It was after preparing a second edition of Virgil, that the great Dryden, who had lived, and was to die in harness, found himself still obliged to seek for daily bread. Scarcely relieved from one heavy task, he was compelled to hasten to another; and his efforts were now stimulated by a domestic feeling, the expected return of his son in ill-health from Rome. In a letter to his bookseller he pathetically writes — "If it please God that I must die of overstudy, I cannot spend my life, better than in preserving his." It was on this occasion, on the verge of his seventieth year, as he describes himself in the dedication of his Virgil, that, "worn out with study, and oppressed with fortune," he contracted to supply the bookseller with 10,000 verses at sixpence a line!
What was his entire dramatic life but a series of vexation and hostility, from his first play to his last? On those very boards whence Dryden was to have derived the means of his existence and his fame, he saw his foibles aggravated, and his morals aspersed. Overwhelmed by the keen ridicule of Buckingham, and maliciously mortified by the triumph which Settle, his meanest rival, was allowed to obtain over him, and doomed still to encounter the cool malignant eye of Langbaine, who read poetry only to detect plagiarism. Contemporary genius is inspected with too much familiarity to be felt with reverence; and his angry prefaces of Dryden only excited the little revenge of the wits. How could such sympathise with injured, but with lofty feelings? They spread two reports of him, which may not be true, but which hurt him with the public. It was said that, being jealous of the success of Creech, for his version of Lucretius, he advised him to attempt Horace, in which Dryden knew be would fail — and a contemporary haunter of the theatre, in a curious letter on [author's note: A letter found among the papers of the late Mr. Windham, which Mr. Malone has preserved] The Winter Diversions, says of Congreve's angry preface to the Double Dealer, that—
"The critics were severe upon this play, which gave the author occasion to lash them in his epistle dedicatory — so that 'tis generally thought he has done his business and lost himself; a thing he owes to Dryden's treacherous friendship, who being jealous of the applause he had got by his Old Bachelor deluded him into a foolish imitation of his own way of writing angry prefaces."
This lively critic is still more vivacious on the great Dryden, who had then produced his Love Triumphant, which, the critic says,
"Was damned by the universal cry of the town, 'nemine contradicente' but the conceited poet. He says in his prologue that 'this is the last the town must expect from him;' he had done himself a kindness had he taken his leave before." He then describes the success of Southerne's Fatal Marriage, or the Innocent Adultery, and concludes, "This kind usage will encourage desponding minor poets, and vex huffing Dryden and Congreve to madness."
I have quoted thus much of this letter, that we may have before us a true image of those feelings which contemporaries entertain of the greater geniuses of their age; how they seek to level them and in what manner men of genius are doomed to be treated — slighted, starved, and abused. Dryden and Congreve! the one the finest genius, the other the most exquisite wit of our nation, are to be vexed to madness! — their failures are not to excite sympathy, but contempt or ridicule! How the feelings and the language of contemporaries differ from that of posterity! And yet let us not exult in our purer and more dignified feelings — we are, indeed, the posterity of Dryden and Congreve; but we are the contemporaries of others who must patiently hope for better treatment from our sons than they have received from the fathers.
Dryden was no master of the pathetic, yet never were compositions more pathetic than the Prefaces this great man has transmitted to posterity! Opening all the feelings of his heart, we live among his domestic sorrows. Johnson censures Dryden for saying he has few thanks to pay his stars that he was born among Englishmen. We have just seen that Hume went farther, and sighed to fly to a retreat beyond that country which knew not to reward genius. — What, if Dryden felt the dignity of that character he supported, dare we blame his frankness? If the age be ungenerous, shall contemporaries escape the scourge of the great author, who feels he is addressing another age more favourable to him?
Johnson, too, notices his "Self-commendation; his diligence in reminding the world of his merits, and expressing, with very little scruple, his high opinion of his own powers." Dryden shall answer in his own words; with all the simplicity of Montaigne, he expresses himself with the dignity that would have become Milton or Gray:—
"It is a vanity common to all writers to overvalue their own productions; and it is better for me to own this failing in myself, than the world to do it for me. For what other reason have I spent my life in such an unprofitable study? Why am grown old in seeking so barren a reward as fame? The same parts and application which have made me a poet, might have raised me to any honours of the gown, which are often given to men of as little learning, and less honesty, than myself."
How feelingly Whitehead paints the situation of Dryden in his old age:—
Yet lives the man, how wild soe'er his aim,
Would madly barter fortune's smiles for fame?
Well pleas'd to shine, through each recording page,
The hapless Dryden of a shameless age!
Ill-fated bard! where'er thy name appears,
The weeping verse a sad memento bears;
Ah! what avail'd the enormous blaze between
Thy dawn of glory and thy closing scene!
When sinking nature asks our kind repairs,
Unstrung the nerves, and silver'd o'er the hairs;
When stay'd reflection came uncall'd at last,
And gray experience counts each folly past!