1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

William Wordsworth to Sir Walter Scott, 7 November 1805; in Letters of the Wordsworth Family, ed. Knight (1907) 1:208-10.



Like you, I had been sadly disappointed with Todd's Spenser; not with the Life, which I think has a sufficient share of merit, though the matter is badly put together; but three parts of four of the notes are absolute trash. That style of compiling notes ought to be put an end to. I was pleased to hear of your engagement with Dryden; not that he is, as a poet, any great favourite of mine. I admire his talents and genius greatly, but his is not a poetical genius. The only qualities I can find in Dryden that are essentially poetical, are a certain ardour and impetuosity of mind, with an excellent ear. It may seem strange that I do not add to this his great command of language; that he certainly has, and of such language too, as it is most desirable that a poet should possess, or rather he should not be without. But it is not language that is, in the highest sense of the word, poetical, being neither of the imagination nor the passions; I mean the amiable, the ennobling, or the intense passions. I do not mean to say that there is nothing of this in Dryden, but as little I think as it is possible, considering how much he has written. You will easily understand my meaning when I refer to his versification of Palamon and Arcite, as contrasted with the language of Chaucer. Dryden has neither a tender heart nor a lofty sense of moral dignity. Whenever his language is poetically impassioned, it is mostly upon unpleasing subjects; such as the follies, vices, and crimes of classes of men or of individuals. That his cannot be the language of imagination must have necessarily followed from this; that there is not a single image from Nature in the whole body of his works; and in his translation from Virgil, whenever Virgil can fairly said to have his eye upon his object, Dryden always spoils the passage.

But too much of this; I am glade you are to be his editor. His political and satirical pieces may be greatly benefited by illustrations, and even absolutely require it.... I have read Dryden's works (all but his plays) with great attention, but my observations refer entirely to matters of taste. Things of this kind appear better anywhere than when tagged to a poet's works, where they are absolute impertinences. In the beginning of Absolom you find an allusion to a freak or revel of the Duke of Monmouth of rather a serious kind. This I remember is mentioned in Andrew Marvel's poem, which I have not seen these many years, but that I think you might peep into with advantage for your work. One or two of the prologues may be illustrated from Cibber's Apology. A correct taste is the first object of an editor; then such notes as explain difficult or unintelligible passages, or throw light upon them; and lastly, which is of much less importance, notes pointing out passages or authors to whom the poet has been indebted, not in the paddling way of a phrase here and phrase there (which is detestable as a general practice), but where the poet has had essential obligations as to matter or manner.

Let me hear from you as soon as convenient. If I can be of any use, do not fail to apply to me. One thing I may take the liberty to suggest, which is, when you come to the Fables, might it not be advisable to print the whole of the Tales of Boccaccio in a smaller type in the original language? If this should look too much like swelling a book, I should certainly make such extracts as would show where Dryden had most strikingly improved upon, or fallen below, his original. I think his translations from Boccaccio are the best, at least the most poetical, of his poems. It is many years since I saw Boccaccio, but I remember that Sigismunda is not married by him to Guiscard (the names are different in Boccaccio in both tales, I believe, certainly in Theodore, etc.). I think Dryden has much injured the story by the marriage, and degraded Sigismunda's character by it. He has also, to the best of my remembrance, degraded her still more by making her love absolute sensuality and appetite; Dryden had no other notion of the passion. With all these defects, and they are very great ones, it is a noble poem, Guiscard's answer, when first published by Tancred, is noble in Boccaccio, — nothing but this: "Amor puo molto piu che ne voi ne io possiamo." This, Dryden has spoiled. He first says very well, "The faults of love are justified," and then come four lines of miserable rant, quiet a la Maximin. Farewell, and believe me ever,

Your affectionate friend,

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH.