Dryden has been called the greatest writer of a little age; but it may well be doubted whether he for one would have cared to accept either limb of the antithesis. None of his moral qualities better consorted with his magnificent genius than the real modesty which underlay his buoyant self-assertion. His attitude towards the great literary representative of an age earlier than that to which his own maturity belonged was from first to last one of reverent recognition; and though the lines written by Dryden under Milton's portrait have more sound than point, they should not be forgotten as testifying to the spirit which dictated them. Of Oldham, in both the species of verse to which he owed his reputation infinitely Dryden's inferior, the elder poet wrote that their souls were near allied, and cast in the same poetic mould. To Congreve, his junior by full forty years, he declared that he would gladly have resigned the laureateship, in which he had been supplanted by a Whig poetaster. On the other hand, whatever aspect the Restoration age, either in politics or in literature, may wear in our eyes, in its own it assumed any semblance rather than that of an age of decline. And indeed, to speak of its literature only, it must be admitted that there are not a few considerations to be urged against the acceptance of such a designation. It is common enough to find the literature of the Restoration age set down as essentially a foreign literature, reproduced and imitated. Yet a survey of Dryden's works alone, both dramatic and non-dramatic, should suffice to shake the foundations of any such criticism. The "heroic plays" — a species in which Dryden had rivals but no equal — differed from the courtly romances of the Scudery school as full-bodied Burgundy differs from diluted claret. The so-called Restoration comedy — of the later and more perfect growth of which Dryden's efforts were but the precursors — is both for better and for worse as genuinely national as it is unmistakably real. It would of course be extremely absurd to deny the great influence in this period of French literature upon our own; but it was an influence of much greater importance for the future of our literature, both prose and verse, as to form than as to matter. Yet though the clearness as well as the pointedness of the Restoration style was partly due to French example, these qualities were something very different from the imported fashions of a season. Dryden may be charged with more than his usual audacity when, in a Prologue of 1672, he spoke of "our wit" as far excelling "foreign wit," after, in an Epilogue of 1670, he had extolled his own times as not only wittier but "more refined and free" in their use of the native tongue than any preceding age. Yet inasmuch as during two centuries English writers have on the whole followed Dryden and his contemporaries instead of reverting to their predecessors of the Elizabethan and earlier Stuart periods, it would savour of rashness contemptuously to dismiss the claims to literary honours of an age which formed for itself a style of so proved a merit. With the aid of this style it virtually called into life a new species of English poetry — that satirical poetry of which Dryden is not indeed the originator, but in which he was the first as he has in most respects remained the greatest master.
Whatever view be taken of the general features of the age of which Dryden was the chief literary ornament — while Milton's muse, like the blind poet himself, dwelt apart — it is certain that this age speaks to in from the pages of its most brilliant writer. He was not formed, as a man or as a poet, to live out of his times. Yet neither was he, in character or in genius, one of those who merely give back what they have received, more or less changed in form or intensified in manner. He has been decried as a time-server in politics, as a turncoat in religion, and in literature as the flexible follower of a succession of schools. The reasons for and against these charges cannot be examined here; and there seems something specially unsuitable in treating of Dryden in a tone of apology. At the same time both his life and works, the relations between which are peculiarly intimate, often require to be protected from some of the commentaries with which they have been visited. Many of our poets have been subjected to ungenerous criticism; but none has, so to speak, been "hansardised" so mercilessly as Dryden.
He was the descendant of Puritan ancestors on both the father's and the mother's side; his own father — according to an adversary of the poet's — was a Committee-man, and one of his maternal cousins was a peer of Oliver's creation. Nothing could therefore be more natural or becoming than that on the Protector's death, Dryden, then a young man of twenty-seven, should have sung the praises of "our Prince," generally selecting for celebration qualities which even Cromwell's angriest enemies mould not have denied him to have possessed. That the author of the Heroic Stanzas should with the Restoration have blossomed forth as a royalist implies no tergiversation at all. It should not be forgotten that the Restoration was not a mere party act and that much had happened between it and the death of Oliver Cromwell. Whatever may have been the hereditary politics of Dridens and Pickerings, John Dryden was a born royalist, and with the Restoration his political changes were at an end. Panegyrical poetry was the fashion of the age, and the exuberant inventiveness and felicitous readiness of Dryden's genius made it easy for him to excel in this kind of composition. To be sure, even the most willing and the most fluent muse must rapidly exhaust such a theme as the virtues of King Charles II; and in his Threnodia Augustalis, written on the King's death, Dryden found little to add to that he had sung in the Astraea Redux, composed in honour of the Restoration, — except that his Majesty died hard. In shorter pieces in honour of the King, the Duchess of York, and Lord Clarendon, Dryden displayed the same talent for waving gorgeous banners of courtly praise, till in Britannia Rediviva he hailed the birth of a prince whom half the nation regarded as a pretender before he and his parents were exiles. No laureate has ever earned like Dryden the butt of sack which the economy of King James' new reign cut off from his salary. Of all the tours de force executed by him, however, the most extraordinary is that in which he undertook to flatter the nation, as well as the dynasty, to the top of their bent. The fire and spirit of the Annus Mirabilis are nothing short of amazing, when the difficulties which beset the author (though partly by his own choosing) are remembered. There was, first, the difficulty of his subject, which, as a perusal of the poem cannot fail to reveal to the most unsuspecting reader, was by no means made up altogether of materials for congratulation. Yet the Annus Mirabilis must really have "done good" to the public; even at the present day it agreeably warns the John Bull sentiment, compounded of patriotism and prejudice, in the corner of an Englishman's heart. Another difficulty, but in this instance a self-imposed one, was the form of verse in which the poem was written. It was chosen for the sake of its dignity, but (as Dryden well knew, and told Davenant, from whose Gondibert it was borrowed) it put a far greater strain upon the ingenuity and skill of the author. Thus though Dryden has written much that is more thoroughly enjoyable, he has written nothing that is more characteristic of himself than this long series of quatrains. The glorious dash of the performance is his own, and so is the victorious struggle against the drag of a difficult and rather dull metre.
But it was a yet different kind of poem by which the loyal adherent of the Stuart throne first became a force in English politics. No modern reader, whether his sympathies be with the Jebusites, or whether he think that there may be something to be said even in favour of the Solymaean rout, is likely to refuse his admiration to the greatest — greatest without even a suggestion of rivalry — of English political satires. This position in a literature rich in contributions of the same kind to political controversy Absalom and Achitophel (or rather the First Part of the satire) owes to the reason which made it so singularly effective at the season of its publication. Besides being executed with incomparable vigour and verve, and as finished in detail as it is impetuous in flow, it has the supreme merit (for a work of this kind) of being completely adapted to its special purpose. Absalom and Achitophel is a political satire pure and simple, not, like Hudibras, a burlesque on a whole cauldron-full of political and religious controversy. The allegorical form of the satire, while so familiar in itself as to save all trouble in guessing the author's enigmas, just suffices for veiling the real theme beneath a decent disguise; but it by no means interferes with a quality necessary for the effectiveness of the work — its directness. Accordingly, every shaft flies home in every character, from Achitophel and Zimri to the lesser which are as it were merely touched in passing, precisely those features are marked as to which it is desirable to strengthen and sharpen the suspicions of the popular instinct. The object of the writer being, not to furnish a satirical narrative of a complete historical episode, but to give a striking picture of the influences which had led to the situation existing at the time when Shaftesbury was to be placed on his trial for treason, the real completion of the plot of the poem would have been furnished by the event which it was designed to bring about — namely the conviction and condemnation of its treacherous hero. Thus, the First Part combines with its vehement invective and fervent enthusiasm a moderation proving the author's hand to be that of a shrewd as well as a keen politician. The blows are not dealt indiscriminately, as in an Aristophanic comedy to which nothing is sacred, or in the wantonness of partisan wit, such as Canning poured forth against the impotence he disliked not less than against the fanaticism he abhorred, — but with care and even with self-restraint. Absalom (Monmouth) is "lamented" rather than "accused"; even Achitophel himself where he deserves praise receives it from the candour of his politic assailant. When Dryden revised the poem for a second edition, he was least of all anxious to sharpen the sting of incidental passages; for his purpose had not been to vilify all the opponents of the Court, but to ensure the downfall of the false Achitophel, who was first among them all.
Johnson has commended Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel as "comprising all the excellences of which the subject is capable"; and not a jot need be abated from this at once high and judicious encomium. In what other poem of the kind will be found, together with so much versatility of wit, so incisive a directness of poetic eloquence? Dryden is here at his best; and being at his best, he is entirely free from that irrepressible desire to outdo himself, which in a great author as its a great actor so greatly interferes with our enjoyment of his endeavours, and to which in productions of a different kind Dryden often gave way. This self-control was the more so his credit, since he had not yet shot all the bolts in his quiver, and declared himself quite prepared to convince those who thought otherwise "at their own cost, that he could write severely with more ease than he could write gently." The successors and the sequel, however, to the First Part of Absalom and Achitophel have the diminished fire of polemics composed after the crisis is over. The pungent satire of The Medal, written after the throwing out of the bill of indictment against Shaftesbury by the London grand jury, ridicules the hypocrisy of the hero of the Puritan Londoners, and the sovereign stupidity of his worshippers, the mob — a stupidity against which "even gods contend in vain":
Almighty crowd! thou shortenest all dispute;
Power is thy essence, wit by attribute!
Nor faith nor reason make thee at a stay:
Thou leap'st o'er all eternal truths in thy Pindaric way.
(The last line, by the way, is an admirable example of one of Dryden's favourite metrical devices — unfortunately too frequently and too indiscriminately employed by him — the incidental Alexandrine.) Among the Whig writers who took upon themselves to reply to The Medal, was Thomas Shadwell, "the true-blue poet," — who was afterwards to supersede Dryden as laureate, and who as a comic dramatist displays a measure of power which makes it necessary to take exception to the sweeping contemptuousness of Dryden's satire against him. Shadwell is the hero of Mac Flecnoe, to which brilliant but not very generous jeu d'esprit a harmless scribbler (who had even to the best of his ability extolled Dryden himself) was made to give his name. This most happily executed retort upon a by no means despicable antagonist has a double claim to immorality: — its own delightful execution, and the fact that this attempt so extinguish a single Dunce suggested so Pope the heroic idea of annihilating the whole tribe. The list of Dryden's satirical poetry closes with his contributions to the Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel, of which Nahum Tate (afterwards Poet-Laureate in his turn) was the principal author. Tate's muse ought well wax faint in striving to raise her own feeble efforts to the level of "the song of Asaph"; nor will his name be linked by posterity with Dryden's as it is with Brady's. The characters of Og (Shadwell) and Doeg (Elkanah Settle, the city poet, whose political opinions changed more than once, without landing him in a competency at the end) are in Dryden's most successful, and in his most rollicking manner. Thus, in what were at once the earliest and among the bitterest days of modern English party life, the court poet had thrown himself heart and soul into the conflict, and had constituted himself the chief literary champion of a side which in any case must have engaged his goodwill and sympathy. At home and abroad, the adversaries of the Stuarts were the natural objects of his satire; for how could a born partisan of centralised authority love either Dutchmen or Dissenters? It would be hard so say which he attacked with greater zest, whenever opportunity arose. His attempt to inflame popular sentiment against the Dutch in the sensation drama of Amteyna is a disgraceful illustration of too common a misgrowth of patriotism. Even in the pleasant Epistle which quite at the close of his life he addressed to his kinsman, and which he himself considered as well written as anything he had ever composed, he had originally introduced some reflexions on Dutch valour, though a Dutchman sat on the throne. His antipathy against the Nonconformists he was to exhibit under circumstances creditable at all events to the ingenuousness of his partisanship.
The history of Dryden's religious opinions has called forth very various and much cruel comment. The latter term will seem apposite if it be simply remembered how frequently instances of a change of creed analogous to Dryden's have occurred and continue to occur, and how deeply in most cases of the kind the insinuation of an interested motive as would be resented by those best acquainted with their origin and progress. All that is possible on the present occasion is to suggest, as indispensable to any enquiry into the process and motives of Dryden's conversion to the Church of Rome, a candid and impartial examination of his two poems, the Religio Laici (published in November 1682) and The Hind and the Panther (April 1687). In his most amusing comedy of The Spanish Friar (1681) it is difficult to discover anything bearing on the subject beyond evidence that Dryden hated priests, — a feeling to which he steadily adhered even after he had become a member of the Church of Rome.
There is nothing whatever to show that the Religio Laici was called forth by any special occasion, or juncture of circumstances, in the life of its author. Nor can it be looked upon as the declaration of any creed in particular; for there are surely few members of any Protestant Church who would care so accept the Layman's exposition of his standpoint as a summary of their beliefs. Unwilling to take refuge in natural religion, unable to accept the theory of an infallible Church, and resenting the practice of leaving the truth revealed in the bible at the mercy of the rabble, the Layman is content so bow to authority where it deserves the name, to leave obscure points aside, and where he cannot agree with the Church, to waive his private judgment for the sake of peace:
For points obscure are of small use to learn,
But common quiet is the world's concern.
That a Protestant whose Protestantism stood on so very weak a footing should have been led after all into the bosom of a Church claiming infallibility, seems a fact easily accounted for; and in truth the Relgio Laici might almost be called a halfway-house in the road along which Dryden was travelling. A reverence for authority was implanted in his nature; he was a Tory before he was a Catholic; moreover, he was at no time a man to strain at minor difficulties; and it was therefore almost inevitable that the Layman's simple Creed would sooner or later cease to satisfy a mind inclined and accustomed to look at things in the grand style.
If, in point of fact, this time came very soon, there is no reason to deny that events happening and currents in operation around him, may have hastened the change. There are seasons specially favourable for a roll-call in the moral as in the political world; and apart from the bias in his mind, Dryden was probably not one of the converts whom Rome has found it most difficult to secure. But to attribute his conversion to the renewal of a trumpery pension — whether granted immediately before or just after his declaration of his change of faith — is not less ignoble than it is idle vaguely so suggest that he was influenced by "visions of greater worldly advantage." If his conversion finds sufficient explanation as a process natural to a mind and disposition constituted like his, and subjected to the general influences of an age like that in which he lived, there remains no controversy to be discussed. That after becoming a Roman Catholic he should have felt a strong desire to offer to the world a defence of a position not new to the world, but new and therefore in a sense uneasy so himself, seems quite in accordance with experience. But that The Hind and the Panther was not published in order to conciliate the favour of King James II, is manifest from a very noteworthy circumstance. This poem, a species of "eirenicon" (as it might almost be called) so the Church of England on behalf of the Church of Rome, and an invitation to the former to unite with the latter against the Nonconformists, appeared a fortnight after the Declaration of Indulgence, by which the king had sought to conciliate the support of "the Bear, the Boar and every savage name" willing to listen to the voice of the charmer.
The Hind and the Panther has been censured by critics and burlesqued by wits on account of the supposed incongruity of its characters and dialogue. But there is no reason why beasts should not talk theology or politics — or anything else under the sun — in a piece constructed not as an allegory, but as a fable; and moreover, as Sir Walter Scott has pointed out, Dryden might have appealed for precedents to the works of both Chaucer and Spenser. The lengthiness of parts of the poem may at the same time be undeniable; but its wit and vigour of expression, sided by a versification which Pope declared to be the most correct to be found in Dryden, render it a unique contribution to controversial literature. That the author of The Hind and the Panther had lost little, if any, of his power as a satirist, will be evident from some of the passages cited below as being more suitable for extraction than snatches of controversy — the description of the Nonconformist sects, the character of Father Petre (judiciously put into the Panther's lips) and that of Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Burnet, whom Dryden had already attacked in passing as Balak in Absalom and Achitophel, and who replied in his History of his own Time by designating Dryden as "a master of immodesty and impurity of all sorts."
This retort, or the element of truth contained in its violence, cannot be waved aside like the charges brought against Dryden of political and religious dishonesty. The licentiousness of the Restoration drama, which it would have mightily amused the Restoration dramatists to see explained as mere imaginative frolicsomeness, found in him a too willing representative, to be distinguished from the rest only because he had a genius to pervert and to profane. But it should be remembered in his honour that though he was not strong enough to resist temptation, he was true enough to his nobler self to feel and to record the degradation of his weakness. Posterity need utter no severer censure on one who has spoken of his "second fall" with the solemn severity of self-knowledge displayed by Dryden in the incomparably beautiful Ode to the Memory of Anne Killigrew. His nature was too fine and too manly petulantly to defy any criticism which he thought in any measure just, although he might deprecate exaggerated rigour, and despise a preciseness of censure which to men of his mould is virtually unintelligible.
Undoubtedly, though the strength and pointedness of his style makes him recognisable in almost everything he has written — a Hercules truly to be guessed from a mere bit of himself — Dryden is one of those authors to whom complete justice can never be done by those who study him in selections only. The inexhaustible fertility and grandiose ease of his style require the vast expanse of his collected works for their full display. But what cannot be exhibited in completeness, may be indicated by contrast. Truly great as a satirical, and unusually effective as a didactic poet, Dryden as an ode-writer surpassed even Cowley in execution, and at times equalled him in felicity of conception. From the panegyrical strains of his earlier days he passed in his later to a twofold treatment of a theme not less difficult and far loftier than the praise of earthly crowns and their wearers. The two famous lyrics in honour of St. Cecilia's Day are almost equally brilliant in execution; but the earlier and shorter is not altogether successful in avoiding the dangers incidental so any attempt of a more elaborate kind to make "the sound appear an echo to the sense." Alexander's Feast, on the other hand, may not be without a certain operatic artificiality; but affectation alone can pretend to be insensible so the magnificent impetus of its movement, or to the harmonious charm of its finale. Of Dryden's art as a translator only one example could find a place here — the simple but singularly powerful version, familiar to many generations, of the Veni, Creator Spiritus. Yet this kind of literary work was one which neither he nor his contemporaries were inclined to undervalue. He possessed one of two qualities essential to a master in translation, and lacked the other. While gifted with an almost instinctive power of seizing upon the salient points in his original, and wonderfully facile in rendering these by ingenious turns of thought and phrase in his own tongue, he had neither the nature nor the training of a scholar. He is accordingly at once the most felicitous and the most reckless of English poetic translators. His modernisations of Chaucer, which with translations from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio made up his last publication, the Fables, show his mastery over his form at least as strikingly as any other of his works. In the days in which we live Dryden's long popular re-castings of Chaucer happily can receive no other praise than this. But something more than a mere shred of purple seemed required by way of example of these famous "translations" by one great English poet of another and greater.
As a dramatist he cannot here be discussed; but room has been found for an example of one or two of his Prologues and Epilogues, in which the poet, following the fashion of his times, converses at his ease with his public through the medium of a favourite actor — or (since King David's happy restoration) of a favourite actress. But nowhere do the wit and the "frankness" of the age (to use the term applied to it by one of its most popular comedians) find readier expression than in these sallies of badinage, occasionally intermixed with a grain of salt satire, or doing duty as acrid invective or patriotic bluster; and nowhere is the genial freespokenness of Dryden more thoroughly at home than in these confidences between dramatist and public. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that as a prose critic of dramatic poetry and its laws Dryden remains much more than readable at the present day; his inconsistencies any tiro can point out, but it is better worth while to appreciate the force of much that he says on whatever side of a question he may advocate. Among all our poets few have found better reasons for their theories, or for the practice they have based on the theories of others.
In Dryden it is futile to seek for poetic qualities which he neither possessed nor affected. Wordsworth remarked of him that there is not "a single image from nature in the whole body of his works." One may safely add to this, that he is without lyric depth, and incapable of true sublimity — a quality which he revered in Milton. If it be too much to say that the magnificent instrument through which his genius discourses its music lacks the "vox humana" of poetry speaking to the heart, the still rarer presence of the "vox angelica" is certainly wanting to it. But he is master of his poetic form — more especially of that heroic couplet to which he gave a strength unequaled by any of his successors, even by Pope, who surpassed him in finish. And if there is grandeur in the pomp of kings and the march of hosts, in the "trumpet's loud clangour" and in tapestries and carpetings of velvet and gold, Dryden is to be ranked with the grandest of English poets. The irresistible impetus of an invective which never falls short or flat, and the savour of a satire which never seems dull or stale, give him an undisputed place among the most glorious of English wits.