The last great poet to whom I payed my particular attention, was, Milton. I do not like vague, indefinite, exaggerating language; but after my maturest, and best examination, I think it no hyperbole to pronounce him, the greatest of poets. I now have another great poet in the eye of my fancy; and I shall endeavour accurately to view him with the eye of my reason.
Behold! where Dryden's less presumptuous car,
Wide o'er the fields of glory bear
Two coursers of ethereal race;
With necks in thunder cloathed, and 1ong-resounding pace.
Hark! — his hands the lyre explore!
Bright-eyed Fancy, hovering o'er,
Scatters, from her pictured urn,
Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn!—
But ah! 'tis heard no more!
Oh! lyre divine! what daring spirit
Wakes thee now? though he inherit
Nor the pride, nor ample pinion,
That the Theban eagle bear;
Sailing, with supreme dominion,
Through the azure deep of air;
Yet oft before his infant eyes would run
Such forms as glitter in the muse's ray,
With orient hues, unborrowed of the sun
Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way
Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate;—
Beneath the good, how far! — but far above the great!
Gray's Progress of Poesy.
The descent from Milton to Dryden is not an abrupt, and steep one; and we move but from one magnificent region to another. The infinitely diversified richness, and exuberance of the latter, is not a very inadequate substitute for that astonishing sublime of the former, which transports us, while we imbibe it, beyond the inferiour objects of our mortal existence. We descend but from the interiour to the maritime alps; from the grand, and awful heights which Annibal surmounted; contrasted, in many points of view, with beauty, and with terrour; comparatively, to humbler, yet bold and variegated scenery; to a more Elysian soil, and to a milder air. If you travel on, to the lowest holy ground of "This great high-priest of all the nine;" to the ground confining on the sea; you are still in the blissful region of the muses. A blooming vale of Nice salutes your eye; and your imagination; a vale, where the winding Paglion flows; and where the celebrated Mediterranean ennobles the prospect; dividing, in its course, two shores that are famed in classical story: — a vale, visited, and refreshed with aromatick gales, and crowned with perpetual verdure; with its fruit trees in full, and vivid blossom; in months the most unfriendly to northern climes; a landscape, therefore, not inexpressive of the vigorous winter of Dryden's poetical reign.
The name of Johnson authorized him to take liberties which would not have been tolerated from a less fortunate devotee to literary fame. His name, however, shall never circumscribe my range, in the persuit, and publication of truth. I will not presume to request your attention, but to our truly great poets. I will not presume to thrust into that glorious class any despicable poetaster; for the sake of his politicks, or religion; because he was a Tory, in his civil principles; or superstitious in his piety. I will not commit such a gross critical misnomer. I will not be guilty of such impertinence to those, by whom I should, wish to be esteemed. I will not be so profane to the shades of Spenser; Shakespeare; and the divine Milton; I will not be so profane to the genius of my great master, whom I am now contemplating; — as to rank the feeble Pomfret; Yalden; good Isaac Watts; and Sir Richard; — "rumbling rough, and fierce;" — that infinite accumulator of confused, and barbarous verses; with our most eminent English poets.
As I suffer myself to say nothing against Johnson, but from my love of truth, it gives me great pleasure, here to remark, that his lives of Dryden, and Pope, and his observations on the writings of those two illustrious poets, well deserve our serious attention, and perusal. They are not without their characteristicks of singularity, arrogance, and cynicism; but they abound with good writing; with good moral, and literary instruction; and they almost do justice to the bright poetical luminaries, whose orbs they display; and whose orbits they persue. No unprejudiced, and generous mind will think it unfair, and invidious in me, to assert, that, with Johnson, the poetical opinions, and the faith of Dryden, and of Pope, in a great measure, saved them. I think we cannot dispute what I now venture to assert, if we recollect the superciliousness, arid contempt, which every where, mix, and clash, with his involuntary praise of Milton; the ardent patron of civil, and spiritual freedom; the first ornament of England, and of human nature; both as a man, and a poet. Pope had too enlightened, and refined a soul, to harbour any strong publick prejudices: he was, however, born, and bred a Roman catholick; and in matters of government, he was certainly a warm friend to the Tories. Let me tread as lightly as I can, on the ashes of Dryden! who would not be indulgent to his memory, that remembers the versatility, the force, and the fire of his genius; persuing all its luxuriant variety; and breaking forth, in its unconquerable old age, with ethereal blazes; through the black, and heavy atmosphere, of misfortunes; of indigence, and distress! I am sorry, however, to acknowledge that Dryden often inculcates "The right divine of kings to govern wrong," in the most literal, and abject sense of that slavish doctrine; and from a church of England man, he became a proselyte to the popish religion. This article of his life could not offend Dr. Johnson; it is evident that it did not offend him, when a hot-brained, and absurd high-churchman turns Roman-catholick, his ascent is regular, and in order; he only mounts more aloft in the scale of hierarchy. I shall beg leave to add, that Johnson's Lives of Dryden, and Pope, are greatly superiour to all his other lives of the poets; the Life of Savage always excepted; which is one of the finest compositions in the English language; and, perhaps, the master-piece of its authour. It is as far before the rest of his biography in merit, as in the time when he wrote it. They have not, indeed, the appearance of being produced by the same authour. The pages of the Life of Savage, too, are illuminated with the benevolently moral; with the humane, and the amiable: a mild, and celestial sunshine, which the other lives certainly do not enjoy. There the animadversions of the critick give the poet all the praise, that can possibly be bestowed on him; there, the fine magick of the tear of friendship softens the failings, and the faults; and infuses a most affecting pathos, into the calamities of the friend.
It will be very fortunate for me, that while I am endeavouring to display the genius, and character of Dryden, I shall be very materially assisted by quotations (which, I hope, I shall make pertinent) from the poet himself, and from Dr. Johnson. I may probably detain you long on this important object, and with the less reluctance, as I shall offer you the extracts to which I refer. They will be the productions of two animated writers; though in very different ways; and they will, at once, more than supply, and atone for, my inferiour efforts. For to do something like justice to Dryden; and, at least, honestly to discharge the duty which I have taken upon me; I should strenuously follow, with steps however unequal, the brilliant variety; and the noble, and majestick diffusion of our authour. His national posterity owe him the warmest gratitude, as a god-like poet: "take him all in all," in his absolute, irrelative excellence, "we shall hardly look upon his like again." But if we likewise consider when he lived, and what he atchieved, he is, perhaps, the most distinguished person in the annals of English poetry. Before Dryden arose the region of the British muse was rude, and undetermined. Two or three heroes, indeed, had made it famous over Europe: they had performed astonishing exploits; they had shewn the unexampled energy; nay, on several occasions, the unexampled beauty, of English imagination, and of English language. But our poets, in the uncivilized ages, were, naturally, either wild, or passive; they were either unequal and desultory, in their flights; or circumscribed, and frozen, by old critical rules; not grounded on the firm, and expanded foundation of nature; but on the arbitrary, local, and partial models of the Greek schools. Such was the character of our poetical state, when our great legislator. Dryden, took the reins of government. By him we were first taught the laws of composition; that indispensable art, in our progress to intellectual greatness, which forms a consistent, and comprehensive plan, which carefully selects, and arranges, imagery, and expression; which compresses, and directs, the rapid, and volatile fire of genius; which makes it charm with a fascinating elegance; and strike with an irresistible force. Nursed in classical, and polite learning, by the discipline of Busby; cultivating it, constantly, afterwards, almost to the last breath that he drew; endowed by heaven with a mental eye that pervaded the vast, and diversified regions of fancy; he attentively surveyed those regions to which he was a rightful heir: he marked their limits; he specified their genuine fruits, and flowers; he explained the generous industry which was to raise, and expand them, to an eternal maturity. He was a patriotick, and beneficent dictator, in the republic of letters; not an insolent, and destructive Sylla; but a just, and spirited and venerable Camillus; who protected and enlarged the empire. His orations, in defence of the common weal, flowed with a fervid spirit, and with easy grandeur; with clear, and convincing arguments; and with the most happy, and animated illustrations. The great general object of Dryden, in his prefaces; and indeed, one great object in his dedications, is, to investigate, and to demonstrate, critical truth. By his masterly hand, it is, at many different periods of his life, unfolded, and established. He seems to have been a man of a most ingenuous, and amiable temper. He defends his own productions with spirit; yet with an impartiality, and justice, that convince the reader. He frankly acknowledges the faults which he might have avoided; some of his passages, and some of his pieces, he honestly owns, "were bad enough to please." The paragraph in which he thus expresses himself, is worthy of your attention: I take it from his dedication of the Spanish Fryar to Lord Haughton. — "I remember some verses of my own Maximin, and Aimanzor, which cry vengeance upon me for their extravagance. * * * * All I can say for those passages, which, I hope, are not many, is, that I knew they were bad enough to please, even when I writ them. But I repent of them among my sins; and if any of their fellows intrude, by chance, into my present writings, I draw a stroke over all those Dalilahs of the theatre; and am resolved I will settle myself no reputation by the applause of fools. 'Tis not that I am mortified to all ambition; but I scorn as much to take it from half-witted judges, as I should, to raise an estate by cheating of bubbles: neither do I discommend the lofty style in tragedy; which is naturally pompous, and magnificent; but nothing is truly sublime that is not just, and proper." Dedication of the Spanish Fryar to Lord Haughton.
He expects our indulgence for that frequent, and humiliating, complaisance, which was extorted from him by the coarse, and licentious taste of his age; and by the pressing exigences of his hard, and unequal fate. And by whom was this indulgence witheld from Dryden; by whom will it ever be witheld from him, but by vulgar, petty tyrants, in literature, in morality, and in religion? In taking a view of his celebrated predecessours, he steers a fair, and a middle course; so that on either side, he distinctly, and accurately sees, and points out their faults, and their excellences. In his writings, you meet with no narrow-spirited parsimony of praise, to exalted, and departed merit; nay, he frequently gives it a generous profusion of encomium; particularly, I think, in the tribute which he often pays to the memory of Ben Jonson. He is equally liberal to his cotemporaries. Where eulogy is at all deserved, either by established, or rising authours, he bestows it with an unsparing hand. I am referring to those men whom it was not his particular interest to court. When his opponents are fair, and respectable, the treats them with a reciprocal, and adequate respect. Yet he could be provoked; and he had much to provoke him. If stoicism is unattainable by any class of mortals, it is unattainable by poets Their sensibility is peculiarly exquisite; and by their misfortunes; by their imprudences; and by the want of humane allowances, in the world, for an unhappy delicacy of frame they are exposed to as severe pains as can assail the mind of man. Dryden retaliates on our churchmen, through his works, in verse, and prose, with an unremitting severity. A sable troop of the church militant had ranged themselves under the standard of the cross; and under the auspices of the Colliers, and Milbournes of the age. Clamorous for the tolerant, and beneficent religion of the mild, and merciful Jesus, they were eager to destroy the finest feelings, and the finest accomplishments, in the person of Dryden; who was already struggling with persecution, and with want: — they were eager to assassinate his poetical talents, and his moral reputation: — ardent to exterminate the gay pictures of the poet; the seducing allurements to pleasure; but blind, or lenient, to the still more unevangelical, and obnoxious vices of spiritual pride; of that implacability, which, I have every possible reason to believe, is too common a characteristick of a sacred profession. Need I request you to forgive his memory, if, from time to time, he played off the lightning of poetry, against the pharisaical dullness; against the malice of these men? I know that you will, at least, forgive it. For though, after much experience of mankind; and after much impartial reasoning with myself, it is my sincere opinion, that a poet most properly respects his interest; his ease, and peace of mind; and the dignity of genius, by treating the hostilities of insolence, and malignity, with a calm, and supreme contempt; yet I am persuaded that his publick resentment of such hostilities by no means injures, but is of service to society. This point, however, it is foreign from my present purpose to discuss. Yet let me observe that we owe some of the best poetry of Dryden to those imps of persecution. To them, both the poet, and the publick, are in one view of the present subject, obliged. Cold, and opaque, as their own bodies are, they strike light, and heat, out of "souls made of fire, and "children of the sun." — Their active malignity is yet, in another view, favourable, and friendly to the poetical genius; if he is endowed with sufficient strength of mind, not to sink under a host of foes; to proceed in his glorious course; and to assert his claim to immortality. I will gradually inure him to a kind of heroick steddiness, and resolution; it will invigorate a sensibility too tremblingly alive; too flexible, by nature; and thus it will, in time, arm him with a moral fortitude; emancipate him from sublunary things; and give him a tone of manly virtue, which, probably, he may not have been able to adopt from the schools. In most of the works of Dryden, learning, and eloquence are instructively, and agreeably united. Whatever are his subjects: whatever are his provocations; the general strain of his writing is that of a gentleman; except, when, with his too lavish pot of incense, he fumigates the great. In his vigorous, and splendid prose, there is a fervour, and a majesty, which must always predominate in a soul like that of Dryden; and from which we may infer his consciousness that he was a law-giver, under the immediate influence of Apollo. If he makes us feel that he was the literary, and poetical monarch of his time, why should we not feel it? For he rules us with a golden sceptre.
But let not my admiration of Dryden make me lose sight of truth. In the course of Lectures which I am now offering to the publick, it is my wish (which may, indeed, be defeated by my judgement; but it shall be defeated by that only;) it is my wish, that "poetick justice" may always "lift her golden scale." To the manner of writing on which I think that I have bestowed not more praise than it deserves (I have his prose principally now in my eye) a manner, at once learned, and liberal, we have a very mortifying exception in his vehement strictures on the Empress of Morocco; a tragedy which was written in rhyme by Eikanah Settle; and acted in the year 1673, with great, and unmerited applause. In that flaming effusion he seems entirely to have given way to a violent indignation; and totally to have excluded judgement from his mind. I cannot dwell, without concern, on the spots of this poetical sun. The contrast to his glory, to which I allude, may be found in Johnson's Life of Dryden. That furious criticism or rather invective, on the tragedy of Settle drew some excellent observations from our moral biographer, which it may not be improper here to insert. — "Such was the criticim" (says Johnson) "to which the genius of Dryden could be reduced, between rage, and terrour; rage, with little provocation; and terrour, with little danger. To see the highest minds thus levelled with the meanest, may produce some solace to the consciousness of weakness, and some mortification to the pride of wisdom. But let it be remembered, that minds are not levelled in their powers, till they are levelled in their desires. Dryden, and Settle, had, both, placed their happiness in the claps of multitudes." — Life of Dryden Pp. 25; 26. Octavo edit. 1781. Vol. IId. — I love the essence of this remark. If a young man is ambitious of literary fame, let him he assured that nothing so much exalts genius, both in a physical, and mental view, as vigorous, and independent virtue. Yet Johnson seems to have ascribed the resentment of Dryden only to one of its causes; and as it operated in him, to the weaker cause. We cannot suppose that our great poet was insensible to fame. And there is no doubt that genius, nobly ardent, and ambitions, will infinitely prefer fame to emolument; though it is in the most horrible circumstances. But whoever is conversant with the works of Dryden, will be convinced, from many instances, that he felt not all this high, and inpatient throb for glory. He was infamously neglected by one of the most detestable of kings. The minions of that king, who rioted in wealth and pleasure; who pretended to be noble, and lovers of poetry, and poets, too; were so far from befriending him, as they ought, that they set up the blockhead, Settle, against him; and industriously endeavoured to ruin his consequence, as a dramatick writer, by which he hardly earned his bread. The chief motive, therefore, of the rage of our illustrious but unfortunate poet against the poetaster, was, that he had "weighed solid pudding against empty praise;" and was far more apprehensive that the popularity of Settle would intercept his profit than his glory. Very useful, and honourable doctrines may be taught, from iniquitous events. Greater nonsense cannot be imagined than the tragedy of Settle, which was universally applauded by a great, and cultivated metropolis. Permit me to give you a farther account of its temporary success, in the words of Johnson. — "The Earl of Rochester," (says our biographer) "to suppress the reputation of Dryden, took Settle into his protection; and endeavoured to persuade the publick, that its approbation had been, to that time, misplaced. Settle was awhile in high reputation; his Empress of Morocco, having first delighted the town, was carried in triumph, to Whitehall, and played by the ladies of the court. Now was the poetical meteor at the highest; the next moment began its fall. Rochester withdrew his patronage; seeming resolved, says one of his biographers, to have a judgement contrary to that of the town; perhaps being unable to endure any reputation beyond a certain height; even when he had, himself, contributed to raise it." — p. 56. — I shall beg leave to say something more concerning the poetical fortune of Settle; which could only be important, as it was connected with that of Dryden. — In the year 1681, our great poet published apolitical satire, entitled, The Medal. The Earl of Shaftsbury is the principal object of the poem; it abounds with poignancy; with wit; and with nervous, and, harmonjous lines. I shall here take the liberty to subjoin another paragraph from Johnson, to display more largely the history of that remarkable rival of Dryden; and to illustrate the arguments which these anecdotes will naturally suggest. — Elkanah Settle, who had answered Absalom and Achitophel, appeared with equal courage, in opposition to the Medal; and published an answer, called The Medal Reversed; with so much success in both encounters, that he left the palm doubtful, and divided the suffrages of the nation. Such are the revolutions of fame; or such is the prevalence of fashion, that the man whose works have not yet been thought to deserve the care of collecting them; who died forgotten in an hospital; and whose latter years were spent in contriving shows for fairs; and carrying an elegy, or epithalamium, of which the beginning, and end were occasionally varied, but the intermediate parts were always the same, to every house where there was a funeral; might, with truth, have had inscribed upon his stone;
Here lies the rival, and antagonist of Dryden! — p. 62.
These facts, if we would make a salutary use of them, may surely repress the vanity of those literary adventurers, who are elated with a temporary, and factitious fame; and if we make a most honourable, and glorious use of these facts, they will give consolation, and equanimity to true genius, amidst the numerous hostilities which retard its progress. By those hostilities it may be retarded; but it cannot be defeated by them; while it is faithful to itself; while it is conscious, as it must be, of its own indeprivable powers; and while it is indefatigable, and unshaken, in endeavouring to do them justice.
From the history of Settle the great object of this Lecture derives another illustration. I have elsewhere observed; and it has been observed by criticks to whom I owe much information, that to do ample justice to the genius, and atchievements of any poet, you are to take an accurate view of the state of literature, and poetry in the age in which he lived. When Dryden wrote, there was a happy aera for literature in France; a happy aera for poetry, to the utmost capacity of the French language; which was then brought to its perfection. The reign of Louis the Fourteenth was, indeed, a splendid reign in every respect. Such truly magnificent effects may be produced by a great, and generous minister, who makes the encouragement, and remuneration of the best powers of the human mind a part of his sensible ambition: — such good effects may be produced by a king who has the docility to be trained to royalty; to learn to act majesty well. But England was, at that time, in a state, comparatively barbarous. It was, by no means, barren of genius: let this be mentioned to its glory, and to its shame. Its manners however, were gross; and its language was yet rude, and inelegant. But it will soon be seen that genius is a kind of creator; it effects in a few years what academies can hardly effect in a century. It thinks vigorously; it thinks finely; it thinks originally; therefore, it either finds a proper strain of language for its thoughts, or makes one. The breath of its inspiration melts the ruggedness of its mother-tongue, and bids it copiously flow, in clearness, and in harmony. The influence of a court is the blessing, or bane of a nation. Charles the Second had a sensible mind, but an unfeeling heart. He read, and admired the great poets of his days; but he would not have saved one of them from starving. He was a prodigal on pleasure; he was a miser to desert. From this disposition we may infer, that some of his courtiers were even avowed enemies to men of talents: from this disposition, too, we may fairly deduce, the slow progress of the nation towards refinement, in understanding, language, and taste. Look into Settle's Empress of Morocco, and you will see what the reign of Charles the Second would bear; nay, what it would applaud. You will find some difficulty to believe that even the ladies of an idle, and licentious court, on the recommendation of an idle, and licentious lord, could have endured to act, to hear, the fustian, and the nonsense, which are contained in that tragedy. Look into Chapman's Homer; and you will be equally surprised that the Beaux Esprits of Charles's days were enthusiastick admirers of that gothick translation. "The Earl of Mulgrave" [who was afterwards Duke of Buckingham] "and Mr. Waller, assure me" (says Dryden) "that they could never read over the translation of Chapman, without incredible pleasure, and extreme transport; and yet the translator" (adds our great master of criticism) "has thrown down Homer, as low as harsh numbers, improper English, and a monstrous length of verse could carry him," — Dedication of his Miscellanies to Lord Radcliffe.
This dawn of our poetical atmosphere, which was breaking into day, and which had been visited by two astonishing comets, before, was now cheered by the rise of Dryden; that sun of poetry; ascending in youth, and strength; rejoicing, like his god, Apollo, to run his course; throwing light, and heat; and waking harmony around him. Over all the regions of the muses there was nothing hid from his warmth. He penetrated, and animated every subject that was, pervious to the genial ray. All preceding English verse; the pages of Shakespeare and Milton excepted, was mediocrity to that of Dryden. But in unbounded variety of genius; in writing in so many very different strains; and in writing so well, he seems never to have had his equal. He was a perfect Proteus in the service of the muses. He assumed every form of poetry; and every form was, in him, nature for the time. In every form, too, he attained that excellence to which he aspired; and for which he was evidently indebted to his own fund; though he makes very grateful, and large acknowledgements to former masters. In original compositions he emulated; he surpassed the antients; and translations like his, had never appeared in England. He has given us the finest; the sublimest odes, in the world; the preference can be given to Pindar only by pedants, who are drunk with Greek, and doating with antiquity. In his satyrical poetry, you have Horace, and Juvenal; and a considerable acumen more. You have the play of Horace, the eloquent and flaming declamation of Juvenal; and you have vigorous strokes of wit; quickly returned; variously darted; and sparkling with prismatick lustre; a characteristick, and exclusive prerogative of Dryden. The general spirit; and in very many places, the majesty of his translation of Virgil, are worthy of the divine original; are worthy of the first of the Roman poets; and if Charles had not been his king; but Augustus, his emperour; (whose memory I should love, for his generous patronage, and friendship to poets, if he had not agreed to the proscription of Cicero;) — if Augustus had been his sovereign, his time would have been his own; he would have rushed upon us, like the Sybil of his poet, with all his deliberate, and collected force; and thus, in excess of fire alone, he, perhaps, would not have been true to Virgil: — like him, however, he would have compressed the current of his epick muse; and he would have worked it into all the splendour, and beauty of his master. He had meditated an epick poem, of which he communicated to us part of the plan; it is a new, and noble one: but, alas! he must have subsisted while he wrote it; and when he proposed the scheme to Charles the Second, that monarch supposed him, what the great often imagine poets to be, of the chameleon kind: he gave him, as he tells us, himself, fair words, and nothing more. Had his circumstances been easy; and the poem so written as to satisfy his ardent, and comprehensive mind; we should, then, have completely excelled the antients in epick song, as we have excelled them in other species; we should have had a Dryden superiour to Virgil; as we already have a Milton superiour to Homer. In the satires of Juvenal, which he translates, there are great faults; but in many passages, a more than atoning energy, and lustre. The man, who, by nature, was among the first of the human species, wrote for bread: "to the mercantile ruggedness of Jacob Tonson, the delicacy of our poet was every day exposed." As haste produced carelessness, it necessarily produced flatness; but it likewise launched into glorious absurdities. Dryden; the first hero, in poetry, of the world, in his day, was always mounted on the Bucephalus of the muses; therefore, when Dryden tripped, it was Pegasus stumbling, and his hoof struck fire. If, from his misfortunes; not from his natural defects, he is frequently beneath Juvenal; he is frequently above him, too; particularly in his translation of the sixth satire; where he often shows a strength, and exuberance of ideas, and expression, which take the palm from his authour. I apprehend that the remarks which I have made on his Juvenal, are applicable to most of his translations; in which I shall here take notice of an impropriety of which he is very profuse; that of applying modern instruments, and inventions, to old times. This fault gives unlearned readers a false idea of the manners, customs, and habits of living of the ancients; and in their views of the progressive improvements of society, it misleads them with anachronisms. — He blames himself, if I remember right, for this fault. — The consequences of Dryden's haste in poetical composition give sentiments to the mind of the reader, not very dissimilar from those which we feel on seeing the desolating effects that are produced in monuments of the other fine arts, by duration. The flat line; the feeble expletive; the technical phrase; the coarse word, or series of expressions amid the strength, and striking symmetry of our masterly poet; may have their corresponding emblems in the depredations of time; in the melancholy chasm; the mutilated arch; and the confused ruins of some grand, and venerable building. Or, to compare poetry with poetry; we regret those imperfections, as we lament the wore incorrect latter books of the Aeneid; or the unfinished lines in that divine work. In the many comedies, and tragedies of Dryden, though they were written from the keen spur of the occasion, and though, as he himself acknowledges, they were debased with a deplorable complaisance to the bad taste, and bad morals of his age; we are kept alive with a most fertile imagination; a poignant, and copious wit; and with the spirit, and sublimity of the poet. Though they are now obsolete in the theatres, how interesting are they to a well-cultivated mind, in comparison with those new, and very fugitive pieces, which are presented on the stage; with a short-lived wonder, and applause! Separate them from their gaudy scenery; from their grimace, instead of wit; or from their favourite actress; and you blow the secret of their fortunate effect. Into what flimsy times are we thrown! Even Congreve is on the wane! But the dramas of Congreve; nay, the dramas of Dryden, will always keep their stations among the English classicks; and they will always, in the closet, engage the attention of men of a classical turn of mind; while those Papilios of the theatre will flutter for awhile, and disappear for ever. Their dramatical existence will be shorter than that of the Empress of Morocco; for that cold weed was reared, and fostered, as in a hot-bed, under the warmth of a great poetical luminary; but they will not be favoured with the opponent rays of a Dryden, to protract their transitory existence.
Such was the almost unexampled variety of powers of this illustrious poet; and such was their strength, and variety of performance, through a long series of difficulties, and distresses. His excellence in one of his lighter modes of poetry, would have made him conspicuous; in one of his graver pieces, it would have made him immortal. In a gay, and pleasurable song (whatever he tells us of his own saturnine humour) he is more sprightly; more sensible; more forcible, than Anacreon: in the ode which is addressed to gravity; to dignity; to sublimity; to compare him with Pindar, would be to do him gross injustice; he leaves even the "Pastor cum traheret per freta navibus;" — and the "gustum, et tenacem propositi virum," of Horace, far behind him. If inspiration was ever the gift of heaven to a poet, Dryden was inspired when he wrote his ode to the memory of Mrs. Anne Killigrew, and his Alexander's Feast. So sublime are the strains of virtue, and piety in the one; and they flow with such ease, and fire; — so various are the poetical powers in the other; accompanied with the same ardour, and facility; so distinctly, and strongly in is that variety; and so rapidly does it captivate our hearts, and bear along with it, our passions:
Less than a god, I think, there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
No kinds of short composition are so difficult as the epigram, and the epitaph; yet in both, his merit is, at least, considerable. In Satire, he is Horace, and Juvenal, and himself; and no man will dispute his epick powers who has read his translation of Virgil; the short abstract, or sketch, of the epick poem which he had intended to write; and who is conversant with the fertility; force, and extent of his genius. I ought to have taken notice of his prologues, and epilogues; which contributed not a little to his fame. They are brilliant with wit; and abound with ludicrous, yet severe satire, on the vices, and taste of the times. Had he written nothing but his prose, his literary fame would have been transmitted to posterity: if his essay on dramatick poesy; his critical prefaces; and his dedications, fraught with fine fire, and imagery; (I wish to heaven that their servile adulation had been expunged!) if those pieces had been the productions of Bolingbroke, or of Cicero, they would have been reviewed by those eloquent authours, with a peculiar self-complacency. You will surely forgive even a prolixity of encomium, which I can seldom forbear to bestow on living, or departed greatness. Every province of the muses Dryden made his own; not with a gothick invasion; not with a rebellious usurpation; for as the Prince of Conde said of the hero of Quintus Curtius; he felt in himself a dignity, and right of empire; and like a generous monarch, he gave to whatever territory he had annexed to his laurel, learned, and salutary laws. After all his various, and indefatigable labours; to assert the nature, and rights of poetry; to emancipate it from barbarism, and pedantry; and to transmit it, thus supported, and established, to after-ages; labours, which are a reproach to superficial times; to our self-created poets! — after all these intellectual exploits; — he left Pope; — his heir apparent; his "Tydides melior Patre;" — his great Alexander, a world, to improve; but not to conquer!
I am sure that it must be time to relieve you from me, by giving you some quotations, which, I hope, will be pertinent, as comments, and illustrations, to my narrative, and arguments. To what I have said of the poverty of Dryden, as unfavourable to the complete exertion of his genius, there is something parallel in the following passage from Johnson. — "It seldom happens that all the necessary causes concur to any great effect: will is wanting to power; or power to will; or both are impeded by external obstructions. The exigences in which Dryden was condemned to pass his life, are reasonably supposed to have blasted his genius; to have driven out his works in a state of immaturity; and to have intercepted the full-blown elegance which longer growth would have supplied." — For this misfortune, however, Dr. Johnson administers a doubtful, and gloomy consolation. — "Poverty (says he) like "other rigid powers, is, sometimes too hastily accused. If the excellence of Dryden's works was lessened by his indigence, their number was increased: and I know not how it will be proved that if he had written less, he would have written better; or that, indeed, he would have undergone the toil of an authour, if he had not been solicited by something more pressing than the love of praise." — On this passage I shall make an obvious remark; only because it obliges me to make it; viz. that if Dryden had been in easy circumstances; and if he had bestowed on his productions all his might, and all his care; it is certain, that whether he would have written more, or less, he would have written yet more gloriously. These doubts of what might have been the character of Dryden's poetry, are proposed by one, who often affected to be indifferent to fame. But may fame be the first; the honest; the avowed incentive of every man of genius, through all the literary progress of his life! It subjects the love of gain to moral, and intellectual dignity, and glory; — it thaws the frost of poverty; it blunts the shafts of persecution; it speeds the wing of the muse, with all the possibility of its vigour, to the boldest heights; it rewards the poet, with the sublimest pleasures, and triumphs of the mind; and it bestows on the world its noblest instruction and entertainment.
The plan of his intended epick poem which I have before mentioned, he laid before Charles the Second. As he was always in unfortunate circumstances, he thought that he could not perform the work (which, if it had been completed, would have been a noble monument to the honour of this country) without a salary from government. The hero of the poem was to have been King Arthur; or the Black Prince; it was to have had the machinery of guardian angels of nations, and of cities. — "After Virgil, and Spenser" (he adds, in his Dedication of Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset) "I would have taken occasion to represent my living friends, and patrons, of the noblest families; and also shadowed the events of future ages, in the succession of our imperial line. With those helps, and those of the machines which I have mentioned, I might, perhaps, have done as well as some of my predecessours; or, at least, chalked out a way for others to amend my errours, in a like design. But being encouraged only with fair words by King Charles the Second; my little salary" [as poet laureat he must mean] "ill paid; and no prospect of a future subsistence; I was then discouraged in the beginning of my attempt. And now age has overtaken me; and want, a more insufferable evil, through the change of the times, has wholly disenabled, me." — Dedication of Juvenal. Pp. 21; 22. Octavo edit. 1711. People may charge me with being as partial to poets as they please; but if I was a king, or a minister, with my present sentiments, and habits of feeling, I should not think that I could be more completely damned to everlasting fame, than by such a complaint as this of Dryden, for my satire, or my epitaph.
From a passage in our poet's Dedication of the Translation of Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset, we shall see what the state of poetry was, when it became the favourite object of Dryden. From the same passage we may collect how highly it was improved by him; and what previous application, and learning, that great man thought were indispensably necessary to excell in the first of the fine arts. "When I was, myself (says he) in the rudiments of my poetry; without name, or reputation, in the world; having rather the ambition of a writer than the skill; when I was drawing the outlines of an art, without any living master to instruct me in it; an art which had been better praised than studied here in England; wherein Shakespeare, who created the stage among us, had rather written happily than knowingly, and justly; and Jonson, who, by studying Horace, had been acquainted with the rules; yet seemed to envy to posterity, that knowledge; and like an inventer of some useful art, to make a monopoly of his learning; — when thus, as I may say, before the use of the loadstone, or knowledge of the compass, I was sailing in a vast ocean, without other help than the pole-star of the ancients, and the rules of the French stage, amongst the moderns, which are extremely different from ours, by reason of their opposite taste; — yet even, then I had the presumption to dedicate to your Lordship." — I am sorry that to bring this period to its close, I was obliged to transcribe its anticlimax; its inversion, in one instance, of eternal order; in the presumption of a great poet's dedicating to a lord. Dryden, we see, thought his diligence at Westminster, and at Cambridge, but an insufficient foundation for the superstructure of the art of poetry. He knew that genius was but a wild impetus, without nurture, and formation; he, therefore, boldly launched into the intellectual ocean, and vigorously steered his poetical galleon; under the guidance of the polar constellation of the ancients; and of the fainter stars of France. What, then, shall we say to those gentlemen, who without any regular, and serious training, by themselves, or others, would seize this distinguished talent of human nature; who seem to say to themselves; — "We will be poets:" and who seem to fancy that their hasty resolution realizes the phantom of their vanity? Are we, at so cheap a rate, with Horace; with Virgil; with Dryden, and with Pope, to be canonized, for ever, in the poetical calendar? It will avail the gentlemen very little, that the town ha resounded for awhile, with their poetical crudities; after the critical parole had been given to it by such respectable, and high personages as those who procured an ephemerical glory for Settle's Empress of Morocco. I must likewise observe to these poets of instantaneous growth, and maturity; and to the more grave and venerable men who pique themselves on schools, and colleges; that it is evident from the passage which I have just quoted, that the best part of Dryden's education was the result of his own industry; and that Shakespeare, though not so well informed as he, had, by his own application, acquired much useful knowledge; and was therefore, in the most sensible, and liberal signification of the word, a learned man. If we could possibly converse with departed spirits, while we carry our earthly clod about us, I would hold the following language to Dryden. However intuitive, penetrating, and pervading his faculties may be, in their beatified state, the intelligence which I should impart, might, perhaps, in some degree, surprise him. — "Few men have contributed so largely as you to the poetical improvement of your country; and it was proceeding proportionably to the impulse which you had given to it; particularly under the auspices of one of your illustrious successours. But, in times more civilized than those in which you lived; and when our language, and numbers had acquired a greater energy and polish than even what they owed to you, our poetry hath received a check, which, by a strange errour, hath been mistaken for an advancement. If important, and in fact, indisputable truth, always works its way through the clouds of prejudice, and superstition of every kind; and shines before men, with its native lustre; the errour, I hope, will not be lasting. A celebrated writer arose amongst us; more characterized by nature, with an uncommonly vigorous, and comprehensive understanding, than with that celestial emanation which we term genius. The pages of this man, though in many parts of his works, he was very splendid in composition; and though he was endowed with poetical talents, to a considerable degree, were often deformed with scholastick asperities, which he was exceedingly quick, and penetrating to discern in any man but himself. He was a great master in unfolding, and illuminating our moral obligations, and our moral happiness; but in contemplating, and treating religious objects, his mind was darkened with a monkish, and gloomy superstition; which unfortunately obscured all his elegant theories; and made him confound literary right, and wrong. After a youth and manhood of honest poverty, and glorious toils, he was, at length, rewarded by his country. As his real merit decreased, he grew more into fashion; this proposition is no paradox; therefore I will not affront you with its solution. The affected admiration of the thoughtless, and the gay, awed even those who think; and who, therefore, ought to think for themselves, into a more implicit, and servile homage than they had payed him before; and the mild, and steddy lustre of fair fame, and of generous ambition, miserably caught a new, and transitory blaze, from the tremulous meteors of vanity, and imitation. The worship of such devotees could not be the effect of sincerity, and judgement: they had refused him their veneration when he was in his moral, and intellectual meridian; that veneration with which they now almost prostrated themselves before him, when he was in the declination of talents, and of independent virtue. A wild intoxication followed all this success, which extremely degraded the christian philosopher; his literary despotism was never exceeded: it was now his pride to contradict principles, and to decry writings, which had long been universally received, and admired; and to maintain this opposition to experience; to time; to nature; if you stripped him of his pompous; I may say cumbrous declamation; the 'sic volo; sic jubeo,' were all his arguments. His new laws of poetry were as absurd, and unexpected, as his political edicts. Though rhyme was your favourite, you will not, I am sure, agree with him, in absolutely proscribing the simpler, and graver numbers. You will not agree with him, when he tells you that the best blank verse is little better than sounding, or swelling prose; you cannot be so forgetful of the strains of your admired, and divine Milton; strains, in which the sentiments, and the musick vye with each other, in the beautiful, and the sublime; whom I should suppose that you often meet, with the Muaesus of your Virgil; 'inter odoratum lauri nemus;' improving its fragrance with holy rapture, and harmony. This fastidious critick would not allow poetry to be capable of urging the cause of religion, in which it was first employed; and which no other auxiliary, if it is in the breast of genius, can serve so well. Nay, he seemed determined, in his mad war with mental elegance, and with its innocent, its beneficent luxury; to tear from poetry all her ornaments, and colouring; to reduce her to the 'animal bipes, et implume,' of Diogenes; and to send her naked, and cold, into the world. He took every occasion to ridicule the pastoral muse; the muse of Theocritus, and of Virgil; a muse, which must ever be dear to human nature, while we retain a love of the most pleasing images; and of those uncorrupted, and serene pleasures, which pall not, nor reproach. He tells us, that shepherds, and persons of a superiour class, who are often introduced into that species of composition, never lived, and acted, as they are represented in pastoral poetry; as if every species of poetry did not elevate, and burnish nature; as if judicious, and generous criticks did not always allow a large licence to poets, in forming their agreeable fictions. He tells us, too, that the range of pastoral poetry is poor, and confined; and that it is trite, and worne out; as if there was not field for a true poet, for a maker of an ideal world, which yet must not be abhorrent from the real world; — as if there was not field for such a genius, on the most beaten, and circumscribed ground; — on any ground. Nay, he would bind this animated, and ardent being, to a metaphysical frost, and rigour: he, sometimes will not allow him to personify the striking objects of art, and nature. Such are some of the reveries, or mere dogmas of his late biography; in which his poetical, corresponds with the gloom, and austerity of his political, creed. His lives of our poets were published many years ago; they were universally read; and by most of our readers with a servile, and undistinguishing praise: at which, I own, I felt some surprise; when I considered the absurdities which they contained; and their injurious treatment of great, and good men. So decisively, for a time, may the wrongs to genius, and to virtue, be warranted; so widely may they be diffused; by the imposing sound of a name; by the voice of fashion; by the echos of her empty sanction; and by the selfish and paltry puffs of trade. So strange a phnomenon of indefeasible right, and passive obedience, in the republick of letters, perhaps never came even within your observation, in the time of Charles the Second; when far more reverence was payed, in general, to authority, and prescription, than is usual in our days. He has almost done justice, however, to you, and to Pope; who studied, admired, and emulated you: — I mean, that he has done justice to you, in his narrative, and remarks. In a different respect, he has done you both such a gross injustice, as, one would have thought, your memories could only have suffered in a gothick and barbarous nation. He hath classed you curiously; dwarfs are made the companions and compeers of giants: — Isaac Watts; Richard Blackmore, your old Quack Maurus; and still more insignificant creatures, are, with John Dryden, and Alexander Pope, among our most eminent English poets. You wished ardently well to the glory of Britain; nor could you be insensible to your own poetical glory. I should have hesitated to give you this information, if you could now have been painfully affected by sublunary things. Is not the nation which you contributed so much to cultivate, going retrograde in civilization, where such outrages on common taste, on common sense, are committed, and indulged? Where people think them as oracular as the disciples of Aristotle deemed the [Greek characters] of their master? This prostitution of poetical honours to dullness, and presumption was hardly exceeded by your Settle your Lord Rochester, and your maid of honour. — I must give you another anecdote from England, before I take my leave of you; not from an illiberal wish to depress the moral reputation of the dead, but to make a curious addition to the many unaccountable inconsistences, and disingenuous artifices of human nature. It is of far more beneficial consequence to society, freely to develope the history of mankind, as it rises to our view, than to restrain our fair liberty of useful animadversion, by a false, and unavailing delicacy to the dead. Our poetical biographer, and his intimate connexions, were equally under the influence of an incongruous, and uncommon infatuation. Accounts of his life were published by two of his old, and most affectionate friends. After they have enumerated many facts which convict him of habitual envy, insolence, and ingratitude; in drawing his character, they present him to the world, as a model of practical christianity; which all succeeding men must despair to equal.
"Farewell, thou great, and venerable poet! Thou art now in a state, free from the various folly which I have related to thee! Eternal happiness be thine; from the enjoyment of thy own ever excursive, and ever fruitful mind; and from the mercies, and paternal goodness of thy Creator! you well remember that in our unequal world, for distinguished merit alone, we are calumniated, and oppressed. For its concomitant failings, and faults, then, we must expect no quarter."
On his larger poems I shall now take the liberty to make some observations, His Annus Mirabilis, a poem written on the year 1666, he published in the year 1667. "This" (says Johnson) "is one of his greatest attempts; he had subjects equal to his abilities; a great naval war, and the fire of London." — I am sorry to be of opinion that the execution is not equal to the greatness of the subjects. The poem is a very long one; it consists of three hundred and four stanzas of four heroick lines, which rhyme alternately. Several causes contribute to sink this poem. That stanza returning so often fatigues the reader. But it is depressed by internal weights. It has passages, I own, in which Dryden is distinguishable; but it is debased by minute, and vulgar images; and it often disgusts the lovers of nature, and simplicity, with the puerile, and forced conceits of the metaphysical poets.
In 1681, he published a far longer, and more celebrated poem, entitled, Absalom and Achitophel. It was written on the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, which was raised by Lord Shaftsbury. This poem has great force, and vivacity of political, and personal satire; with a corresponding flow of versification. But it owed a great part of its celebrity to the hold which it took of the passions, and interests of those who were engaged in the tumultuous scenes which it describes. Politicks are a frail foundation for poetry. All political poems; especially those which are addressed to the state-intrigues of the present time, soon cease to engage the publick attention. They are often enthusiastically admired during their short lives; but they soon die; and their warmest, and most obliged friends, ungratefully forget them. Hardly any genius of the poet will save them long from oblivion. Nothing more decisively evinces the great original talents, and transcendent wit of Butler, than that Hudibras is yet read, and admired. It is not so with Churchill; because his carelessness prevented him from proving himself consistently a great poet; because for much of his high fame, he was indebted to the fever of party. Yet there are many passages in his works which make us regret that he was not more attentive to his poetry; and that he chose not subjects more worthy of his genius. To deny him a place among our English poets, who were disgraced with so many despicable companions, could only proceed from some petty prejudices, and from a poor personal resentment. Let the poet who, to the dignity, and glory of his character, prefers large immediate emolument, and the "aura popularis" of the day, chase, in the name of meanness, and of vanity, its new-blown bubbles: but let him who would build, his immortality on the foundation of truth, and virtue, examine, and display, the unchangeable, interesting, and attractive objects of nature; and the equally perpetual passions, and persuits of man.
Agreeably to this theory, which, I should think, is incontrovertible, the character of the Duke of Buckingham, in Absalom and Achitophel, still affords us a very lively entertainment; not only because it is admirably drawn; but because every age produces such whimsical, ridiculous, and peculiar characters. I have always thought that Dryden, great as he generally is, was greater in satire than in any other department of the poet; two or three of his unrivalled, and invincible odes, only, seem to be exceptions to this observation. I may give this opinion with the more confidence, that it appears to have been embraced by Dryden himself, before. Permit me to quote another passage from his dedication to the translation of Juvenal. The quotation will show you that this political poem was more admired by Dr. Johnson, whether justly, or unjustly, than it was by the authour. — "The character of Zimri, in my Absalom, is, in my opinion, worth the whole poem: 'tis not bloody; but 'tis ridiculous enough; and he, for whom it was intended, was too witty to resent it as an injury. If I had railed, I might have suffered for it justly; but I managed my own work more happily; perhaps more dexterously. I avoided the mention of great crimes; and applied myself to the representing of blind sides, and little extravagances; to which, the wittier a man is, he is generally the more obnoxious. It succeeded as I wished; the jest went round; and he was laughed at, in his turn, who began the frolick." Pp. 70, 71. I flatter myself that it will not be impertinent here to recite this famous character of Zimri.
Such were the tools; but a whole hydra more
Remains, of sprouting heads too long to score.
Some of their chiefs were princes of the land;
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;
A man, so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome:
Stiff in opinions; always in the wrong:
Was every thing by starts, and nothing long;
But in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chymist, fidler, statesman, and buffoon!
Then all for women; painting; rhyming; drinking;
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
Blest madman, who could every hour employ
With something new, to wish, or to enjoy!
Railing, and praising, were his usual themes;
And both, to show his judgement, in extremes:
So over violent, or over civil;
That every man, with him, was god, or devil:
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
Nothing went unrewarded but desert
Beggar'd by fools, whom still he found too late;
He had his jest; and they had his estate.
He laughed himself from court; then sought relief,
By forming parties; but could ne'er be chief:
For, spite of him, the weight of business fell
On Absalom, and wise Achitophel.
Thus wicked but in will; of means bereft,
He left not faction; but of that was left.
A great many lines of the second part of Absalom, and Achitophel, were, at Dryden's solicitation, written by Tate. I cannot but apprehend that this solicitation was an effect not of the most generous design. He wrote with such facility, himself; and the subject was then so interesting, that he needed not, on that occasion, to call for the assistance of any one. He meant, I am afraid, that his poetry should rise with a bolder "alto relievo," when contrasted with the performance of one, who, comparatively with himself, was a very poor poet. If this was the selfish design of Dryden, it was completely effected. The stiffness, coldness, and heaviness of the one, sink you to earth, after you have been enlivened, and exhilarated by the ease, and fire of the other. Or, if you will allow me to use a metaphor which includes not the coldness of our poet's assistant; Tate, after Dryden, is port after Burgundy. In many instances, we find this great disparity between our poet, and his literary colleagues. After we have read his translation of the excellent tenth satire of Juvenal, how flat, and prosaick is Congreve's translation of the eleventh; unrivalled master that he was, of the comick drama? The Absalom and Achitophel had that rapid, and extensive sale that might have been expected for a political satire that flowed with all the strength, and poignancy of Dryden; and that was written at a crisis when the mind of the publick were heated, and agitated with the spirit of party, and sedition. Dr. Johnson's father, an old bookseller, told him that he had not known the sale of Absalom and Achitophel equalled but by that of Sacheverell's trial.
Johnson had as high an opinion of this poem as could be entertained. I shall give it you in his own words. I cheerfully admit even the lavish praise of any production of a great poet; especially when it is bestowed by a critick who is often too parsimonious of eulogy: but unmerited severity shown to such a poet, I own, excites my resentment. In the sixtieth page of his life of Dryden, he makes the following sensible observation on the uncommon success of Absalom and Achitophel. "The reason of this general perusal Addison has attempted to derive from the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of secrets; and thinks that curiosity to decypher the names procured readers to the poem. There is no need to enquire why those verses were read, which, to all the attractions of wit, elegance, and harmony added the co-operation of all the factious passions; and filled every mind with triumph, or resentment." Vol. IId. — He afterwards gives it a more particular encomium. — "Absalom and Achitophel" (says he) "is a work so well known, that particular criticism is superfluous. If it be considered as a poem political, and controversial, it will be found to comprize all the excellences of which the subject is susceptible; acrimony of censure; elegance of praise; artful delineation of characters; variety, and vigour of sentiment; happy turns of language; and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English composition." p. 147.
The Hind and Panther is the longest of Dryden's original poems. It is written zealously in defence of the church of Rome; and very satirically against other forms of religion. The ridiculous foundation, or fable, debases, with a ludicrous air, all the dignity, and importance of the subject; for what can be more monstrous, in the walk of Apologue, than to make a hind, and panther dispute on fathers; councils; on the most difficult and momentous points of religion? I am far from being of Dr. Johnson's opinion, that it is beyond the province of poetry to exhibit, and to enforce many of the descriptive, and sublime images of our faith: but to give substance, and colour; and harmonious, and spirited versification; to give poetry to controversial, and scholastick theology; was reserved, by the God of Nature, for the genius of Milton, and of Dryden. More acute, and subtle arguments; or more ingenious sophistry, on those topicks which have occasioned the capital divisions in the christian church, were never marshalled by those whose immediate profession it has been every day to whet the weapons of polemical controversy; than are to be found in the worst parts of Milton's Paradise Lost, (I speak of it, as a poem) and in the Religio Laici, and Hind and Panther of Dryden.
"Pope" (says Dr. Johnson) "whose judgement was perhaps a little bribed by the subject, used to mention this poem as the most correct specimen of Dryden's versification. It was, indeed, written when he had completely formed his manner; and may be supposed to exhibit, negligence excepted, his deliberate, and ultimate scheme of Metre." The Doctor goes on: — "We may, therefore, reasonably infer that he did not approve the perpetual uniformity which confines the sense to couplets, since he has broken the lines in the initial paragraph."
A milk-white hind, immortal, and unchanged
Fed on the lawns, and in the forest ranged
Without unspotted; innocent within
She feared no danger for she knew no sin.
Yet bad she oft been chased with horns, and hounds
And scythian shafts, and many winged wounds,
Aimed at her heart; was often forced to fly;
And doomed to death; though fated not to die.
"These lines" (adds Johnson) "are lofty, elegant, and musical; notwithstanding the interruption of the pause, of which the effect is rather increase of pleasure by variety, than offence by ruggedness." Pp. 157; 158. I think, with our celebrated critick, that these lines are elegant, and musical; and I will admit that
She feared no danger, for she knew no sin—
Doomed to death, though fated not to die,
are lofty. Yet I cannot but think that, in rhyme, to throw the closely continued sense, from the end of one line into another, is the effect of a false judgement, and taste in poetry. This urging on of the sense seems to be the exclusive privilege of blank verse. But every word that is to rhyme to another, seems to demand, at least, a very short pause, in the flow of ideas: and there are gradations enow, and species enow, of pauses, to admit a sufficient variety. If this mode, (for I will not presume to call it a rule) is not observed, the most excellent rhymes lose half of their unaccountable, and magical force, and beauty; for the attention is divided between the sense, and the rhyme. I wish to give rhyme as much variety as possible; that it may not fatigue, or cloy; for whenever it is in mechanical hands, we painfully feel its monkish origin; therefore I am rather surprised that some criticks, and poets, have rejected one or two of its fair, and improving varieties: but any variety that enfeebles it is too dearly purchased. I have often, indeed, heard Dryden praised for the manner which Johnson here honours with his sanction; it is a manner which Mr. Churchill commended, and imitated; therefore I give my opinion with a proper doubt and deference; though, indeed, my doubt is lessened, when I recollect that Johnson himself, who wrote very fine verses; I may say, never flows uninterruptedly on, in the manner, which he here approves; and I believe, an example of that manner, which Dryden has left us in the beginning of his Hind and Panther, is not to be found in all the works of my Athenian oracle, Pope; and I have no doubt that he was partial to the Hind and Panther, from the prejudices of his early education, which often adhere, through life, to the most generous, and greatest minds. But in elegant, and delicate souls, the gloom of prejudice will often be dispersed by the rays of reason, and of truth: in souls of such a frame, the influence of caprice will be but momentary; and the genuine flow of nature; of sentiment; and of their eloquent auxiliaries, will generally, and ultimately, prevail.
To the first part of this poem it was Dryden's intention to give heroick dignity. Of his descent below that intention, Dr. Johnson hath produced examples. I wish, indeed, that a poet, whom we all so justly admire, had more accurately observed a rule of his friend Addison, in the preface to the Georgics. "I think" (says that very classical, and fine critick) "that nothing which is a phrase, or saying in common talk, should be admitted into a serious poem; because it takes off from the solemnity of the expression; and gives it too great a turn of familiarity." — "Non omnia possumus omnes." Surely no man was ever endowed with a greater variety of poetical requisites than Dryden; but who ever had them all? Perfection in poetry, as in virtue, is ardently to be persued, though it will never be attained. There is a quality of sentiment, and of taste, infused into us, by nature; but it never can be given to us, by elemental, or radical, instruction. A very characteristick tenderness of sentiment, and of taste, Dryden wanted; and the age in which he lived was against the cultivation of the sentiment, and the taste, which he naturally possessed. A tender, and pathetick mind is, in general, very hostile to our conduct, and to our happiness in life; but in forming the great poet, it operates more powerfully, than may, commonly, be imagined. It multiplies, to his fancy, those fine objects of the muse, which are immediately within its province; and it operates with a gentle, yet with a plastick efficacy, through all the regions of poetry. From its energy, terrifick scenes receive a prominence, and a horrour; from its moral, and beautiful melancholy, they are made more striking, by being contrasted with humanity. This tender, and pathetick sensibility gives a peculiar softness, and shape to all his images; it gives them the perfection; the "con amore," of arrangement, form, and colour. It is quite an Orpheus to his numbers. It gives them all the brilliancy, and harmony, of which verse is capable. In richness, force, and fire of imagination, Dryden hath, certainly, been excelled by few: in an astonishing variety of poetical talents, by none. Pope had most of the great properties of Dryden; but he had, likewise, what Dryden wanted; a very feeling, and, therefore, a very elegant nature. By this only, we can account for the very superiour accuracy, and beauty of his language; and for the far more mellifluous, and charming musick of his verse. This superiority is not accounted for by the progressive and common improvements of time; and by his careful, and reverent attention to his great master. The smoothness of Waller was remarked, with encomium, both by Dryden, and by Pope: I will not be so profane to masterly poetry, as to say that Waller is comparable with Dryden; who, undoubtedly raised our versification to an improvement which it had not received before. I shall only venture to assert, that, in harmony, Pope excelled Dryden, considerably more than Dryden excelled Waller.