence to Trinity College, Cambridge; where he pursu'd his Studies, with his worthy Friend Sir William Bowyer of Denham Court. It may be presum'd his Genius did not lead him early to Poetry, by reason he was above the Age of Thirty before he oblig'd the World with his first Dramatick Performance; but when once he appear'd, he was inexhaustible, like Springs a long time collecting, which form a Stream not easily to be drain'd.
He deserv'd, in most of his Writings, the highest Applause; and notwithstanding he was generally very much caress'd by the generous Part of Mankind, yet he was seldom respected beyond his Merit. His Dramatick Pieces, tho' by some Criticks esteem'd the most incorrect of his Performances, are, with regard to their Number, equal to the Productions of any Ancient or Modern Writer; which occasion'd his Advancement to be Poet Laureate to King James II. Neither was he less eminent in Prose, he being at the same time Historiographer to that Prince.
Mr. Dryden was not only a voluminous Dramatick Writer, but also a very just one in most of his Performances: And tho' he borrow'd some Hints, and made prodigious Improvements from the French Poets, and Greek and Latin Authors; and likewise from some of the Works of Shakespear and others, I cannot be of opinion with Mr. Langbain, that he is therefore a meer Plagiary, and entirely oblig'd to them for the Plots and Scenes of many of his Plays. A Hint or a Theme may be variously work'd up with uncommon Incidents and surprizing Turns, and thereby a sufficient Novelty introduc'd to lay Claim to Property. And I doubt not but it will be generally confes'd that he was so far from the present Practice of borrowing whole Scenes and Plots of Plays, and frequently making them worse, that he never stole any entire Incident, or was found in any Theft but what he set off with additional Lustre, when taken even from the best of the ancient Writers.
Mr. Langbain, as is already observ'd, in a Continuation of his Treatise, has shewn a great deal of private and ungenerous Malice, and brought in several Things no way relating to the Business before him. What just Exception is it to the Reputation of a Poet, to have reflected upon a Body of Men liable to Frailty, equal with any; and perhaps equally deserving the Characteristicks of Mr. Dryden? And that he was a Man of Religion, I need only mention the Complaint he makes to my Lord Clifford, in one of his Dedications of Virgil; which will be a lasting Reproach upon this Nation, for Ingratitude to a Person of Mr. Dryden's Merit. "What I now offer to your Lordship (says he) is the wretched Remainder of a sickly Age, worn out with Study and oppress'd by Fortune, without other support than the Constancy and Patience of a Christian."
My Predecessor, in this Work, will not allow that the World could possibly agree in a distinguished Character for this celebrated Writer, or in any thing relating to him, but that he was Poet Laureat and Historiographer to King James. But I take it very few, if any Persons can deny, that Mr. Dryden was the greatest Refiner of the English Language and Poetical Diction that ever liv'd; was so much Master of Versification and Numbers, as to improve the Harmony of Poesy; that he reasoned strongly in Elegant Verse; and wrote with very great Force and Elevation. And as for his Criticism on the Works of his Predecessors Shakespear, Fletcher and Ben. Johnson, wherein he is accus'd by Mr. Langbain of a great deal of Ingratitude and Ill-nature (not to mention the Freedoms reasonable to be allow'd so great a Man, when we have such numbers of ignorant Pretenders to Criticism in this Age) I shall here insert what the ingenious Mr. Congreve has said of him [author's note: Dedication of Mr. Dryden's Dramatick Works to the Duke of Newcastle], which must certainly silence Envy and Partiality.
"Mr. Dryden had Personal Qualities to challenge both Love and Esteem for all who was truly acquainted with him: He was of a Nature exceedingly humane and compassionate, easily forgiving Injuries, and capable of a prompt and sincere Reconciliation with those who had offended him. Such a Temperament is the only solid Foundation of all moral Virtues and sociable Endowments. His Friendship, where he profess'd it, went much beyond his Possessions; tho' his Hereditary Income was little more than a bare Competency.
"As his Reading had been very extensive, so was he very happy in a Memory tenacious of every thing that he read. He was not more possess'd of Knowledge than he was Communicative of it: But then his Communication of it was by no means Pedantick or impos'd upon the Conversation; but just such, and went so far, as by the natural Turns of the Discourse in which he was engag'd, it was necessarily promoted or requir'd.
"He was extream ready and gentle in his Correction of the Errors of any Writer, who thought fit to consult him; and full as ready and patient to admit of the Reprehension of others, in respect of his own Oversight or Mistakes. He was of very easy, I may say of very pleasing Access, but somewhat slow, and, as it were, diffident in his Advances to others. He had something in his Nature that abhorr'd Intrusion into any Society whatsoever. Indeed it is to be regretted that he was rather blameable in the other Extream; for by that means, he was personally less known; and consequently his Character might become liable both to Misapprehension and Misrepresentation.
"To the best of my Knowledge and Observation, he was, of all Men that ever I knew, one of the most Modest, and the most easily to be discountenanc'd in his Approaches, either to his Superiors or his Equals."
This is the Personal Character of Mr. Dryden, given by Mr. Congreve; and his Talents in Poetry, and extensive Capacity, can no way be more elegantly and particularly illustrated, than in the Continuation of that Gentleman's Encomiums upon his deceased Friend; which is as follows:
"As to Mr. Dryden's Writings, I shall not take upon me to speak of them; for to say little of them, would not be to do them right; and to say all that I ought to say, would be very Voluminous. But I may venture to say in general Terms, that no Man hath written in our Language so much and so various Matter, and in so various Manners, so well. Another thing I may say was very peculiar to him; which is, that his Parts did not decline with his Years: But that he was an improving Writer to his last, even to near Seventy Years of Age; Improving even in Fire and Imagination, as well as in Judgment; witness his Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, and his Fables his last Performances.
"He was equally excellent in Verse and in Prose: His Prose had all the Clearness imaginable, together with all the Nobleness of Expression, all the Graces and Ornaments proper and peculiar to it, without deviating into the Language or Diction of Poetry. I make this Observation only to distinguish his Stile from that of many Poetical Writers, who meaning to write harmoniously in Prose, do in truth often write meer Blank Verse.
"His Versification and his Numbers he could learn of no Body: For he first possess'd those Talents in perfection in our Tongue: And they who have best succeeded in them since his Time, have been indebted to his Example; and the more they have been able to imitate him, the better have they succeeded.
"As his Stile in Prose is always specifically different from his Stile in Poetry; so on the other hand, in his Poems, his Diction is, wherever his Subject requires it, so Sublime, and so truly Poetical, that its Essence, like that of pure Gold, cannot be destroy'd. Take his Verses and divest them of their Rhimes, disjoint them in their Numbers, transpose their Expressions, make what Arrangement and Disposition you please of his Words, yet shall there eternally be Poetry, and something which will be found incapable of being resolv'd into absolute Prose; and incontestable Characteristick of a truly Poetical Genius.
"I will say but one Word more in general of his Writings; which is that what he has done in any one Species, or distinct kind, would have been sufficient to have acquir'd him a great Name. If he had written nothing but his Prefaces, or nothing but his Songs, or his Prologues, each of them would have intitled him to the Preference and Distinction of excelling in his kind."
Mr. Congreve, out of the good Nature peculiar to him, has given this shining Character of Mr. Dryden's Talents; which, by all impartial Readers, must be allow'd to be no less just than affectionate. "Mr. Dryden was the Darling of the Muses, and surpass'd all other Writers of his Time, as Fire does all other Elements": and in a Copy of Vereses sent to him by Mr. Congreve, on his Translation of Persius, are the following Lines; which not only demonstrate the very great Merit of Mr. Dryden, but shew the most consummate Wit and Judgment of the Author.
Old Stoick Virtue, clad in rugged Lines,
Polish'd by you, in modern Brilliant shines;
And as before, for Persius our Esteem
To his Antiquity was paid, not him:
So now, whatever Praise from us is due,
Belongs not to Old Persius, but the New.
For still obscure to us, no Light he gives,
Dead in himself, in you alone he lives.
So stubborn Flints their inward Heat conceal,
'Till Art and Force th' unwiling Sparks reveal:
But thro' your Skill, from those small Seeds of Fire
Bright Flames arise, which never shall expire.
Mr. Addison, in his Account of the English Poets, writ in the Year 1695, gives this Character of Mr. Dryden's Writings in general.
But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in Rhime, but charming e'en in Years.
Great Dryden next! whose tuneful Muse afford
The sweetest Numbers, and the fittest Words.
Whether in Comick Sounds, or Tragick Airs
She forms her Voice, she moves our Smiles or Tears.
If Satire, or Heroick Strains, she writes,
Her Hero pleases, and her Satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful Numbers fall,
She wears all Dresses, and she charms in all.
I come now to his Plays, wherein I shall be as concise as may be; but withal take notice (in the same manner as I do of all others) from whom he has borrow'd any part of his respective Performances. I begin in their Order of Time.
I. The Wild Gallant; a Comedy, written in the Year 1669. and acted at the Theatre Royal. This was the first Attempt which Mr. Dryden made in Dramatick Poetry; and met with so little Success in the Action, that if he had not had a peculiar force of Inclination to writing, he would have been sufficiently discourag'd from any farther Progress; for this Play indeed made no Promises of that great Man he was afterwards to be.
II. The Indian Emporer, or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, being the Sequal of the Indian Queen; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1670. This Play is writ in Heroick Verse, and has appear'd on the Stage with great Approbation. For the Story consult Lopez de Gamare. Hist. general de las Incas & de Conquesta de Mexico. De Bey America pars 9. l. 7. Ogilby's America, chap. 3. sect. 10. Mariana ae Reb. Hisp. lib. 26. cap. 3. Sir Paul Ricaut's Hist. of Perus.
III. An Evening's Love, or The Mock Astrologer; a Comedy, 1671. acted at the Theatre Royal; Dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. The principal Plot of this Play is built on Calderon's El Astrologo fingido. And the Play is, for the most part, taken from Corneilles le feint Astrologue, Moliere's Depetit Amoreux, and les Precieuses Ridicules; Quinault's L'Amant Indiscret. And some Hints from Shakespear.
IV. Marriage A-la-mode; a Comedy, 1673. acted at the Theatre Royal; Dedicated to the Right Honourable the Earl of Rochester. The serious Part of this Play is founded on the Story of Sesostres and Timareta in Grand Cyrus, part 9. book 3. The Characters of Palamede and Rodophil seem to be taken from the Story of Tyrianthes and Parthenia, in the same Romance, p. 6. b. 1. Melanthus making Love to Doralice from Les Contes D'Ouville, part 1. pag. 13.
V. Amboyna; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1673. The Plot of this Play is chiefly founded on History; being an Account of the Cruelty of the Dutch to our Country-men in Amboyna, A.D. 1618. For which see Stubbs, Wanley's History of Man, lib. 4. c. 10. The Rape of Isabinda, by Harman, is built on a Novel of Cynthais Byraldi, Deca. 5. Nov. 10.
VI. The Mistaken Husband; a Comedy, 1675. acted at the Theatre Royal. This Play is in the nature of Farce; or, as the French term it, Basse Comedie. 'Tis writ on the Model of Plautus's Maenechmi. Mr. Dryden was not the Author of th is Play, but added a valuable Scene to it.
VII. AURENGE-ZEBE, or The Great Mogul; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1676. Mr. Langbain determines, that the Characters of Aurenge-Zebe and Nourmahal are borrow'd from Seneca's Phaedra and Hippolytus: But as a latter Writer observes, there's nothing alike through their whole Story, only the Love of a Son-in-law, and his Aversion; but that does by no means constitute the Character (which is a thing Mr. Langbain seems never to understand.) Hippolytus has an Aversion to Love, Aurenge-Zebe is in Love, and much more polite; Hippolytus was a Hunter, and Aurenge-Zebe a Warrior: Nourmahal is a degree beyond the Lewdness of ev'n Seneca's Phaedra, who degenerated extremely from her Original in Euripides; and, indeed, shews none of her Qualities but Revenge for Disappointment in Love. Mr. Dryden is blam'd by the Criticks for this Line.
Yet her alone let not your Thunder seize.
The Beauty of Seneca's Expression, "Me velax cremet transactus ignis" (which it must be confess'd, is borrow'd by Mr. Dryden) is lost in this Translation; for seizing is too clam and impotent a Word to express the force of a Thunder-bolt. But this seems to be the effect only of writing in Rhime, and not thro' any want of Judgment.
VIII. The Tempest, or The Inchanted Island; a Comedy, acted at his Royal Highness the Duke of York's Theatre, in the Year 1676. This is only an Alteration of one of Shakespear's Plays, by Sir William D'Avenant and Mr. Dryden, as is acknowledg'd by the Author. Tho' Mr. Langbain, in many places, attacks Mr. Dryden for ungrateful Treatment of his Predecessors; yet he says here, 'tis to his Praise that he so much commends his deceas'd Brother.
IX. Feign'd Innocence, or Sir MARTIN MAR-ALL; a Comedy, acted at the Duke of York's Theatre, 1678. The Foundation of this Play is originally French, which seems to be the reason that Mr. Dryden has not affix'd his Name to it. The greatest part of the Plot, and some of the Language of Sir Martin, is taken from Quinault's L'Amant indiscret, The Indiscreet Lover, and Moliere's L'Estourdi. Warner's playing on the Lute instead of his Master; and his being surpriz'd by his Folly, from Firmuron, l. 7. Old Moody and Sir John's being set up in their Altitudes, from Shakerly Marmion's Antiquary.
X. The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery; a Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1678. This Play is Dedicated to Sir Charles Sidley, and succeeded but ill in the Representation. Several of the Incidents and Characters are borrow'd. The Character of the Duke of Mantua, Frederick and Lucretia, from Constance the fair Nun, Annals of Love, p. 81. Aurelian, Camillo, Laura and Violetta, from Scarron's Comical Romance. Benito's Affectation of Musick, from Quinault's Jadolet, in his Comedie sans Comedie; Frontona's throwing Water on Laura, from Les Contes de M. la Fontaine, part 1. Nov. 11. p. 74.
XI. The State of Innocence, or The Fall of Man; an Opera, 1678. This Opera is taken from Milton's Paradise lost; and is Dedicated to her Royal Highness the Dutchess. Mr. Dryden is accusd by some Criticks of Absurdity in this Performance; as his making Lucifer before the World was made, or at least the Devil knew any thing of its Form, Matter, or Vicissitudes. But this Piece is commended in a Copy of Verses written by Mr. Lee; and the Author has prefixt an Apology for Heroick Poetry and Poetick Licence.
XII. The Conquest of Grenada by the Spaniards, Two Parts; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1678. These Plays are Dedicated to his Royal Highness the Duke of York, and have been acted with very great Applause. Mr. Langbain tells us, that the main Plot, Thoughts and Characters of these Plays are borrrow'd from French and Spanish Romances, as Almahide, Grand Cyrus, Ibraham, and Gusman; and descends to Particulars too numerous to have place in this Treatise: But tho' Mr. Langbain is of Opinion, that the Character of Almanzar is very like Ponce de Leon, in Almahide; yet Almanzor seems rather to be a Copy of the Achilles of Homer, ill understood. 'tis no wonder that the Success of these Plays rous'd the Envious, and introduc'd very particular and barbarous Criticisms, especially of Mr. Langbain; when 'tis not long since one of the finest Writers of the present Age, met with the same ungenerous Treatment, upon obliging the Town with a beautiful Performance [author's note: Mr. Addison's Cato]. And I think the single Consideration of Mr. Dryden's having produc'd six Dramatick Performances in one Year, is sufficient to attone for inconsiderable Thefts, and trivial Irregularities.
XIII. All for Love, or The World well lost; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1678. Dedicated to the Earl of Danby. This Play is written in Imitation of Shakespear's Stile; and chiefly taken from his Anthony and Cleopatra. For the Plot see Plutarch's Life of Anthony, Suetonius in Aug. Dion. Cassius, lib. 48, 51. Orosius, lib. 6. c. 7.
XIV. Tyrannick Love, or The Royal Martyr; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1679. This Play is Dedicated to the most illustrious Prince James Duke of Monmouth; and is written in Heroick Verse. The Plot of this Tragedy, Mr. Langbain says, is founded on History, Zosimus, lib. 4. Socrates, lib. 5. c. 14. Herodian, l. 7. & 8. Jul. Capit. in vit. Max. Jun.
XV. TROILUS and CRESSIDA, or Truth found out too late; a Tragedy, acted at the Duke's Theatre, 1679. This Play was first written by Shakespear, but revis'd by Mr. Dryden, who added several new Scenes; and the last Scene in the Third Act, is allow'd to be a Master-piece. The Story is to be found in Chaucer's Toilus and Cressida. This Play is Dedicated to the Earl of Sunderland; and has a Preface prefix'd, containing the Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy.
XVI. OEDIPUS King of Athens; a Tragedy, acted at the Duke of York's Theatre, 1679. It was written by Mr. Dryden and Mr. Lee. This Tragedy is esteem'd one of the best we have extant: There are many Things taken from Sophocles; and if the Authors had follow'd Sophocles yet closer, in the Opinion of the best Judges, it had certainly exceeded the best of our Modern Plays; so far are they from being accus'd of Plagiaries here. Oedipus's Relish of an Embrace of Jocasta, after he had fled from his Crown and pull'd out his Eyes, is judg'd an Irregularity.
XVII. Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1679. The serious part of the Plot is founded on the History of Cleobuline Queen of Corinth, p. 7. b. 7. The Characters of Celadon, Florimel, Olinda, and Sabina, are borrow'd from the History of Pisistratus and Cerintha in Grand Cyrus, p. 9. b. 3. and the French Marquis from Ibrahim. p. 2. b. 1.
XVIII. The Rival Ladies; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1679. This Play is Dedicated to the Right Honourable Roger Earl of Orrery, in the nature of a Preface, written in Defence of English Verse. Mr. Dryden alleges that this Play was first written by the late Lord Buckhurst, afterwards Earl of Dorset: but Mr. Langbain affirms that Mr. Thomas Norton wrote the first three Acts of it, and that not in Rhime, but in Blank Verse. The Dispute betwixt Amideo and Hypolito, and Gonsalva's fighting with the Pyrates, is borrow'd from Encolpius, Giton, Eunolpus and Teyphena's boarding the Vessel of Lycas, in Petronius Arbiter; and the Catastrophe resembles Scarron's Rival Brothers.
XIX. The kind Keeper, or Mr. LIMBERHAM; a Comedy, acted at the Duke's Theatre, 1680. Mr. Faintly's Discovery of Love-all in the Chest; see Cynthio Gyraldi, p. 1 Dec. 3. N. 3. Mrs. Brainsick's picking and pinching him, see Triumph of Love over Fortune; a Novel.
XX. The Spanish Fryar, or The Double Discovery; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the King's Theatre, 1681. Here Mr. Langbain rails at Mr. Dryden vehemently, for his Character of Dominick, a Satire on the Romish Priests only, which he would have extend to the Clergy in general of all Opinons. The comical Parts of Lorenzo and Elvira, are founded on a Novel, call'd The Pilgrimage; written by Monsieur S. Bremond.
XXI. The Duke of Guise, a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1683. The Plot is taken from Davila, Mezeray, and other Writers in the Reign of Henry III, &c. For the Story of Malicorn the Conjuror, read Rosset's Histoires Tragiques en la vie de Canope, p. 449. Mr. Lee assisted Mr. Dryden in the composing of this Play.
XXII. ALBION and ALBANUS; an Opera, perform'd at the Queen's Theatre in Dorset-Garden, 1685. The Subject is wholly Allegorical, and exposed the Lord Shaftesbury and his Adherents.
XXIII. Don SEBASTIAN King of Portugal; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, in the Year 1690. This Play, Mr. Langbain informs us, is one of the best of Mr. Dryden's, and was acted with great Applause. It is founded chiefly on a French Novel of the same Name.
XXIV. King ARTHUR, or The British Worthy; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre in Dorset Garden, 1691. Dedicated to the Marquis of Halifax. This Play consists more of Singing and fine Scenery, than of Excellency in the Drama. The Incidents are extravagant, and Mr. Dryden's great Genius shines very little in it. The Inchanted Wood, and Osmund's Art, are borrow'd from Tasso; and the salubrious Story of King Arthur, you may read in Geoffry of Monmouth.
XXV. AMPHITRION, or The Two SOCIA'S; a Comedy; acted at the Theatre Royal, 1691. Dedicated to Sir Levison Gower, bart. It is taken from Plautus's Play of the same Name.
XXVI. CLEOMENES, The Spartan Hero; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal, 1692. This Play was acted with great Applause, notwithstanding it was misrepresented by some of Mr. Dryden's Enemies at Court. The Plot, the Author owns, is taken from Plutarch; but to the Story he has added the Love of Cassandra for Cleomenes, and has given him a Second Wife. See more of Cleomenes is Polybius and Cornelius Nepos.
XXVII. Love Triumphant, or Nature will prevail; a Tragi-Comedy, acted at the Theatre Roayl, 1694. Dedicated to the Right Honourable James Earl of Salisbury, &c. This Play had not so good Success as many of Mr. Dryden's met with; but in several Parts the Genius of that great Man breaks out, especially in the Scene of the Discovery of Alphonso's victorious Love, and the last Scene, where the Catastrophe is extremely moving. In the Epistle Dedicatory to this Play, Mr. Dryden inform'd us, that it was the last he intended for the Theatre. These his Dramatical Works are lately re-printed in Six Volumes 12mo. and Dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle, by Mr. Congreve.
Thus Mr. Dryden, in the space of 25 Years, (besides his other numerous Poetical Writings) produc'd 27 Plays; and 'tis generally observ'd, that many of his Dramatical Performances are Airy to a Degree, and border upon Obscenity: In answer to which I have frequently heard it offer'd in his Favour, that his Necessities obliged him to a Constancy of writing for the Entertainment of the Town, the Taste of which was very much deprav'd; and that he has declar'd he never writ but one Dramatick Piece to please himself, in his whole Life; which I think is related to be, his Spanish Fryar, or The Double Discovery.
He died at London, in the Year 1700. and in the 67th Year of his Age. He was buried at Westminster: And the present Duke of Newcastle, out of his extensive Liberality, and unprecedented Esteem for Merit, has lately order'd a noble Monument to be erected over his Remains.