Lives of the Poets, Vol. 1
Part 6 out of 10
supposes the tempest to be something distinct from the wind, yet, as
being the effect of wind only, to come before the cause is a little
preposterous; so that, if he takes it one way, or if he takes it the
other, those two _ifs_ will scarce make one _possibility_." Enough of
Marriage à-la-mode, 1673, is a comedy dedicated to the earl of Rochester;
whom he acknowledges not only as the defender of his poetry, but the
promoter of his fortune. Langbaine places this play in 1673. The earl of
Rochester, therefore, was the famous Wilmot, whom yet tradition always
represents as an enemy to Dryden, and who is mentioned by him with some
disrespect in the preface to Juvenal.
The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery, a comedy, 1673, was driven off the
stage, "against the opinion," as the author says, "of the best judges."
It is dedicated, in a very elegant address, to sir Charles Sedley; in
which he finds an opportunity for his usual complaint of hard treatment
and unreasonable censure.
Amboyna, 1673, is a tissue of mingled dialogue in verse and prose, and
was, perhaps, written in less time than the Virgin Martyr; though the
author thought not fit, either ostentatiously or mournfully, to tell how
little labour it cost him, or at how short a warning he produced it. It
was a temporary performance, written in the time of the Dutch war,
to inflame the nation against their enemies; to whom he hopes, as he
declares in his epilogue, to make his poetry not less destructive than
that by which Tyrtaeus of old animated the Spartans. This play was
written in the second Dutch war, in 1673.
Troilus and Cressida, 1679, is a play altered from Shakespeare; but so
altered, that, even in Langbaine's opinion, "the last scene in the third
act is a masterpiece." It is introduced by a discourse on the grounds
of criticism in tragedy, to which I suspect that Rymer's book had given
The Spanish Fryar, 1681, is a tragicomedy, eminent for the happy
coincidence and coalition of the two plots. As it was written against the
papists, it would naturally, at that time, have friends and enemies; and
partly by the popularity which it obtained at first, and partly by the
real power both of the serious and risible part, it continued long a
favourite of the publick.
It was Dryden's opinion, at least for some time, and he maintains it in
the dedication of this play, that the drama required an alternation of
comick and tragick scenes; and that it is necessary to mitigate, by
alleviations of merriment, the pressure of ponderous events, and the
fatigue of toilsome passions. "Whoever," says he, "cannot perform both
parts, is but half a writer for the stage."
The Duke of Guise, a tragedy, 1683, written in conjunction with Lee, as
Oedipus had been before, seems to deserve notice only for the offence
which it gave to the remnant of the covenanters, and in general to the
enemies of the court, who attacked him with great violence, and were
answered by him; though, at last, he seems to withdraw from the conflict,
by transferring the greater part of the blame or merit to his partner. It
happened that a contract had been made between them, by which they were
to join in writing a play; and "he happened," says Dryden, "to claim the
promise just upon the finishing of a poem, when I would have been glad of
a little respite. _Two_-thirds of it belonged to him; and to me only the
first scene of the play, the whole fourth act, and the first half, or
somewhat more, of the fifth."
This was a play written professedly for the party of the duke of York,
whose succession was then opposed. A parallel is intended between the
leaguers of France, and the covenanters of England: and this intention
produced the controversy.
Albion and Albanius, 1685, is a musical drama or opera, written, like
the Duke of Guise, against the republicans. With what success it was
performed, I have not found.
The State of Innocence and Fall of Man, 1675, is termed, by him, an
opera: it is rather a tragedy in heroick rhyme, but of which the
personages are such as cannot decently be exhibited on the stage. Some
such production was foreseen by Marvel, who writes thus to Milton:
Or if a work so infinite be spann'd,
Jealous I was, lest some less skilful hand
(Such as disquiet always what is well,
And by ill-imitating would excel,)
Might hence presume the whole creation's day
To change in scenes, and show it in a play.
It is another of his hasty productions; for the heat of his imagination
raised it in a month.
This composition is addressed to the princess of Modena, then dutchess of
York, in a strain of flattery which disgraces genius, and which it was
wonderful that any man, that knew the meaning of his own words, could use
without self-detestation. It is an attempt to mingle earth and heaven, by
praising human excellence in the language of religion.
The preface contains an apology for heroick verse and poetick license; by
which is meant not any liberty taken in contracting or extending words,
but the use of bold fictions and ambitious figures.
The reason which he gives for printing what was never acted, cannot be
overpassed: "I was induced to it in my own defence, many hundred copies
of it being dispersed abroad without my knowledge or consent, and every
one gathering new faults, it became, at length, a libel against me."
These copies, as they gathered faults, were apparently manuscript; and
he lived in an age very unlike ours, if many hundred copies of fourteen
hundred lines were likely to be transcribed. An author has a right to
print his own works, and needs not seek an apology in falsehood; but he
that could bear to write the dedication, felt no pain in writing the
Aureng Zebe, 1676, is a tragedy founded on the actions of a great prince
then reigning, but over nations not likely to employ their criticks upon
the transactions of the English stage. If he had known and disliked
his own character, our trade was not in those times secure from his
resentment. His country is at such a distance, that the manners might be
safely falsified, and the incidents feigned; for remoteness of place is
remarked, by Racine, to afford the same conveniencies to a poet as length
This play is written in rhyme; and has the appearance of being the
most elaborate of all the dramas. The personages are imperial; but the
dialogue is often domestick, and, therefore, susceptible of sentiments
accommodated to familiar incidents. The complaint of life is celebrated;
and there are many other passages that may be read with pleasure.
This play is addressed to the earl of Mulgrave, afterwards duke of
Buckingham, himself, if not a poet, yet a writer of verses, and a
critick. In this address Dryden gave the first hints of his intention to
write an epick poem. He mentions his design in terms so obscure, that he
seems afraid lest his plan should be purloined, as, he says, happened to
him when he told it more plainly in his preface to Juvenal. "The design,"
says he, "you know is great, the story English, and neither too near the
present times, nor too distant from them."
All for Love, or the World well Lost, 1678, a tragedy, founded upon the
story of Antony and Cleopatra, he tells us, "is the only play which
he wrote for himself:" the rest were given to the people. It is, by
universal consent, accounted the work in which he has admitted the fewest
improprieties of style or character; but it has one fault equal to many,
though rather moral than critical, that, by admitting the romantick
omnipotence of love, he has recommended as laudable, and worthy of
imitation, that conduct which, through all ages, the good have censured
as vitious, and the bad despised as foolish.
Of this play the prologue and the epilogue, though written upon the
common topicks of malicious and ignorant criticism, and without any
particular relation to the characters or incidents of the drama, are
deservedly celebrated for their elegance and sprightliness.
Limberham, or the kind Keeper, 1680, is a comedy, which, after the third
night, was prohibited as too indecent for the stage. What gave offence,
was in the printing, as the author says, altered or omitted. Dryden
confesses that its indecency was objected to; but Langbaine, who yet
seldom favours him, imputes its expulsion to resentment, because it "so
much exposed the keeping part of the town."
Oedipus, 1679, is a tragedy formed by Dryden and Lee, in conjunction,
from the works of Sophocles, Seneca, and Corneille. Dryden planned the
scenes, and composed the first and third acts.
Don Sebastian, 1690, is commonly esteemed either the first or second of
his dramatick performances. It is too long to be all acted, and has many
characters and many incidents; and though it is not without sallies
of frantick dignity, and more noise than meaning, yet, as it makes
approaches to the possibilities of real life, and has some sentiments
which leave a strong impression, it continued long to attract attention.
Amidst the distresses of princes, and the vicissitudes of empire, are
inserted several scenes which the writer intended for comick; but which,
I suppose, that age did not much commend, and this would not endure.
There are, however, passages of excellence universally acknowledged; the
dispute and the reconciliation of Dorax and Sebastian has always been
This play was first acted in 1690, after Dryden had for some years
discontinued dramatick poetry.
Amphitryon is a comedy derived from Plautus and Molière. The dedication
is dated Oct. 1690. This play seems to have succeeded at its first
appearance; and was, I think, long considered as a very diverting
Cleomenes, 1692, is a tragedy, only remarkable as it occasioned an
incident related in the Guardian, and allusively mentioned by Dryden in
his preface. As he came out from the representation, he was accosted thus
by some airy stripling: "Had I been left alone with a young beauty, I
would not have spent my time like your Spartan." "That sir," said Dryden,
"perhaps, is true; but give me leave to tell you, that you are no hero."
King Arthur, 1691, is another opera. It was the last work that Dryden
performed for king Charles, who did not live to see it exhibited; and
it does not seem to have been ever brought upon the stage. In the
dedication to the marquis of Halifax, there is a very elegant character
of Charles, and a pleasing account of his latter life. When this was
first brought upon the stage, news that the duke of Monmouth had landed
was told in the theatre; upon which the company departed, and Arthur was
exhibited no more.
His last drama was Love Triumphant, a tragicomedy. In his dedication to
the earl of Salisbury he mentions "the lowness of fortune to which he
has voluntarily reduced himself, and of which he has no reason to be
This play appeared in 1694. It is said to have been unsuccessful. The
catastrophe, proceeding merely from a change of mind, is confessed by the
author to be defective. Thus he began and ended his dramatick labours
with ill success.
From such a number of theatrical pieces, it will be supposed, by most
readers, that he must have improved his fortune; at least, that such
diligence, with such abilities, must have set penury at defiance. But
in Dryden's time the drama was very far from that universal approbation
which it has now obtained. The playhouse was abhorred by the puritans,
and avoided by those who desired the character of seriousness or decency.
A grave lawyer would have debased his dignity, and a young trader would
have impaired his credit, by appearing in those mansions of dissolute
licentiousness. The profits of the theatre, when so many classes of the
people were deducted from the audience, were not great; and the poet had,
for a long time, but a single night. The first that had two nights was
Southern; and the first that had three was Howe. There were, however, in
those days, arts of improving a poet's profit, which Dryden forbore to
practise; and a play, therefore, seldom produced him more than a hundred
pounds, by the accumulated gain of the third night, the dedication, and
Almost every piece had a dedication, written with such elegance and
luxuriance of praise, as neither haughtiness nor avarice could be
imagined able to resist. But he seems to have made flattery too cheap.
That praise is worth nothing of which the price is known.
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.
His prologues had such reputation, that for some time a play was
considered as less likely to be well received, if some of his verses did
not introduce it. The price of a prologue was two guineas, till, being
asked to write one for Mr. Southern, he demanded three: "Not," said he,
"young man, out of disrespect to you; but the players have had my goods
Though he declares, that in his own opinion, his genius was not
dramatick, he had great confidence in his own fertility; for he is said
to have engaged, by contract, to furnish four plays a year.
It is certain, that in one year, 1678, he published All for Love,
Assignation, two parts of the Conquest of Granada, sir Martin Mar-all,
and the State of Innocence, six complete plays; with a celerity of
performance, which, though all Langbaine's charges of plagiarism should
be allowed, shows such facility of composition, such readiness of
language, and such copiousness of sentiment, as, since the time of Lopez
de Vega, perhaps no other author has possessed.
He did not enjoy his reputation, however great, nor his profits, however
small, without molestation. He had criticks to endure, and rivals to
oppose. The two most distinguished wits of the nobility, the duke of
Buckingham and earl of Rochester, declared themselves his enemies.
Buckingham characterized him, in 1671, by the name of Bayes, in the
Rehearsal; a farce which he is said to have written with the assistance
of Butler, the author of Hudibras; Martin Clifford, of the Charter-house;
and Dr. Sprat, the friend of Cowley, then his chaplain. Dryden and his
friends laughed at the length of time, and the number of hands, employed
upon this performance; in which, though by some artifice of action it yet
keeps possession of the stage, it is not possible now to find any thing
that might not have been written without so long delay, or a confederacy
To adjust the minute events of literary history, is tedious and
troublesome; it requires, indeed, no great force of understanding, but
often depends upon inquiries which there is no opportunity of making, or
is to be fetched from books and pamphlets not always at hand.
The Rehearsal was played in 1671, and yet is represented as
ridiculing passages in the Conquest of Granada and Assignation, which
were not published till 1678; in Marriage à-la-mode, published in 1673;
and in Tyrannick Love, in 1677. These contradictions show how rashly
satire is applied.
It is said that this farce was originally intended against Davenant, who,
in the first draught, was characterized by the name of Bilboa. Davenant
had been a soldier and an adventurer.
There is one passage in the Rehearsal still remaining, which seems to
have related originally to Davenant. Bayes hurts his nose, and comes in
with brown paper applied to the bruise; how this affected Dryden, does
not appear. Davenant's nose had suffered such diminution by mishaps among
the women, that a patch upon that part evidently denoted him.
It is said, likewise, that sir Robert Howard was once meant. The design
was, probably, to ridicule the reigning poet, whoever he might be.
Much of the personal satire, to which it might owe its first reception,
is now lost or obscured. Bayes, probably, imitated the dress, and
mimicked the manner, of Dryden: the cant words which are so often in
his mouth may be supposed to have been Dryden's habitual phrases, or
customary exclamations. Bayes, when he is to write, is blooded and
purged: this, as Lamotte relates himself to have heard, was the real
practice of the poet.
There were other strokes in the Rehearsal by which malice was gratified:
the debate between love and honour, which keeps prince Volscius in a
single boot, is said to have alluded to the misconduct of the duke
of Ormond, who lost Dublin to the rebels, while he was toying with a
The earl of Rochester, to suppress the reputation of Dryden, took Settle
into his protection, and endeavoured to persuade the publick that its
approbation had been to that time misplaced. Settle was awhile in high
reputation: his Empress of Morocco, having first delighted the town, was
carried in triumph to Whitehall, and played by the ladies of the court.
Now was the poetical meteor at the highest; the next moment began its
fall. Rochester withdrew his patronage; seeming resolved, says one of his
biographers, "to have a judgment contrary to that of the town;" perhaps
being unable to endure any reputation beyond a certain height, even when
he had himself contributed to raise it.
Neither criticks nor rivals did Dryden much mischief, unless they gained
from his own temper the power of vexing him, which his frequent bursts of
resentment give reason to suspect. He is always angry at some past, or
afraid of some future censure; but he lessens the smart of his wounds by
the balm of his own approbation, and endeavours to repel the shafts of
criticism by opposing a shield of adamantine confidence.
The perpetual accusation produced against him, was that of plagiarism,
against which he never attempted any vigorous defence; for, though he
was, perhaps, sometimes injuriously censured, he would, by denying part
of the charge, have confessed the rest; and, as his adversaries had the
proof in their own hands, he, who knew that wit had little power against
facts, wisely left in that perplexity which generality produces a
question which it was his interest to suppress, and which, unless
provoked by vindication, few were likely to examine.
Though the life of a writer, from about thirty-five to sixty-three,
may be supposed to have been sufficiently busied by the composition of
eight-and-twenty pieces for the stage, Dryden found room in the same
space for many other undertakings. But, how much soever he wrote, he was
at least once suspected of writing more; for, in 1679, a paper of verses,
called an Essay on Satire, was shown about in manuscript; by which the
earl of Rochester, the dutchess of Portsmouth, and others, were so much
provoked, that, as was supposed, (for the actors were never discovered,)
they procured Dryden, whom they suspected as the author, to be
way-laid and beaten. This incident is mentioned by the duke of
Buckinghamshire, the true writer, in his Art of Poetry; where he
says of Dryden:
Though prais'd and beaten for another's rhymes,
His own deserve as great applause sometimes.
His reputation in time was such, that his name was thought necessary to
the success of every poetical or literary performance, and, therefore,
he was engaged to contribute something, whatever it might be, to many
publications. He prefixed the Life of Polybius to the translation of sir
Henry Sheers; and those of Lucian and Plutarch, to versions of their
works by different hands. Of the English Tacitus he translated the first
book; and, if Gordon be credited, translated it from the French. Such a
charge can hardly be mentioned without some degree of indignation; but
it is not, I suppose, so much to be inferred, that Dryden wanted the
literature necessary to the perusal of Tacitus, as that, considering
himself as hidden in a crowd, he had no awe of the publick; and, writing
merely for money, was contented to get it by the nearest way.
In 1680, the Epistles of Ovid being translated by the poets of the time,
among which one was the work of Dryden, and another of Dryden and
lord Mulgrave, it was necessary to introduce them by a preface; and
Dryden, who on such occasions was regularly summoned, prefixed a
discourse upon translation, which was then struggling for the liberty
that it now enjoys. Why it should find any difficulty in breaking the
shackles of verbal interpretation, which must for ever debar it from
elegance, it would be difficult to conjecture, were not the power of
prejudice every day observed. The authority of Jonson, Sandys, and
Holiday, had fixed the judgment of the nation; and it was not easily
believed that a better way could be found than they had taken, though
Fanshaw, Denham, Waller, and Cowley, had tried to give examples of a
In 1681 Dryden became yet more conspicuous by uniting politicks with
poetry, in the memorable satire, called Absalom and Achitophel, written
against the faction which, by lord Shaftesbury's incitement, set the duke
of Monmouth at its head.
Of this poem, in which personal satire was applied to the support of
publick principles, and in which, therefore, every mind was interested,
the reception was eager, and the sale so large, that my father, an old
bookseller, told me, he had not known it equalled but by Sacheverell's
The reason of this general perusal Addison has attempted to derive from
the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of secrets; and
thinks that curiosity to decipher the names, procured readers to the
poem. There is no need to inquire why those verses were read, which, to
all the attractions of wit, elegance, and harmony, added the cooperation
of all the factious passions, and filled every mind with triumph or
It could not be supposed that all the provocation given by Dryden, would
be endured without resistance or reply. Both his person and his party
were exposed, in their turns, to the shafts of satire, which, though
neither so well pointed, nor, perhaps, so well aimed, undoubtedly drew
One of these poems is called, Dryden's Satire on his Muse; ascribed,
though, as Pope says, falsely, to Somers, who was afterwards chancellor.
The poem, whosesoever it was, has much virulence, and some sprightliness.
The writer tells all the ill that he can collect both of Dryden and his
The poem of Absalom and Achitophel had two answers, now both forgotten;
one called Azaria and Hushai; the other, Absalom senior. Of these hostile
compositions, Dryden apparently imputes Absalom senior to Settle, by
quoting in his verses against him the second line. Azaria and Hushai was,
as Wood says, imputed to him, though it is somewhat unlikely that he
should write twice on the same occasion. This is a difficulty which
I cannot remove, for want of a minuter knowledge of poetical
The same year he published The Medal, of which the subject is a
medal struck on lord Shaftesbury's escape from a prosecution, by the
_ignoramus_ of a grand jury of Londoners.
In both poems he maintains the same principles, and saw them both
attacked by the same antagonist. Elkanah Settle, who had answered
Absalom, appeared with equal courage in opposition to The Medal, and
published an answer called, The Medal Reversed, with so much success
in both encounters, that he left the palm doubtful, and divided the
suffrages of the nation. Such are the revolutions of fame, or such is
the prevalence of fashion, that the man, whose works have not yet been
thought to deserve the care of collecting them, who died forgotten in
an hospital, and whose latter years were spent in contriving shows for
fairs, and carrying an elegy or epithalamium, of which the beginning and
end were occasionally varied, but the intermediate parts were always the
same, to every house where there was a funeral or a wedding, might with
truth have had inscribed upon his stone:
Here lies the rival and antagonist of Dryden.
Settle was, for this rebellion, severely chastised by Dryden, under the
name of Doeg, in the second part of Absalom and Achitophel; and was,
perhaps, for his factious audacity, made the city poet, whose annual
office was to describe the glories of the mayor's day. Of these bards he
was the last, and seems not much to have deserved even this degree of
regard, if it was paid to his political opinions; for he afterwards wrote
a panegyrick on the virtues of judge Jefferies; and what more could have
been done by the meanest zealot for prerogative?
Of translated fragments, or occasional poems, to enumerate the titles, or
settle the dates, would be tedious, with little use. It may be observed,
that, as Dryden's genius was commonly excited by some personal regard, he
rarely writes upon a general topick.
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 Reynolds's
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
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.
The priests, having strengthened their cause by so powerful an adherent,
were not long before they brought him into action. They engaged him to
defend the controversial papers found in the strong box of Charles the
second; and, what yet was harder, to defend them against Stillingfleet.
With hopes of promoting popery, he was employed to translate Maimbourg's
History of the League; which he published with a large introduction. His
name is, likewise, prefixed to the English Life of Francis Xavier; but I
know not that he ever owned himself the translator. Perhaps the use of
his name was a pious fraud, which, however, seems not to have had much
effect; for neither of the books, I believe, was ever popular.
The version of Xavier's Life is commended by Brown, in a pamphlet not
written to flatter; and the occasion of it is said to have been, that the
queen, when she solicited a son, made vows to him as her tutelary saint.
He was supposed to have undertaken to translate Varillas's History of
Heresies; and, when Burnet published remarks upon it, to have written an
answer; upon which Burnet makes the following observation:
"I have been informed from England, that a gentleman, who is famous
both for poetry and several other things, had spent three months in
translating M. Varillas's History; but that, as soon as my Reflections
appeared, he discontinued his labour, finding the credit of his author
was gone. Now, if he thinks it is recovered by his answer, he will,
perhaps, go on with his translation; and this may be, for aught I know,
as good an entertainment for him as the conversation that he had set on
between the Hinds and Panthers, and all the rest of animals, for whom M.
Varillas may serve well enough as an author: and this history, and that
poem, are such extraordinary things of their kind, that it will be but
suitable to see the author of the worst poem become, likewise, the
translator of the worst history that the age has produced. If his grace
and his wit improve both proportionably, he will hardly find that he has
gained much by the change he has made, from having no religion, to choose
one of the worst. It is true, he had somewhat to sink from in matter of
wit; but, as for his morals, it is scarce possible for him to grow
a worse man than he was. He has lately wreaked his malice on me for
spoiling his three months' labour; but in it he has done me all the
honour that any man can receive from him, which is to be railed at by
him. If I had ill-nature enough to prompt me to wish a very bad wish for
him, it should be, that he would go on and finish his translation. By
that it will appear, whether the English nation, which is the most
competent judge in this matter, has, upon the seeing our debate,
pronounced in M. Varillas's favour, or in mine. It is true, Mr. D. will
suffer a little by it; but, at least, it will serve to keep him in from
other extravagancies; and if he gains little honour by this work, yet he
cannot lose so much by it as he has done by his last employment."
Having, probably, felt his own inferiority in theological controversy, he
was desirous of trying whether, by bringing poetry to aid his arguments,
he might be'come a more efficacious defender of his new profession. To
reason in verse was, indeed, one of his powers; but subtilty and harmony,
united, are still feeble, when opposed to truth.
Actuated, therefore, by zeal for Rome, or hope of fame, he published The
Hind and Panther, a poem in which the church of Rome, figured by the
_milk-white hind_, defends her tenets against the church of England,
represented by the _panther_, a beast beautiful, but spotted.
A fable which exhibits two beasts talking theology, appears, at once,
full of absurdity; and it was accordingly ridiculed in the City Mouse and
Country Mouse, a parody, written by Montague, afterwards earl of Halifax,
and Prior, who then gave the first specimen of his abilities.
The conversion of such a man, at such a time, was not likely to pass
uneensured. Three dialogues were published by the facetious Thomas Brown,
of which the two first were called Reasons of Mr. Bayes's changing his
Religion; and the third, The Reasons of Mr. Hains the Player's Conversion
and Reconversion. The first was printed in 1688, the second not till
1690, the third in 1691. The clamour seems to have been long continued,
and the subject to have strongly fixed the publick attention.
In the two first dialogues Bayes is brought into the company of Crites
and Eugenius, with whom he had formerly debated on dramatick poetry. The
two talkers in the third are Mr. Bayes and Mr. Hains.
Brown was a man not deficient in literature, nor destitute of fancy; but
he seems to have thought it the pinnacle of excellence to be a _merry
fellow_; and, therefore, laid out his powers upon small jests or gross
buffoonery; so that his performances have little intrinsick value, and
were read only while they were recommended by the novelty of the event
that occasioned them. These dialogues are like his other works: what
sense or knowledge they contain is disgraced by the garb in which it is
exhibited. One great source of pleasure is to call Dryden "little Bayes."
Ajax, who happens to be mentioned, is "he that wore as many cow-hides
upon his shield as would have furnished half the king's army with
Being asked whether he had seen the Hind and Panther, Crites answers:
"Seen it! Mr. Bayes, why I can stir nowhere but it pursues me; it haunts
me worse than a pewter-buttoned serjeant does a decayed cit. Sometimes I
meet it in a bandbox, when my laundress brings home my linen; sometimes,
whether I will or no, it lights my pipe at a coffee-house; sometimes it
surprises me in a trunkmaker's shop; and sometimes it refreshes my memory
for me on the backside of a Chancery lane parcel. For your comfort too,
Mr. Bayes, I have not only seen it, as you may perceive, but have read it
too, and can quote it as freely upon occasion as a frugal tradesman
can quote that noble treatise The Worth of a Penny, to his extravagant
'prentice, that revels in stewed apples and penny custards."
The whole animation of these compositions arises from a profusion of
ludicrous and affected comparisons. "To secure one's chastity," says
Bayes, "little more is necessary than to leave off a correspondence with
the other sex, which, to a wise man, is no greater a punishment than it
would be to a fanatick parson to be forbid seeing The Cheats and The
Committee; or for my lord mayor and aldermen to be interdicted the sight
of The London Cuckold." This is the general strain, and, therefore, I
shall be easily excused the labour of more transcription.
Brown does not wholly forget past transactions: "You began," says Crites
to Bayes, "with a very indifferent religion, and have not mended the
matter in your last choice. It was but reason that your muse, which
appeared first in a tyrant's quarrel, should employ her last efforts to
justify the usurpations of the hind." Next year the nation was summoned
to celebrate the birth of the prince. Now was the time for Dryden to
rouse his imagination, and strain his voice. Happy days were at hand,
and he was willing to enjoy and diffuse the anticipated blessings. He
published a poem, filled with predictions of greatness and prosperity;
predictions of which it is not necessary to tell how they have been
A few months passed after these joyful notes, and every blossom of popish
hope was blasted for ever by the revolution. A papist now could be no
longer laureate. The revenue, which he had enjoyed with so much pride and
praise, was transferred to Shadwell, an old enemy, whom he had formerly
stigmatised by the name of Og. Dryden could not decently complain that he
was deposed; but seemed very angry that Shadwell succeeded him, and has,
therefore, celebrated the intruder's inauguration in a poem exquisitely
satirical, called Mac Flecknoe; of which the Dunciad, as Pope
himself declares, is an imitation, though more extended in its plan, and
more diversified in its incidents.
It is related by Prior, that lord Dorset, when, as chamberlain, he was
constrained to eject Dryden from his office, gave him, from his own
purse, an allowance equal to the salary. This is no romantick or
incredible act of generosity; a hundred a year is often enough given to
claims less cogent, by men less famed for liberality. Yet Dryden always
represented himself as suffering under a publick infliction; and once
particularly demands respect for the patience with which he endured the
loss of his little fortune. His patron might, indeed, enjoin him to
suppress his bounty; but, if he suffered nothing, he should not have
During the short reign of king James, he had written nothing for
the stage, being, in his opinion, more profitably employed in
controversy and flattery. Of praise he might, perhaps, have been less
lavish without inconvenience, for James was never said to have much
regard for poetry: he was to be flattered only by adopting his religion.
Times were now changed: Dryden was no longer the court-poet, and was to
look back for support to his former trade; and having waited about two
years, either considering himself as discountenanced by the publick,
perhaps expecting a second revolution, he produced Don Sebastian in 1690;
and in the next four years four dramas more.
In 1693 appeared a new version of Juvenal and Persius. Of Juvenal, he
translated the first, third, sixth, tenth, and sixteenth satires; and of
Persius, the whole work. On this occasion, he introduced his two sons to
the publick, as nurslings of the muses. The fourteenth of Juvenal was the
work of John, and the seventh of Charles Dryden. He prefixed a very ample
preface, in the form of a dedication to lord Dorset; and there gives an
account of the design which he had once formed to write an epick poem on
the actions either of Arthur or the Black Prince. He considered the
epick as necessarily including some kind of supernatural agency, and had
imagined a new kind of contest between the guardian angels of kingdoms,
of whom he conceived that each might be represented zealous for his
charge, without any intended opposition to the purposes of the supreme
being, of which all created minds must in part be ignorant.
This is the most reasonable scheme of celestial interposition that ever
was formed. The surprises and terrours of enchantments, which have
succeeded to the intrigues and oppositions of pagan deities, afford very
striking scenes, and open a vast extent to the imagination; but, as
Boileau observes, (and Boileau will be seldom found mistaken,) with this
incurable defect, that, in a contest between heaven and hell, we know at
the beginning which is to prevail; for this reason we follow Rinaldo to
the enchanted wood with more curiosity than terrour.
In the scheme of Dryden there is one great difficulty, which yet he
would, perhaps, have had address enough to surmount. In a war, justice
can be but on one side; and, to entitle the hero to the protection of
angels, he must fight in the defence of indubitable right. Yet some
of the celestial beings, thus opposed to each other, must have been
represented as defending guilt.
That this poem was never written, is reasonably to be lamented. It would,
doubtless, have improved our numbers, and enlarged our language; and
might, perhaps, have contributed, by pleasing instruction, to rectify our
opinions, and purify our manners.
What he required as the indispensable condition of such an undertaking, a
publick stipend, was not likely, in those times, to be obtained. Riches
were not become familiar to us; nor had the nation yet learned to be
This plan he charged Blackmore with stealing; "only," says he, "the
guardian angels of kingdoms were machines too ponderous for him to
In 1694, he began the most laborious and difficult of all his works, the
translation of Virgil; from which he borrowed two months, that he might
turn Fresnoy's Art of Painting into English prose. The preface, which he
boasts to have written in twelve mornings, exhibits a parallel of poetry
and painting, with a miscellaneous collection of critical remarks, such
as cost a mind, stored like his, no labour to produce them.
In 1697, he published his version of the works of Virgil; and, that no
opportunity of profit might be lost, dedicated the Pastorals to the lord
Clifford, the Georgicks to the earl of Chesterfield, and the Aeneid to the
earl of Mulgrave. This economy of flattery, at once lavish and discreet,
did not pass without observation.
This translation was censured by Milbourne, a clergyman, styled, by Pope,
"the fairest of criticks," because he exhibited his own version to be
compared with that which he condemned.
His last work was his Fables, published in 1699, in consequence, as is
supposed, of a contract now in the hands of Mr. Tonson; by which he
obliged himself, in considerationof three hundred pounds, to finish for
the press ten thousand verses.
In this volume is comprised the well-known ode on St. Cecilia's day,
which, as appeared by a letter communicated to Dr. Birch, he spent a
fortnight in composing and correcting. But what is this to the patience
and diligence of Boileau, whose Equivoque, a poem of only three hundred
and forty-six lines, took from his life eleven months to write it, and
three years to revise it?
Part of this book of Fables is the first Iliad in English, intended as a
specimen of a version of the whole. Considering into what hands Homer was
to fall, the reader cannot but rejoice that this project went no further.
The time was now at hand which was to put an end to all his schemes and
labours. On the first of May, 1701, having been some time, as he tells
us, a cripple in his limbs, he died, in Gerard street, of a mortification
in his leg.
There is extant a wild story relating to some vexatious events that
happened at his funeral, which, at the end of Congreve's Life, by a
writer of I know not what credit, are thus related, as I find the account
transferred to a biographical dictionary.
"Mr. Dryden dying on the Wednesday morning, Dr. Thomas Sprat, then bishop
of Rochester and dean of Westminster, sent the next day to the lady
Elizabeth Howard, Mr. Dryden's widow, that he would make a present of the
ground, which was forty pounds, with all the other abbey fees. The lord
Halifax, likewise, sent to the lady Elizabeth, and Mr. Charles Dryden
her son, that, if they would give him leave to bury Mr. Dryden, he would
inter him with a gentleman's private funeral, and afterwards bestow five
hundred pounds on a monument in the abbey; which, as they had no reason
to refuse, they accepted. On the Saturday following the company came:
the corpse was put into a velvet hearse; and eighteen mourning coaches,
filled with company, attended. When they were just ready to move, the
lord Jefferies, son of the lord chancellor Jefferies, with some of his
rakish companions, coming by, asked whose funeral it was; and, being
told Mr. Dryden's, he said, 'What, shall Dryden, the greatest honour
and ornament of the nation, be buried after this private manner! No,
gentlemen, let all that loved Mr. Dryden, and honour his memory, alight
and join with me in gaining my lady's consent to let me have the honour
of his interment, which shall be after another manner than this; and I
will bestow a thousand pounds on a monument in the abbey for him.' The
gentlemen in the coaches, not knowing of the bishop of Rochester's
favour, nor of the lord Halifax's generous design, (they both having, out
of respect to the family, enjoined the lady Elizabeth and her son to
keep their favour concealed to the world, and let it pass for their own
expense,) readily came out of the coaches, and attended lord Jefferies up
to the lady's bedside, who was then sick. He repeated the purport of what
he had before said; but she absolutely refusing, he fell on his knees,
vowing never to rise till his request was granted. The rest of the
company, by his desire, kneeled also; and the lady, being under a sudden
surprise, fainted away. As soon as she recovered her speech, she cried,
'No, no.' 'Enough, gentlemen,' replied he; 'my lady is very good; she
says, Go, go.' She repeated her former words with all her strength, but
in vain, for her feeble voice was lost in their acclamations of joy;
and the lord Jefferies ordered the horsemen to carry the corpse to Mr.
Russel's, an undertaker in Cheapside, and leave it there till he should
send orders for the embalment, which, he added, should be after the royal
manner. His directions were obeyed, the company dispersed, and lady
Elizabeth and her son remained inconsolable. The next day Mr. Charles
Dryden waited on the lord Halifax and the bishop, to excuse his mother
and himself, by relating the real truth. But neither his lordship nor the
bishop would admit of any plea; especially the latter, who had the abbey
lighted, the ground opened, the choir attending, an anthem ready set,
and himself waiting, for some time, without any corpse to bury. The
undertaker, after three days' expectance of orders for embalment without
receiving any, waited on the lord Jefferies; who, pretending ignorance of
the matter, turned it off with an ill-natured jest, saying, that those
who observed the orders of a drunken frolick deserved no better; that he
remembered nothing at all of it; and that he might do what he pleased
with the corpse. Upon this, the undertaker waited upon the lady Elizabeth
and her son, and threatened to bring the corpse home, and set it before
the door. They desired a day's respite, which was granted. Mr. Charles
Dryden wrote a handsome letter to the lord Jefferies, who returned it
with this cool answer: 'that he knew nothing of the matter, and would be
troubled no more about it.' He then addressed the lord Halifax and the
bishop of Rochester, who absolutely refused to do any thing in it. In
this distress Dr. Garth sent for the corpse to the College of Physicians,
and proposed a funeral by subscription, to which himself set a most noble
example. At last, a day, about three weeks after Mr. Dryden's decease,
was appointed for the interment. Dr. Garth pronounced a fine Latin
oration, at the college, over the corpse; which was attended to the abbey
by a numerous train of coaches. When the funeral was over, Mr. Charles
Dryden sent a challenge to the lord Jefferies, who refusing to answer it,
he sent several others, and went often himself; but could neither get a
letter delivered, nor admittance to speak to him: which so incensed
him, that he resolved, since his lordship refused to answer him like a
gentleman, that he would watch an opportunity to meet and fight off-hand,
though with all the rules of honour; which his lordship hearing, left the
town; and Mr. Charles Dryden could never have the satisfaction of meeting
him, though he sought it till his death with the utmost application."
This story I once intended to omit, as it appears with no great evidence;
nor have I met with any confirmation, but in a letter of Farquhar; and he
only relates that the funeral of Dryden was tumultuary and confused.
Supposing the story true, we may remark, that the gradual change of
manners, though imperceptible in the process, appears great, when
different times, and those not very distant, are compared. If, at this
time, a young drunken lord should interrupt the pompous regularity of a
magnificent funeral, what would be the event, but that he would be
justled out of the way, and compelled to be quiet? If he should thrust
himself into a house, he would be sent roughly away; and, what is yet
more to the honour of the present time, I believe that those who had
subscribed to the funeral of a man like Dryden, would not, for such an
accident, have withdrawn their contributions.
He was buried among the poets in Westminster Abbey, where, though the
duke of Newcastle had, in a general dedication prefixed by Congreve to
his dramatick works, accepted thanks for his intention of erecting him
a monument, he lay long without distinction, till the duke of
Buckinghamshire gave him a tablet, inscribed only with the name of
He married the lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the earl of Berkshire,
with circumstances, according to the satire imputed to lord Somers, not
very honourable to either party: by her he had three sons, Charles, John,
and Henry. Charles was usher of the palace to pope Clement the eleventh;
and, visiting England in 1704, was drowned in an attempt to swim across
the Thames at Windsor.
John was author of a comedy called The Husband his own Cuckold. He is
said to have died at Rome. Henry entered into some religious order. It is
some proof of Dryden's sincerity in his second religion, that he taught
it to his sons. A man conscious of hypocritical profession in himself, is
not likely to convert others; and, as his sons were qualified, in 1693,
to appear among the translators of Juvenal, they must have been taught
some religion before their father's change.
Of the person of Dryden I know not any account; of his mind, the portrait
which has been left by Congreve, who knew him with great familiarity, is
such as adds our love of his manners to our admiration of his genius. "He
was," we are told, "of a nature exceedingly humane and compassionate,
ready to forgive injuries, and capable of a sincere reconciliation with
those who had offended him. His friendship, where he professed it, went
beyond his professions. He was of a very easy, of very pleasing, access;
but somewhat slow, and, as it were, diffident in his advances to others:
he had that in his nature which abhorred intrusion into any society
whatever. He was, therefore, less known, and consequently his character
became more liable to misapprehensions and misrepresentations: he was
very modest, and very easily to be discountenanced in his approaches to
his equals or superiours. 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 turn of
the conversation in which he was engaged, it was necessarily promoted
or required. He was extremely ready and gentle in his correction of the
errours of any writer who thought fit to consult him, and full as ready
and patient to admit of the reprehensions of others, in respect of his
own over-sights or mistakes."
To this account of Congreve nothing can be objected but the fondness of
friendship; and to have excited that fondness in such a mind is no small
degree of praise. The disposition of Dryden, however, is shown in this
character rather as it exhibited itself in cursory conversation, than as
it operated on the more important parts of life. His placability and his
friendship, indeed, were solid virtues; but courtesy and good humour are
often found with little real worth. Since Congreve, who knew him well,
has told us no more, the rest must be collected, as it can, from other
testimonies, and particularly from those notices which Dryden has very
liberally given us of himself.
The modesty which made him so slow to advance, and so easy to
be repulsed, was certainly no suspicion of deficient merit, or
unconsciousness of his own value: he appears to have known, in its whole
extent, the dignity of his character, and to have set a very high value
on his own powers and performances. He probably did not offer his
conversation, because he expected it to be solicited; and he retired from
a cold reception, not submissive but indignant, with such reverence
of his own greatness as made him unwilling to expose it to neglect or
His modesty was by no means inconsistent with ostentatiousness: he is
diligent enough to remind the world of his merit, and expresses, with
very little scruple, his high opinion of his own powers; but his
self-commendations are read without scorn or indignation; we allow his
claims, and love his frankness.
Tradition, however, has not allowed that his confidence in himself
exempted him from jealousy of others. He is accused of envy and
insidiousness; and is particularly charged with inciting Creech to
translate Horace, that he might lose the reputation which Lucretius had
Of this charge we immediately discover that it is merely conjectural;
the purpose was such as no man would confess; and a crime that admits no
proof, why should we believe?
He has been described as magisterially presiding over the younger
writers, and assuming the distribution of poetical fame; but he who
excels has a right to teach, and he whose judgment is incontestable, may,
without usurpation, examine and decide.
Congreve represents him as ready to advise and instruct; but there
is reason to believe that his communication was rather useful than
entertaining. He declares of himself that he was saturnine, and not
one of those whose sprightly sayings diverted company; and one of his
censurers makes him say:
Nor wine nor love could ever see me gay;
To writing bred, I knew not what to say.
There are men whose powers operate only at leisure and in retirement, and
whose intellectual vigour deserts them in conversation; whom merriment
confuses, and objection disconcerts; whose bashfulness restrains their
exertion, and suffers them not to speak till the time of speaking is
past; or whose attention to their own character makes them unwilling to
utter at hazard what has not been considered, and cannot be recalled.
Of Dryden's sluggishness in conversation it is vain to search or to guess
the cause. He certainly wanted neither sentiments nor language; his
intellectual treasures were great, though they were locked up from his
own use. "His thoughts," when he wrote, "flowed in upon him so fast, that
his only care was which to choose, and which to reject." Such rapidity of
composition naturally promises a flow of talk; yet we must be content to
believe what an enemy says of him, when he, likewise, says it of himself.
But, whatever was his character as a companion, it appears that he lived
in familiarity with the highest persons of his time. It is related by
Carte of the duke of Ormond, that he used often to pass a night with
Dryden, and those with whom Dryden consorted: who they were Carte has
not told; but certainly the convivial table at which Ormond sat was not
surrounded with a plebeian society. He was, indeed, reproached with
boasting of his familiarity with the great; and Horace will support him
in the opinion, that to please superiours is not the lowest kind of
The merit of pleasing must, however, be estimated by the means. Favour
is not always gained by good actions or laudable qualities. Caresses and
preferments are often bestowed on the auxiliaries of vice, the procurers
of pleasure, or the flatterers of vanity. Dryden has never been charged
with any personal agency unworthy of a good character: he abetted vice
and vanity only with his pen. One of his enemies has accused him of
lewdness in his conversation; but, if accusation without proof be
credited, who shall be innocent?
His works afford too many examples of dissolute licentiousness and abject
adulation; but they were, probably, like his merriment, artificial and
constrained; the effects of study and meditation, and his trade rather
than his pleasure.
Of the mind that can trade in corruption, and can deliberately pollute
itself with ideal wickedness, for the sake of spreading the contagion in
society, I wish not to conceal or excuse the depravity. Such degradation
of the dignity of genius, such abuse of superlative abilities, cannot be
contemplated but with grief and indignation. What consolation can be had,
Dryden has afforded, by living to repent, and to testify his repentance.
Of dramatick immorality he did not want examples among his predecessors,
or companions among his contemporaries; but, in the meanness and
servility of hyperbolical adulation, I know not whether, since the days
in which the Roman emperours were deified, he has been ever equalled,
except by Afra Behn, in an address to Eleanor Gwyn. When once he has
undertaken the task of praise, he no longer retains shame in himself, nor
supposes it in his patron. As many odoriferous bodies are observed to
diffuse perfumes, from year to year, without sensible diminution of bulk
or weight, he appears never to have impoverished his mint of flattery
by his expenses, however lavish. He had all the forms of excellence,
intellectual and moral, combined in his mind, with endless variation;
and, when he had scattered on the hero of the day the golden shower of
wit and virtue, he had ready for him whom he wished to court on the
morrow, new wit and virtue with another stamp. Of this kind of meanness
he never seems to decline the practice, or lament the necessity: he
considers the great as entitled to encomiastick homage, and brings praise
rather as a tribute than a gift, more delighted with the fertility of his
invention, than mortified by the prostitution of his judgment. It is,
indeed, not certain, that on these occasions his judgment much rebelled
against his interest. There are minds which easily sink into submission,
that look on grandeur with undistinguishing reverence, and discover no
defect where there is elevation of rank and affluence of riches.
With his praises of others, and of himself, is always intermingled a
strain of discontent and lamentation, a sullen growl of resentment, or
a querulous murmur of distress. His works are undervalued, his merit is
unrewarded, and "he has few thanks to pay his stars that he was born
among Englishmen." To his criticks he is sometimes contemptuous,
sometimes resentful, and sometimes submissive. The writer who thinks his
works formed for duration, mistakes his interest when he mentions his
enemies. He degrades his own dignity by showing that he was affected by
their censures, and gives lasting importance to names, which, left to
themselves, would vanish from remembrance. From this principle Dryden did
not often depart; his complaints are, for the greater part, general; he
seldom pollutes his page with an adverse name. He condescended, indeed,
to a controversy with Settle, in which he, perhaps, may be considered
rather as assaulting than repelling; and since Settle is sunk into
oblivion, his libel remains injurious only to himself.
Among answers to criticks, no poetical attacks, or altercations, are to
be included; they are, like other poems, effusions of genius, produced as
much to obtain praise as to obviate censure. These Dryden practised, and
in these he excelled.
Of Collier, Blackmore, and Milbourne, he has made mention in the preface
to his Fables. To the censure of Collier, whose remarks may be rather
termed admonitions than criticisms, he makes little reply; being, at
the age of sixty-eight, attentive to better things than the claps of a
playhouse. He complains of Collier's rudeness, and the "horseplay of his
raillery;" and asserts, that "in many places he has perverted by his
glosses the meaning" of what he censures; but in other things he
confesses that he is justly taxed; and says, with great calmness and
candour, "I have pleaded guilty to all thoughts or expressions of mine
that can be truly accused of obscenity, immorality, or profaneness, and
retract them. If he be my enemy, let him triumph; if he be my friend,
he will be glad of my repentance." Yet, as our best dispositions are
imperfect, he left standing in the same book a reflection on Collier of
great asperity, and, indeed, of more asperity than wit.
Blackmore he represents as made his enemy by the poem of Absalom and
Achitophel, which "he thinks a little hard upon his fanatick patrons;"
and charges him with borrowing the plan of his Arthur from the preface to
Juvenal, "though he had," says he, "the baseness not to acknowledge his
benefactor, but instead of it to traduce me in a libel."
The libel in which Blackmore traduced him, was a Satire upon Wit; in
which, having lamented the exuberance of false wit, and the deficiency of
true, he proposes that all wit should be recoined before it is current,
and appoints masters of assay who shall reject all that is light or
'Tis true, that, when the coarse and worthless dross
Is purg'd away, there will be mighty loss:
E'en Congreve, Southern, manly Wycherley,
When thus refin'd, will grievous sufferers be;
Into the melting-pot when Dryden comes,
What horrid stench will rise, what noisome fumes!
How will he shrink, when all his lewd allay,
And wicked mixture, shall be purg'd away!
Thus stands the passage in the last edition; but in the original there
was an abatement of the censure, beginning thus:
But what remains will be so pure, 'twill bear
Th' examination of the most severe.
Blackmore, finding the censure resented, and the civility disregarded,
ungenerously omitted the softer part. Such variations discover a writer
who consults his passions more than his virtue; and it may be reasonably
supposed that Dryden imputes his enmity to its true cause.
Of Milbourne he wrote only in general terms, such as are always ready
at the call of anger, whether just or not: a short extract will be
sufficient. "He pretends a quarrel to me, that I have fallen foul upon
priesthood; if I have, I am only to ask pardon of good priests, and
am afraid his share of the reparation will come to little. Let him be
satisfied that he shall never be able to force himself upon me for an
adversary; I contemn him too much to enter into competition with him.
"As for the rest of those who have written against me, they are such
scoundrels that they deserve not the least notice to be taken of them.
Blackmore and Milbourne are only distinguished from the crowd by being
remembered to their infamy."
Dryden, indeed, discovered, in many of his writings, an affected and
absurd malignity to priests and priesthood, which naturally raised him
many enemies, and which was sometimes as unseasonably resented as it was
exerted. Trapp is angry that he calls the sacrificer in the Georgicks
"the holy butcher:" the translation is, indeed, ridiculous; but Trapp's
anger arises from his zeal, not for the author, but the priest; as if any
reproach of the follies of paganism could be extended to the preachers of
Dryden's dislike of the priesthood is imputed by Langbaine, and, I think,
by Brown, to a repulse which he suffered when he solicited ordination;
but he denies, in the preface to his Fables, that he ever designed to
enter into the church; and such a denial he would not have hazarded, if
he could have been convicted of falsehood.
Malevolence to the clergy is seldom at a great distance from irreverence
of religion, and Dryden affords no exception to this observation. His
writings exhibit many passages, which, with all the allowance that can
be made for characters and occasions, are such as piety would not have
admitted, and such as may vitiate light and unprincipled minds. But there
is no reason for supposing that he disbelieved the religion which he
disobeyed. He forgot his duty rather than disowned it. His tendency to
profaneness is the effect of levity, negligence, and loose conversation,
with a desire of accommodating himself to the corruption of the times, by
venturing to be wicked as far as he durst. When he professed himself a
convert to popery, he did not pretend to have received any new conviction
of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
The persecution of criticks was not the worst of his vexations; he was
much more disturbed by the importunities of want. His complaints of
poverty are so frequently repeated, either with the dejection of weakness
sinking in helpless misery, or the indignation of merit claiming its
tribute from mankind, that it is impossible not to detest the age which
could impose on such a man the necessity of such solicitations, or not to
despise the man who could submit to such solicitations without necessity.
Whether by the world's neglect, or his own imprudence, I am afraid that
the greatest part of his life was passed in exigencies. Such outcries
were, surely, never uttered but in severe pain. Of his supplies or his
expenses no probable estimate can now be made. Except the salary of
the laureate, to which king James added the office of historiographer,
perhaps with some additional emoluments, his whole revenue seems to have
been casual; and it is well known that he seldom lives frugally who lives
by chance. Hope is always liberal; and they that trust her promises make
little scruple of revelling to-day on the profits of the morrow.
Of his plays the profit was not great; and of the produce of his other
works very little intelligence can be had. By discoursing with the
late amiable Mr. Tonson, I could not find that any memorials of the
transactions between his predecessor and Dryden had been preserved,
except the following papers:
"I do hereby promise to pay John Dryden, esq. or order, on the 25th of
March, 1699, the sum of two hundred and fifty guineas, in consideration
of ten thousand verses, which the said John Dryden, esq. is to deliver
to me, Jacob Tonson, when finished, whereof seven thousand five hundred
verses, more or less, are already in the said Jacob Tonson's possession.
And I do hereby further promise and engage myself, to make up the said
sum of two hundred and fifty guineas three hundred pounds sterling to the
said John Dryden, esq. his executors, administrators, or assigns, at the
beginning of the second impression of the said ten thousand verses.
"In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal, this 20th day
of March, 1698-9.
"Sealed and delivered, being
first duly stampt, pursuant
to the acts of parliament for
that purpose, in the presence
"March 24, 1698.
"Received then of Mr. Jacob Tonson the sum of two hundred sixty-eight
pounds fifteen shillings, in pursuance of an agreement for ten thousand
verses, to be delivered by me to the said Jacob Tonson, whereof I have
already delivered to him about seven thousand five hundred, more or less;
he, the said Jacob Tonson, being obliged to make up the foresaid sum of
two hundred sixty-eight pounds fifteen shillings three hundred pounds,
at the beginning of the second impression of the foresaid ten thousand
"I say, received by me,
"Witness, CHARLES DRYDEN."
Two hundred and fifty guineas, at 1_l_, 1_s_. 6_d_. is 268_l_. 15_s_.
It is manifest, from the dates of this contract, that it relates to the
volume of Fables, which contains about twelve thousand verses, and for
which, therefore, the payment must have been afterwards enlarged.
I have been told of another letter yet remaining, in which he desires
Tonson to bring him money, to pay for a watch which he had ordered for
his son, and which the maker would not leave without the price.
The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence. Dryden had probably
no recourse in his exigencies but to his bookseller. The particular
character of Tonson I do not know; but the general conduct of traders
was much less liberal in those times than in our own; their views were
narrower, and their manners grosser. To the mercantile ruggedness of that
race, the delicacy of the poet was sometimes exposed. Lord Bolingbroke,
who in his youth had cultivated poetry, related to Dr. King, of
Oxford, 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 must suffer all the rudeness to which his resentment can
prompt his tongue."
What rewards he obtained for his poems, besides the payment of the
bookseller, cannot be known. Mr. Derrick, who consulted some of his
relations, was informed that his Fables obtained five hundred pounds from
the dutchess of Ormond; a present not unsuitable to the magnificence of
that splendid family; and he quotes Moyle, as relating that forty pounds
were paid by a musical society for the use of Alexander's Feast.
In those days the economy of government was yet unsettled, and the
payments of the exchequer were dilatory and uncertain: of this disorder
there is reason to believe that the laureate sometimes felt the effects;
for, in one of his prefaces he complains of those, who, being intrusted
with the distribution of the prince's bounty, suffer those that depend
upon it to languish in penury.
Of his petty habits or slight amusements, tradition has retained little.
Of the only two men, whom I have found, to whom he was personally known,
one told me, that at the house which he frequented, called Will's
Coffee-house, the appeal upon any literary dispute was made to him;
and the other related, that his armed chair, which in the winter had a
settled and prescriptive place by the fire, was in the summer placed in
the balcony, and that he called the two places his winter and his summer
seat. This is all the intelligence which his two survivers afforded me.
One of his opinions will do him no honour in the present age, though in
his own time, at least in the beginning of it, he was far from having it
confined to himself. He put great confidence in the prognostications
of judicial astrology. In the appendix to the Life of Congreve is a
narrative of some of his predictions wonderfully fulfilled; but I know
not the writer's means of information, or character of veracity. That he
had the configurations of the horoscope in his mind, and considered them
as influencing the affairs of men, he does not forbear to hint:
The utmost malice of the stars is past.
Now frequent _trines_ the happier lights among,
And _high-rais'd Jove_, from his dark prison freed,
Those weights took off that on his planet hung,
Will gloriously the new-laid works succeed.
He has, elsewhere, shown his attention to the planetary powers; and,
in the preface to his Fables, has endeavoured obliquely to justify his
superstition, by attributing the same to some of the ancients. The
letter, added to this narrative, leaves no doubt of his notions or
So slight and so scanty is the knowledge which I have been able to
collect concerning the private life and domestick manners of a man whom
every English generation must mention with reverence as a critick and a
Dryden may be properly considered as the father of English criticism, as
the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of
composition. Of our former poets, the greatest dramatist wrote without
rules, conducted through life and nature by a genius that rarely misled,
and rarely deserted him. Of the rest, those who knew the laws of
propriety had neglected to teach them.
Two Arts of English Poetry were written in the days of Elizabeth by Webb
and Puttenham, from which something might be learned, and a few hints had
been given by Jonson and Cowley; but Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poetry
was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing.
He who, having formed his opinions in the present age of English
literature, turns back to peruse this dialogue, will not, perhaps, find
much increase of knowledge, or much novelty of instruction; but he is to
remember that critical principles were then in the hands of a few, who
had gathered them partly from the ancients, and partly from the Italians
and French. The structure of dramatick poems was not then generally
understood. Audiences applauded by instinct, and poets, perhaps, often
pleased by chance.
A writer who obtains his full purpose loses himself in his own lustre.
Of an opinion which is no longer doubted, the evidence ceases to
be examined. Of an art universally practised, the first teacher is
forgotten. Learning once made popular is no longer learning; it has the
appearance of something which we have bestowed upon ourselves, as the dew
appears to rise from the field which it refreshes.
To judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time,
and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his
means of supplying them. That which is easy at one time was difficult at
another. Dryden at least imported his science, and gave his country
what it wanted before; or rather, he imported only the materials and
manufactured them by his own skill.
The Dialogue on the Drama was one of his first essays of criticism,
written when he was yet a timorous candidate for reputation, and,
therefore, laboured with that diligence which he might allow himself
somewhat to remit, when his name gave sanction to his positions, and his
awe of the publick was abated, partly by custom, and partly by success.
It will not be easy to find, in all the opulence of our language, a
treatise so artfully variegated with successive representations of
opposite probabilities, so enlivened with imagery, so brightened with
illustrations. His portraits of the English dramatists are wrought with
great spirit and diligence. The account of Shakespeare may stand as a
perpetual model of encomiastick criticism; exact without minuteness,
and lofty without exaggeration. The praise lavished by Longinus, on the
attestation of the heroes of Marathon by Demosthenes, fades away before
it. In a few lines is exhibited a character, so extensive in its
comprehension, and so curious in its limitations, that nothing can be
added, diminished, or reformed; nor can the editors and admirers of
Shakespeare, in all their emulation of reverence, boast of much more than
of having diffused and paraphrased this epitome of excellence, of having
changed Dryden's gold for baser metal, of lower value though of greater
In this, and in all his other essays on the same subject, the criticism
of Dryden is the criticism of a poet; not a dull collection of theorems,
nor a rude detection of faults, which, perhaps, the censor was not able
to have committed; but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight
is mingled with instruction, and where the author proves his right of
judgment by his power of performance.
The different manner and effect with which critical knowledge may be
conveyed, was, perhaps, never more clearly exemplified than in the
performances of Rymer and Dryden. It was said of a dispute between two
mathematicians, "malim cum Scaligero errare, quam cum Clavio recte
sapere;" that "it was more eligible to go wrong with one, than right
with the other." A tendency of the same kind every mind must feel at the
perusal of Dryden's prefaces and Rymer's discourses. With Dryden we are
wandering in quest of truth; whom we find, if we find her at all, drest
in the graces of elegance; and, if we miss her, the labour of the pursuit
rewards itself; we are led only through fragrance and flowers. Rymer,
without taking a nearer, takes a rougher way; every step is to be made
through thorns and brambles; and truth, if we meet her, appears repulsive
by her mien, and ungraceful by her habit. Dryden's criticism has the
majesty of a queen; Rymer's has the ferocity of a tyrant.
As he had studied with great diligence the art of poetry, and enlarged or
rectified his notions, by experience perpetually increasing, he had his
mind stored with principles and observations; he poured out his knowledge
with little labour; for of labour, notwithstanding the multiplicity of
his productions, there is sufficient reason to suspect that he was not
a lover. To write _con amore_, with fondness for the employment, with
perpetual touches and retouches, with unwillingness to take leave of his
own idea, and an unwearied pursuit of unattainable perfection, was, I
think, no part of his character.
His criticism may be considered as general or occasional. In his general
precepts, which depend upon the nature of things, and the structure
of the human mind, he may, doubtless, be safely recommended to the
confidence of the reader; but his occasional and particular positions
were sometimes interested, sometimes negligent, and sometimes capricious.
It is not without reason that Trapp, speaking of the praises which he
bestows on Palamon and Arcite, says, "Novimus judicium Drydeni de poemate
quodam Chauceri, pulchro sane illo, et admodum laudando, nimirum quod non
modo vere epicum sit, sed Iliada etiam atque Aeneada aequet, imo superet.
Sed novimus eodem tempore viri illius maximi non semper accuratissimas
esse censuras, nec ad severissimam critices normam exactas: illo judice
id plerumque optimum est, quod nunc prae manibus habet, et in quo nunc
He is, therefore, by no means constant to himself. His defence and
desertion of dramatick rhyme is generally known. Spence, in his remarks
on Pope's Odyssey, produces what he thinks an unconquerable quotation
from Dryden's preface to the Aeneid, in favour of translating an epick
poem into blank verse; but he forgets that when his author attempted the
Iliad, some years afterwards, he departed from his own decision, and
translated into rhyme.
When he has any objection to obviate, or any license to defend, he is not
very scrupulous about what he asserts, nor very cautious, if the present
purpose be served, not to entangle himself in his own sophistries. But,
when all arts are exhausted, like other hunted animals, he sometimes
stands at bay; when he cannot disown the grossness of one of his plays,
he declares that he knows not any law that prescribes morality to a
His remarks on ancient or modern writers are not always to be trusted.
His parallel of the versification of Ovid with that of Claudian has been
very justly censured by Sewel. His comparison of the first line of
Virgil with the first of Statius is not happier. Virgil, he says, is
soft and gentle, and would have thought Statius mad, if he had heard him
Quae superimposito moles geminata colosso.
Statius, perhaps, heats himself, as he proceeds, to exaggerations
somewhat hyperbolical; but undoubtedly Virgil would have been too hasty,
if he had condemned him to straw for one sounding line. Dryden wanted an
instance, and the first that occurred was imprest into the service.
What he wishes to say, he says at hazard; he cited Gorbuduc, which he
had never seen; gives a false account of Chapman's versification; and
discovers, in the preface to his Fables, that he translated the first
book of the Iliad without knowing what was in the second.
It will be difficult to prove that Dryden ever made any great advances
in literature. As, having distinguished himself at Westminster under the
tuition of Busby, who advanced his scholars to a height of knowledge very
rarely attained in grammar-schools, he resided afterwards at Cambridge,
it is not to be supposed, that his skill in the ancient languages was
deficient, compared with that of common students; but his scholastick
acquisitions seem not proportionate to his opportunities and abilities.
He could not, like Milton or Cowley, have made his name illustrious
merely by his learning. He mentions but few books, and those such as lie
in the beaten track of regular study; from which, if ever he departs, he
is in danger of losing himself in unknown regions.
In his Dialogue on the Drama, he pronounces, with great confidence, that
the Latin tragedy of Medea is not Ovid's, because it is not sufficiently
interesting and pathetick. He might have determined the question upon
surer evidence; for it is quoted by Quintilian as the work of Seneca; and
the only line which remains of Ovid's play, for one line is left us, is
not there to be found. There was, therefore, no need of the gravity of
conjecture, or the discussion of plot or sentiment, to find what was
already known upon higher authority than such discussions can ever reach.
His literature, though not always free from ostentation, will be commonly
found either obvious, and made his own by the art of dressing it; or
superficial, which, by what he gives, shows what he wanted; or erroneous,
hastily collected, and negligently scattered.
Yet it cannot be said that his genius is ever unprovided of matter, or
that his fancy languishes in penury of ideas. His works abound with
knowledge, and sparkle with illustrations. There is scarcely any science
or faculty that does not supply him with occasional images and lucky
similitudes; every page discovers a mind very widely acquainted both with
art and nature, and in full possession of great stores of intellectual
wealth. Of him that knows much, it is natural to suppose that he has read
with diligence; yet I rather believe that the knowledge of Dryden was
gleaned from accidental intelligence and various conversation, by a quick
apprehension, a judicious selection, and a happy memory, a keen appetite
of knowledge, and a powerful digestion; by vigilance that permitted
nothing to pass without notice, and a habit of reflection that suffered
nothing useful to be lost. A mind like Dryden's, always curious, always
active, to which every understanding was proud to be associated, and of
which every one solicited the regard, by an ambitious display of himself,
had a more pleasant, perhaps a nearer way to knowledge than by the silent
progress of solitary reading. I do not suppose that he despised books,
or intentionally neglected them; but that he was carried out, by the
impetuosity of his genius, to more vivid and speedy instructors; and
that his studies were rather desultory and fortuitous than constant and
It must be confessed, that he scarcely ever appears to want
book-learning, but when he mentions books; and to him may be transferred
the praise which he gives his master Charles:
His conversation, wit, and parts,
His knowledge in the noblest useful arts,
Were such, dead authors could not give,
But habitudes of those that live,
Who, lighting him, did greater lights receive:
He drained from all, and all they knew,
His apprehensions quick, his judgment true:
That the most learn'd with shame confess,
His knowledge more, his reading only less.
Of all this, however, if the proof be demanded, I will not undertake to
give it; the atoms of probability, of which my opinion has been formed,
lie scattered over all his works; and by him who thinks the question
worth his notice, his works must be perused with very close attention.
Criticism, either didactick or defensive, occupies almost all his prose,
except those pages which he has devoted to his patrons; but none of his
prefaces were ever thought tedious. They have not the formality of a
settled style, in which the first half of the sentence betrays the other.
The clauses are never balanced, nor the periods modelled; every word
seems to drop by chance, though it falls into its proper place. Nothing
is cold or languid; the whole is airy, animated, and vigorous; what is
little, is gay; what fe great, is splendid. He may be thought to mention
himself too frequently; but, while he forces himself upon our esteem, we
cannot refuse him to stand high in his own. Every thing is excused by the
play of images, and the sprightliness of expression. Though all is easy,
nothing is feeble; though all seems careless, there is nothing harsh; and
though since his earlier works more than a century has passed, they have
nothing yet uncouth or obsolete.
He who writes much will not easily escape a manner, such a recurrence of
particular modes as may be easily noted. Dryden is always "another and
the same;" he does not exhibit a second time the same elegancies in the
same form, nor appears to have any art other than that of expressing
with clearness what he thinks with vigour. His style could not easily be
imitated, either seriously or ludicrously; for, being always equable and
always varied, it has no prominent or discriminative characters. The
beauty who is totally free from disproportion of parts and features,
cannot be ridiculed by an overcharged resemblance.
From his prose, however, Dryden derives only his accidental and secondary
praise; the veneration with which his name is pronounced by every
cultivator of English literature, is paid to him as he refined the
language, improved the sentiments, and tuned the numbers of English
After about half a century of forced thoughts, and rugged metre, some
advances towards nature and harmony had been already made by Waller and
Denham; they had shown that long discourses in rhyme grew more pleasing
when they were broken into couplets, and that verse consisted not only in
the number but the arrangement of syllables.
But though they did much, who can deny that they left much to do? Their
works were not many, nor were their minds of very ample comprehension.
More examples of more modes of composition were necessary for the
establishment of regularity, and the introduction of propriety in word
Every language of a learned nation necessarily divides itself into
diction scholastick and popular, grave and familiar, elegant and gross:
and from a nice distinction of these different parts arises a great part
of the beauty of style. But if we except a few minds, the favourites of
nature, to whom their own original rectitude was in the place of rules,
this delicacy of selection was little known to our authors; our speech
lay before them in a heap of confusion, and every man took for every
purpose, what chance might offer him.
There was, therefore, before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no
system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestick use, and
free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words
too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those
sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily
receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which
we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on
themselves which they should transmit to things.
Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had
been rarely attempted; we had few elegancies or flowers of speech; the
roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble; or different colours had
not been joined to enliven one another.
It may be doubted whether Waller and Denham could have overborne the
prejudices which had long prevailed, fend which even then were sheltered
by the protection of Cowley. The new versification, as it was called, may
be considered as owing its establishment to Dryden; from whose time it is
apparent that English poetry has had no tendency to relapse to its former
The affluence and comprehension of our language is very illustriously
displayed in our poetical translations of ancient writers; a work which
the French seem to relinquish in despair, and which we were long unable
to perform with dexterity. Ben Jonson thought it necessary to copy Horace
almost word by word; Feltham, his contemporary and adversary, considers
it as indispensably requisite in a translation to give line for line. It
is said that Sandys, whom Dryden calls the best versifier of the
last age, has struggled hard to comprise every book of his English
Metamorphoses in the same number of verses with the original. Holyday had
nothing in view but to show that he understood his author, with so little
regard to the grandeur of his diction, or the volubility of his numbers,
that his metres can hardly be called verses; they cannot be read without
reluctance, nor will the labour always be rewarded by understanding
them. Cowley saw that such copyers were a servile race; he asserted his
liberty, and spread his wings so boldly that he left his authors. It was
reserved for Dryden to fix the limits of poetical liberty, and give us
just rules and examples of translation.
When languages are formed upon different principles, it is impossible
that the same modes of expression should always be elegant in both. While
they run on together, the closest translation may be considered as the
best; but when they divaricate, each must take its natural course. Where
correspondence cannot be obtained, it is necessary to be content with
something equivalent. "Translation, therefore," says Dryden, "is not so
loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase."
All polished languages have different styles; the concise, the diffuse,
the lofty, and the humble. In the proper choice of style consists the
resemblance which Dryden principally exacts from the translator. He is to
exhibit his author's thoughts in such a dress of diction as the author
would have given them, had his language been English; rugged magnificence
is not to be softened; hyperbolical ostentation is not to be repressed;
nor sententious affectation to have its point blunted. A translator is to
be like his author; it is not his business to excel him.
The reasonableness of these rules seems sufficient for their vindication;
and the effects produced by observing them were so happy, that I know not
whether they were ever opposed, but by sir Edward Sherburne, a man whose
learning was greater than his powers of poetry, and who, being better
qualified to give the meaning than the spirit of Seneca, has introduced
his version of three tragedies by a defence of close translation. The
authority of Horace, which the new translators cited in defence of their
practice, he has, by a judicious explanation, taken fairly from them; but
reason wants not Horace to support it.
It seldom happens that all the necessary causes concur to any great
effect: will is wanting to power, or power to will, or both are impeded
by external obstructions. The exigencies in which Dryden was condemned
to pass his life, are reasonably supposed to have blasted his genius,
to have driven out his works in a state of immaturity, and to have
intercepted the full-blown elegance, which longer growth would have
Poverty, like other rigid powers, is sometimes too hastily accused. If
the excellence of Dryden's works was lessened by his indigence, their
number was increased; and I know not how it will be proved, that if he
had written less he would have written better; or that, indeed, he would
have undergone the toil of an author, if he had not been solicited by
something more pressing than the love of praise.
But, as is said by his Sebastian,
What had been is unknown; what is, appears.
We know that Dryden's several productions were so many successive
expedients for his support; his plays were, therefore, often borrowed;
and his poems were almost all occasional.
In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected
from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with
acquisitions. He whose work is general and arbitrary has the choice of
his matter, and takes that which his inclination and his studies have
best qualified him to display and decorate. He is at liberty to delay his
publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself, till he has
reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination, and polished away
those faults which the precipitance of ardent composition is likely to
leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of
lines in the morning, and to have passed the day in reducing them to
The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject.
Whatever can happen to man has happened so often, that little remains
for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been
married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply
but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the publick has an
interest; and what happens to them of good or evil, the poets have always
considered as business for the muse. But after so many inauguratory
gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly
favoured by nature, or by fortune, who says any thing not said before.
Even war and conquest, however splendid, suggest no new images; the
triumphal chariot of a victorious monarch can be decked only with those
ornaments that have graced his predecessors.
Not only matter but time is wanting. The poem must not be delayed till
the occasion is forgotten. The lucky moments of animated imagination
cannot be attended; elegancies and illustrations cannot be multiplied
by gradual accumulation; the composition must be despatched, while
conversation is yet busy, and admiration fresh; and haste is to be
made, lest some other event should lay hold upon mankind. Occasional
compositions may, however, secure to a writer the praise both of learning
and facility; for they cannot be the effect of long study, and must be
furnished immediately from the treasures of the mind.
The death of Cromwell was the first publick event which called forth
Dryden's poetical powers. His heroick stanzas have beauties and defects;
the thoughts are vigorous, and, though not always proper, show a mind
replete with ideas; the numbers are smooth; and the diction, if not
altogether correct, is elegant and easy.
Davenant was, perhaps, at this time, his favourite author, though
Gondibert never appears to have been popular; and from Davenant he
learned to please his ear with the stanza of four lines alternately
Dryden very early formed his versification; there are in this early
production no traces of Donne's or Jonson's ruggedness; but he did not so
soon free his mind from the ambition of forced conceits. In his verses on
the restoration, he says of the king's exile:
He, toss'd by fate,
Could taste no sweets of youth's desir'd age,
But found his life too true a pilgrimage.
And afterwards, to show how virtue and wisdom are increased by adversity,
he makes this remark:
Well might the ancient poets then confer
On night the honour'd name of counsellor:
Since, struck with rays of prosperous fortune blind,
We light alone in dark afflictions find.
His praise of Monk's dexterity comprises such a cluster of thoughts
unallied to one another, as will not elsewhere be easily found:
'Twas Monk, whom providence design'd to loose
Those real bonds false freedom did impose.
The blessed saints that watch'd this turning scene
Did from their stars with joyful wonder lean,
To see small clues draw vastest weights along,
Not in their bulk, but in their order strong.
Thus pencils can by one slight touch restore
Smiles to that changed face that wept before.
With ease such fond chimeras we pursue.
As fancy frames for fancy to subdue;
But, when ourselves to action we betake,
It shuns the mint like gold that chymists make:
How hard was then his task, at once to be
What in the body natural we see!
Man's architect distinctly did ordain
The charge of muscles, nerves, and of the brain,
Through viewless conduits spirits to dispense
The springs of motion from the seat of sense:
'Twas not the hasty product of a day,
But the well-ripen'd fruit of wise delay.
He, like a patient angler, ere he strook,
Would let them play awhile upon the hook.
Our healthful food the stomach labours thus,
At first embracing what it straight doth crush.
Wise leeches will not vain receipts obtrude,
While growing pains pronounce the humours crude;
Deaf to complaints, they wait upon the ill,
Till some safe crisis authorize their skill.
He had not yet learned, indeed he never learned well, to forbear the
improper use of mythology. After having rewarded the heathen deities for
With Alga who the sacred altar strows?
To all the seagods Charles an offering owes;
A bull to thee, Portunus, shall be slain;
A ram to you, ye tempests of the main.
He tells us, in the language of religion,
Pray'r storm'd the skies, and ravish'd Charles from thence,
As heav'n itself is took by violence.
And afterwards mentions one of the most awful passages of sacred history.
Other conceits there are, too curious to be quite omitted; as,
For by example most we sinn'd before,
And, glass-like, clearness mix'd with frailty bore.
How far he was yet from thinking it necessary to found his sentiments on
nature, appears from the extravagance of his fictions and hyperboles:
The winds, that never moderation knew,
Afraid to blow too much, too faintly blew;
Or, out of breath with joy, could not enlarge
Their straiten'd lungs.
It is no longer motion cheats your view;
As you meet it, the land approacheth you;
The land returns, and in the white it wears
The marks of penitence and sorrow bears.
I know not whether this fancy, however little be its value, was not
borrowed. A French poet read to Malherbe some verses, in which he
represents France as moving out of its place to receive the king: "Though
this," said Malherbe, "was in my time, I do not remember it."
His poem on the Coronation has a more even tenour of thought. Some lines
deserve to be quoted:
You have already quench'd sedition's brand;
And zeal, that burnt it, only warms the land;
The jealous sects that durst not trust their cause
So far from their own will as to the laws,
Him for their umpire and their synod take,
And their appeal alone to Caesar make.
Here may be found one particle of that old versification, of which, I
believe, in all his works, there is not another:
Nor is it duty, or our hope alone,
Creates that joy, but full _fruition_.
In the verses to the lord chancellor Clarendon, two years afterwards, is
a conceit so hopeless at the first view, that few would have attempted
it; and so successfully laboured, that though, at last, it gives the
reader more perplexity than pleasure, and seems hardly worth the study
that it costs, yet it must be valued as a proof of a mind at once subtile
In open prospect nothing bounds our eye,
Until the earth seems join'd unto the sky;
So in this hemisphere our utmost view
Is only bounded by our king and you:
Our sight is limited where you are join'd,
And beyond that no farther heaven can find.
So well your virtues do with his agree,
That, though your orbs of different greatness be,
Yet both are for each other's use dispos'd,
His to enclose, and yours to be enclos'd.
Nor could another in your room have been,
Except an emptiness had come between.
The comparison of the chancellor to the Indies leaves all resemblance too
far behind it:
And as the Indies were not found before
Those rich perfumes which from the happy shore
The winds upon their balmy wings convey'd,
Whose guilty sweetness first their world betray'd;
So by your counsels we are brought to view
A new and undiscover'd world in you.
There is another comparison, for there is little else in the poem, of
which, though, perhaps, it cannot be explained into plain prosaick
meaning, the mind perceives enough to be delighted, and readily forgives
its obscurity, for its magnificence:
How strangely active are the arts of peace,
Whose restless motions less than wars do cease:
Peace is not freed from labour, but from noise;
And war more force, but not more pains employs.
Such is the mighty swiftness of your mind,
That, like the earth's, it leaves our sense behind,
While you so smoothly turn and roll our sphere,
That rapid motion does but rest appear.
For as in nature's swiftness, with the throng
Of flying orbs while ours is borne along,
All seems at rest to the deluded eye,
Mov'd by the soul of the same harmony:
So, carry'd on by your unwearied care,
We rest in peace, and yet in motion share.
To this succeed four lines, which, perhaps, afford Dryden's first attempt
at those penetrating remarks on human nature, for which he seems to have
been peculiarly formed:
Let envy then those crimes within you see,
From which the happy never must be free;
Envy that does with misery reside,
The joy and the revenge of ruin'd pride.
Into this poem he seems to have collected all his powers; and after this
he did not often bring upon his anvil such stubborn and unmalleable
thoughts; but, as a specimen of his abilities to unite the most
unsociable matter, he has concluded with lines, of which I think not
myself obliged to tell the meaning:
Yet unimpair'd with labours, or with time,
Your age but seems to a new youth to climb.
Thus heav'nly bodies do our time beget,
And measure change, but share no part of it:
And still it shall without a weight increase,
Like this new year, whose motions never cease.
For since the glorious course you have begun
Is led by Charles, as that is by the sun,
It must both weightless and immortal prove,
Because the centre of it is above.
In the Annus Mirabilis he returned to the quatrain, which from that time
he totally quitted, perhaps from experience of its inconvenience, for he
complains of its difficulty. This is one of his greatest attempts. He
had subjects equal to his abilities, a great naval war, and the fire
of London. Battles have always been described in heroick poetry; but a
seafight and artillery had yet something of novelty. New arts are long in
the world before poets describe them; for they borrow every thing from
their predecessors, and commonly derive very little from nature, or from
life. Boileau was the first French writer that had ever hazarded in verse
the mention of modern war, or the effects of gunpowder. We, who are less
afraid of novelty, had already possession of those dreadful images:
Waller had described a seafight. Milton had not yet transferred the
invention of firearms to the rebellious angels.
This poem is written with great diligence, yet does not fully answer the
expectation raised by such subjects and such a writer. With the stanza
of Davenant, he has sometimes his vein of parenthesis, and incidental
disquisition, and stops his narrative for a wise remark.
The general fault is, that he affords more sentiment than description,
and does not so much impress scenes upon the fancy, as deduce
consequences and make comparisons.
The initial stanzas have rather too much resemblance to the first lines
of Waller's poem on the War with Spain; perhaps such a beginning is
natural, and could not be avoided without affectation. Both Waller and
Dryden might take their hint from the poem on the civil war of Rome:
"Orbem jam totum," &c.
Of the king collecting his navy, he says,
It seems, as ev'ry ship their sov'reign knows,
His awful summons they so soon obey:
So hear the scaly herds when Proteus blows,
And so to pasture follow through the sea.
It would not be hard to believe that Dryden had written the two first
lines seriously, and that some wag had added the two latter in burlesque.
Who would expect the lines that immediately follow, which are, indeed,
perhaps indecently hyperbolical, but certainly in a mode totally
To see this fleet upon the ocean move,
Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies;
And heav'n, as if there wanted lights above,
For tapers made two glaring comets rise.
The description of the attempt at Bergen will afford a very complete
specimen of the descriptions in this poem:
And now approach'd their fleet from India, fraught
With all the riches of the rising sun:
And precious sand from southern climates brought,
The fatal regions where the war begun.
Like hunted castors, conscious of their store,
Their waylaid wealth to Norway's coast they bring:
Then first the north's cold bosom spices bore,
And winter brooded on the eastern spring.
By the rich scent we found our perfum'd prey,
Which, flank'd with rocks, did close in covert lie;
And round about their murd'ring cannon lay,
At once to threaten and invite the eye.
Fiercer than cannon, and than rocks more hard,
The English undertake th' unequal war;
Sev'n ships alone, by which the port is barr'd,
Besiege the Indies, and all Denmark dare.
These fight like husbands, but like lovers those;
These fain would keep, and those more fain enjoy;
And to such height their frantick passion grows,
That what both love, both hazard to destroy:
Amidst whole heaps of spices lights a ball,
And now their odours arm'd against them fly:
Some preciously by shatter'd porc'lain fall,
And some by aromatick splinters die.
And though by tempests of the prize bereft,
In heav'n's inclemency some ease we find;
Our foes we vanquish'd by our valour left,
And only yielded to the seas and wind.
In this manner is the sublime too often mingled with the ridiculous.
The Dutch seek a shelter for a wealthy fleet: this, surely, needed no
illustration; yet they must fly, not like all the rest of mankind on the
same occasion, but "like hunted castors;" and they might with strict
propriety be hunted; for we winded them by our noses--their _perfumes_
betrayed them. The _husband_ and the _lover_, though of more dignity than
the castor, are images too domestick to mingle properly with the horrours
of war. The two quatrains that follow are worthy of the author. The
account of the different sensations with which the two fleets retired,
when the night parted them, is one of the fairest flowers of English
The night comes on, we eager to pursue
The combat still, and they asham'd to leave:
Till the last streaks of dying day withdrew,
And doubtful moonlight did our rage deceive.
In th' English fleet each ship resounds with joy,
And loud applause of their great leader's fame:
In fiery dreams the Dutch they still destroy,
And, slumb'ring, smile at the imagin'd flame.
Not so the Holland fleet, who, tir'd and done,
Stretch'd on their decks like weary oxen lie;
Faint sweats all down their mighty members run,
(Vast bulks, which little souls but ill supply.)
In dreams they fearful precipices tread,
Or, shipwreck'd, labour to some distant shore;
Or, in dark churches, walk among the dead:
They wake with horrour, and dare sleep no more.
It is a general rule in poetry, that all appropriated terms of art should
be sunk in general expressions, because poetry is to speak an universal
language. This rule is still stronger with regard to arts not liberal, or
confined to few, and, therefore, far removed from common knowledge; and
of this kind, certainly, is technical navigation. Yet Dryden was of
opinion, that a seafight ought to be described in the nautical language;
"and certainly," says he, "as those, who in a logical disputation keep to
general terms, would hide a fallacy, so those who do it in any poetical
description would veil their ignorance."
Let us then appeal to experience; for by experience, at last, we learn as
well what will please as what will profit. In the battle, his terms seem
to have been blown away; but he deals them liberally in the dock:
So here some pick out bullets from the side,
Some drive old _okum_ through each _seam_ and rift;
Their left hand does the _calking-iron_ guide,
The rattling _mallet_ with the right they lift.
With boiling pitch another near at hand
(From friendly Sweden brought) the _seams in-slops_:
Which, well-laid o'er, the salt sea-waves withstand,
And shake them from the rising beak in drops.
Some the _gall'd_ ropes with dauby _marling_ bind,
Or sear-cloth masts with strong _tarpawling_ coats;
To try new _shrouds_ one mounts into the wind,
And one below, their ease or stiffness notes.
I suppose there is not one term which every reader does not wish
His digression to the original and progress of navigation, with his
prospect of the advancement which it shall receive from the Royal
Society, then newly instituted, may be considered as an example seldom
equalled of seasonable excursion and artful return.
One line, however, leaves me discontented; he says, that, by the help of
Instructed ships shall sail to quick commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied.
Which he is constrained to explain in a note "by a more exact measure of
longitude." It had better become Dryden's learning and genius to have
laboured science into poetry, and have shown, by explaining longitude,
that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.
His description of the Fire is painted by resolute meditation, out of a
mind better formed to reason than to feel. The conflagration of a city,
with all its tumults of concomitant distress, is one of the most dreadful
spectacles which this world can offer to human eyes; yet it seems to
raise little emotion in the breast of the poet; he watches the flame
coolly from street to street, with now a reflection, and now a simile,
till at last he meets the king, for whom he makes a speech, rather
tedious in a time so busy; and then follows again the progress of the
There are, however, in this part some passages that deserve attention; as
in the beginning:
The diligence of trades and noiseful gain,
And luxury, more late, asleep were laid;
All was the night's, and in her silent reign
No sound the rest of nature did invade
In this deep quiet----
The expression, "all was the night's," is taken from Seneca, who remarks
on Virgil's line,
Omnia noctis erant, placida composta quiete,
that he might have concluded better,
Omnia noctis erant.
The following quatrain is vigorous and animated:
The ghosts of traitors from the bridge descend,
With hold fanatick spectres to rejoice;
About the fire into a dance they bend,
And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice.
His prediction of the improvements which shall be made in the new city is
elegant and poetical, and, with an event which poets cannot always boast,
has been happily verified. The poem concludes with a simile that might
have better been omitted.
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