The ancient writers are, in many respects, entitled not only to our veneration, but to our high esteem. But learned men are apt to value them yet more than they deserve; with a pedantick, and extravagant partiality. What our poet says of the old, dramatick writers, in a long, and fine dedication of his Miscellanies to Lord Radcliffe, is worthy of our consideration. — "The Greek writers gave us only the rudiments of a stage which they never finished. Many of the tragedies, in the former age amongst us, were, without comparison, beyond those of Sophocles, and Euripides." — Many of us entertain an infatuated admiration of French literature. Dryden was well acquainted with it; and his opinion of it I shall fully show, by several passages extracted from his critical works. In his dedication of his Virgil's Aeneid to the Earl of Mulgrave, are these observations. "The French language is not strung with sinews, like our English. It has the nimbleness of a greyhound; not the bulk, and body of a mastiff; our men, and our verses overbear them by their weight; and 'Pondere non numero,' is the British motto." — "The want of genius of which I have accused the French, is laid to their charge by one of their own great authours; though I have forgotten his name, and where I read it." — This last extract from Dryden reminds me of an anecdote which I read, many years ago, in Trublet, an elegant French writer, and one who had thought closely, and accurately. Voltaire is, undoubtedly, one of the best French poets. Yet Trublet informs us that a Frenchman, a man of learning, and taste, was always disappointed when he read the celebrated epick poem of his country. It produced an effect on him that must have been rather mortifying to Voltaire if he had known it. — "I cannot account for it (said that gentleman;) but I always yawn over the Henriade."
In his preface to All for Love, he thus very judiciously censures the French dramatic poetry. — "In nicety of manners does the excellency of French poetry consist, their heroes are the most civil people breathing; but their good breeding seldom extends to a word of sense: all their wit is in their ceremony; they want the genius which animates our stage; and therefore, 'tis but necessary when they cannot please, that they should take care not to offend. But as the civilest man in company is commonly the dullest, so, these authours, while they are afraid to make you laugh, or cry, out of pure good manners, make you sleep. They are so careful not to exasperate a critick, that they never leave him any work; so busy with the broom, and make so clean a riddance that there is little left, either for censure or for praise.; for no part of a poem is worth our discommending, where the whole is insipid; as when we have once tasted of palled wine, we stay not to examine It glass by glass." — Afterwards, in the same preface, he thus proceeds; — "We may take notice, that where the poet ought to have preserved the character of Hyppolitus, as it was delivered to us, by antiquity; when he should have given us the character of a rough young man; of the amazonian strain; a jolly huntsman; and both by his profession, and his early rising, a mortal enemy to love; he has chosen to give him the turn of gallantry; sent him to travel from Athens to Paris; taught him to make love; and transformed the Hyppolitus of Euripides into Monsieur Hyppolite."
The passages that I shall now cite from his excellent Essay on Dramatick Poesy, will particularly merit the attention of those who are still prejudiced in favour of a rigorous regard to the unities; and of the prolix, and uninteresting declamation of the French dramatick muse. — "I confess that the verses of the French tragick poets, are, to me, the coldest I have ever read; neither, indeed, is it possible for them, in the way they take, so to express passion, as that the effects of it should appear in the concernment of an audience; their speeches being so many declamations which tire us with the length; so that instead of persuading us to grieve for their imaginary heroes, we are concerned for our own trouble; as we are, in tedious visits of bad company; we are concerned till they are gone. * * * * * By their servile observations of the unities of time, and place, and integrity of scenes, they have brought on themselves that dearth of plot, and narrowness of imagination, which may be observed in all their plays. How many beautiful accidents might naturally happen in two or three days, which cannot, with any probability, in the compass of twenty-four hours? There is time to be allowed also for maturity of design; which amongst great, and prudent persons, such as are often represented in tragedy, cannot, with any, likelihood of truth, be brought to pass at so short a warning. * * * * * What, I beseech you, is more easy than to write a regular French play; or more difficult than to write an irregular English one, like those of Fletcher or of Shakespeare." — Essay on Dramatick Poesy: — Neander.
From this Essay let me present you with the picture of Shakespeare; on which Dr. Johnson hath bestowed its well merited eulogy. Indeed, its justness, simplicity, and force, can hardly be enough admired. "He was the man, who, of all modern, perhaps, ancient poets, had the largest, and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present with him; and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily. When he describes any thing, you more than see it; you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards: and found her there." — Essay on Dramatick Poesy: — Neander.
I shall beg leave to offer you a citation from his Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the last Age. He is not censuring scholars, here; but fine gentlemen; for their passion for French phraseology. The quotation cannot fairly be deemed impertinent; for I apprehend that our present manners, however we may fancy that they are improved, have not rendered the animadversion obsolete — "I cannot approve of their way of refining, who corrupt our English idiom by mixing it too much with the French; that is a sophistication of languages; not an improvement of it [of ours] a turning English into French, rather than a refining of English by French. We meet daily with those fops who value themselves on their travelling; and pretend they cannot express their meaning in English; because they would put off to us some French phrase of the last edition; without considering, that for aught, they know, we have a better of our own. But these are not the men who are to refine us; their talents are to prescribe fashions, not words: at best, they are only serviceable to a writer so as Ennius was to Virgil; he may, 'aurum ex stercore colligere.' For 'tis hard, if, amongst many insignificant phrases, there happen not something worth preserving; though they themselves, like Indians, know not the value of their own commodity." — Essay on the Dramatick Poetry of the last Age.
In the preface to his translation of some epistles of Ovid, is the following very just observation. — "Poetry is of so subtle a spirit, that, pouring out of one language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will nothing remain but a caput mortuum." — If we could persuade many rigid criticks to allow the justice of this remark, they would relax from their learned objection to our glorious translation of the Iliad; that it is not Homer.
In the dedication of the Aeneid to the Earl of Mulgrave, there is a beautiful remark, which may be of great use to those young poets, who are ambitious of a durable glory. — "Poems which are produced by the vigour of imagination only, have a gloss upon them at the first, which time wears off; the works of judgement are like the diamond; the more they are polished, the more lustre they receive."
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of extracting a masterly piece of criticism from his preface to the Conquest of Grenada, which is an essay on heroick plays. It warrants the "potestas quidlibet audendi," which Horace allows to poets; it warrants Milton's persons of sin and death; and all such representations; when they are finely, or nobly invented; and when they are formed, and conducted with vigour, and consistency of imagination. — "For my part, I am of opinion that neither Homer, Virgil, Statius, Tasso, nor our English Spenser, could have formed their poems half so beautiful without those gods, and spirits, and those enthusiastick parts of poetry, which compose the most noble parts of all their writings. And I will ask any man who loves heroick poetry (for I will not dispute their tastes who do not) if the ghost of Polydorus, in Virgil; the enchanted wood, in Tasso; and the bower of bliss, in Spenser (which he borrows from that admirable Italian) could have been omitted, without taking from their works, some of the greatest beauties in them. And if any man, object the improbabilities of a spirit appearing, or of a palace raised by magick; I boldly answer him that a heroick poet is not tied to a bare representation of what is true, or exceeding probable; but that he might let himself loose to visionary objects; and to the representation of such things as depending not on sense; and therefore not to be comprehended by knowledge, may give him a freer scope for imagination. 'Tis enough, that in all ages, and religions, the greatest part of mankind have believed the power of magick; and that there are spirits or spectres, which have appeared. This I say, is foundation enough for poetry; and I dare farther affirm, that the whole doctrine of separated beings; whether those spirits are incorporeal substances, (which, Mr. Hobbes, with some reason, thinks to imply a contradiction;) or that they are a thinner, and more aerial sort of bodies, (as some of the fathers have conjectured,) may better he explicated by poets than by philosophers, or divines. For their speculations on this subject are wholly poetical; they have only their fancy for their guide; and that being sharper in an excellent poet than it is likely it should [be] in a phlegmatick, heavy gownman, [it] will see farther into its own empire, and produce more satisfactory notions on those dark, and doubtful subjects." — Essay on Heroick Plays.
In his dedication of the Spanish Fryar to Lord Haughton, there are some observations on the theatrical exhibition of the drama, which are accurately adapted to every polished age, and nation; and with a peculiar propriety to our own country, and to the present times; when the pomp, and machinery, and trick of the theatre, are far beyond what they were, in the days of Dryden. These observations may tend to cure the authours of many of our later dramatical productions of any intellectual vanity which they may entertain; and to confine their self importance as it ought to be limited; to the idea of their emolument. — "The propriety, (saith he) of thoughts, and words, which are the hidden beauties of a play, are but confusedly judged in the vehemence of action. All things are there beheld, as in a hasty motion; where the objects only glide before the eye, and disappear. The most discerning critick can judge no more of these silent graces in the action, than he, who rides post through an unknown country, can distinguish the situation of places, and the nature of the soil. The purity of phrase; the clearness of conception, and expression; the boldness maintained, to majesty; the significancy, and sound of words; not strained into bombast, but justly elevated; in short, those very words, and thoughts, which cannot be changed, but for the worse; must, of necessity, escape our transient view upon the theatre; and yet, without all these, a play may take. For if either the story move us; or the actor help the lameness of it with his performance; or now and then a glittering beam of wit, or passion, strike through the obscurity of the poem; any of these are sufficient to effect a present liking; but not to fix a lasting admiration; for nothing but truth can long continue; and time is the surest judge of truth."
It may not be improper to endeavour by the authority of Dryden, to check the impertinence, and pedantry of those criticks, who, to show, their own reading, and their proficiency, in the cold, and dry faculty of memory, are, for ever, taxing with plagiarism, some of, our greatest poets, who made a more liberal, and a nobler use of their conversation with learning. May not such writers, then, take hints; may not they take sentiments, and images, from their congenial authours; while they repay them to the world with a more usurious interest than a Shylock would demand in money? May their compositions. be indebted, for some excellent thoughts, to their intercourse with cultivated, and elegant society; may they transplant into those compositions the various objects of nature; may they be enriched from the works of God; and must they be prohibited any advantageous commerce with the works of man? To such cavillers against Dryden or Pope, I should make a retort of the same import with that which was thrown out by Charles the Second relative to the former great poet. — "Charles the Second," (says Dryden) "only desired that they who accuse me of thefts, would steal him plays like mine." — We may fairly defend the largest obligations of men of true, and splendid genius, to other writers, in the words which our authour, in his Essay on Dramatick Poesy, has, I think, with less justice applied to Ben Jonson. — "He has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxied by any law. He invades authours like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him." — Our poet, in his dedication of Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset, has the following generous, and free sentiment. — "Great contemporaries whet, and cultivate each other; and mutual borrowing, and commerce, make the common riches of learning, as they do of the civil government." — Permit me to give you on the present subject, a passage from Longinus, translated by Dryden; in which you, consequently, have the united sentiments of the English poet, and Grecian critick, — "We ought not to regard a good imitation as a theft; but as a beautiful idea of him who undertakes to imitate, by forming himself on the invention, and on the work of another man; for he enters into the lists like a new wrestler, to dispute the prize with the former champion. This sort of emulation, says Hesiod, is honourable; [Greek characters] — when we combat for victory with a hero; and are not without glory even in our overthrow. Those great men, whom we propose to ourselves as patterns of our imitation, serve us as a torch which is lighted up before us, to enlighten our passage; and often elevate our thoughts as high as the conception we have of our authour's genius." — This passage I have taken from his preface to Troilus and Cressida. Indeed, he very justly asserts, in his dedication of the Aeneid, that "a poet is a maker, as the word signifies; and that he who cannot make; that is, invent, has his name for nothing." — But in the same preface, he likewise asserts, that "the poet who borrows nothing, is yet to be born; that he, and the Jews' Messiah, will come together." — I thought it the more pertinent to pronounce to you the sanction which is given by Dryden to that interchange of literary services, and favours, which must pass from one great authour to another, as Pope, who was one of the most illustrious of poets, has, of late years, been ungenerously, and stupidly represented, as a servile imitator, and a poet of mediocrity. Thus to accuse and undervalue that elegant, and exalted genius; betrayed an uncommon affectation, or insensibility to transcendent poetical merit; as we might have supposed that the classical knowledge, and taste of those who did this gross injustice to Pope, had been more improved, and refined, by the national advantages which our literature had derived from time.
I would still hope that the animation of my authour will justify me in giving you another passage from his dedication to Lord Mulgrave. It should contribute to explode the absurd criterion of poetry, which has been repeatedly proposed by grave, but injudicious criticks; — that we should break that arrangement of the words of any passage, in which they had been established by the poet; — that we should throw it into prosaick order; and consequently, into poetical disorder; or, in other words, that we should destroy a constituent part of its poetry. — "Virgil" (says Dryden) "who never attempted the lyrick verse, is, every where, elegant, sweet, and flowing, in his hexameters. His words are not only chosen, but the places in which he ranks them, for the sound. He who removes them from the station wherein their master set them, spoils the harmony. What he says of the Sybil's prophecies may be as properly applied to every word of his; they must be read in order as they lie; the least breath discomposes them; and somewhat of their divinity is lost.
I differ from Dryden on two poetical topicks; and there is the greater risk that I am wrong, that I differ from him. Whatever enters into the analysis of poetry comes immediately into the province which I have chosen; and I flatter myself that it will not be indifferent to you. Our poet, in his dedication of his Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset, gives to Butler, the authour of Hudibras, his particular attention, and praise. After speaking very highly of that poem, "the choice of his numbers" (he adds) "is suitable enough to his design, as he has managed it; but in any other hands, the shortness of his verse, and the quick returns of rhyme, had debased the dignity of his style. And besides, the double rhyme," (a necessary companion of burlesque writing,) "is not so proper for manly satire; for it turns earnest too much to jest, and gives us a boyish kind of pleasure." — Pp. 81, 82; Octavo edition of Dryden's Juvenal: printed Anno 1711, for Jacob Tonson. — On this passage I shall beg leave to observe, that when Dryden wrote it he seems to have been inattentive to the substance, and to one of the principal aims of Butler's poem. His wit, as far as it was very great, in degree, was certainly, manly; but ridicule was the weapon into which he had altogether formed it, in his celebrated Hudibras. The profession of his heroes; their persons; their dialogues; their exploits, the events, and incidents, which occur to them, are, all, agreeably to his plan, ridiculous. His ludicrous wit sparkles even on his gravest, on his most sacred objects; on the objects which he most respects; even them he defends, and praises, ludicrously. Therefore, both his measure, and his rhymes, are most happily adapted to his design. Peculiar human talents, and excellences, are divided, and distributed. I doubt whether Butler would have succeeded as well in serious, and severe, as he has, in light, and gay satire; whether he would as highly have inflamed us with a generous indignation, as he has excited our risibility.
On the verse of eight syllables he thus remarks. — "I would prefer the verse of ten syllables, which we call the English heroick, to that of eight. This is truly my opinion; for this sort of number is more roomy. The thought can turn itself with greater ease in a larger compass. When the rhyme comes too thick upon us, it straitens the expression. We are thinking of the close, when we should be employed in adorning the thought. It makes the poet giddy with turning in a space too narrow for his imagination;" &c. p. 86.
I cannot but think that it is more easy to write well, in the measure of eight syllables than in that of ten. The idea, and the argument of having more room in the epick than in the shorter line: and of the poet's growing giddy by turning often in a narrow space, are more specious, and plausible, than solid, and just. The force of the metaphor vanishes, when we reflect that we are to fill each of the spaces; not to turn in them. And the art of rhyming becomes more difficult, in proportion to the distance; in proportion to the number of intermediate ideas, through which we are to view it, and provide for it. It is easier to defend a small than a larger tract of ground. My reasoning, here is analogous to his own. In his dedication of his Annus Mirabilis to Sir Robert Howard; where be observes to that gentleman, that "the quatrain is more difficult than the couplet; because, in the former, the exertion of the poet is to be carried farther on; and he is to keep constantly in his eye, a more distant close of the rhyme." — The heroick verse, likewise, demands, in its nature, (to whatever subject it may he applied) sentiments, or images, and expressions, of more dignity, force, and splendour, than the more familiar, and inferiour measure. The more frequent return of the rhyme, in the line of eight syllables, is not of much consequence; when opposed to these considerations, it is hardly to be termed a difficulty, when it is to be performed by a poet whose talent is rhyme. The heroick measure, therefore, is more proper for subjects of gravity, and elevation; that of eight syllables, for more facetious, and gay themes. That superiour poetical powers are requisite for our epick rhyme, is proved by facts. Pope was great in heroick; and happy, in the shorter verse. In the latter measure, Swift was a fine poet; but he had not strength for the longer. Prior was a capital poet in his tales; but rather feeble in the heroick strain.
I wish to give you one specimen of Dryden's eulogy in dedication. I will not offend your delicacy with the musk-perfume of his adulation; nor do I wish to revive it, from my tenderness for his memory. In his dedication of the Mock-Astrologer to the Duke of Newcastle, his compliments to that nobleman flow in a spring tide of majesty, both in thought, and expression. — "Your loyalty made you friends, and servants, amongst foreigners; and you lived plentifully without a fortune; for you lived on your own desert, and reputation. The glorious name of the valiant, and faithful Newcastle, was a patrimony which could never be exhausted. Thus, my Lord, the morning of your life was clear, and calm; and though it was afterwards overcast, yet in that general storm you were never without a shelter. And now you are happily arrived to the evening of a day, as serene, as the dawn of it was glorious; but such an evening as I hope, and almost prophecy, is far from night; 'tis the evening of a summer's sun, which keeps the day-light long within the skies. The health of your body is maintained by the vigour of your mind; neither does the one shrink from the fatigue of exercise; nor the other bend under the pains of study. Methinks I behold in you another Caius Marius; who, in the extremity of his age, exercised himself almost every morning, in the Campus Martius; amongst the youthful nobility of Rome; and afterwards in your retirements; when you do honour to poetry, by employing part of your leisure in it, I regard you as another Silius Italicus, who, after having passed over his Consulship with applause, dismissed himself from business, and from the gown; and employed his age amongst the shades, in the reading, and imitation of Virgil."
Excuse my love (if it has taken me too far) of the Ciceronian, and instructive prose of Dryden. My following, and last quotation from that prose might he edifying to some gentlemen even of the present times. In his dedication of Love in a Nunnery to Sir Charles Sedley, there is this remarkable, and humorous paragraph. — "I have often laughed at the ignorant, and ridiculous descriptions which some pedants have given of the wits (as they are pleased to call them) which are a generation of men as unknown to them, as the people of Tartary, or the Terra Australis are to us. And therefore as we draw giants, and anthropophagi, in those vacancies of our maps, where we have not travelled, to discover better; so those wretches paint lewdness; atheism; folly; ill reasoning; and all manner of extravagances amongst us, for want of understanding what we are. Oftentimes it so falls out that they have a particular pique to some one amongst us; and then they immediately interest Heaven in their quarrel; as 'tis an usual trick in courts; when one designs the ruin of his enemy, to disguise his malice with some concernment of the king's; and to revenge his own cause with pretence of vindicating the honour of his master."
I am afraid that I should apologize for having dwelt so long on the poetical, and literary merit of Dryden. But I wish to say something of his character, as a man. It is rectitude of heart, and conduct alone, which gives us the best importance to ourselves, and others. And I have good reasons; nay I have good documents, to believe, that a long, and most unfortunate, and persecuted life, was not passed in an exertion almost continual of those fine talents, from which an equally fine sensibility is inseparable, without the support, arid approbation, of conscious virtue.
But they who require virtue without its allay, from human nature, require more than is in the power of man; and therefore, more than they can exemplify, themselves. His extreme adulation of the great I could not endeavour to vindicate, without entertaining a contemptible partiality for his memory. When we are determined to vindicate a conspicuous character, at all events; no respect should be payed to any part of our praise. Dr. Johnson has humanely, and sensibly apologized for the lavish incense of his dedications, as far as it can be palliated ingenuously. I thank God; if we are not emancipated as we ought to be, we are considerably relieved from that feudal, senseless, and slavish homage, to wealth, and power, which was in the manners, and habits of Dryden's days. This debasing social contagion would naturally, in some degree, infect our poet: and the fascinating charms of luxury, elegance, and splendour, will too powerfully attract even minds which are constitutionally sublime, and practically generous. The eye, for the moment, betrays the moral judgement; and delivers it a captive to those alluring objects. They receive a more harmonious form; a more vivid glow; and a brighter lustre, from the imagination of the poet; that imagination, which is, at once, his enemy, and his friend; which sometimes enables him to emulate angels; and sometimes. sinks him to a level with the humblest of mankind. I am sorry that I can quote a most obsequiously complaisant period from his dedication of Love in a Nunnery, to his very good, and consistent friend, the Earl of Rochester. But I quote it from my love of that independence of spirit, of which every man; but especially men of great intellectual endowments, ought to be most inflexibly tenacious. "People of my mean condition are only writers, because some of the nobility, and your lordship, in the first place, are above the narrow praises which poetry could give you." After this humiliating prospect, when I take a view of the magnanimity of Pope; how the son contrasts the father, as a man; whom he, at least, rivals, as a poet, how much deeper is my mortification for the one, how much higher is my admiration of the other! Pope, as far as he was concerned, would not suffer the artificial institutions of society to encroach on the noblest, and eternal privileges of human nature. He knew, and he felt, the inherent, and indeprivable greatness of the poetical character; and he would not profane it, by any improper, preposterous, and unnecessary homage, to ministers, princes, or kings. I may be told that Pope was never obliged by poverty to make unworthy concessions to the great. But I am afraid there is something in nature which determines, or, at least, influences these differences of conduct.
Dryden's plays are licentious; and so far they tend to be unfavourable to virtue. But when he wrote, they would infallibly have been damned if they had been more chastised by morality. Congreve was never in the unhappy circumstances of Dryden, yet his comedies are far from being delicate. He knew that the manners, and taste of his time, demanded some moral sacrifices, if he meant that his plays should be successful. However, if stall-fed theology can convince me, that it would rather have starved than have written as loosely as Dryden wrote, I will give our poet no quarter for his dramatick immoralities.
His conversion to the Roman Catholick faith is one of the passages of his life which renders him most obnoxious to the censure of posterity. And we must own that as it was almost immediately subsequent to the accession of James the Second, it appears to have been effected from the motives of temporal interest, and convenience. But let us hear the very able, and masterly apology which Dr. Johnson makes for the proselytism of Dryden. It gives me a heart-felt pleasure to quote his luminous page, when he does justice, or shows tenderness to a great name; it gives me equal pain when I find that he treats such a name with ungenerous, and vehement severity. I wish that he had shown as much equity, and benevolence to the political, and religious tenets of Milton as he has to those of Dryden! But I proceed, by giving a sufficiently large quotation from him.
"Soon after the accession of King James, When the design of reconciling the nation to the church of Rome became apparent, and the religion of the court gave the only efficacious title to its favours, Dryden declared himself a convert to Popery. This, at any other time, might have passed with little censure. Sir Kenelm Digby embraced Popery; the two Rainolds reciprocally converted one another. And Chillingworth himself was, awhile, so entangled in the wilds of controversy, as to retire, for quiet, to an infallible church. If men of argument, and study, can find such difficulties, or such motives, as may either unite them to the church of Rome, or detain them in uncertainty; there can be no wonder that a man, who, perhaps, never inquired why he was a Protestant, should, by an artful, and experienced disputant, be made a Papist; overborne by the sudden violence of new, and unexpected arguments; or deceived by a representation which shows only the doubts, on one part; and only the evidence on the other.
"That conversion will always be suspected, that, apparently, concurs with interest. He that never finds his errour till it hinders his progress towards wealth, or honour, will not be thought to love truth only for herself. Yet it may easily happen, that information may come at a commodious time; and as truth, and interest, are not, by any fatal necessity, at variance, that one may, by accident, introduce the other. When opinions are struggling into popularity, the arguments by which they are opposed, or defended, become more known; and he that changes his profession, would perhaps have changed it before, with the like opportunities of instruction. This was, then, the state of Popery; every artifice was used, to show it in its fairest form; and it must be owned to be a religion, of external appearance, sufficiently attractive.
"It is natural to hope that a comprehensive is likewise an elevated soul; and that whoever is wise, is also honest. I am willing to believe that Dryden, having employed his mind, active as it was, upon different studies; and filled it, capacious as it was, with other materials; came unprovided to the controversy; and wanted rather skill to discover the right, than virtue to maintain it. But inquiries into the heart are not for man; we must now leave him to his judge." Pages, 63, 64, 65.
A more ingenious, and eloquent advocate than Johnson has here shown himself, in favour of Dryden, could not he found in the chancery of human nature. Had he been always as ample, and ingenuous a critick, on subjects moral, and poetical,
How had he blest mankind — and rescued me!
If I may presume to think that I can at all strengthen what he has advanced, to make the sincerity of Dryden probable in his change of religion; I should observe that the dangerous warmth, and activity of fancy, to which I have alluded before, might co-operate with the splendour, and magnificence of the Roman catholic worship, (to which Dr. Johnson very justly ascribes their powerful attractions,) to seduce the poet from reason, and from truth, and to confound them in his mind. I should farther observe that Dryden must have had, with his excellences, great weakness of understanding. It is very possible that the man who believed in the predictions of judicial astrology; and who seriously, and anxiously, cast nativities, himself, might be a sincere convert to Popery. His careful education of his sons in that religion to which he had been a proselyte, himself, is another strong circumstantial evidence of his spiritual sincerity. Whatever was the principle that determined him to change his religion, to suppose, with Dr. Johnson that he was "a man, who, perhaps, had never inquired why he was a Protestant," is a conjecture that seems to me very inapplicable to the cultivated, and discursive mind of Dryden. We cannot reasonably suppose that such a person, who was, all his life, habituated to read, and think, would not seriously examine his religious faith; or that it would not be examined by one, who, as an authour, on many occasions, treats religion with the greatest respect, and reverence. We shall think the supposition altogether absurd, when we recollect his frequent acknowledgement, that he owed whatever talent he had for English prose to his intimate acquaintance with the works of Tillotson. With this anecdote we are favoured by Mr. Congreve.
The moral reputation of Dryden has been dreadfully lacerated, and mangled by inquisitorial, and unrelenting priests; but it has been honestly healed, and protected, by benevolent, and christian laymen. Bishop Burnet, in the first volume of his history of his own times, where he speaks of their corruption, pays the following charitable tribute to the memory of our poet. — "The stage was defiled, beyond all example; Dryden, the great master of dramatick poesy, being a monster of immodesty, and impurities of all sorts." — Let us counteract, by the gentle anodynes of Christianity, the poison of this religious empirick. Lord Lansdown, humanely, and generously, vindicated the character of the poet from the vile aspersions of that vindictive Caiaphas. In his letter to the authour of the Reflexions historical, and political, he observes, that "He was so much a stranger to immodesty, that modesty, in too great a degree, was his failing. A monster of impurities of all sorts," (adds his Lordship) — "Good God! — What an idea must that give! Is there any wickedness under the sun but what is comprized in those few words! But as it happens, he was the reverse of all this; a man of regular life, and conversation; as all his acquaintance can vouch. And I cannot but grieve that such rash expressions should escape from a Bishop's pen. If bearing false witness against our neighbour is a breach of the commandment, can there be a more flagrant one than this?"
Let us hear another honourable, and ample moral testimony in his favour, from Congreve's dedication of his dramatick works to the Duke of Newcastle. "For the person of Mr. Dryden I had as just an affection, as I had an admiration of his writings. And indeed he had personal qualities to challenge both love, and esteem from all who were truly acquainted with him. * * * * He was of a nature exceedingly humane, and compassionate; easily forgiving injuries; and of a prompt, and sincere reconciliation with those who had offended him. * * * * His friendship, where he professed it, went much beyond his professions; and I have been told of strong, and generous instances of it, by the persons themselves who received them; though his hereditary income was little more than a bare competency.
"As his reading had been very extensive, so was he very happy in a memory tenacious of every thing that he had read. He was not more possessed of knowledge than he was communicative of it. But then his communication was by no means pedantick, or imposed upon the conversation; but just such; and went so far as by, the natural turns of the discourse in which he was engaged, it was necessarily promoted, or required. He was extreme ready, and gentle, in the correction of the errours of any writer, who thought fit to consult him; and full as ready, and patient to admit of the reprehension of others, in respect of his own oversight or mistakes. He was of very easy, I may say, of very pleasing access; but something slow, and, as it were, diffident in his advances to others. He had something in his nature that abhorred intrusion into any society whatever. Indeed, it is to be regretted that he was rather blameable in the other extreme; for by that means, he was personally less known; and consequently his character might become liable both to misapprehensions, and misrepresentations. * * * * To the best of my knowledge, and observation, he was, of all the men that ever I knew, one of the most modest, and the most easily to be discountenanced, in his approaches, either to his superiours, or his equals." — See Biog. Brit. at Dryden, note z; and Mr. Congreve's dedication of Dryden's Dramatic Works, to the Duke of Newcastle.
The testimony of Mr. Pope must not be omitted, when we are doing justice to the social, and moral memory of Dryden. The later great poet, in a letter to Wycherley, which I have already mentioned, pays this liberal tribute to his famous predecessour. — "It was certainly a great satisfaction to me, to see, and converse with a man, whom, in his writings, I had so long known with pleasure. But it was a high addition to it, to hear you, at our very first meeting, doing justice to your dead friend, Mr. Dryden. I was not so happy as to know him. 'Virgilium tantum vidi.' Had I been born early enough, I must have known, and loved him. For I have been assured not only by yourself, but by Mr. Congreve, and Sir William Trumbal, that his personal qualities were as amiable as his poetical; notwithstanding the many libellous misrepresentations of them; against which the former of these gentlemen has told me he will, one day, vindicate him."
These quotations; I hope, will be sufficient to establish the amiable character of Dryden; and to show what the disposition and real character of the Bishop were, who brought so heavy, and atrocious a charge against him. It is difficult to say whether the baseness, or stupidity of this man (I mean, with regard to objects of taste) was greater. He would have us believe that Dryden was as bad a man as can be imagined; though we have moral demonstration that he was altogether the reverse: he had such a northern soul of cold, and ragged prose, that in mentioning Prior, he says one, Prior; and in drawing the character of King William, his patron, and benefactor, he hints at one vice which he had; and which he does not chuse to mention; — implying, even to candid minds, some horrible idea of moral guilt, and turpitude.
If I have dwelt very long on our great verse-man, and prose-man, you must be satisfied that I have some apology, even for my too particular, and minute representation of him; in the works which he hath left us; in the testimonies and encomiums of his celebrated co-temporaries; and in the applause of later times. — "As to his writings" (says Mr. Congreve, in the dedication from which I have already given you extracts) "I will not take upon me to speak of them; for to say little of them would not be to do them right; and to say all that I ought to say would be, to be very voluminous. But I may venture to say, in general terms, that no man hath written, in our language, so much, and so various matter, and in so various manners, so well." * * * * "Another thing I may say very peculiar to him, which is, that his parts did not decline with his years; but that he was an improving writer to his last; even to near seventy years of age; improving even in fire, and imagination, as well as in judgement; witness his Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, and his Fables; — his latest performances.
"He was equally excellent in verse, and in prose. His prose had all the clearness imaginable; together with all the nobleness of expression; all the graces and ornaments, proper, and peculiar to it; without deviating into the language, or diction of poetry. I make this observation, only to distinguish his style from that of many poetical writers, who, meaning to write harmoniously in prose, do, in truth, often write more blank verse."
"I have heard him frequently own, with pleasure, that if he had any talent for English prose, it was owing to his having often read the writings of the great Archbishop Tillotson.
"His versification, and his numbers, he could learn of nobody; for he first possessed those talents in perfection, in our tongue. And they who have best succeeded in them, since his time, have been indebted to his example; and the more they have been able to imitate him, the better have they succeeded.
"As his style in prose is always specifically different from his style in poetry; so, on the other hand, in his poems, his diction is, wherever his subject requires it, so sublime, and truly poetical, that its essence, like that of pure gold, cannot be destroyed. Take his verses, and divest them of their rhymes; disjoint them in their numbers; transpose their expressions; make what arrangement, and disposition you please, of his words; yet shall there eternally be poetry; and something which will be found Incapable of being resolved into absolute prose; an incontestable characteristick of a truly poetical genius.
"I will say but one word more, in general, of his writings, which is, that what he has done in any one species, or distinct kind, would have been sufficient to have acquired him a great name. If he had written nothing but his prefaces, or nothing but his songs, and his prologues, each would have entitled him to the preference, and distinction of excelling in his kind."
Such is the copious, just, and generous tribute of Mr. Congreve to the memory of his great departed friend, as a man, and a writer.
Dr. Garth, in his preface to the translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis, offers this eulogy to the memory of Dryden, with whom he had been intimately acquainted. — "I cannot pass by that admirable English poet, without endeavouring to make his country sensible of the obligations they have to his muse. Whether they consider the flowing grace of his versification; the vigorous sallies of his fancy; or the peculiar delicacy of his periods; they'll discover excellences never to be enough admired. If they trace him from the first productions of his youth, to the last performances of his age, they'll find, that as the tyranny of rhyme never imposed on the perspicuity of the sense, so a languid sense never wanted to be set off by the harmony of rhyme. And as his earlier works wanted no maturity, so, his later wanted no force, or spirit." * * * * "As a translator, he was just; as an inventer, he was rich.* * * * With all these wond'rous talents, he was libelled, in his lifetime, by the very men who had no other excellences, but as they were his imitators. Where he was allowed to have sentiments superiour to all others, they charged him with theft. But how did he steal? — No otherwise than like those that steal beggar's children; only to clothe them the better." — Such are the sentiments of Dr. Garth.
I have no doubt that you will forgive the length of my observations on Dryden, when I assure you that it proceeded from my anxious wish conscientiously to fulfill my obligation. I have thus long detained you on the remains of our great poet, with the less reluctance, that I confided in the worth of my auxiliary quotations; I trusted that they would atone for my defects; and afford you not an uninteresting entertainment. I am zealous to contribute my humble mite towards the restoration of poetry in this island, to its native dignity; to the beauty and energy by which it was once distinguished; and to the sensible respect and admiration which it once received. — I ardently wish that the true taste for it was restored; and then, perhaps, good poetry would be again encouraged; instead of which we should not accept, and affect to admire, the mere manufacture of versification. I am sensible of my own inability materially to promote these objects; therefore, I wish for the assistance of those who are absolutely most eminent for learning, and talents, in this country. The task is as arduous as it is glorious; for without a particle of cynicism (which I as much hate as I love the most explicit sincerity, and honest fire, on important subjects) every thing is against us: — the late impudent fashion of decrying, and despising established, and immortal poetical fame; — the sing-song, and all the other frippery of the theatre; — the many miserable rhapsodies in verse, which are profusely published, and lavishly praised — a frivolous, and corrupt national taste, one of the natural curses of extreme luxury and dissipation; — idleness; and inapplication to solid, useful, and respectable, learning; consequently, frequent superficial, and vain pretensions, without previous reading, and reflexion, to poetical composition; a divine art; and therefore, not to be attained by indolent men; an art in which Dryden at length excelled himself; but not till after he had habituated his vigorous, and comprehensive mind through a long life, to persevering study, and to original thought. — "Fame" (says that great man) "is, in itself, a real good; if we may believe Cicero; who was, perhaps, too fond of it. But even fame, as Virgil tells us, acquires strength by going forward. Let Epicurus give indolency, as an attribute to his gods; and place in it, the happiness of the blest. The divinity which we worship, has given us not only a precept against it, but his own example to the contrary." — Dedication of Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset. Page 6th.
A revival of the love of poetry; of a manly literary application; and of a proper esteem for those who may acquire poetical excellence, cannot be effected but by industrious, and indefatigable efforts. Hence, in the department which I have chosen, and which you have honoured with your attention, I think it more pardonable even to be too diffuse than to be superficial; for by superficiality no real conquest is gained in any of the vast regions of intellect. Judicious, and generous minds, will hear a man patiently, who, they think, is intent on performing his task thoroughly; if there is but any spirit in his useful observations; — if he is not absolutely dull. And he who would do all possible service, to an important, and diversified subject, must view it on all sides; must examine its heights, and depths; its various operations, and effects; — if he means to explain it clearly, and to enforce it powerfully.
But there are such insensible, and superficial people as I have had in my eye, who deem poetry a mere object of amusement; of no practical use to the human mind. These men are of the opinion of Lord Burleigh; who, when he was ordered by Queen Elizabeth, to make a present of a hundred guineas to Spenser, replied; — "What? All that for a song?" — This opinion is very suitable to a mere man of business; to
—The politick, and wise;
All, sly, slow things; with circumspective eyes.—
but it cannot be entertained by expanded, and cultivated souls. They know, that poetry, flowing from a good mind, and infused into an ingenuous, and feeling mind, will produce the most salutary; the most noble effects. It will stimulate susceptibility, and generosity of soul to their finest, and sublimest action it will both soften, and invigorate the domestic affections; it will inspire us with a tenderness, and a lenity for mankind; a tenderness; — an active, and enlarged benevolence, to the good; — a lenity, and a beneficent charity, even to the bad; — for it improves our knowledge of human nature; and impresses it on the heart. — But why, you will say, has poetry these extensive and extraordinary effects? Because no species of writing so powerfully affects a frame that is in unison with its genius: it assails, and subdues the soul, with the combined forces of eloquence, painting, and harmony. It gives a colour, and energy, (which can be produced only by its own operation) to the forms of the physical, and moral world. — It gives a more hideous deformity to vice; — more celestial charms to virtue; the heaven-descended magick of poetry accompanies its disciple through every transition of his life: — it actuates, and brightens his waking hours; it whispers peace and serenity to his dreams. It habitually works his mind to a gentle emotion; — a pleasing agitation; — a delightful luxuriance of fancy. The surrounding objects take a similar relief; and he is in a stronger, and livelier contact with nature. — This poetical, and mighty magick, heightens, to his view, the tints, and fragrance of the spring; it gives a purer transparency to the waters a more striking scenery to the course of a majestick river; — it elevates the mountains; it aggrandizes the dread magnificence of Heaven; — it inspires a demonstration of the existence, and providence of a God! We see, and we feel, that he was the authour of our solar system; — and that "he made the stars also!"
All this would seem Arabick, or romance; or even madness, to those, whose reading goes not beyond reviews; and whose virtue goes not beyond discretion. But I flatter myself, that it will be differently understood, and received by you; who, from your love of the first of the fine arts, have been willing to hear even what I had to say on the subject: — You, I hope, will allow, that "I speak forth the words of truth, and soberness." — Acts XXVIth: v. 25th.
No wonder, then, that Dryden assigns the highest province to poetry. He observes in his preface to Tyrannick Love, and with a reciprocal remembrance of his kind, and christian friends, that "religion was first taught in verse; which the laziness, or dullness, of succeeding priesthood, first turned into prose." Let us not injuriously imagine that genuine poetry is a light, and airy trifle; an elegant play-thing for a fop, under the dominion of his friseur; or for a fine lady, at her toilette. It is, if we accept, and regard it properly, one of the greatest blessings of Heaven to mankind; as an object of delight, it gives us the purest, and most animated pleasure, of which our better part is capable. It raises our minds more than any other human intellectual engine to the ambition, and atchievement of every thing that is good, generous, and great. It improves, invigorates, and confirms, every domestick, and patriotick virtue; and even while we are on earth, it approximates us to our GOD!