It is worthy of remark, that few of those who afterwards have become eminent as poets, obtained much reputation or distinction in their literary course, while young men in the University; whether it has proceeded from their being under the influence of fancy, self-willed, and ungovernable; choosing rather to be the directors of their own studies, than to be subjected to the judgment of others; absorbed in a kind of literary sensuality, and indifferent about its douceurs and honours, — too often the ne plus ultra of academical ambition — or whether they have been too desultory for systematic studies, and too lively for inordinate application; — whatever may have been the cause, let others determine.
Of this unfortunate number was John Dryden, a great poet unquestionably: Mr. Malone, who has given such a minute account of his life, remarks, that his name is not to be found in any of the Cambridge verses composed in his time on public occasions, and that he did not obtain a fellowship in his college. There was a general collection of poems put forth by the University on the peace in 1654. John Dryden's name does not appear in this collection, though several contributors to it were of Trinity-college.
The only notice of Dryden, while an undergraduate, is the following order, made about two years after his admission:
"July 19, 1652. Agreed, then, that Dryden be put out of Commons, for a fortnight at least, and that he goe not out of the Colleg during the time aforesaid, excepting to sermons, without express leave from the Master or Vice-Master, and that at the end of the fortnight he read a confession of his crime in the hall at the dinner-time, at the three ... fellows-table."
"His crime was, his disobedience to the Vice-Master, and his contumacy in taking his punishment inflicted by him."
Dryden, however, appears to have been fond of a college-life, as being particularly favourable to the habits of a student; and he resided seven years in all at Cambridge. But whether his Muse was sulky during his continuance, or his mind too much occupied in study to woo her, he does not appear to have handed her forth to public admiration during his stay, nor to have composed any tender Valetes at his departure. He left Cambridge in 1657, settled then in London as an author, and became one of the greatest literary adventurers that ever visited the metropolis.
A writer of such varied powers, of such diversified pursuits, and of such numerous excellencies, it would be in vain to attempt to discriminate in two or three lines. Dr. Johnson considered Dryden as the father of English criticism, and has given a life of him, so elaborate, discriminating, and judicious, that, as a critical work, it is allowed by his greatest admirers to be the best of his Lives. The inaccuracies respecting the early part of Dryden's life, which accompany that and other accounts, have been set right, and the defects supplied, as well as they could be, by Mr. Malone. Of Dryden, as of Cowley, there are a bust and portrait in Trinity-college.