From the following paragraph it will be evident that Dr. Johnson authorizes my opinion that one essential, and most engaging poetical quality was not very forcible in Dryden. — "In a general survey of Dryden's labours, he appears to have a mind very comprehensive, by nature, and much enriched with acquired knowledge. His compositions are the effects of a vigorous genius, operating upon large materials.
"The power that predominated in his intellectual operations, was rather strong reason, than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were presented, he studied rather than felt; and produced sentiments, not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple, and elemental passions, as they spring separate in the mind, he seems not much acquainted; and seldom describes them, but as they are complicated by the various relations of society; and confused in the tumults, and agitations of life.
"What he says of love may contribute to the explanation of his character:
Love various minds does variously inspire;
It stirs, in gentle bosoms, gentle fire;
Like that of incense, on the altar laid
But raging flames tempestuous souls invade;
A fire which every windy passion blows
With pride it mounts; or with revenge it glows.
"Dryden's was not one of the gentle bosoms. Love as it subsists in itself, with no tendency but to the person loved; and wishing only for correspondent kindness; such love as shuts out all other interest; the love of the golden age, was too soft, and subtle, to put his faculties in motion. He hardly conceived it but in its turbulent effervescence with some other desires; when it was inflamed by rivalry; or obstructed by difficulties; when it invigorated ambition, or exasperated revenge.
"He is, therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often pathetick; and had so little sensibility of effusions purely natural, that he did not esteem them in others. Simplicity gave him no pleasure; and for the first part of his life, he looked on Otway with contempt; though, at last; indeed very late, he confessed that in his plays, there was nature, which is the chief beauty.
"We do not always know our own motives. I am not certain whether it was not rather the difficulty which he found in exhibiting the genuine operations of the heart, than a servile submission to an injudicious audience, that filled his plays with false magnificence. It was necessary to fix attention; and the mind can be captivated only by recollections, or by curiosity; by reviving former thoughts; or by impressing new. Sentences were readier at his call than images; he could more easily fill the ear with some splendid novelty, than awaken those ideas that slumber in the heart." — Pp. 177, 178, 179.
"A fable" (says Johnson) "which exhibits two beasts talking theology, appears, at once, full of absurdity; and it was accordingly ridiculed in the City Mouse, and Country Mouse a parody written by Montague, afterwards Earl of Hallifax; and Prior, who then gave the first specimen of his abilities." — p. 69. He afterwards very justly observes, that "in the detection and censure of the incongruity of the fiction, chiefly consists the value of their performance; which, whatever reputation it might obtain by the help of temporary passions, seems to readers almost a century distant, not very forcible, or animated." p. 157.
"When the constitutional absurdity" (says Johnson) "of the Hind and Panther is forgiven, the poem must be confessed to be written with great smoothness of metre; a wide extent of knowledge; and an abundant multiplicity of images; the controversy is embellished with pointed sentences; diversified by illustrations; and enlivened by sallies of invective. Some of the facts to which allusions are made, are now become obscure; and perhaps there may be many satirical passages little understood." Pp. 161, 162.
Before I remove the Hind and Panther quite out of your sight, will you permit me to observe what an impenetrable composition of royalty this bigot of a James the Second must have been; who vouchsafed not, from aught that I can learn, one beneficent smile to the greatest poet of his three kingdoms; who had been an industrious, and powerful advocate, and in poetry, too, for his religion. It is not agreeable to me to produce examples of the faults of Dryden; but it is incumbent on me to produce them; as I wish to make my Lectures, in some degree, useful to the publick. Independently of his unpolished literary time, Dryden seems to have been deficient in the faculty of delicate, and fine thinking. If he had not been thus deficient, he never would have been guilty of the extreme grossness which he often commits, both in his original poems, and in his translations. With them I shall not offend you. I shall only give you an instance or two, of his deep sinking in poetry; and of his use of coarse, and rather disgusting objects.
The prince was touched; his tears began to flow;
And as his tender heart would "break in two."—
Palamon and Arcite. B. 1st,
He [the sun] with his tepid rays the rose renews
And "licks" the drooping leaves; and dries the dews.
Palamon and Arcite. B. IId.
With cruel blows she "pounds her blubbered cheeks."
Ceyx and Alcyone.
—My joy stops at my tongue;
But it has found two channels here for one;
And bubbles out above.
All for Love; Ventidius on the Scene of Reconciliation between Anthony and Octavia. Act IIId.
Berenice says to Porphyrius, in the fifth act of Tyrannic Love:
—If I die first, I will
Stop short of heaven, and wait you, in a cloud;
"For fear we lose each other in the croud."
Will you give me leave to go a little too far? — I take the last very unfortunate specimen that I shall give you of Dryden's poetry, from his translation of the first book of the Iliad: "Risum teneatis, amici!"
Sweet-breads, and collops, were with skewers pricked;
About the sides; imbibing what they decked.—
I dare say we all agree with Dr. Johnson, in one of his observations: "considering into what hands Homer was to fall, surely we all rejoice that Dryden's project of translating the Iliad was not compleated." — Life of Dryden: p. 78. The risibility which these absurdities naturally excite, will be immediately repressed by every humane mind, when it considers that they were not merely occasioned by some coarse allay that was mixed with the native gold of Dryden, but likewise by the pressure of poverty, and of consequent haste. The annals of the life of this poet are deplorable, in proportion to the greatness of the man. When Churchill took his Rosciad, his first poem, to his bookseller, and offered it to him, for money, the prudent tradesman shook his head, and told him that "poetry was a drug." Churchill often afterwards repeated this expression to my old friend, Flexney, when the great success of the poet had given it a fortunate and peculiar, poignancy. But we shall see that it was more a drug on the hands of Dryden; even when his poetical reputation had been long, and firmly established. He agreed with Jacob Tonson to write ten thousand verses for two hundred and sixty guineas: the sum was to be raised to three hundred pounds, on their second impression. Let me add another anecdote, from Dr. Johnson, on this humiliating subject. "Lord Bolingbroke, who, in his youth, had cultivated poetry, related to Dr. King of Oxford, that, one day, when he visited Dryden, they heard, as they were conversing, another person entering the house. This, said Dryden, is Tonson; you will take care not to depart before he goes away; for I have not compleated the sheet which I promised him; and if you leave me unprotected, I must suffer all the rudeness, to which his resentment can prompt his tongue." — Booksellers, it seems, in the days of Dryden, were more iron-hearted, and rude, to unprotected authours than they are now. The many, and various persecutions which Dryden suffered, were a strong, and collected evidence, of his greatness. The appendages of his life demonstrate, among innumerable other facts, the truth of the old maxim of Bias of Priene. Rank, learning, and talents, conspired against his interest, and his peace. The Duke of Buckingham, and the Earl of Rochester were his avowed enemies. We all know that the Bayes of the Rehearsal was particularly meant for Dryden. It was written by the confederacy of Buckingham; of Butler, the author of Hudibras; Martin Clifford of the Charter-house; and Dr. Sprat, the friend of Cowley; and at that time, his chaplain. It is said that Dryden, and his friends laughed at that comedy; and indeed, its wit, and humour are so moderate as to render it not incredible that it was laughed at by the person who was its principal object; especially, as the envy, and malice from which it originated, evinced his importance. It was long presented on the stage; from the powerful influence of Mr. Garrick; whose acting was a most seducing apology, even for bad writing.
But while I mention the hard treatment which the poet received, let me not forget the generosity of one of his noble, and fair friends. He dedicated his fables to the Duke of Ormond. In return, the Duchess presented him with £500. In our days, when the value of money is greatly diminished, had we as great a poet as Dryden, his eye must roll in more than a fine frenzy, if he should ever expect such a reward for a dedication.
I have observed that Dryden's poetry was defective in the art of moving the tender passions. I must acknowledge that none of his dramatick passages ever excited in me such heart-felt emotions of sympathy, as the following lines from his very interesting poetical epistle to Congreve on his comedy of the Double Dealer. Whether we are verse-men, or prose-men, we are all more or less tender, where our own cause is concerned.
Already I am worne with cares, and age,
And just abandoning the ungrateful stage;
Unprofitably kept, at Heaven's expence,
I live, a rent-charge on his providence.
But you, whom every muse, and grace adorn;
Whom I foresee to better fortune born;
Be kind to my remains; and O! defend,
Against your judgement, your departed friend.
Let not the insulting foe my fame pursue;
But shade those laurels which descend to you.
And take for tribute what these lines express;
You merit more; nor could my love do less.
We are well informed that Dryden, during one part of his life, very much undervalued, Otway. This extremely erroneous judgement shows that his feelings for the pathetick were not very much alive. The errour could not proceed from envy; for Dryden was of a benevolent, and generous disposition: and he afterwards retracted his injurious opinion.
At the revolution, and at an advanced age of life, he was dismissed from his office of poet-laureat. Governments know little of humanity: the ministers of a Dutch king were so stupid, and so mean, that in their estimation, his high poetical merit vanished before the guilt of his political, and religious tenets, by which they could not possibly be injured. He was succeeded by Shadwell; and that mortifying event provoked him to take ample poetical vengeance of an old, and malignant enemy. He wrote the celebrated poem entitled, Mac-Flecnoe; which Dr. Johnson, with great justice, pronounces "exquisitely satirical; and of which the Dunciad, as Pope himself declares, is an imitation; though more extended in its plan, and more diversified in its incidents." — I have already ventured to give you my opinion, that of Dryden's exalted talents, his supereminent talent was for satire. I think that this opinion is very powerfully supported by Mac-Flecnoe. There cannot possibly be a more severe, and keen satire. The most mortifying personal invectives are enforced by the most happily chosen, and artfully conducted imagery; by successive sallies of the most poignant wit, and ludicrous humour; and by the most easy, nervous, and harmonious verification. With great deference to the poetical judgement, and taste of Pope, I prefer the harmony of Mac-Flecnoe to that of the Hind and Panther; and I think that I can defend my preference by reasons drawn from nature. Not only the force of thought, and sentiment, but likewise the beauty of language, and versification, will be analogous to the emotion; to the agitation of the poet, while he composed: every particle of his poem, will imbibe his fire; will partake of its animation, and lustre. Now, Dryden, when he wrote the Hind and Panther, was not writing a poem of his free choice; he was rather discharging a task; the objects of which were abhorrent from poetry: but when he wrote Mac-Flecnoe, he was actuated by two of the most powerful causes of extreme poetical excellence; by the flame of great genius, and by the flame of great resentment. Why did Rousseau write with such an all subduing warmth, that even the envious Voltaire said of him, "Il brule son papier!" why, but because he generally wrote when his mind was thrown into a fine tumult by some external object? "Je n' ecris" (says he) "que par passion."
To give you all that is excellent in Mac-Flecnoe, would be to transcribe the whole. I shall quote, however, some lines at its close, in which Flecnoe continues to describe the talents of his Son.
This is thy province; this thy wondrous way,
New humours to invent for each new play:
This is that boasted bias of thy mind,
By which, one way, to dullness 'tis inclined:
Which makes thy writings lean on one side still,
And in all changes, that way bends thy will.
Nor let thy mountain-belly make pretence
Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense.
A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ;
But sure thou'rt but a kilderkin of wit.
Like mine thy gentle numbers feebly creep;
Thy tragic muse gives smiles; thy comick, sleep
With whate'er gall thou set'st thyself to write,
Thy inoffensive satires, never bite.
In thy felonious heart though venom lies;
It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.
Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame,
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays; and chuse, for thy command,
Some peaceful province in acrostick land;
Where thou may'st wings display, and altars raise;
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
Or, if thou would'st thy different talents suit;
Set thy own songs; and sing them to thy lute.
He said; but his last words were scarcely heard;
For Bruce, and Longuil had a trap prepared;
And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.
Sinking, he left his drugget robe behind;
Borne upwards by a subterranean wind;
The mantle fell to the young prophet's part,
With double portion of his father's art.
From that proper respect which every writer owes to the public, and to himself, I would rather be too particular than careless, or inaccurate. I beg leave, therefore to say something more on our poet's dramatick productions I have already observed that almost in every scene they are enlivened with active, and fruitful genius. They show a mind that was never at a loss for resources, and that was habituated to ingenious art an art, indeed, which was often more characteristick of ingenuity than of nature, and the practices of the world. By the number of persons, and the complication of incidents, there is often a confusion in the fable, and structure of his plays; especially, of his comedies: yet in the dialogue of those comedies, we find excellent sense; much wit, and humour; and great knowledge of mankind. The Mock-Astrologer; Marriage a-la-Mode; and Love in a Nunnery; though not adapted to our times, and not without their considerable faults, are very entertaining. The rapidity with which Dryden wrote is almost incredible: in one year; in the year 1678, he published six complete plays; 1, All for Love; 2, The Assignation; or Love in a Nunnery: 3, Sir Martin Mar-All: 4, 5, The two parts of the Conquest of Grenada: and 6, The State of Innocence. — Hence we may certainly infer his want of wealth, and his affluence of imagination. On both these accounts, it is surely not a little barbarous to censure his too great dramatick freedoms, which trespass on moral decorum, with an arbitrary, and undistinguishing severity. Some grave personages of his time, who perhaps, had not half of the quantity of the virtue on the whole (if you will allow me the expression) that Dryden possessed, never forgave him for those freedoms: but I hope that you and I are so far good christians that we can. I will own that he takes every opportunity; I will own that he seeks opportunities to satirize churchmen. But may not we forgive that continued retaliation, too, when we recollect that a set of men who had the confidence to preach, and who probably would have told you that they practised a celestial doctrine of the most expanded humanity, and of the mildest mercy, furiously persecuted a generous, and great mind; with an implacable, and inquisitorial rancour? — When we recollect that their fury was not restrained; that an atom of remorse did not work in their hearts; by the consideration of his poverty; of his old age; of his most venerable grey hairs; shadowed; covered with evergreen laurels; — which, we are informed, escape even the destructive lightning, of the tremendous, yet amiable God of those uncharitable, unforgiving priests? — We are told by Dr. Johnson, who was a disciple of Archbishop Laud, "that malevolence to the clergy, is seldom at a great distance from irreverence to religion." — I apprehend that malevolence, however it is exercised, is at no great distance from irreverence to the substance of all religion. But there is a great difference betwixt malevolence and a manly, proper, and moral warmth and opposition, against that hypocrisy, and tyranny, which, as they are the reverse of the true christian religion, and most injurious, most oppressive to society, are branded by our blessed saviour himself, with severity; nay, with indignation. To ridicule, and insult a good clergyman, is a complication of cowardice; impiety; sacrilege; for it robs God of a part of that salutary influence by which one of his immediate servants would diffuse his celestial morality. But to expose, at any time, and in any kind of writing, those unchristian churchmen, who indulge a malicious, and vindictive spirit; who severely mark the mote that is in a brother's eye, — unattentive to the beam in their own; — who cherish an inordinate love of temporal power, which it is their peculiar duty to abjure; and who atone to a mechanical world for these odious passions, by substituting a paltry discretion, a flimsy decency, for virtue; repeatedly, earnestly, and fully, to distinguish to the publick, betwixt these men and Christ, is, to contribute to remove the prejudices of the vulgar, that is, of the great majority of mankind, against our pure, and most holy religion. This is not irreverence to religion; it is the best reverence; it is practical reverence to religion; for it is actual, and active benevolence to mankind. Dryden had, at least, more sincerity than many of these gentlemen; for he honestly confesses that his chief endeavours are, "to delight the age in which he lives." — See defence of the Essay on Dramatic Poetry.
I believe it is generally agreed that the Spanish Fryer, All for Love, and Don Sebastian, are the best of our author's plays. The Spanish Fryer gives you so much pleasure that it almost reconciles you to tragi-comedy, if you disliked it before. Nor can any reasonable objection be made to a double plot, as it is planned, and conducted in that play; for there you have all its entertainment, without any confusion, or perplexity. In All for Love there is such capital merit that it was far from being impertinent in Dryden to write it, after the Antony and Cleopatra of Shakespeare. It contains many new and beautiful sentiments, and many bold, and glorious flights of imagination. The heart is certainly affected in reading it, but not subdued; to obtain that victory, was far more the talent of Southerne, and of Otway, than of Dryden. He was, himself, peculiarly fond of this play; though we well know that an authour is not always an adequate judge of his own productions. In his preface to his translation of Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting, he says that "he never wrote any thing in the dramatick way, to please himself, but his Antony and Cleopatra." — "In my style I have professed to imitate the divine Shakespeare;" (These are his own words, in his preface to this tragedy:) "which that I might perform more freely, I have disincumbered myself from rhyme." * * * * * "Since I must not be over confident of my own performance, after him, it will be prudence in me to be silent. Yet I hope I may affirm, and without vanity, that by imitating him, I have excelled myself throughout the play; and particularly that I prefer the scene betwixt Antony, and Ventidius, in the first act, to any thing which I have written in this kind." — The scene to which he alludes, well deserved the fondness of its authour; it is a very eloquent, and impassioned scene; but not without a dash or two of the faux-brilliant of Ovid, and of Seneca; of which our poet, who possessed talents for far superiour attainments, was rather enamoured. I would hope that a short extract from this scene will not be disagreeable to my audience.
ANTONY. — Thou long'st to curse me; and I give thee leave.
I know thou cam'st prepared to rail.
VENTIDIUS. — I did.
ANTONY. — I'll help thee. I have been a man, Ventidius—
VENTIDIUS. — Yes, and a brave one; — but—
ANTONY. — I know thy meaning.
But I have lost my reason; have disgraced
The name of soldier with inglorious ease.
In the full vintage of my flowing honours,
Sate still, and saw it pressed with other hands.
Fortune came smiling to my youth, and wooed it;
And purple greatness met my ripen'd years.
When first I came to empire, I was borne
On tides of people crouding to my triumphs;
The wish of nations; and the willing world
Received me, as its pledge of future peace;
I was so great; so happy; so beloved,
Fate could not ruin me, still I took pains,
And worked against my fortune; chid her from me,
And turned her loose, yet still she came again.
My careless days, and my luxurious nights
At length have wearied her; and now she's gone;—
Gone; gone; divorced for ever: help me, soldier,
To curse this madman; this industrious fool,
Who laboured to be wretched: — prythee, curse me.
I will give a short speech of Ventidius, in which we have some of that little sparkling, which is rather a foil than an ornament, to the splendour of a great poet.
VENTIDIUS. — No prince but you
Could merit that sincerity I used;
Nor durst another man have ventured it.
But you, ere love misled your wand'ring eye,
Were, sure, the chief, and best of human race;
Framed in the very pride, and boast, of nature:
So perfect, that the gods who formed you, wondered
At their own skill; and cried, "a lucky hit
Hath mended our design." — Their envy hindered,
Else you had been immortal; and a pattern,
When heaven would work for ostentation. sake,
To copy out again.—
Will you indulge me by accepting the glowing, and luxuriant description of the course of Cleopatra's galley down the Cydnus; which is in the third act of the play? — Antony to Dolobella:
Her galley down the silver Cydnus rowed;
The tackling, silk; the streamers waved with gold;
The gentle winds were lodged in purple sails:
Her nymphs, like nereids, round her couch were placed;
Where she, another sea-born Venus lay.
DOLOBELLA. — No more; I would not hear it!—
ANTONY. — O! you must.
She lay; and leaned her cheek upon her hand;
And cast a look so languishingly sweet,
As if secure of all beholders' hearts,
Neglecting, she could take them. Boys, like cupids,
Stood fanning, with their painted wings, the winds
That played about her face: but if she smiled,
A darting glory seem'd to blaze abroad;
That men's desiring eyes were never wearied;
But hung upon the object. — To soft flutes
The silver oars kept time: and while they played,
The hearing gave new pleasure to the sight;
And both to thought. — 'Twas heaven, or somewhat more:
For she so charmed all hearts, that gazing crouds
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted breath,
To give their welcome voice.
Then Dolobella, where was then thy soul?
Didst not thou shrink behind me from those eyes;
And whisper in my ear; oh! tell her not
That I accused her of my brother's death!
It is difficult to quit the rich, and various poetry of this drama. In the fourth act, the poet gives the following new, and expressive simile to Dolobella:
The soul, shut up in her dark room,
Viewing so clear, abroad, at home sees nothing;
But like a mole in earth, busy, and blind,
Works all her folly up, and casts it outward
To the world's open view.
In the fifth act, when Antony, and Ventidius, had determined to fight Egypt with three Roman legions, the latter thus addresses Antony:
—By my few hours of life,
I am so pleased with this brave Roman fate,
That I would not be Caesar, to out-live you.
When we put off this flesh, and mount together,
I shall be shown to all the ethereal croud;—
Lo! this is he who died with Antony!
In the fifth act, towards the catastrophe, the following are the words of Antony to Cleopatra:—
Think we have had a clear, and glorious day;
And heaven did kindly to delay the storm,
Just till our close of evening. — Ten year's love;
And not a moment lost; but all improved
To the utmost joys: what ages have we lived!
And now to die each other's; and so dying,
While hand in hand, we walk in groves below,
Whole troops of lovers' ghosts shall flock about us;
And all the train be ours.
The speech of Cleopatra to the Aspick is, certainly a beautiful one:
Welcome, thou kind deceiver;
Thou best of thieves; who, with an easy key,
Dost open life; and unperceiv'd by us,
Even steal us from ourselves; discharging so
Death's dreadful office better than himself;
Touching our limbs so gently into slumber,
That Death stands by, deceived by his own images
And thinks himself but sleep.—
In the man, whose brightness, and force of imagination, enabled him to write in this strain, it was not presumption to emulate Shakespeare. He was very happy, too, in writing a Troilus, and Cressida, after his divine master. Here his fortunate poetical execution changed, for awhile, even the note of cavil, and malevolence. The last scene of the third act of Troilus, and Cressida, makes an interview between Hector and Troilus; it is written with great poetical power; and it lays hold both of the patriotick, and domestic affections. This scene is pronounced a masterpiece by Langbaine; the Zoilus of Dryden.
Don Sebastian was the long, and ardent production of his sixtieth year; when he had, for a considerable time left off writing for the stage; but was obliged, by his necessities, to resume it. It was old Agesilaus, active and flaming, like five-and-twenty, in his Aegyptian campaign. I will not say that Don Sebastian is, altogether, a superiour tragedy to All for Love; but I think that it is written with more strength, and ardour of genius; and the strength, and ardour are wonderfully supported; for it is a tragedy of a very great, length. The scene of reproaches, and reconciliation, between Sebastian, and Dorax, or Alonzo, which closes the fourth act, is, with great justice, admired, and celebrated. There are passages dispersed through the works of Dryden, and particularly through his dramatick works, which float so ambiguously on the confines of sublimity, and bombast, that they must divide the mind of a judicious reader, between censure and admiration. Of this kind s a passage in the first act of Don Sebastian; where that prince, after having drawn the lot of death, talks in the following lofty, and imperial tone to Muley Moluck:
Here satiate all your fury;
Let Fortune empty her whole quiver on me;
I have a soul, that, like an ample shield,
Can take in all; and verge enough for more.
I would have conquer'd you; and ventur'd only
A narrow neck of land for a third world;
To give my loosened subjects room to play.
Fate was not mine;
Nor am I Fate's; now I have pleased my longing;
And trod the ground which I beheld from far.
I beg no pity for this mouldering clay:
For if you give it burial, there it takes
Possession of your earth:
If burnt, and scattered in the air, the winds
That strow my dust, diffuse my royalty,
And spread me o'er your clime; for where one atom
Of mine shall light, know, there Sebastian reigns.
MULEY MOLUCK. — What shall I do to conquer thee?
SEBASTIAN. — Impossible! Souls know no conquerors!
MULEY MOLUCK. — I'll show thee for a monster through my Africk.
SEBASTIAN. — No: — thou canst only show me for a man;
Africk is stored with monsters; man's a prodigy
Thy subjects have not seen.
The two parts of the Conquest of Grenada (two of his tragedies in rhyme) exhibit an original, and extraordinary creature of the warm, and exuberant imagination of Dryden; a soldier of fortune, whose intrepidity and adventures exceed the extravagancies of the romantick ages. All his actions are impelled by a fiery, and shining quality, which we cannot approve; but which we must admire; a glorious madness, without absolute lunacy. One of the lines in which Horace describes the detestable hero of Homer, is perfectly applicable to him. — "Jura negat sibi nata; nihil non arrogat armis." The character of Almanzor is so beautifully drawn by Dr. Johnson, that I cannot withhold it from this company. "The two parts of the Conquest of Grenada are written with a seeming determination to glut the publick with dramatick wonders; to exhibit, in its highest elevation, a theatrical meteor of incredible love, and impossible valour; and to leave no room for a wilder flight to the extravagance of posterity. All the rays of romantick heat, whether amorous, or warlike, glow in Almanzor, by a kind of concentration. He is above all laws; he is exempt from all restraints; he ranges the world at will; and governs wherever he appears. He fights without inquiring the cause; and loves, in spite of the obligations of justice; of rejection by his mistress; and of prohibition from the dead. Yet the scenes are, for the most part, delightful; they exhibit a kind of illustrious depravity, and majestick madness; such as if it is sometimes despised, is often reverenced; and in which the ridiculous is mingled with the astonishing." Pp. 28, 29.
Early, and inveterate prejudices, will, in some instances, bring a great genius, down to the level of a literary coxcomb. Dryden had a most inordinate passion for rhyme; and strenuously defends his use of it in the drama, where it is monstrously absurd. In defence of blank verse, which is certainly the properest heroick verse, when a true poet writes in it originally, I shall oppose Dryden on his own ground; bowing, first, before him, with a sincere, and profound veneration; and then marching firmly on, in the honest confidence of truth. In his essay on dramatick poesy, he thus gives us his own critical sentiments, in the person of Neander. — "Blank verse is acknowledged to be too low for a poem; nay more; for a paper of verses. But if too low for a sonnet, how much more for tragedy; which is, by Aristotle, in the dispute betwixt the epick poesy, and the dramatick, for many reasons he there alledges, rank'd above it." — From the objects of this argument I rather infer the inferiour than the superiour dignity of rhyme to that of blank verse. An epigram; a sonnet; an occasional compliment, demand the embellishments of subordinate elegance, to recommend them; to give them importance. When the tragick, or epick muse makes her genuine strain; she disdains extrinsic, and adscititious graces; conscious of her vigour, and sublimity, to them she trusts; and she plays them off, from that old, simple, and majestick organ, which raised the admiration of the world, in Homer, and in Virgil; and its astonishment in Milton. There is really no dignity; there is nothing respectable in rhyme; if we consider it absolutely, and of itself; if we totally abstract it from its concomitant strength, and beauty, and harmony. But when it is called into the service of Pope; when it is arranged on the left wing of the main body of his forces; it ensures, and completes the victories of that modern hero; who is altogether in poetry, what his name-sake was in war; — with its decisive sallies; or rather with a fascinating charm, which is more easily felt by susceptible minds than it is described.
In his dedication of the Rival Ladies to Lord Orrery, he inserts the following plea for dramatick rhyme. — "Certainly that which most regulates the fancy, and gives the judgement its busiest employment, is like to bring forth the richest, and clearest thoughts." — I think I have just allowed its magick to rhyme; but it seems it has more than I imagined. Have the forming, and ordering of our thoughts, and language, in such a manner that one word is to chyme to another, such a natural, such a necessary effect, as to suggest, improve, and beautify, the finest emanations of fancy? That which gives the judgement its busiest employment, may naturally tend to perplex, and confuse the judgement. When the mind is divided between sentiments, and imagery, on one side, which are the main substance of poetry, and two modulations of sound, instead of one, on the other; I do not see how it follows that the substance is more effectually cultivated; how it more happily flushes into the purple glories of the spring. I will take the liberty to assert that Dryden's consequences by no means flow from his premises; and that all analogous cases are against his position. My present reasoning will not affect another part of my poetical theory, which convinces me that some poets are born to excell in rhyme; and others, in blank verse. It appears to me that this theory is warranted by the productions of several poets. As the cause of this original difference of genius is totally unknown to me (as well, God knows, as the causes of many other workings of the human mind) I will not, in a bungling manner, presume to solve it.
But whatever the peculiar talent of a poet may be, he will find it as difficult, and embarrassing, as it is monstrously absurd, to write for the stage in rhyme. In the support of different characters; in the constant transition, and frequent abruptness of the dialogue; the task of continually rhyming, and with nervous poetry, through a long play, must be prodigiously oppressive; it must cool the fancy; and therefore it must repress its blooming honours. No man ever wrote so well in rhyme for the theatre, as Dryden; and no man, perhaps, ever will; I mean, if in the whimsical, mutability of all human affairs, that folly should ever again predominate. But I have the dramatick, and poetical powers of Dryden, thrown into execution, on my side: compare any of his plays in rhyme with those in blank verse; and you will find the great superiority of the latter, in strength, and spirit. Nay, I have the open, practical avowal of Dryden that I am right in this opinion: our rational, and deliberate conduct in any instance of life, or writing, and its subsequent success, prove far more emphatically what is right, than a fine-spun theory, to support a favourite prejudice, or whim. When he entered the lists with Shakespeare (and he was no ignoble competitor) he himself acknowledges that he chose blank verse, as the properest engine for his great atchievements: — witness his Troilus and Cressida; and his All for Love, which was his only dramatick production that pleased himself. Are not these examples sufficient to convince us that the Miltonian form of verse is the properest body (if you will indulge me with this expression) to give a full scope, at least, in the drama, to the fervour, and flights of the poetical soul? The gross absurdity of persons conversing, or throwing out the sentiments, and passions of the moment, in rhyme, in a composition, the language of which, when it is pronounced on the stage, we are peculiarly obliged to imagine to be extemporaneous; — this gross absurdity, as soon as it is mentioned, proclaims itself. We are not at all struck with the impropriety of rhyme, as a part of fine poetry, in other compositions. In perusing them the idea that they were carefully written by the poet, however it intervenes, brings no diminution to your pleasure. To make it as lively as possible, you have no need to suppose sentences flowing immediately from the mind of another. 'Tis only the "poeta loquitur;" and you read him (though, I hope, not without corresponding fancy, and emotion) in your closet; or to your friend.
We are told by Dryden, in the same dedication to Lord Orrery, that "the advantages which rhyme has over blank verse, are so many, that it were lost time to name them. Sir Philip Sydney gives us one; the help it brings to memory." — As Mr. Dryden has not condescended to mention the many advantages which rhyme has over blank verse; and as I cannot see one advantage that it has, over the blank verse of Milton; nay, over that of Thomson, and of Young; it is impossible for me to speak particularly to those advantages. Dr. Johnson, obstinately bigoted, as he is, to rhyme, seems rather disposed to give it up, as untenable, where he is criticising the rhyming tragedies of Dryden. But, with Sir Philip Sydney, he lays a stress on the help which it brings to memory. A very sensible difference is not felt by one who is worthy to be conversant with poets; by one who reads them with a congenial sympathy; in committing to memory a passage written in blank verse, and one in rhyme. But suppose that it was easier to master, in this way, the latter than the former kind of verse; — is a poet to take unnecessary pains; is he to circumscribe his muse, that to boys, and girls, he may facilitate repetition? Must the range of his fancy; must his creative powers he restrained; that they may be subservient to a mechanical faculty of the mind?
"Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre (says Johnson) that we know not its effect upon the passions of an audience; but it has this convenience, that sentences stand more independent on each other; and striking passages are, therefore, easily selected, and retained. Thus, the description of night, in the Indian Emperour, and the rise, and fall of empire, in the Conquest of Grenada, are more frequently repeated than any lines in All for Love, or Don Sebastian." — The Doctor is here certainly mistaken; though I am not, now, contending with him on a point of much consequence: the plays of Dryden, in rhyme, are now far less read, than those in blank verse: the former, comparatively, and deservedly, have sunk into disrepute. The description of night, to which he alludes, is not of the first importance; the lines on the rise, and fall of empire, are strong, and beautiful; but not half so well known, and consequently not half so much repeated, as the Picture of Cleopatra sailing down the Cydnus, in All for Love, which I have recited to you. I have thought the description of the rise and fall of empire, which is mentioned by Johnson, worth transcribing. I fear that my dispute with Dryden has not been so interesting as I could wish; this change will, for a moment, relieve you from it. The description is given by the poet, to King Ferdinand: it is at the opening of the second part of the Conquest of Grenada.
When empire, in its childhood, first appears,
A watchful fate o'ersees its tender years;
Till grown more strong, it thrusts, and stretches out;
And elbows all the kingdoms round about.
The place thus made, for its first breathing free,
It moves, again, for ease, and luxury;
Till swelling, by degrees, it has possest
The greater space; and now crowds up the rest.
When, from behind, there starts some petty state,
And pushes on its now unwieldy fate:
Then down the precipice of time it goes;
And sinks, in minutes, which in ages, rose.
I have been thus industrious to vindicate blank verse, because Dryden, above a century ago, and Johnson, lately, were as industrious to explode it. It is capable of such dignity, and grandeur; and accordingly, it has been so gloriously applied, that it never could have been undervalued, but from the influence of celebrated names. It is blank verse, in general; our true, heroick verse, that I wish to defend; otherwise, it was not necessary for me to argue against the abuse of rhyme, by applying it to the serious, or important drama; that absurdity, I should suppose, will not again prevail in England. Some years ago, indeed, two modern, flippant comedies, in rhyme, where rhyme was in its utmost extreme of the ridiculous, were acted at one of our theatres in London: but those phaenomena were only the meteors of a night; the transient vagaries of fashion. As it is, therefore, against those who despise blank verse; to whom it appears, as it seemed to Dr. Johnson's ingenious critick, "to be verse only to the eye," that I am directing my present contest, I shall farther venture to oppose the authority of Dryden on this subject.
In his essay on dramatic poesy, and in the character of Neander, he reminds us, that "measure alone, in any modern language, does not constitute verse: those of the ancients, in Greek, and Latin, consisted in quantity of words, and a determinate number of feet." This period he introduces by asserting that "blank verse is only measured prose." Learned, and ingenious writers, when they would make every thing bend to a favourite system, are often betrayed by their pertinacity, into great inconsistencies. Dryden assures us, in his preface to Albion, and Albanius, that "there is as great a certainty of quantity in our syllables, as either in the Greek or Latin." Undoubtedly there is, if we have modes, in which we are all agreed, of accenting our language. If we have quantity, then, we have a prosody. I think I have now a foundation on which I shall be able to demonstrate what I wish to establish. The epick verse of Milton is as effectually, and completely verse as that of Homer, or of Virgil. It is rather painful, and tedious, to be obliged to prove almost self-evident truths, by regular, and progressive deductions. — "And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old," is, from an oversight of Milton, not a proper English verse. Why? — If our verses could have only measure, it has that: but it errs in quantity: — "And Phineus, and Tiresias, prophets old," would set it right. If blank verse is only measured prose, as Dryden boldly asserts, and as he has been echoed by many,
In the visions of God. It was a hill.
would be a sufficient, and legitimate, poetical line. But it is not a verse; it has the just measure of our heroick verse, without any regard to quantity; without a proper arrangement of short, and long syllables; which is as indispensable with us, as it was with the Greeks, and Romans. Would Milton's Paradise Lost produce those effects of high pleasure; of rapture which it always produces in well-educated minds, that are endowed with any sentiment; would it produce those effects, if it had been written in the most vigorous, animated, and sounding prose? If, then, our verse has both its measure, and its quantity, and if the English language is a noble one, as it really is; and as Dryden asserts it to be; let us not, in the name of genius, and of freedom, deem a little accessary art; the tinkling invention of monkish barbarians; however highly it has been improved; however charmingly it has been applied; let us not deem it essential to the very marrow, and soul of English poetry, which has never been excelled by any other poetry upon earth. Certainly the character of any language bears a great part in forming the character of the poetry of its country. I must acknowledge that the English is not so fine a language as the Greek and Roman tongues. But for this defect, in estimating the entire, and aggregated merit of the respective poets, we can make more than ample atonement. Let so liberal a scholar as Dryden; or let pedantick scholars, after him, boast the superiority of the ancient languages as much as they please: — let them boast of the spirits that informed, and impelled those languages; — of Sophocles, and Euripides; of Virgil, and Homer. We, too, can produce an illustrious train of poets, of every denomination; but for the most copious variety; for the largest expansion of genius; for a just, and lively delineation, of the human species; in all their passions of nature; and through all their labyrinths of art; — for discovering, and peopling imaginary worlds out of the limits of creation; — for soaring to heights unknown before; and for finding, or seizing sublimities of expression, adequate to their sublimities of thought; for these unrivalled properties, and attainments, let us lay Shakespeare, and Milton, in our scale of the golden balance of poetical equity; and the entire, and aggregated excellence of your antient languages, and of your ancient poets, will kick the beam.
Johnson, with all his prejudices, in favour of rhyme, and forgetting his imaginary, and absurd inaptitude of poetry to sacred subjects, gives the highest praise to Young's Night-Thoughts; but not higher than they deserve. — "This" (he adds) "is one of the few poems in which blank verse could not be changed for rhyme but with disadvantage. The wild diffusion of sentiments; and the digressive sallies of imagination, would have been compressed, and restrained, by regard to rhyme." So he tells us in his criticism on Young. However this passage may be wrested, or explained away, it assuredly contains an implicit, and extorted preference of blank verse to rhyme. Undoubtedly, that species of numbers is the best, which gives most ease, and freedom to strength, variety, and sublimity of imagination.
I always wish to have opportunities of establishing any opinion which I have adopted, or which I entertain, with authorities which are superiour to my own. Let us hear, then, what Dr. Young himself asserts, in his conjectures on original composition. — "Blank verse, is verse unfallen, uncurst; verse reclaimed; reinthroned; in the true language of the gods."—
But even Dryden seems to have obliterated with a few strokes of his pen, all that he has written in defence of rhyme. "He who can write well (says he) "in rhyme, may write better in blank verse." — This he asserts, in his dedication of the Aeneid to the Earl of Mulgrave. I must own that this position is not universally agreeable to my poetical theory. But if it was to hold good, without limitations, certainly e ought to write in that species of verse in which we can acquit ourselves best.
Dryden, in his dedication of the Rival Ladies to the Earl of Orrery, pleads very justly, and ingeniously, for the dramatick poet. I shall quote the paragraph: I do not wish it to procure any quarter for the frippery, and stuff, which are now frequently obtruded on the stage; but it surely should induce us, to be very liberal, and indulgent to those writers for the theatre, whose productions are distinguished by uncommon talents, and by a zeal for virtue. — "He may be allowed sometimes to err" (says our very, eminent poet, and instructive critick) "who undertakes to move so many characters, and humours, as are requisite in a play, in those narrow channels which are proper to each of them; to conduct his imaginary persons through so many various intrigues, and chances, as the labouring audience shall think them lost under every billow; and then, at length, to work them so naturally out of their distresses, that when the whole plot is laid open, the spectators may rest satisfied that every cause was powerful enough to produce the effect it had; and that the whole chain of them was with such due order linked together, that the first accident would naturally beget the second; till they all rendered the conclusion necessary."
His last collective, and his absolutely last work, was, his Fables; which he published in 1699: when he was in his sixty-eighth year; and two years before his death. In this collection we have the native, and peculiarly characteristick spirit of the poet, even invigorated, and exalted; for in this collection is the unparalleled Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day. All the other pieces are evidently from the golden mint of Dryden. With what an unconquerable fortitude of mind must this man have been endowed, who, at the time to which I am now referring, meditated a translation of the Iliad of Homer! With the idea of the vigour, and display of our intellectual faculties, at the latest period of life; and when age hath enfeebled, and almost exhausted the strength, and activity of the body, we ought to corroborate our christian faith; we ought to give all its force to this physical argument for the immortality of the soul. From the example of Dryden; and, I thank God, from many other examples, the futility of the good Dean of Derry's opinion will be made manifest; if indeed that opinion deserves any attention; — that no mental improvement is attainable after the years of the cabalistical number of forty-five have passed over us. False, and inglorious supposition! It is true; we very seldom go on to the tomb, improving, and acquiring new honours, from our generous persuits; not because our minds naturally contract a stiffness, and inflexibility, after our earlier age; but because, after that period, their best faculties are commonly. overwhelmed with pleasure, indolence, and the ignobler occupations. "Another thing I may say" (observes Mr. Congreve) "which is, that his parts did not decline with his years; but that he was an improving writer to the last; even to near seventy years of age; improving even in fire, and imagination, as well as in judgement; witness his Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day, and his Fables; his latest performances." — I have made this extract from Congreve's dedication of our poet's dramatick works to the Duke of Newcastle. — Mr. Pope does the same justice to him in a letter to Mr. Wycherley, dated December 26th. 1704. "The scribblers" (says he) "who attacked him in his latter times, were only like gnats in a summer's evening, which are never troublesome but in the finest, and most glorious season; for his fire, like the sun's, shone clearest towards its setting."
I really think that the following account which Dryden himself gives of his old age, in the preface to his Fables, will be rather amusing; it is certainly a great encouragement to literary men to persevere in their studies to their last breath. — "I think myself as vigorous as ever in the faculties of my soul, excepting only my memory, which is not impaired to any great degree; and if I lose not more of it, I have no great reason to complain. What judgement I had, increases rather than diminishes; and thoughts, such as they are, come crowding in so fast upon me, that my only difficulty is, to chuse, or to reject; to run them into verse; or to give them the other harmony of prose; I have so long studied, and practised both, that they are grown into a habit, and become familiar to me."
Dryden was very fond of the triplet; and I am not surprised that he was; it was well adapted to the copious, and commanding flow; to the energy; to the majesty of his muse. Dr. Johnson's objections to the triplet seem to me to decide nothing against it: in the eye of judgement, and taste, all those objections give way to its force, when it is well formed; and to the very pleasurable variety which it occasions: the authority of Dryden, who loved to use it, far outweighs the fastidiousness of succeeding, and inferiour poets, by whom it has been rejected. It was disliked by Swift; — Swift was a very great man; but he was not an oracle in poetry. One of Dr. Johnson's reasons for his disapprobation of it; "because we must be prepared for" it by the braces in the margin," is, in truth, a childish reason; it obliquely taxes every mode of writing with impropriety; for is not all our reading continually directed by the mechanism of typography; and among other figures of that mechanism, by semicolons, colons, and notes of interrogation? By those who condemn the triplet, the Alexandrine is consequently condemned; but I love it, for the same reasons by which I endeavoured to support the triplet. The torrents of Dryden roll, and repose on it with inexpressible felicity. An example or two should strengthen my opinion. — On the night fatal to Troy;
We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dare
The unequal combat in the public square;
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.
Aeneid; B. 2d. v. 487.
concerning the first Brutus;
Howe'er the doubtful fact is understood,
'Tis love of honour, and his country's good;
The Consul, not the Father, sheds the blood.
Aeneid: B. 6th. v. 128.
The two following examples close with the Alexandrine: — Virgil allows other nations to excell in science, and in the fine arts:
But, home; 'tis thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey;
Disposing peace, and war, thy own mjaestick way,
on the oath of Jupiter;
The thunderer said;
And shook the sacred honours of his head;
Attesting Styx; the inviolable flood;
And the black regions of his brother-god;
Trembled the poles of heaven; and earth confessed the nod.
Aeneid B. 10. v. 174.
It is no slight recommendation of the triplet and Alexandrine, to add, that they were frequently used by Pope. Johnson's objection to the Alexandrine, because in length it exceeds our established heroick measure, "and surprises the reader with two syllables more than he expected," is as inconclusive as his other objections on the subject which is now before us. A reader on whose mind the strain of the poet operates as it ought, will, at least, never feel an inconvenient surprise, on the occurrence of the Alexandrine, should it even be lengthened to fourteen syllables, as it sometimes is, by Dryden. Triplets were not invented, they were only adopted by our authour. They were used by Spenser, Chapman, and Cowley. — "Therefore" (says Dryden) "I regard them now, as the Magna Charta of heroick poetry; and am too much an Englishman to lose what my ancestors have gained for me." — So he expresses himself in his dedication of the Georgicks to the Earl of Chesterfield. In the same dedication he gives his opinion of the Alexandrine: — "The Alexandrine" (says he) "adds a certain majesty to the verse, when 'tis used with judgement; and stops the sense from overflowing into another line."
I shall close my remarks on this article of English poetry, with the well-known, and famous triplet of Pope. The weapon of his poetical father received a polish, a splendour, and an energy from him, which were its highest eulogium; and which did honour to the memory of the hero by whom it had been so successfully, and gloriously wielded,
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse; the full resounding line;
The long majestick march; and energy divine,
If we banish the triplet, and Alexandrine from our poetry, we shall banish from it two powerful auxiliaries, and two fine ornaments.
As Dryden was equally distinguished as a writer, in prose, and in poetry, I must request for his former talent, your yet more particular attention. On this interesting subject, Dr. Johnson hath said what, in general, I should have wished to say. Therefore, while a quotation from that part of his critical observations will be pertinent to my design, it will give you more pleasure than any thing that could result from my own endeavours. The prose of Dryden is an object of great importance; for it is not only admirably written, but it is likewise employed on elegant, and useful topicks.
"The dialogue on the drama" (I am quoting Dr. Johnson) "was one of his first Essays on Criticism; written when he was yet a timorous candidate for reputation; and therefore laboured with that diligence, which he might allow himself somewhat to remit, when his name gave sanction to his positions; and his awe of the publick was abated; partly by custom, and partly by success. It will not be easy to find, in all the opulence of our language, a treatise so artfully variegated with successive representations of opposite probabilities; so enlivened with imagery; so brightened with illustrations. His portraits of the English dramatists are wrought with great spirit, and diligence The account of Shakespeare may stand as a perpetual model of encomiastick criticism; exact, without minuteness; and lofty, without exaggeration. The praise lavished by Longinus on the attestation of the heroes of Marathon, fades away before it. In a few lines is exhibited a character so extensive in its comprehension, and so curious in its limitations, that nothing can be added, diminished, or reformed; nor can the editors, and admirers of Shakespeare in all their emulation of reverence, boast of much more than of having diffused, and paraphrased this epitome of excellence; of having changed Dryden's gold for baser metal; of lower value, though of greater bulk."
"In this, as in all his other essays on the same subject, the criticism of Dryden is the criticism of a poet; not a dull collection of theorems, nor a rude detection of faults, which perhaps the Censor as not able to have committed; but a gay, and vigorous dissertation, where delight is mingled with instruction; and where the authour proves his right of judgement by his power of performance." Pp. 110, 111.
In another place he thus continues his encomium. — "Criticism, either didactick, or defensive, occupies almost all his prose; except those pages which he has devoted to his patrons; but none of his prefaces were ever thought tedious. They have not the formality of a settled style, in which the first half of the sentence betrays the other. The clauses are never ballanced; nor the periods modelled; every word seems to drop by chance; though it falls into its proper place. Nothing is cold, or languid, the whole is airy, animated, and vigorous; what is little is gay; what is great is splendid. He may be thought to mention himself too frequently; but while he forces himself upon our esteem, we cannot refuse him to stand high in his own. Every thing is excused by the play of images, and the sprightliness of expression. Though all is easy, nothing is feeble; though all seems careless, there is nothing harsh; and though, since his earlier works. more than a century has passed, they have nothing yet uncouth, or obsolete."
"He who writes much will not easily escape a manner; such a recurrence of particular modes as may be easily noted. Dryden is always another, and the same: he does not exhibit, a second time, the same elegances in the same form; nor appears to have any art other than that of expressing with clearness what he thinks with vigour. His style could not easily be imitated, either seriously, or ludicrously; for being always equable, and always varied, it has no prominent, or discriminating, characters. The beauty who is totally free from disproportion of parts, and features, cannot be ridiculed by an over-charged resemblance."
"From his prose, however, Dryden derives only his accidental, and secondary praise. The veneration with which his name is pronounced by every cultivator of English literature, is payed to him, as he refined the language, improved the sentiments; and tuned the numbers of English poetry." Pp. 119, 120, 121.
I should suppose that a man of taste, and literary ambition, would wish to have just such an eulogium as this bestowed on his manner of writing. The substance, or abstract of the praise seems to be comprised in these periods. — "They [his prefaces] "have not the formality of a settled style, in which the first half of the sentence betrays the other. The clauses are never ballanced; nor the periods modelled; every word seems to drop by chance; though it falls into its proper place. Nothing is cold, or languid; the whole is airy, animated, and vigorous; what is little, is gay; what is great, is splendid." — For the sake of proper, and useful distinctions in an elegant, and momentous art; the art of literary composition; I shall, here, take the liberty to observe, that Johnson, in this fine encomium on the eloquence of Dryden, involuntarily censured his own. He too, writes with splendour, and animation; but, in general, he wants that beautiful ease which was a property of Dryden; that flowing felicity; which, however, depend upon it, was a "curiosa felicitas;" otherwise, at the severe tribunal of Johnson, he would not have come off so well. The style of our great philologist is, in many places, cumbrous, and scholastick: his periods are too much marked with equal division; with affected antithesis. They resemble those gardens in a Dutch taste, which have justly incurred the elegant ridicule of Pope:
Grove nods at grove; each alley has its brother;
And half the plat-form just reflects the other.
they are apt to cloy the mind of the reader with a rich uniformity; to obtrude on it the idea of elaborate art; and thus to check the pleasure which it would receive from the happier appearance of nature.
I cannot think that Dryden "derives from his prose only his accidental, and secondary praise." At least, it is no farther secondary, than as it is a rarer talent to write excellent verse than excellent prose. To write many treatises, or essays, in prose, by which their authour greatly improved his countrymen in their knowledge, and judgement of polite literature; and to write those treatises in a truly Ciceronian manner; — these atchievements, of themselves, entitle a man to immortality.
Pope was a masterly writer of prose; but in a different way; with an inferiour kind of excellence. His prose abounded with elegance, and lustre; but it had not the copiousness; the majesty; the magnificent ornaments of Dryden. — "Dryden's page" (Dr. Johnson is speaking of his prose) "is a natural field; rising into inequalities; and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation. Pope's is a velvet lawn; shaven by the scythe; and levelled by the roller." — If the one simile does justice to Dryden, the other does injustice to Pope; for it makes him a formal, and tame writer. The difference between them is so obvious, and conspicuous, that I am not anxious for apt similes, perfectly to represent it. Perhaps, however, it might be more fairly illustrated by comparing the prose of Dryden with the Park of Blenheim; and that of Pope with the gardens of Stow. The praise which Pope gives to Longinus, may, at least, with equal justice, be applied to Dryden, in his province of criticism;
Whose own example strengthens all his laws;
And is, himself, that great sublime he draws.
Essay on Criticism.
The substance of the compositions which have now engaged my attention affords as much improvement as their eloquence gives delight. They soon produced more important effects in the minds of the publick than their author wished, or expected. "Swift" (says Johnson) "who conversed with Dryden relates, that, as a dramatick writer, he regretted the success of his own instructions; and found his readers made suddenly too skillful to be easily satisfied." Pp. 51, 52. As he contributed so largely, and variously to the improvement of the poetical taste of this nation, I flatter myself, that some farther quotations from his critical works will yet be serviceable to that taste. The subjects of the quotations I hope, will not be deemed insignificant: there is, yet, in England, room for their useful operation. That light which made great discoveries to the contemporaries of Dryden, may, in some degree, illuminate our own. The rays of Apollo, through every age, refresh, and animate mankind.
I must reserve the critical passages, and other observations of Dryden, which I intend to quote, and my view of his moral character for another Lecture. Permit me again to remark, that we must not deem poetry a trivial amusement; or merely a fine entertainment. It is an object which abounds with the most liberal knowledge; which excites to the most virtuous, and heroick actions. It is happily, and equally adapted, to animate, and adorn the mind of the civil, moral, and religious man. A genius for poetry must be innate; it must be in the very stamina of the soul: but like other talents, it must be trained, and improved; if we mean to excell in it; nay, as criticks, we must be regularly trained, and improved; if we mean to judge accurately of poetical productions: — superficial people alone will fancy, that they can seize, in a moment, whenever they are prompted by caprice, or passion, uncommon art, or uncommon capacity. Therefore, as a great part of what I shall offer you in the next Lecture will be Dryden's, I doubt not that you will hear, not only with patience, but with pleasure, the remarks, and sentiments of that celebrated man on the important subjects of poetry, and other literature. Especially as he merits the encomium which has been bestowed on Longinus by Pope: — he practises what he inculcates: the generous precept of the master is conveyed in the lowing example of the writer.