1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:581-82.



1700, May 1. Died, JOHN DRYDEN, one of the most illustrious of English poets. He was born at Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire, of an ancient family, August 9, 1631, and was educated at Westminster and Cambridge. In 1657 he removed to London, and practised the literary trade, which he had chosen, for forty years, enjoying, during that period, a high though not an undisputed reputation, and suffering considerably from poverty. His plays, twenty-seven in number, of the various classes of tragedies, comedies, and tragi-comedies, are, upon the whole, unworthy of his genius. In 1665 he married lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the earl of Berkshire. On the establishment of the Royal Society he was chosen one of the first members. In 1662 appeared his first play, called the Wild Gallant. Soon after the fire of London he engaged with the king's theatre for an annual stipend, on condition of furnishing a certain number of plays in each year. At the accession of James II. Dryden turned Roman Catholic, and, like most converts, endeavoured to defend his new faith at the expense of the old one, in a poem called the Hind and the Panther, which was admirably answered by Prior and Montague in the Country Mouse and City Mouse. At the revolution he lost his posts, and was succeeded by Shadwell, whom Dryden satirized under the name of Mac Flecknoe, in October 1682. In 1695 appeared his translation of Virgil, which alone would immortalize his memory. He was buried in Westminster abbey, where is a monument to his memory, erected by Sheffield duke of Buckingham. A complete edition of his whole works, in 18 vols. 8vo. was printed at Edinburgh, by Ballantyne and Co. in 1808. He had three sons; Charles became usher of the palace to pope Clement XI. and was drowned in 1704; John wrote a comedy, called The Husband his own Cuckold; and Henry entered into a religious order abroad.

Dryden was a man of amiable and virtuous disposition, but was tempted by the taste of the age to write on many occasions very licentiously, and allowed himself to be hurried away by injured self-love into rancorous controversies, which impaired his peace, and degraded his genius. He was endowed with a vigorous and excursive imagination, and possessed a mastery over language which no subsequent writer has attained. With little tenderness or humour, he had great power of delineating character, wonderful ease, an almost sublime contempt for mean things, and sounding, vehement, varied versification.

The dedications of Dryden, though carried to an excessive height in adulation, were the vices of the time more than of the man; they were loaded with flattery, and no disgrace was annexed to such an exercise of men's talents; the contest being who should go farthest in the most graceful way, and with the best turns of expression. The common price for a dedication was from 20 to 40, though, upon special occasions, a larger sum has been given. From the revolution to the time of George I. the price for the dedication of a play, was from five to ten guineas, when it rose to twenty; but sometimes a bargain was to be struck when the author and the play were alike indifferent. His prefaces are pleasing, notwithstanding the opposite opinions they contain, because his prose is the most numerous and sweet, the most mellow and generous of any our language has yet produced. His digressions and ramblings, he himself says he learned of honest Montaigne.

Mr. St. John, afterwards lord Bolingbroke, happening to pay a morning visit to Dryden, found him in an unusual agitation of spirits, even to a trembling. On enquiring the cause, "I have been up all night," replied the old bard, "my musical friends made me promise to write them an Ode, for their feast of St. Cecilia. I have been so struck with the subject which occurred to me, that I could not leave it till I had completed it; here it is, finished at one sitting." And immediately showed him the Ode of Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music, which places the British lyric poetry above that of any other nation; for in this ode there is a wonderful sublimity of thought, a loftiness and sweetness of expression, and a pleasing variety of numbers.

To the laudable industry of Mr. Malone the curious reader is indebted for the publication of several letters from Dryden to Jacob Tonson, and of one from Tonson to the poet; which considerably illustrate the history of both. The first of these was in 1684, preparatory to the printing of the second volume of those Miscellany Poems which are equally known by the name of Dryden and of Tonson; and is written in terms of great familiarity, with thanks for two melons. Tonson's letter is perfectly the Tradesman's — pleased with the translations of Ovid, which he had received for the third miscellany, but not with the price; having only 1446 lines for fifty guineas, when he expected to have had at the rate of 1518 lines for forty guineas; adding that he had a better bargain with Juvenal, which is reckoned not so easy to translate as Ovid. Most of the other letters relate to the translation of Virgil, and contain repeated acknowledgments of Tonson's kind attention. "I thank you heartily," he says, "for the sherry; it was the best of the kind I ever drank," — The current coin was at that period wretchedly debased. In one letter Dryden says, "I expect forty pounds in good silver; not such as I had formerly. I am not obliged to take gold; neither will I; nor stay for it above four-and-twenty hours after it is due." Some little bickerings occasionally passed between the author and his bookseller; but they do not seem to have produced any lasting ill-will on either side. In 1698, when Dryden published his Fables, Tonson agreed to give him 268 for 10,000 verses; and, to complete the full number of lines stipulated for, he gave the bookseller the Epistle to his Cousin, and the celebrated Musical Ode. "The conduct of traders in general in the seventeenth century," as Mr. Malone observes, "was less liberal, and their manners more rugged than at present; and hence we find Dryden sometimes speaking of Tonson with a degree of asperity that confirms an anecdote communicated to Dr. Johnson by Dr. King, of Oxford, to whom Lord Bolingbroke related, '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 completed the sheet which I promised him; and, if you leave me unprotected, I shall suffer all the rudeness to which his resentment can prompt his tongue.' On another occasion, Tonson having refused to advance him a sum of money for a work on which he was employed, he sent a second messenger to the bookseller, with a very satirical triplet; adding, 'Tell the dog, that he who wrote these lines, can write more.' These descriptive verses, which had the desired effect, by some means got abroad in manuscript; and, not long after Dryden's death, were inserted in Faction Displayed, a satirical poem, supposed to have been written by William Shippen, which, from its virulent abuse of the opposite party, was extremely popular among the Tories." Of Dryden's prose compositions, which have been published separately in four volumes, the most remarkable are his Discourse on Dramatic Poetry, and the Prefaces and Dedications to his various poetical works. These are the first easy and graceful essays upon the lighter departments of literature which appeared in England. Dr. Johnson describes them as airy, animated, and vigorous. In the Discourse, he has drawn characters of his dramatic predecessors, which are allowed to he unsurpassed, in spirit and precision, by any later or more laborious criticisms.

Sir George Mackenzie, lord advocate of Scotland under Charles II. and James II. seems to have been the only learned man of his time that maintained an acquaintance with the lighter departments of cotemporary English literature. He was the friend of Dryden, by whom he is mentioned — with great respect. Sir George Mackenzie was born in 1636, and died at Edinburgh, May 2, 1691. The compositions bearing a resemblance to English, which appeared in Scotland during this century, were controversial pamphlets in politics and divinity, now generally forgotten.