The dedication is titled, "To the Right Honourable Philip Earl of Leycester, &c." In writing his dedication to Philip Sidney, third earl of Leicester (1619-1698), Dryden is inevitably reminded of the story of how Sir Philip Sidney bestowed his reckless munifence on the unknown author of the Faerie Queene: "There is another Sidney still remaining, tho there can never be another Spencer to deserve the Favor. But one Sidney gave his Patronage to the applications of a Poet; the other offer'd it unask'd" Sig. A3v. In comparing himself to Spenser, Dryden is perhaps reflecting on his own status as a laureate endanged by shifting political currents.
"Atticus" was the patron of Cicero; the "Holy Grove" refers to the gardens at Leicester House, near Dryden's own residence. The first lines quoted are from Abraham Cowley's "On the Queen's repairing Somerset-House"; the second from Edmund Waller's "These verses were writ in the Tasso of her Royal Highness."
Samuel Johnson: "To increase the value of his copies he often accompanied his work with a preface of criticism, a kind of learning then almost new in the English language, and which he, who had considered with great accuracy the principles of writing, was able to distribute copiously as occasions arose. By these dissertations the publick judgment must have been much improved; and Swift, who conversed with Dryden, relates that he regretted the success of his own instructions, and found his readers made suddenly too skilful to be easily satisfied" "Life of Dryden" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 1:366.
Thomas Babington Macaulay: "Never was so able a critic so free from fastidiousness. He loved the old poets, especially Shakspeare. He admired the ingenuity which Donne and Cowley had so wildly abused. He did justice, amidst the general silence, to the memory of Milton. He praised to the skies the school-boy lines of Addison. Always looking on the fair side of every object, he admired extravagance, on account of the invention which he supposed it to indicate; he excused affectation in favour of wit; he tolerated even tameness, for the sake of the correctness which was its concomitant. It was probably to this turn of mind, rather than to the more disgraceful causes which Johnson has assigned, that we are to attribute the exaggeration which disfigures the panegyrics of Dryden. No writer, it must be owned, has carried the flattery of dedication to a greater length. But this was not, we suspect, merely interested servility: it was the overflowing of a mind singularly disposed to admiration, — of a mind which diminished vices, and magnified virtues and obligation" "Dryden" Edinburgh Review 47 (January 1828) 32.
Mary Russell Mitford: "The Prefaces of the great Laureate indeed would be difficult to imitate, inasmuch as they contain some of the finest prose in the language. They consist, for the most part, of noble and generous criticism, strangely mingled with theories dear to the Merry Monarch, with vindications of the practice of interfusing licentious farce amidst regal tragedy, and preference of the rhymes of Corneille to the blank verse of Shakespeare. That Dryden could have written Tragedy, is proved by the two striking scenes of quarrel and of reconciliation in Don Sebastian, and All for Love. The cause of his failure may be found in these theories. But theory, right or wrong, especially as applied to the work in hand, forms the ground-work of most dramatic Prefaces, largely blended with skilful specimens of the noble art of self-justification, with vehement attacks upon critics, and perpetual grumblings against managers and actors, and all that was done and all that was not done for the pieces that follow" Introduction to Mitford, Dramatic Works (1854) 1: vi-vii.
Dustin Griffin: "The analogy of Sidney's generosity to Spenser ... provides Dryden with another opportunity to imply that patron and poet are on a par. Dryden encourages the idea that his relationship to his patron is analogous to the relationship of Spenser to Sidney. By the late seventeenth century, when they were both remembered as poets, the comparison clearly works in Dryden's favor. The same point is implicit in Dryden's making of Leicester a 'second Atticus.' ... What Dryden's reader remembers is not that Atticus was a great patron but that he was Cicero's friend" Literary Patronage in England (1996) 92-93.
Walter Scott's edition of Dryden's Works first commented on a thought Dryden borrows from Spenser, Act II, scene 1, ll. 526-29: "Brutus and Cato might discharge their Souls, | And give 'em Furlo's for another World: | But we, like Centry's, are oblig'd to stand | In starless Nights, and wait the 'pointed hour." Compare Faerie Queene 1.9.41: "The terme of life is limited | Ne may a man prolong, nor shorten it; | The souldier may not move from watchfull sted, | Nor leave his stand, untill his Captaine bed."
Far be it from me, (My most Noble Lord) to think, that any thing which my meanness can produce, shou'd be worthy to be offer'd to your Patronage; or that ought which I can say of you shou'd recommend you farther, to the esteem of good men in this present Age, or to the veneration which will certainly be paid you by Posterity. On the other side, I must acknowledg it a great presumption in me, to make you this Address; and so much the greater, because by the common suffrage even of contrary parties, you have been always regarded, as one of the first Persons of the Age, and yet no one Writer has dar'd to tell you so: Whether we have been all conscious to our selves that it was a needless labour to give this notice to Mankind, as all men are asham'd to tell stale news, or that we were justly diffident of our own performances, as even Cicero is observ'd to be in awe when he writes to Atticus; where knowing himself overmatch'd in good sense, and truth of knowledg, he drops the gawdy train of words, and is no longer the vain-glorious Orator. From whatever reason it may be, I am the first bold offender of this kind: I have broken down the fence, and ventur'd into the Holy Grove; how I may be punish'd for my profane attempt, I know not; but I wish it may not be of ill Omen to your Lordship, and that a crowd of bad Writers, do not rush into the quiet of your recesses after me. Every man in all changes of Government, which have been, or may possibly arrive, will agree, that I cou'd not have offer'd my Incense, where it cou'd be so well deserv'd. For you, My Lord, are secure in your own merit; and all Parties, as they rise uppermost, are sure to court you in their turns; 'tis a tribute which has ever been paid your vertue: The leading men still bring their bullion to your mint, to receive the stamp of their intrinsick value, that they may afterwards hope to pass with human kind. They rise and fall in the variety of Revolutions; and are sometimes great, and therefore wise in mens opinions, who must court them for their interest: But the reputation of their parts most commonly follows their success; few of 'em are wise, but as they are in power: Because indeed, they have no sphere of their own, but like the Moon in the Copernican Systeme of the World, are whirl'd about by the motion of a greater Planet. This it is to be ever busie; neither to give rest to their Fellow creatures, nor, which is more wretchedly ridiculous, to themselves: Tho truly, the latter is a kind of justice, and giving Mankind a due revenge, that they will not permit their own hearts to be at quiet, who disturb the repose of all beside them. Ambitious Meteors! how willing they are to set themselves upon the Wing; and taking every occasion of drawing upward to the Sun: Not considering that they have no more time allow'd them for their mounting, than the short revolution of a day: and that when the light goes from them, they are of necessity to fall. How much happier is he, (and who he is I need not say, for there is but one Phoenix in an Age,) who centring on himself, remains immovable, and smiles at the madness of the dance about him. He possesses the midst, which is the portion of safety and content: He will not be higher, because he needs it not; but by the prudence of that choice, he puts it out of Fortunes power to throw him down. 'Tis confest, that if he had not so been born, he might have been too high for happiness; but not endeavoring to ascend, he secures the native height of his station from envy; and cannot descend from what he is, because he depends not on another. What a glorious Character was this once in Rome; I shou'd say in Athens, when in the disturbances of a State as mad as ours, the wise Pomponius transported all the remaining wisdom and vertue of his Country, into the Sanctuary of Peace and Learning. But, I wou'd ask the World, (for you, My Lord, are too nearly concern'd to judge this Cause) whether there may not yet be found, a Character of a Noble Englishman, equally shining with that illustrious Roman? Whether I need to name a second Atticus; or whether the World has not already prevented me, and fix'd it there without my naming? Not a second with a "longo sed proximus intervallo"; not a Young Marcellus, flatter'd by a Poet, into a resemblance of the first, with a "frons laeta parum, & dejecto lumina vultu," and the rest that follows, "si qua fata aspera rumpas Tu Marcellus eris": But a Person of the same stamp and magnitude; who owes nothing to the former, besides the Word "Roman," and the Superstition of reverence, devolving on him by the precedency of eighteen hundred years: One who walks by him with equal paces, and shares the eyes of beholders with him: One, who had been first, had he first liv'd; and in spight of doating veneration is still his equal. Both of them born of Noble Families in unhappy Ages, of change and tumult; both of them retiring from Affairs of State: Yet, not leaving the Common-wealth, till it had left it self; but never returning to publick business, when they had once quitted it; tho courted by the Heads of either Party. But who wou'd trust the quiet of their lives, with the extravagancies of their Countrymen, when they were just in the giddiness of their turning; when the ground was tottering under them at every moment; and none cou'd guess whether the next heave of the Earthquake, wou'd settle them on the first Foundation, or swallow it? Both of them knew Mankind exactly well; for both of them began that study in themselves; and there they found the best part of humane composition: the worst they learn'd by long experience of the folly, ignorance, and immorality of most beside them. Their Philosophy on both sides, was not wholly speculative, for that is barren, and produces nothing but vain Ideas of things which cannot possibly be known; or if they cou'd, yet wou'd only terminate in the understanding; but it was a noble, vigorous, and practical Philosophy, which exerted it self in all the offices of pity, to those who were unfortunate, and deserv'd not so to be. The Friend was always more consider'd by them than the cause: And an Octavius, or an Anthony in distress, were reliev'd by them, as well as a Brutus or a Cassius; For the lowermost party to a noble mind, is ever the fittest object of good will. The eldest of them, I will suppose for his honour, to have been of the Academick Sect, neither Dogmatist nor Stoick; if he were not, I am sure he ought in common justice, to yield the precedency to his younger Brother. For stiffness of Opinion is the effect of Pride, and not of Philosophy: 'Tis a miserable Presumption of that knowledg which humane Nature is too narrow to contain. And the ruggedness of a Stoick is only a silly affectation of being a God: To wind himself up by Pulleys, to an insensibility of suffering; and at the same time to give the lye to his own Experience, by saying he suffers not what he knows he feels. True, Philosophy is certainly of a more pliant Nature, and more accommodated to human use; "Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto." A wise man will never attempt an impossibility; and such it is to strain himself beyond the nature of his Being; either to become a Deity, by being above suffering, or to debase himself into a Stock or Stone, by pretending not to feel it. To find in our selves the Weaknesses and Imperfections of our wretched Kind, is surely the most reasonable step we can make towards the Compassion of our fellow Creatures. I cou'd give Examples of this kind in the second Atticus. In every turn of State, without meddling on either side, he has always been favorable and assisting to opprest Merit. The Praises which were given by a great Poet to the late Queen Mother on her rebuilding Somerset Palace, one part of which was fronting to the mean Houses on the other side of the Water, are as justly his:
For, the distrest, and the afflicted lye
Most in his Thoughts, and always in his Eye.
Neither has he so far forgotten a poor Inhabitant of his Suburbs, whose best prospect is on the Garden of Leicester-House; but that more than once he has been offering him his Patronage, to reconcile him to a World, of which his Misfortunes have made him weary. There is another Sidney still remaining, tho there can never be another Spencer to deserve the Favor. But one Sidney gave his Patronage to the applications of a Poet; the other offer'd it unask'd. Thus, whether as a second Atticus, or a second Sir Philip Sidney, the latter, in all respects, will not have the worse of the comparison; and if he will take up with the second place, the World will not so far flatter his Modesty, as to seat him there, unless it be out of a deference of Manners, that he may place himself where he pleases at his own Table.
I may therefore safely conclude, that he, who by the consent of all men, bears so eminent a Character, will out of his inborn Nobleness, forgive the Presumption of this Address. 'Tis an unfinish'd Picture, I confess, but the Lines and Features are so like, that it cannot be mistaken for any other; and without writing any name under it, every beholder must cry out, at the first sight, this was design'd for Atticus; but the bad Artist, has cast too much of him into shades. But I have this Excuse, that even the greater Masters commonly fall short of the best Faces. They may flatter an indifferent Beauty; but the excellencies of Nature, can have no right done to them: For there both the Pencil and the Pen are overcome by the Dignity of the Subject; as our admirable Waller has express'd it,
The Hero's Race transcends the Poet's Thought.
There are few in any Age who can bear the load of a Dedication; for where Praise is undeserv'd, 'tis Satyr: Tho Satyr on Folly is now no longer a Scandal to any one Person, where a whole Age is dipt together; yet I had rather undertake a Multitude one way, than a single Atticus the other; for 'tis easier to descend, than 'tis to climb. I shou'd have gone asham'd out of the World, if I had not at least attempted this Address, which I have long thought owing: And if I had never attempted, I might have been vain enough to think I might have succeeded in it: now I have made the Experiment, and have fail'd, through my Unworthiness. I may rest satisfi'd, that either the Adventure is not to be atchiev'd, or that it is reserv'd for some other hand.
Be pleas'd therefore, since the Family of the Attici is and ought to be above the common Forms of concluding Letters, that I may take my leave in the Words of Cicero to the first of them: "Me, O Pomponi, valde poenitet vivere: tantum te oro, ut quoniam, me ipse semper amasti, ut eodem amore sis; ego nimirum, idem sum. Inimici mei mea mihi non meipsum ademerunt. Cura, Attice, ut valeas."