1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on English Poetry" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxxxiii-lxxxv.



During the last thirty years of the seventeenth century, Dryden was seldom long absent from the view of the public, and he alternately swayed and humoured its predilections. Whatever may be said of his accommodating and fluctuating theories of criticism, his perseverance in training and disciplining his own faculties is entitled to much admiration, he strengthened his mind by action, and fertilised it by production. In his old age he renewed his youth, like the eagle; or rather his genius acquired stronger wings than it had ever spread. He rose and fell, it is true, in the course of his poetical career; but upon the whole it was a career of improvement to the very last. Even in the drama, which was not his natural province, his good sense came at last so far in aid of his deficient sensibility, that he gave up his system of rhyming tragedy, and adopted Shakspeare (in theory at least) for his model. In poetry not belonging to the drama, he was at first an admirer of Cowley, then of Davenant; and ultimately he acquired a manner above the peculiarities of either. The Odes and Fables of his latest volume surpass whatever he had formerly written. He was satirised and abused as well as extolled by his contemporaries; but his genius was neither to be discouraged by the severity, nor spoilt by the favour of criticism. It flourished alike in the sunshine and the storm, and its fruits improved as they multiplied in profusion. When we view him out of the walk of purely original composition, it is not a paradoxy, as to that though he is one of the greatest artists in language, and perhaps the greatest of English translators, he nevertheless attempted one task in which his failure is at least as conspicuous as his success. But that task was the translation of Virgil. And it is not lenity, but absolute justice, that requires us to make a very large and liberal allowance for whatever deficiencies he may show in transfusing into a language less harmonious and flexible than the Latin, the sense of that poet, who, in the history of the world, has had no rival in beauty of expression. Dryden renovates Chaucer's thoughts, and fills up Boccaccio's narrative outline with many improving touches: and though paraphrase suited his free spirit better than translation, yet even in versions of Horace and Juvenal he seizes the classical character of Latin poetry with a boldness and dexterity which are all his own. But it was easier for him to emulate the strength of Juvenal than the serene majesty of Virgil. His translation of Virgil is certainly an inadequate representation of the Roman poet. It is often bold and graceful, and generally idiomatic and easy. But though the spirit of the original is not lost, it is sadly and unequally diffused. Nor is it only in the magic of words, in the exquisite structure and rich economy of expression, that Dryden (as we might expect) falls beneath Virgil, but we too often feel the inequality of his vital sensibility as a poet. Too frequently, when the Roman classic touches the heart, or embodies to our fancy those noble images to which nothing could be added, and from which nothing can be taken away, we are sensible of the distance between Dryden's talent, and Virgil's inspiration. One passage out of many, the representation of Jupiter in the first book of the Georgics, may show this difference.

GEORGICS, lib. i. l. 323.
Ipse Pater, media nimborum in nocte, corusea
Fulmina molitur dextra: quo maxima motu
Terra tremit, fugere ferae, et mortalia corda
Per gentes humilis stravit pavor—

The father of the Gods his glory shrouds,
Involved in tempests and a night of clouds,
And from the middle darkness flashing out,
By fits he deals his fiery boils about.
Earth feels the motion of her angry God,
Her entrails tremble, and her mountains nod,
And flying beasts in forests seek abode:
Deep horror seizes every human breast,
Their pride is humbled, and their fear confessed.

Virgil's three lines and a half might challenge the most sublime pencil of Italy to the same subject. His words are no sooner read than, with the rapidity of light, they collect a picture before the mind which stands confessed in all its parts. There is no interval between the objects as they are presented to our perception. At one and the same moment we behold the form, the uplifted arm, and dazzling thunderbolts of Jove, amidst a night of clouds; — the earth trembling, and the wild beasts scudding for shelter — "fugere" — they have vanished while the poet describes them, and we feel that mortal hearts are laid prostrate with fear, throughout the nations. Drydcn, in the translation, has done his best, and some of his lines roll on with spirit and dignity, but the whole description is a process rather than a picture — the instantaneous effect, the electric unity of the original, is lost. Jupiter has leisure to deal out his fiery bolts by fits, while the entrails of the earth shake and her mountains nod, and the flying beasts have time to look out very quietly for lodgings in the forest. The weakness of the two last lines, which stand for the weighty words, "Mortalia corda per gentes humilis stravit pavor," need not be pointed out.

I cannot quote this passage without recurring to the recollection, already suggested, that it was Virgil with whom the English translator had to contend. Dryden's admirers might undoubtedly quote many passages much more in his favour; and one passage occurs to me as a striking example of his felicity. In the following lines (with the exception of one) we recognise a great poet, and can scarcely acknowledge that he is translating a greater.

AENEID, lib. xii. I. 331.
Quails spud gelidi cum flumina concitus Hebri
Sanguineus Mavors elipeo intonat atque furentes
Bella movens immittit equos, illi quore aperto
Ante Notos Zephyrumque volant, gemit ultima pulsu
Thraca pedum, circumque atrae Formidinis ora,
Ira, insidiaeque, Dei comitatus aguntur—

Thus, on the banks of Hebrus' freezing flood,
The god of battles, in his angry mood,
Clashing his sword against his brazen shield,
Lets loose the reins, and scours along the field:
Before the wind his fiery coursers fly,
Groans the sad earth, resounds the rattling sky
Wrath, terror, treason, tumult, and despair,
Dire faces and deform'd, surround the car,
Friends of the God, and followers of the war.

If it were asked how far Dryden can strictly be called an inventive poet, his drama certainly would not furnish many instances of characters strongly designed; though his Spanish Friar is by no means an insipid personage in comedy. The contrivance in The Hind and Panther of beasts disputing about religion, if it were his own, would do little honour to his ingenuity. The idea, in Absalom and Achitophel, of couching modern characters under Scripture names, was adopted from one of the Puritan writers; yet there is so much ingenuity evinced in supporting the parallel, and so admirable a gallery of portraits displayed in the work, as to render that circumstance insignificant with regard to its originahity. Nor, though his Fables are borrowed, can we regard him with much less esteem than if be had been their inventor. He is a writer of manly and elastic character. His strong judgment gave force as well as direction to a flexible fancy; and his harmony is generally the echo of solid thoughts. But he was not gifted with intense or lofty sensibility; on the contrary, the grosser any idea is, the happier he seems to expatiate upon it. The transports of the heart, and the deep and varied delineations of the passions, are strangers to his poetry. He could describe character in the abstract, but could not embody it in the drama, for he entered into character more from clear perception than fervid sympathy. This great High Priest of all the Nine 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.