Lives of the Poets, Vol. 1
Part 7 out of 10
Dryden, when he wrote this poem, seems not yet fully to have formed his
versification, or settled his system of propriety.
From this time he addicted himself almost wholly to the stage, "to
which," says he, "my genius never much inclined me," merely as the most
profitable market for poetry. By writing tragedies in rhyme, he continued
to improve his diction and his numbers. According to the opinion of
Harte, who had studied his works with great attention, he settled his
principles of versification in 1676, when he produced the play of Aureng
Zebe; and, according to his own account of the short time in which he
wrote Tyrannick Love, and the State of Innocence, he soon obtained the
full effect of diligence, and added facility to exactness.
Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre, that we know not its
effect upon the passions of an audience; but it has this convenience,
that sentences stand more independent on each other, and striking
passages are, therefore, easily selected and retained. Thus the
description of night in the Indian Emperor, and the rise and fall of
empire in the Conquest of Granada, are more frequently repeated than any
lines in All for Love, or Don Sebastian.
To search his plays for vigorous sallies and sententious elegancies, or
to fix the dates of any little pieces which he wrote by chance, or by
solicitation, were labour too tedious and minute.
His dramatick labours did not so wholly absorb his thoughts, but that he
promulgated the laws of translation in a preface to the English Epistles
of Ovid; one of which he translated himself, and another in conjunction
with the earl of Mulgrave.
Absalom and Achitophel is a work so well known, that particular
criticism is superfluous. If it be considered as a poem political and
controversial, it will be found to comprise all the excellencies of which
the subject is susceptible; acrimony of censure, elegance of praise,
artful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy
turns of language, and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these
raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English
It is not, however, without faults; some lines are inelegant or improper,
and too many are irreligiously licentious. The original structure of the
poem was defective; allegories drawn to great length will always break;
Charles could not run continually parallel with David.
The subject had likewise another inconvenience; it admitted little
imagery or description; and a long poem of mere sentiments easily becomes
tedious; though all the parts are forcible, and every line kindles new
rapture, the reader, if not relieved by the interposition of something
that sooths the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.
As an approach to historical truth was necessary, the action and
catastrophe were not in the poet's power; there is, therefore, an
unpleasing disproportion between the beginning and the end. We are
alarmed by a faction formed out of many sects various in their
principles, but agreeing in their purpose of mischief, formidable for
their numbers, and strong by their supports, while the king's friends are
few and weak. The chiefs on either part are set forth to view; but when
expectation is at the height, the king makes a speech, and
Henceforth a series of new times began.
Who can forbear to think of an enchanted castle, with a wide moat and
lofty battlements, walls of marble and gates of brass, which vanishes at
once into air, when the destined knight blows his horn before it?
In the second part, written by Tate, there is a long insertion, which,
for poignancy of satire, exceeds any part of the former. Personal
resentment, though no laudable motive to satire, can add great force to
general principles. Self-love is a busy prompter.
The Medal, written upon the same principles with Absalom and Achitophel,
but upon a narrower plan, gives less pleasure, though it discovers equal
abilities in the writer. The superstructure cannot extend beyond the
foundation; a single character or incident cannot furnish as many ideas,
as a series of events, or multiplicity of agents. This poem, therefore,
since time has left it to itself, is not much read, nor, perhaps,
generally understood; yet it abounds with touches both of humorous and
serious satire. The picture of a man whose propensions to mischief are
such, that his best actions are but inability of wickedness, is very
skilfully delineated and strongly coloured:
Power was his aim; but, thrown from that pretence,
The wretch turn'd loyal in his own defence,
And malice reconcil'd him to his prince.
Him, in the anguish of his soul, he serv'd;
Rewarded faster still than he deserv'd:
Behold him now exalted into trust;
His counsels oft convenient, seldom just.
Ev'n in the most sincere advice he gave,
He had a grudging still to be a knave.
The frauds he learnt in his fanatick years,
Made him uneasy in his lawful gears:
At least as little honest as he could;
And, like white witches, mischievously good.
To this first bias, longingly he leans;
And rather would be great by wicked means.
The Threnodia, which, by a term I am afraid neither authorized nor
analogical, he calls Augustalis, is not among his happiest productions.
Its first and obvious defect is the irregularity of its metre, to which
the ears of that age, however, were accustomed. What is worse, it has
neither tenderness nor dignity; it is neither magnificent nor pathetick.
He seems to look round him for images which he cannot find, and what
he has he distorts by endeavouring to enlarge them. "He is," he says,
"petrified with grief;" but the marble sometimes relents, and trickles in
The sons of art all med'cines try'd,
And ev'ry noble remedy apply'd:
With emulation each essay'd
His utmost skill; _nay, more, they prayd;_
Was never losing game with better conduct play'd.
He had been a little inclined to merriment before upon the prayers of
a nation for their dying sovereign; nor was he serious enough to keep
heathen fables out of his religion:
With him th' innumerable crowd of armed prayers
Knock'd at the gates of heav'n, and knock'd aloud;
_The first well-meaning rude petitioners_
All for his life assail'd the throne;
All would have brib'd the skies by off'ring up their own.
So great a throng not heav'n itself could bar;
'Twas almost borne by force, _as in the giants' war._
The pray'rs, at least, for his reprieve were heard:
His death, like Hezekiah's, was deferr'd.
There is, throughout the composition, a desire of splendour without
wealth. In the conclusion he seems too much pleased with the prospect of
the new reign to have lamented his old master with much sincerity.
He did not miscarry in this attempt for want of skill either in lyrick or
elegiack poetry. His poem on the death of Mrs. Killigrew is, undoubtedly,
the noblest ode that our language ever has produced. The first part flows
with a torrent of enthusiasm: "Fervet immensusque ruit." All the stanzas,
indeed, are not equal. An imperial crown cannot be one continued diamond;
the gems must be held together by some less valuable matter.
In his first ode for Cecilia's day, which is lost in the splendour of the
second, there are passages which would have dignified any other poet. The
first stanza is vigorous and elegant, though the word _diapason_ is too
technical, and the rhymes are too remote from one another:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high.
Arise, ye more than dead.
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And musick's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
The conclusion is likewise striking; but it includes an image so awful in
itself, that it can owe little to poetry; and I could wish the antithesis
of _musick untuning_ had found some other place:
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move.
And sung the great creator's praise
To all the bless'd above:
So, when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And musick shall untune the sky.
Of his skill in elegy he has given a specimen in his Eleonora, of which
the following lines discover their author:
Though all these rare endowments of the mind
Were in a narrow space of life confin'd,
The figure was with full perfection crown'd;
Though not so large an orb, as truly round:
As when in glory, through the publick place,
The spoils of conquer'd nations were to pass,
And but one day for triumph was allow'd,
The consul was constrain'd his pomp to crowd;
And so the swift procession hurry'd on,
That all, tho' not distinctly, might be shown;
So, in the straiten'd bounds of life confin'd,
She gave but glimpses of her glorious mind:
And multitudes of virtues pass'd along;
Each pressing foremost in the mighty throng,
Ambitious to be seen, and then make room
For greater multitudes that were to come.
Yet unemployed no minute slipp'd away;
Moments were precious in so short a stay.
The haste of heaven to have her was so great,
That some were single acts, though each complete;
And ev'ry act stood ready to repeat.
This piece, however, is not without its faults; there is so much likeness
in the initial comparison, that there is no illustration. As a king would
be lamented, Eleonora was lamented:
As, when some great and gracious monarch dies,
Soft whispers, first, and mournful murmurs rise
Among the sad attendants; then the sound
Soon gathers voice, and spreads the news around,
Through town and country, till the dreadful blast
Is blown to distant colonies at last;
Who then, perhaps, were off'ring vows in vain,
For his long life, and for his happy reign:
So slowly, by degrees, unwilling fame
Did matchless Eleonora's fate proclaim,
Till publick as the loss the news became.
This is little better than to say in praise of a shrub, that it is as
green as a tree; or of a brook, that it waters a garden, as a river
waters a country.
Dryden confesses that he did not know the lady whom he celebrates: the
praise being, therefore, inevitably general, fixes no impression upon the
reader, nor excites any tendency to love, nor much desire of imitation.
Knowledge of the subject is to the poet what durable materials are to the
The Religio Laici, which borrows its title from the Religio Medici of
Browne, is almost the only work of Dryden which can be considered as a
voluntary effusion; in this, therefore, it might be hoped, that the full
effulgence of his genius would be found. But, unhappily, the subject
is rather argumentative than poetical; he intended only a specimen of
And this unpolish'd rugged verse I chose
As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose.
This, however, is a composition of great excellence in its kind, in which
the familiar is very properly diversified with the solemn, and the grave
with the humorous; in which metre has neither weakened the force, nor
clouded the perspicuity of argument; nor will it be easy to find another
example equally happy of this middle kind of writing, which, though
prosaick in some parts, rises to high poetry in others, and neither
towers to the skies, nor creeps along the ground.
Of the same kind, or not far distant from it, is the Hind and Panther,
the longest of all Dryden's original poems; an allegory intended to
comprise and to decide the controversy between the Romanists and
protestants. The scheme of the work is injudicious and incommodious; for
what can be more absurd, than that one beast should counsel another to
rest her faith upon a pope and council? He seems well enough skilled in
the usual topicks of argument, endeavours to show the necessity of an
infallible judge, and reproaches the reformers with want of unity; but
is weak enough to ask, why, since we see without knowing how, we may not
have an infallible judge without knowing where?
The hind, at one time, is afraid to drink at the common brook, because
she may be worried; but, walking home with the panther, talks by the way
of the Nicene fathers, and at last declares herself to be the catholick
This absurdity was very properly ridiculed in the City Mouse and Country
Mouse of Montague and Prior; and, in the detection and censure of
the incongruity of the fiction, chiefly consists the value of their
performance, which, whatever reputation it might obtain by the help of
temporary passions, seems, to readers almost a century distant, not very
forcible or animated.
Pope, whose judgment was, perhaps, a little bribed by the subject,
used to mention this poem as the most correct specimen of Dryden's
versification. It was, indeed, written when he had completely formed
his manner, and may be supposed to exhibit, negligence excepted, his
deliberate and ultimate scheme of metre. We may, therefore, reasonably
infer, that he did not approve the perpetual uniformity which confines
the sense to couplets, since he has broken his lines in the initial
A milk-white hind, immortal and unchang'd.
Fed on the lawns, and in the forest rang'd:
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She fear'd no danger, for she knew no sin.
Yet had she oft been chas'd with horns and hounds,
And Scythian shafts, and many winged wounds
Aim'd at her heart; was often forc'd to fly,
And doom'd to death, though fated not to die.
These lines are lofty, elegant, and musical, notwithstanding the
interruption of the pause, of which the effect is rather increase of
pleasure by variety, than offence by ruggedness.
To the first part it was his intention, he says, "to give the majestick
turn of heroick poesy;" and, perhaps, he might have executed his design
not unsuccessfully, had not an opportunity of satire, which he cannot
forbear, fallen sometimes in his way. The character of a presbyterian,
whose emblem is the wolf, is not very heroically majestick:
More haughty than the rest, the wolfish race
Appear with belly gaunt and famish'd face:
Never was so deform'd a beast of grace.
His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears,
Close clapp'd for shame; but his rough crest he rears,
And pricks up his predestinating ears.
His general character of the other sorts of beasts that never go to
church, though sprightly and keen, has, however, not much of heroick
These are the chief; to number o'er the rest,
And stand like Adam naming ev'ry beast,
Were weary work; nor will the muse describe
A slimy-born, and sun-begotten tribe,
Who, far from steeples and their sacred sound,
In fields their sullen conventicles found.
These gross, half-animated lumps I leave;
Nor can I think what thoughts they can conceive;
But, if they think at all, 'tis sure no higher
Than matter, put in motion, may aspire;
Souls that can scarce ferment their mass of clay,
So drossy, so divisible are they,
As would but serve pure bodies for allay:
Such souls as shards produce, such beetle things
As only buzz to heaven with evening wings;
Strike in the dark, offending but by chance;
Such are the blindfold blows of ignorance.
They know no being, and but hate a name;
To them the hind and panther are the same.
One more instance, and that taken from the narrative part, where style
was more in his choice, will show how steadily he kept his resolution of
For when the herd, suffic'd, did late repair
To ferny heaths and to their forest lair,
She made a mannerly excuse to stay,
Proff'ring the hind to wait her half the way;
That, since the sky was clear, an hour of talk
Might help her to beguile the tedious walk.
With much good-will the motion was embrac'd,
To chat awhile on their adventures past:
Nor had the grateful hind so soon forgot
Her friend and fellow-suff'rer in the plot.
Yet, wond'ring how of late she grew estrang'd,
Her forehead cloudy and her count'nance chang'd,
She thought this hour th' occasion would present
To learn her secret cause of discontent,
Which well she hop'd might be with ease redress'd,
Consid'ring her a well-bred civil beast.
And more a gentlewoman than the rest.
After some common talk what rumours ran,
The lady of the spotted muff began.
The second and third parts he professes to have reduced to diction more
familiar and more suitable to dispute and conversation; the difference is
not, however, very easily perceived; the first has familiar, and the two
others have sonorous, lines. The original incongruity runs through the
whole: the king is now Caesar, and now the Lion; and the name Pan is
given to the supreme being.
But when this constitutional absurdity is forgiven, the poem must be
confessed to be written with great smoothness of metre, a wide extent of
knowledge, and an abundant multiplicity of images; the controversy is
embellished with pointed sentences, diversified by illustrations, and
enlivened by sallies of invective. Some of the facts to which allusions
are made are now become obscure, and, perhaps, there may be many
satirical passages little understood.
As it was by its nature a work of defiance, a composition which would
naturally be examined with the utmost acrimony of criticism, it was
probably laboured with uncommon attention; and there are, indeed, few
negligencies in the subordinate parts. The original impropriety, and the
subsequent unpopularity of the subject, added to the ridiculousness of
its first elements, has sunk it into neglect; but it may be usefully
studied, as an example of poetical ratiocination, in which the argument
suffers little from the metre.
In the poem on the Birth of the Prince of Wales, nothing is very
remarkable but the exorbitant adulation, and that insensibility of
the precipice on which the king was then standing, which the laureate
apparently shared with the rest of the courtiers. A few months cured him
of controversy, dismissed him from court, and made him again a playwright
Of Juvenal there had been a translation by Stapylton, and another by
Holiday; neither of them is very poetical. Stapylton is more smooth; and
Holiday's is more esteemed for the learning of his notes. A new version
was proposed to the poets of that time, and undertaken by them in
conjunction. The main design was conducted by Dryden, whose reputation
was such that no man was unwilling to serve the muses under him.
The general character of this translation will be given when it is
said to preserve the wit, but to want the dignity of the original. The
peculiarity of Juvenal is a mixture of gaiety and stateliness, of pointed
sentences and declamatory grandeur. His points have not been neglected;
but his grandeur none of the band seemed to consider as necessary to be
imitated, except Creech, who undertook the thirteenth satire. It is,
therefore, perhaps, possible to give a better representation of that
great satirist, even in those parts which Dryden himself has translated,
some passages excepted, which will never be excelled.
With Juvenal was published Persius, translated wholly by Dryden. This
work, though like all the other productions of Dryden it may have shining
parts, seems to have been written merely for wages, in an uniform
mediocrity without any eager endeavour after excellence, or laborious
effort of the mind.
There wanders an opinion among the readers of poetry that one of
these satires is an exercise of the school. Dryden says, that he once
translated it at school; but not that he preserved or published the
Not long afterwards he undertook, perhaps, the most arduous work of its
kind, a translation of Virgil, for which he had shown how well he was
qualified, by his version of the Pollio, and two episodes, one of Nisus
and Euryalus, the other of Mezentius and Lausus.
In the comparison of Homer and Virgil, the discriminative excellence of
Homer is elevation and comprehension of thought, and that of Virgil is
grace and splendour of diction. The beauties of Homer are, therefore,
difficult to be lost, and those of Virgil difficult to be retained. The
massy trunk of sentiment is safe by its solidity, but the blossoms of
elocution easily drop away. The author, having the choice of his own
images, selects those which he can best adorn; the translator must, at
all hazards, follow his original, and express thoughts which, perhaps,
he would not have chosen. When to this primary difficulty is added the
inconvenience of a language so much inferiour in harmony to the Latin, it
cannot be expected that they who read the Georgicks and the Aeneid should
be much delighted with any version.
All these obstacles Dryden saw, and all these he determined to encounter.
The expectation of his work was undoubtedly great; the nation considered
its honour as interested in the event. One gave him the different
editions of his author, and another helped him in the subordinate parts.
The arguments of the several books were given him by Addison.
The hopes of the publick were riot disappointed. He produced, says Pope,
"the most noble and spirited translation that I know in any language." It
certainly excelled whatever had appeared in English, and appears to have
satisfied his friends, and, for the most part, to have silenced his
enemies. Milbourne, indeed, a clergyman, attacked it; but his outrages
seem to be the ebullitions of a mind agitated by stronger resentment than
bad poetry can excite, and previously resolved not to be pleased.
His criticism extends only to the Preface, Pastorals, and Georgicks; and,
as he professes to give his antagonist an opportunity of reprisal, he has
added his own version of the first and fourth Pastorals, and the first
Georgick. The world has forgotten his book; but, since his attempt has
given him a place in literary history, I will preserve a specimen of his
criticism, by inserting his remarks on the invocation before the first
Georgick, and of his poetry, by annexing his own version.
"What makes a plenteous harvest, when to turn
The fruitful soil, and when to sow the corn.
"It's _unlucky_, they say, _to stumble at the threshold_: but what has
a _plenteous harvest_ to do here? Virgil would not pretend to prescribe
_rules_ for _that_ which depends not on the _husbandman's_ care, but the
_disposition of heaven_ altogether. Indeed, the _plenteous crop_ depends
somewhat on the _good method of tillage_; and where the _land'_s
ill-manur'd, the _corn_, without a miracle, can be but _indifferent_; but
the _harvest_ may be _good_, which is its _properest_ epithet, tho' the
_husbandman's skill_ were never so _indifferent_. The next _sentence_
is _too literal_: and _when to plough_ had been _Virgil's_ meaning, and
intelligible to every body; and _when to sow the corn_, is a needless
"The care of sheep, of oxen, and of kine,
And when to geld the lambs, and shear the swine,
"would as well have fallen under the _cura boum, qui cultus habendo sit
pecori_, as Mr. D.'s _deduction_ of particulars.
"The birth and genius of the frugal bee
I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee.
"But where did _experientia_ ever signify _birth andgenius_? or what
ground was there for such a _figure_ in this place? How much more manly
is Mr. Ogylby's version?
"What makes rich grounds, in what celestial signs
'Tis good to plough, and marry elms with vines:
What best fits cattle, what with sheep agrees,
And several arts improving frugal bees;
I sing, Maecenas.
"Which four lines, though faulty enough, are yet much more to the purpose
than Mr. D.'s six.
"From fields and mountains to my song repair.
"For _patrium linquens nemus, saltusque Lycaei_--Very well explained!
Ver. 23, 24.
"Inventor Pallas, of the fatt'ning oil,
Thou founder of the plough, and ploughman's toil!
"Written as if _these_ had been _Pallas's invention_. The _ploughman's
"The shroud-like cypress----
"Why _shroud-like_? Is a _cypress_ pulled up by the _roots_, which the
_sculpture_ in the _last Eclogue_ fills _Silvanus's_ hand with, so very
like a _shroud_? Or did not Mr. D. think of that kind of _cypress_ used
often for _scarves and hatbands_, at funerals formerly, or for _widows'
veils_, &c. ? If so, 'twas a _deep, good thought_.
The royal honours, and increase the year.
"What's meant by _increasing the year_? Did the _gods_ or _goddesses_
add more _months_, or _days_, or _hours_, to it? Or how can _arva tueri_
signify to _wear rural honours_? Is this to _translate_, or _abuse_ an
_author_? The next _couplet_ is borrowed from Ogylby, I suppose, because
_less to the purpose_ than ordinary.
"The patron of the world, and Rome's peculiar guard.
"_Idle_, and none of Virgil's, no more than the sense of the _precedent
couplet_; so again, _he interpolates Virgil_ with that and _the round
circle of the year to guide powerful of blessings, which thou strew'st
around_; a ridiculous _Latinism_, and an _impertinent addition_; indeed
the whole _period_ is but one piece of _absurdity_ and _nonsense_, as
those who lay it with the _original_ must find.
Ver. 42, 43.
"And Neptune shall resign the fasces of the sea.
"Was he _consul_ or _dictator_ there?
"And wat'ry virgins for thy bed shall strive.
"Both absurd _interpolations_."
Ver. 47, 48.
"Where in the void of heaven a place is free.
"_Ah, happy_ D----n, _were_ that place for _thee_!
"But where is _that void_? Or, what does our _translator_ mean by it? He
knows what Ovid says God did to prevent such a void in heaven; perhaps
this was then forgotten: but Virgil talks more sensibly.
"The scorpion ready to receive thy laws.
"No, he would not then have _gotten out of his way_ so fast.
"Though Proserpine affects her silent seat.
"What made her then so _angry_ with _Ascalaphus_, for preventing her
return? She was now mus'd to _Patience_ under the _determinations of
Fate_, rather than _fond_ of her _residence_,
Ver. 61, 62, 63.
"Pity the poet's and the ploughman's cares,
Interest thy greatness in our mean affairs,
And use thyself betimes to hear our prayers.
"Which is such a wretched _perversion_ of Virgil's _noble thought_ as
Vicars would have blushed at; but Mr. Ogylby makes us some amends, by his
"O, wheresoe'er thou art, from thence incline,
And grant assistance to my bold design!
Pity, with me, poor husbandmen's affairs,
And now, as if translated, hear our prayers.
"This is _sense_, and _to the purpose_: the other, poor _mistaken
Such were the strictures of Milbourne, who found few abetters, and of
whom it may be reasonably imagined, that many who favoured his design
were ashamed of his insolence.
When admiration had subsided, the translation was more coolly examined,
and found, like all others, to be sometimes erroneous, and sometimes
licentious. Those who could find faults, thought they could avoid them;
and Dr. Brady attempted, in blank verse, a translation of the Aeneid,
which, when dragged into the world, did not live long enough to cry,
I have never seen it; but that such a version there is, or has been,
perhaps some old catalogue informed me.
With not much better success, Trapp, when his Tragedy and his Prelections
had given him reputation, attempted another blank version of the Aeneid;
to which, notwithstanding the slight regard with which it was treated, he
had afterwards perseverance enough to add the Eclogues and Georgicks. His
book may continue its existence as long as it is the clandestine refuge
Since the English ear has been accustomed to the mellifluence of Pope's
numbers, and the diction of poetry has become more splendid, new attempts
have been made to translate Virgil; and all his works have been attempted
by men better qualified to contend with Dryden. I will not engage myself
in an invidious comparison by opposing one passage to another; a work of
which there would be no end, and which might be often offensive without
It is not by comparing line with line, that the merit of great works is
to be estimated, but by their general effects and ultimate result. It is
easy to note a weak line, and write one more vigorous in its place; to
find a happiness of expression in the original, and transplant it by
force into the version: but what is given to the parts may be subducted
from the whole, and the reader may be weary, though the critick may
commend. Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by
their power of attracting and detaining the attention. That book is good
in vain, which the reader throws away. He only is the master, who keeps
the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness,
and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion
is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveller casts upon
departing day .
By his proportion of this predomination I will consent that Dryden should
be tried; of this, which, in opposition to reason, makes Ariosto the
darling and the pride of Italy; of this, which, in defiance of criticism,
continues Shakespeare the sovereign of the drama.
His last work was his Fables, in which he gave us the first example of a
mode of writing, which the Italians call _refaccimento_, a renovation
of ancient writers, by modernizing their language. Thus the old poem
of Boiardo has been new dressed by Domenichi and Berni. The works of
Chaucer, upon which this kind of rejuvenescence has been bestowed by
Dryden, require little criticism. The tale of the Cock seems hardly
worth revival; and the story of Palamon and Arcite, containing an action
unsuitable to the times in which it is placed, can hardly be suffered to
pass without censure of the hyperbolical commendation which Dryden has
given it in the general preface, and in a poetical dedication, a piece
where his original fondness of remote conceits seems to have revived.
Of the three pieces borrowed from Boccace, Sigismunda may be defended by
the celebrity of the story. Theodore and Honoria, though it contains not
much moral, yet afforded opportunities of striking description. And Cymon
was formerly a tale of such reputation, that, at the revival of letters,
it was translated into Latin by one of the Beroalds.
Whatever subjects employed his pen, he was still improving our measures
and embellishing our language.
In this volume are interspersed some short original poems, which, with
his prologues, epilogues, and songs, may be comprised in Congreve's
remark, that even those, if he had written nothing else, would have
entitled him to the praise of excellence in his kind.
One composition must, however, be distinguished. The ode for St.
Cecilia's Day, perhaps the last effort of his poetry, has been always
considered as exhibiting the highest flight of fancy, and the exactest
nicety of art. This is allowed to stand without a rival. If, indeed,
there is any excellence beyond it, in some other of Dryden's works, that
excellence must be found. Compared with the ode on Killigrew, it may be
pronounced, perhaps, superiour in the whole; but without any single part
equal to the first stanza of the other.
It is said to have cost Dryden a fortnight's labour; but it does not want
its negligences: some of the lines are without correspondent rhymes; a
defect, which I never detected, but after an acquaintance of many years,
and which the enthusiasm of the writer might hinder him from perceiving.
His last stanza has less emotion than the former; but it is not less
elegant in the diction. The conclusion is vitious; the musick of
Timotheus, which "raised a mortal to the skies," had only a metaphorical
power; that of Cecilia, which "drew an angel down," had a real effect:
the crown, therefore, could not reasonably be divided.
In a general survey of Dryden's labours, he appears to have a mind very
comprehensive by nature, and much enriched with acquired knowledge. His
compositions are the effects of a vigorous genius operating upon large
The power that predominated in his intellectual operations, was rather
strong reason than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were
presented, he studied rather than felt, and produced sentiments not
such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple and
elemental passions, as they spring separate in the mind, he seems not
much acquainted; and seldom describes them but as they are complicated
by the various relations of society, and confused in the tumults and
agitations of life.
What he says of love may contribute to the explanation of his character:
Love various minds does variously inspire;
It stirs in gentle bosoms gentle fire,
Like that of incense on the altar laid;
But raging flames tempestuous souls invade:
A fire which ev'ry windy passion blows,
With pride it mounts, or with revenge it glows.
Dryden's was not one of the "gentle bosoms:" love, as it subsists in
itself, with no tendency but to the person loved, and wishing only for
correspondent kindness; such love as shuts out all other interest; the
love of the golden age, was too soft and subtile to put his faculties in
motion. He hardly conceived it but in its turbulent effervescence with
some other desires; when it was inflamed by rivalry, or obstructed by
difficulties: when it invigorated ambition, or exasperated revenge.
He is, therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often
pathetick; and had so little sensibility of the power of effusions purely
natural, that he did not esteem them in others. Simplicity gave him no
pleasure; and, for the first part of his life, he looked on Otway with
contempt, though, at last, indeed very late, he confessed that in his
play "there was nature, which is the chief beauty."
We do not always know our own motives. I am not certain whether it was
not rather the difficulty which he found in exhibiting the genuine
operations of the heart, than a servile submission to an injudicious
audience, that filled his plays with false magnificence. It was necessary
to fix attention; and the mind can be captivated only by recollection,
or by curiosity; by reviving natural sentiments, or impressing new
appearances of things. Sentences were readier at his call than images; he
could more easily fill the ear with some splendid novelty, than awaken
those ideas that slumber in the heart.
The favourite exercise of his mind was ratiocination; and, that argument
might not be too soon at an end, he delighted to talk of liberty and
necessity, destiny and contingence; these he discusses in the language of
the school with so much profundity, that the terms which he uses are not
always understood. It is, indeed, learning, but learning out of place.
When once he had engaged himself in disputation, thoughts flowed in on
either side: he was now no longer at a loss; he had always objections and
solutions at command; "verbaque provisam rem"--give him matter for his
verse, and he finds, without difficulty, verse for his matter.
In comedy, for which he professes himself not naturally qualified, the
mirth which he excites will, perhaps, not be found so much to arise from
any original humour, or peculiarity of character nicely distinguished and
diligently pursued, as from incidents and circumstances, artifices and
surprises; from jests of action rather than of sentiment. What he had of
humorous or passionate, he seems to have had not from nature, but from
other poets; if not always as a plagiary, at least as an imitator.
Next to argument, his delight was in wild and daring sallies of
sentiment, in the irregular and eccentrick violence of wit. He delighted
to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to
mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss
of unideal vacancy. This inclination sometimes produced nonsense, which
he knew; as,
Move swiftly, sun, and fly a lover's pace,
Leave weeks and months behind thee in thy race.
To guard thee from the demons of the air;
My flaming sword above them to display,
All keen, and ground upon the edge of day.
And sometimes it issued in absurdities, of which, perhaps, he was not
Then we upon our orb's last verge shall go,
And see the ocean leaning on the sky;
From thence our rolling neighbours we shall know,
And on the lunar world securely pry.
These lines have no meaning; but may we not say, in imitation of Cowley
on another book,
'Tis so like _sense_ 'twill serve the turn as well?
This endeavour after the grand and the new, produced sentiments either
great or bulky, and many images either just or splendid:
I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
--'Tis but because the living death ne'er knew,
They fear to prove it, as a thing that's new:
Let me th' experiment before you try,
I'll show you first how easy 'tis to die.
--There with a forest of their darts he strove,
And stood like Capaneus defying Jove,
With his broad sword the boldest beating down,
While fate grew pale, lest he should win the town,
And turn'd the iron leaves of his dark book
To make new dooms, or mend what it mistook.
--I beg no pity for this mouldering clay;
For if you give it burial, there it takes
Possession of your earth;
If burnt, and scatter'd in the air, the winds
That strew my dust diffuse my royalty,
And spread me o'er your clime; for where one atom
Of mine shall light, know there Sebastian reigns.
Of these quotations the two first may be allowed to be great, the two
latter only tumid.
Of such selection there is no end. I will add only a few more passages;
of which the first, though it may, perhaps, not be quite clear in prose,
is not too obscure for poetry, as the meaning that it has is noble:
No, there is a necessity in fate,
Why still the brave bold man is fortunate;
He keeps his object ever full in sight;
And that assurance holds him firm and right;
True, 'tis a narrow way that leads to bliss,
But right before there is no precipice;
Fear makes men look aside, and so their footing miss.
Of the images which the two following citations afford, the first is
elegant, the second magnificent; whether either be just, let the reader
What precious drops are these,
Which silently each other's track pursue,
Bright as young diamonds in their infant dew?
Resign your castle----
--Enter, brave sir; for, when you speak the word,
The gates shall open of their own accord;
The genius of the place its lord shall meet,
And bow its tow'ry forehead at your feet.
These bursts of extravagance, Dryden calls the "Dalilahs" of the theatre;
and owns that many noisy lines of Maximin and Almanzor call out for
vengeance upon him: "but I knew," says he, "that they were bad enough to
please, even when I wrote them." There is, surely, reason to suspect that
he pleased himself, as well as his audience; and that these, like the
harlots of other men, had his love, though not his approbation.
He had, sometimes, faults of a less generous and splendid kind. He
makes, like almost all other poets, very frequent use of mythology, and
sometimes connects religion and fable too closely without distinction.
He descends to display his knowledge with pedantick ostentation; as
when, in translating Virgil, he says, "tack to the larboard,"--and "veer
starboard;" and talks, in another work, of "virtue spooning before the
wind."--His vanity now and then betrays his ignorance:
They nature's king through nature's opticks view'd;
Revers'd, they view'd him lessen'd to their eyes.
He had heard of reversing a telescope, and unluckily reverses the object.
He is, sometimes, unexpectedly mean. When he describes the supreme being
as moved by prayer to stop the fire of London, what is his expression?
A hollow crystal pyramid he takes,
In firmamental waters dipp'd above,
Of this a broad _extinguisher_ he makes,
And _hoods_ the flames that to their quarry strove.
When he describes the last day, and the decisive tribunal, he
intermingles this image:
When rattling bones together fly,
From the four quarters of the sky.
It was, indeed, never in his power to resist the temptation of a jest. In
his elegy on Cromwell:
No sooner was the Frenchman's cause embrac'd,
Than the _light monsieur_ the _grave don_ outweigh'd;
His fortune turn'd the scale----
He had a vanity, unworthy of his abilities, to show, as may be suspected,
the rank of the company with whom he lived, by the use of French
words, which had then crept into conversation; such as _fraicheur_ for
_coolness, fougue_ for _turbulence_, and a few more, none of which the
language has incorporated or retained. They continue only where they
stood first, perpetual warnings to future innovators.
These are his faults of affectation; his faults of negligence are beyond
recital. Such is the unevenness of his compositions, that ten lines are
seldom found together without something of which the reader is ashamed.
Dryden was no rigid judge of his own pages; he seldom struggled after
supreme excellence, but snatched in haste what was within his reach; and
when he could content others, was himself contented. He did not keep
present to his mind an idea of pure perfection; nor compare his works,
such as they were, with what they might be made. He knew to whom he
should be opposed. He had more musick than Waller, more vigour than
Donham, and more nature than Cowley; and from his contemporaries he was
in no danger. Standing, therefore, in the highest place, he had no care
to rise by contending with himself; but while there was no name above his
own, was willing to enjoy fame on the easiest terms.
He was no lover of labour. What he thought sufficient, he did not stop
to make better; and allowed himself to leave many parts unfinished, in
confidence that the good lines would overbalance the bad. What he had
once written, he dismissed from his thoughts; and, I believe, there is no
example to be found of any correction or improvement made by him after
publication. The hastiness of his productions might be the effect of
necessity; but his subsequent neglect could hardly have any other cause
than impatience of study.
What can be said of his versification, will be little more than a
dilatation of the praise given it by Pope:
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestick march, and energy divine.
Some improvements had been already made in English numbers; but the full
force of our language was not yet felt; the verse that was smooth was
commonly feeble. If Cowley had sometimes a finished line, he had it by
chance. Dryden knew how to choose the flowing and the sonorous words; to
vary the pauses, and adjust the accents; to diversify the cadence, and
yet preserve the smoothness of his metre.
Of triplets and alexandrines, though he did not introduce the use, he
established it. The triplet has long subsisted among us. Dryden seems not
to have traced it higher than to Chapman's Homer; but it is to be found
in Phaer's Virgil, written in the reign of Mary; and in Hall's Satires,
published five years before the death of Elizabeth.
The alexandrine was, I believe, first used by Spenser, for the sake
of closing his stanza with a fuller sound. We had a longer measure of
fourteen syllables, into which the Aeneid was translated by Phaer, and
other works of the ancients by other writers; of which Chapman's Iliad
was, I believe, the last.
The two first lines of Phaer's third Aeneid will exemplify this measure:
When Asia's state was overthrown, and Priam's kingdom stout,
All guiltless, by the power of gods above was rooted out.
As these lines had their break, or caesura, always at the eighth syllable,
it was thought, in time, commodious to divide them: and quatrains of
lines, alternately, consisting of eight and six syllables, make the most
soft and pleasing of our lyrick measures; as,
Relentless time, destroying pow'r,
Which stone and brass obey,
Who giv'st to ev'ry flying hour
To work some new decay.
In the alexandrine, when its power was once felt, some poems, as
Drayton's Polyolbion, were wholly written; and sometimes the measures of
twelve and fourteen syllables were interchanged with one another. Cowley
was the first that inserted the alexandrine at pleasure among the heroick
lines of ten syllables, and from him Dryden professes to have adopted
The triplet and alexandrine are not universally approved. Swift always
censured them, and wrote some lines to ridicule them. In examining
their propriety, it is to be considered that the essence of verse is
regularity, and its ornament is variety. To write verse, is to dispose
syllables and sounds harmonically by some known and settled rule; a rule,
however, lax enough to substitute similitude for identity, to admit
change without breach of order, and to relieve the ear without
disappointing it. Thus a Latin hexameter is formed from dactyls and
spondees, differently combined; the English heroick admits of acute or
grave syllables, variously disposed. The Latin never deviates into seven
feet, or exceeds the number of seventeen syllables; but the English
alexandrine breaks the lawful bounds, and surprises the reader with two
syllables more than he expected.
The effect of the triplet is the same: the ear has been accustomed to
expect a new rhyme in every couplet; but is on a sudden surprised with
three rhymes together, to which the reader could not accommodate his
voice, did he not obtain notice of the change from the braces of the
margins. Surely there is something unskilful in the necessity of such
Considering the metrical art simply as a science, and, consequently,
excluding all casualty, we must allow that triplets and alexandrines,
inserted by caprice, are interruptions of that constancy to which science
aspires. And though the variety which they produce may very justly be
desired, yet, to make our poetry exact, there ought to be some stated
mode of admitting them.
But till some such regulation can be formed, I wish them still to be
retained in their present state. They are sometimes grateful to the
reader, and sometimes convenient to the poet. Fenton was of opinion, that
Dryden was too liberal, and Pope too sparing, in their use.
The rhymes of Dryden are commonly just, and he valued himself for his
readiness in finding them; but he is sometimes open to objection.
It is the common practice of our poets to end the second line with a weak
or grave syllable:
Together o'er the Alps methinks we fly,
Fill'd with ideas of fair Italy.
Dryden sometimes puts the weak rhyme in the first:
Laugh all the powers that favour _tyranny_,
And all the standing army of the sky.
Sometimes he concludes a period or paragraph with the first line of a
couplet, which, though the French seem to do it without irregularity,
always displeases in English poetry.
The alexandrine, though much his favourite, is not always very diligently
fabricated by him. It invariably requires a break at the sixth syllable;
a rule which the modern French poets never violate, but which Dryden
And with paternal thunder vindicates his throne.
Of Dryden's works it was said by Pope, that he "could select from them
better specimens of every mode of poetry than any other English writer
could supply." Perhaps no nation ever produced a writer that enriched
his language with such variety of models. To him we owe the improvement,
perhaps the completion, of our metre, the refinement of our language, and
much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we are taught "sapere
et fari," to think naturally and express forcibly. Though Davies has
reasoned in rhyme before him, it may be, perhaps, maintained that he was
the first who joined argument with poetry. He showed us the true bounds
of a translator's liberty. What was said of Rome, adorned by Augustus,
may be applied by an easy metaphor to English poetry, embellished by
Dryden, "lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit." He found it brick, and
he left it marble.
The invocation before the Georgicks is here inserted from Mr. Milbourne's
version, that, according to his own proposal, his verses may be compared
with those which he censures:
What makes the richest _tilth_, beneath what signs
To _plough_, and when to match your _elms and vines_;
What care with _flocks_, and what with _herds_ agrees,
And all the management of frugal _bees_;
I sing, Maecenas! Ye immensely clear,
Vast orbs of light, which guide the rolling year;
Bacchus, and mother Ceres, if by you
We fatt'ning _corn_ for hungry _mast_ pursue,
If, taught by you, we first the _cluster_ prest,
And _thin cold streams_ with _sprightly juice_ refresht;
Ye _fawns_, the present _numens_ of the field,
_Wood nymphs_ and _fawns_, your kind assistance yield;
Your gifts I sing! And thou, at whose fear'd stroke
From rending earth the fiery _courser_ broke,
Great Neptune, O assist my artful song!
And thou to whom the woods and groves belong,
Whose snowy heifers on her flow'ry plains
In mighty herds the Caean isle maintains!
Pan, happy shepherd, if thy cares divine
E'er to improve thy Maenalas incline,
Leave thy _Lycaean wood_ and _native grove_,
And with thy lucky smiles our work approve!
Be Pallas too, sweet oil's inventor, kind;
And he who first the crooked _plough_ design'd!
Sylvanus, god of all the woods, appear,
Whose hands a new-drawn tender _cypress_ bear!
Ye _gods_ and _goddesses_, who e'er with love
Would guard our pastures and our fields improve!
You, who new plants from unknown lands supply,
And with condensing clouds obscure the sky,
And drop 'em softly thence in fruitful show'rs;
Assist my enterprise, ye gentler pow'rs!
And thou, great Caesar! though we know not yet
Among what gods thou'lt fix thy lofty seat;
Whether thou'lt be the kind _tutelar_ god
Of thy own Rome; or with thy awful nod
Guide the vast world, while thy great hand shall bear
The fruits and seasons of the turning year,
And thy bright brows thy mother's myrtles wear;
Whether thou'lt all the boundless ocean sway,
And seamen only to thyself shall pray,
Thule, the farthest island, kneel to thee,
And, that thou may'st her son by marriage be,
Tethys will for the happy purchase yield
To make a _dowry_ of her wat'ry field;
Whether thou'lt add to heaven a _brighter sign_,
And o'er the _summer months_ serenely shine;
Where between Cancer and Erigone,
There yet remains a spacious _room_ for thee;
Where the hot _Scorpion_ too his arms declines,
And more to thee than half his _arch_ resigns;
Whate'er thou'lt be; for sure the realms below
No just pretence to thy command can show:
No such ambition sways thy vast desires,
Though Greece her own _Elysian fields_ admires.
And now, at last, contented Proserpine
Can all her mother's earnest pray'rs decline.
Whate'er thou'lt be, O guide our gentle course;
And with thy smiles our bold attempts enforce;
With me th' unknowing _rustics_' wants relieve,
And, though on earth, our sacred vows receive!
Mr. Dryden, having received from Rymer his Remarks on the Tragedies of
the last Age, wrote observations on the blank leaves; which, having been
in the possession of Mr. Garrick, are, by his favour, communicated to the
publick, that no particle of Dryden may be lost:
"That we may the less wonder why pity and terrour are not now the only
springs on which our tragedies move, and that Shakespeare may be more
excused, Rapin confesses that the French tragedies, now all run on the
_tendre_; and gives the reason, because love is the passion which most
predominates in our souls, and that, therefore, the passions represented
become insipid, unless they are conformable to the thoughts of the
audience. But it is to be concluded, that this passion works not now
amongst the French so strongly as the other two did amongst the ancients.
Amongst us, who have a stronger genius for writing, the operations from
the writing are much stronger; for the raising of Shakespeare's passions
is more from the excellency of the words and thoughts, than the justness
of the occasion; and if he has been able to pick single occasions, he
has never founded the whole reasonably: yet, by the genius of poetry in
writing, he has succeeded.
"Rapin attributes more to the _dictio_, that is, to the words and
discourse of a tragedy, than Aristotle has done, who places them in the
last rank of beauties; perhaps, only last in order, because they are the
last product of the design, of the disposition or connexion of its
parts; of the characters, of the manners of those characters, and of the
thoughts proceeding from those manners. Rapin's words are remarkable:
'Tis not the admirable intrigue, the surprising events, and extraordinary
incidents, that make the beauty of a tragedy; 'tis the discourses, when
they are natural and passionate: so are Shakespeare's.
"The parts of a poem, tragick or heroick, are,
"1. The fable itself.
"2. The order or manner of its contrivance, in relation of the parts to
"3. The manners, or decency, of the characters, in speaking or acting
what is proper for them, and proper to be shown by the poet.
"4. The thoughts which express the manners.
"5. The words which express those thoughts.
"In the last of these Homer excels Virgil; Virgil all other ancient
poets; and Shakespeare all modern poets.
"For the second of these, the order: the meaning is, that a fable ought
to have a beginning, middle, and an end, all just and natural; so that
that part, e.g. which is the middle, could not naturally be the beginning
or end, and so of the rest: all depend on one another, like the links of
a curious chain. If terrour and pity are only to be raised, certainly
this author follows Aristotle's rules, and Sophocles' and Euripides'
example: but joy may be raised too, and that doubly, either by seeing
a wicked man punished, or a good man at last fortunate; or, perhaps,
indignation, to see wickedness prosperous, and goodness depressed: both
these may be profitable to the end of tragedy, reformation of manners;
but the last improperly, only as it begets pity in the audience: though
Aristotle, I confess, places tragedies of this kind in the second form.
"He who undertakes to answer this excellent critique of Mr. Rymer, in
behalf of our English poets against the Greek, ought to do it in this
manner: either by yielding to him the greatest part of what he contends
for, which consists in this, that the 'mithos', i. e. the design
and conduct of it, is more conducing in the Greeks to those ends of
tragedy, which Aristotle and he propose, namely, to cause terrour and
pity; yet the granting this does not set the Greeks above the English
"But the answerer ought to prove two things: first, that the fable is not
the greatest masterpiece of a tragedy, though it be the foundation of it.
"Secondly, that other ends, as suitable to the nature of tragedy, may be
found in the English, which were not in the Greek.
"Aristotle places the fable first; not 'quoad dignitatem, sed quoad
fundamentum:' for a fable, never so movingly contrived to those ends of
his, pity and terrour, will operate nothing on our affections, except the
characters, manners, thoughts, and words, are suitable.
"So that it remains for Mr. Rymer to prove, that in all those, or the
greatest part of them, we are inferiour to Sophocles and Euripides: and
this he has offered at, in some measure; but, I think, a little partially
to the ancients.
"For the fable itself, 'tis in the English more adorned with episodes,
and larger than in the Greek poets; consequently more diverting. For, if
the action be but one, and that plain, without any counterturn of design
or episode, i.e. underplot, how can it be so pleasing as the English,
which have both underplot and a turned design, which keeps the audience
in expectation of the catastrophe? whereas in the Greek poets we see
through the whole design at first.
"For the characters, they are neither so many nor so various in Sophocles
and Euripides, as in Shakespeare and Fletcher; only they are more adapted
to those ends of tragedy which Aristotle commends to us, pity and
"The manners flow from the characters, and, consequently, must partake of
their advantages and disadvantages.
"The thoughts and words, which are the fourth and fifth beauties of
tragedy, are certainly more noble and more poetical in the English than
in the Greek, which must be proved by comparing them somewhat more
equitably than Mr. Rymer has done.
"After all, we need not yield, that the English way is less conducing to
move pity and terrour, because they often show virtue oppressed and vice
punished; where they do not both, or either, they are not to be defended.
"And if we should grant that the Greeks performed this better, perhaps it
may admit of dispute, whether pity and terrour are either the prime, or,
at least, the only ends of tragedy.
"'Tis not enough that Aristotle has said so; for Aristotle drew his
models of tragedy from Sophocles and Euripides; and, if he had seen ours,
might have changed his mind. And chiefly we have to say (what I hinted on
pity and terrour, in the last paragraph save one,) that the punishment of
vice and reward of virtue are the most adequate ends of tragedy, because
most conducing to good example of life. Now, pity is not so easily raised
for a criminal (and the ancient tragedy always represents its chief
person such) as it is for an innocent man; and the suffering of innocence
and punishment of the offender is of the nature of English tragedy:
contrarily, in the Greek, innocence is unhappy often, and the offender
escapes. Then we are not touched with the sufferings of any sort of men
so much as of lovers; and this was almost unknown to the ancients; so
that they neither administered poetical justice, of which Mr. Rymer
boasts, so well as we; neither knew they the best commonplace of pity,
which is love.
"He, therefore, unjustly blames us for not building on what the ancients
left us; for it seems, upon consideration of the premises, that we have
wholly finished what they began.
"My judgment on this piece is this: that it is extremely learned, but
that the author of it is better read in the Greek than in the English
poets; that all writers ought to study this critique, as the best account
I have ever seen of the ancients; that the model of tragedy he has here
given is excellent, and extremely correct; but that it is not the only
model of all tragedy, because it is too much circumscribed in plot,
characters, &c.; and, lastly, that we may be taught here justly to admire
and imitate the ancients, without giving them the preference with this
author, in prejudice to our own country.
"Want of method in this excellent treatise makes the thoughts of the
author sometimes obscure.
"His meaning, that pity and terrour are to be moved, is, that they are
to be moved, as the means conducing to the ends of tragedy, which are
pleasure and instruction.
"And these two ends may be thus distinguished. The chief end of the poet
is to please; for his immediate reputation depends on it.
"The great end of the poem is to instruct, which is performed by making
pleasure the vehicle of that instruction; for poesy is an art, and all
arts are made to profit. _Rapin_.
"The pity, which the poet is to labour for, is for the criminal, not for
those or him whom he has murdered, or who have been the occasion of the
tragedy. The terrour is likewise in the punishment of the same criminal;
who, if he be represented too great an offender, will not be pitied: if
altogether innocent, his punishment will be unjust.
"Another obscurity is, where he says, Sophocles perfected tragedy by
introducing the third actor; that is, he meant, three kinds of action;
one company singing, or speaking; another playing on the musick; a third
"To make a true judgment in this competition betwixt the Greek poets and
the English, in tragedy:
"Consider, first, how Aristotle has defined a tragedy. Secondly, what he
assigns the end of it to be. Thirdly, what he thinks the beauties of it.
Fourthly, the means to attain the end proposed.
"Compare the Greek and English tragick poets justly, and without
partiality, according to those rules.
"Then, secondly, consider whether Aristotle has made a just definition of
tragedy; of its parts, of its ends, and of its beauties; and whether he,
having not seen any others but those of Sophocles, Euripides, &c. had
or truly could determine what all the excellencies of tragedy are, and
wherein they consist.
"Next, show in what ancient tragedy was deficient: for example, in the
narrowness of its plots, and fewness of persons; and try whether that
be not a fault in the Greek poets; and whether their excellency was so
great, when the variety was visibly so little; or whether what they did
was not very easy to do.
"Then make a judgment on what the English have added to their beauties:
as, for example, not only more plot, but also new passions; as, namely,
that of love, scarcely touched on by the ancients, except in this one
example of Phaedra, cited by Mr. Rymer; and in that how short they were
"Prove also that love, being an heroick passion, is fit for tragedy,
which cannot be denied, because of the example alleged of Phaedra; and
how far Shakespeare has outdone them in friendship, &c.
"To return to the beginning of this inquiry; consider if pity and terrour
be enough for tragedy to move: and I believe, upon a true definition of
tragedy, it will be found that its work extends farther, and that it is
to reform manners, by a delightful representation of human life in great
persons, by way of dialogue. If this be true, then not only pity and
terrour are to be moved, as the only means to bring us to virtue, but
generally love to virtue, and hatred to vice; by showing the rewards of
one, and punishments of the other; at least, by rendering virtue always
amiable, though it be shown unfortunate; and vice detestable, though it
be shown triumphant.
"If, then, the encouragement of virtue and discouragement of vice be the
proper ends of poetry in tragedy, pity and terrour, though good means,
are not the only. For all the passions, in their turns, are to be set
in a ferment: as joy, anger, love, fear, are to be used as the poet's
commonplaces; and a general concernment for the principal actors is to be
raised, by making them appear such in their characters, their words, and
actions, as will interest the audience in their fortunes.
"And if, after all, in a larger sense, pity comprehends this concernment
for the good, and terrour includes detestation for the bad, then let us
consider whether the English have not answered this end of tragedy as
well as the ancients, or perhaps better.
"And here Mr. Rymer's objections against these plays are to be
impartially weighed, that we may see whether they are of weight enough to
turn the balance against our countrymen.
"'Tis evident those plays, which he arraigns, have moved both those
passions in a high degree upon the stage.
"To give the glory of this away from the poet, and to place it upon the
actors, seems unjust.
"One reason is, because whatever actors they have found, the event has
been the same; that is, the same passions have been always moved:
which shows, that there is something of force and merit in the plays
themselves, conducing to the design of raising these two passions: and
suppose them ever to have been excellently acted, yet action only adds
grace, vigour, and more life, upon the stage; but cannot give it wholly
where it is not first. But, secondly, I dare appeal to those who have
never seen them acted, if they have not found these two passions moved
within them: and if the general voice will carry it, Mr. Rymer's
prejudice will take off his single testimony.
"This, being matter of fact, is reasonably to be established by this
appeal; as, if one man says it is night, when the rest of the world
conclude it to be day, there needs no farther argument against him, that
it is so.
"If he urge, that the general taste is depraved, his arguments to prove
this can, at best, but evince that our poets took not the best way to
raise those passions; but experience proves against him, that those
means, which they have used, have been successful, and have produced
"And one reason of that success is, in my opinion, this: that Shakespeare
and Fletcher have written to the genius of the age and nation in which
they lived; for though nature, as he objects, is the same in all places,
and reason too the same; yet the climate, the age, the disposition of the
people, to whom a poet writes, may be so different, that what pleased the
Greeks would not satisfy an English audience.
"And if they proceeded upon a foundation of truer reason to please the
Athenians, than Shakespeare and Fletcher to please the English, it only
shows that the Athenians were a more judicious people; but the poet's
business is certainly to please the audience.
"Whether our English audience have been pleased, hitherto, with acorns,
as he calls it, or with bread, is the next question; that is, whether the
means which Shakespeare and Fletcher have used, in their plays, to raise
those passions before named, be better applied to the ends by the Greek
poets than by them. And, perhaps, we shall not grant him this wholly: let
it be granted, that a writer is not to run down with the stream, or to
please the people by their usual methods, but rather to reform their
judgments, it still remains to prove that our theatre needs this total
"The faults, which he has found in their designs, are rather wittily
aggravated in many places than reasonably urged; and as much may be
returned on the Greeks, by one who were as witty as himself.
"They destroy not, if they are granted, the foundation of the fabrick:
only take away from the beauty of the symmetry: for example, the faults
in the character of the king, in King and No King, are not, as he makes
them, such as render him detestable, but only imperfections which
accompany human nature, and are, for the most part, excused by the
violence of his love; so that they destroy not our pity or concernment
for him: this answer may be applied to most of his objections of that
"And Rollo committing many murders, when he is answerable but for one,
is too severely arraigned by him; for, it adds to our horrour and
detestation of the criminal; and poetick justice is not neglected
neither; for we stab him in our minds for every offence which he commits;
and the point, which the poet is to gain on the audience, is not so much
in the death of an offender as the raising an horrour of his crimes.
"That the criminal should neither be wholly guilty, nor wholly innocent,
but so participating of both as to move both pity and terrour, is
certainly a good rule, but not perpetually to be observed; for that were
to make all tragedies too much alike; which objection he foresaw, but has
not fully answered.
"To conclude, therefore; if the plays of the ancients are more correctly
plotted, ours are more beautifully written. And, if we can raise passions
as high on worse foundations, it shows our genius in tragedy is greater;
for in all other parts of it the English have manifestly excelled them."
The original of the following letter is preserved in the library at
Lambeth, and was kindly imparted to the publick by the reverend Dr. Vyse.
Copy of an original letter from John Dryden, esq. to
his sons in Italy, from a MS. in the Lambeth library,
marked N°. 933, p. 56.
"All' illustrissimo Sig're
Carlo Dryden, Camariere
d'Honore a S.S.
"Franca per Mantoua.
"Sept. the 3d, our style.
"Being now at sir William Bowyer's in the country, I
cannot write at large, because I find myself somewhat indisposed
with a cold, and am thick of hearing, rather worse
than I was in town. I am glad to find, by your letter of
July 26th, your style, that you are both in health; but
wonder you should think me so negligent as to forget to
give you an account of the ship in which your parcel is to
come. I have written to you two or three letters concerning
it, which I have sent by safe hands, as I told you, and
doubt not but you have them before this can arrive to you.
Being out of town, I have forgotten the ship's name, which
your mother will inquire, and put it into her letter, which
is joined with mine. But the master's name I remember:
he is called Mr. Ralph Thorp; the ship is bound to Leghorn,
consigned to Mr. Peter and Mr. Thomas Ball, merchants.
I am of your opinion, that by Tonson's means
almost all our letters have miscarried for this last year.
But, however, he has missed of his design in the dedication,
though he had prepared the book for it; for in every
figure of Aeneas he has caused him to be drawn like king
William, with a hooked nose. After my return to town,
I intend to alter a play of sir Robert Howard's, written
long since, and lately put by him into my hands; 'tis called
the Conquest of China by the Tartars. It will cost me
six weeks' study, with the probable benefit of a hundred
pounds. In the mean time, I am writing a song for St.
Cecilia's Feast, who, you know, is the patroness of musick.
This is troublesome, and no way beneficial; but I could
not deny the stewards of the feast, who came in a body to
me to desire that kindness, one of them being Mr. Bridgman,
whose parents are your mother's friends. I hope to
send you thirty guineas between Michaelmas and Christmas,
of which I will give you an account when I come to
town. I remember the counsel you give me in your letter;
but dissembling, though lawful in some cases, is not my
talent; yet, for your sake, I will struggle with the plain
openness of my nature, and keep in my just resentments
against that degenerate order. In the mean time I flatter
not myself with any manner of hopes, but do my duty, and
suffer for God's sake; being assured, beforehand, never
to be rewarded, though the times should alter. Towards
the latter end of this month, September, Charles will begin
to recover his perfect health, according to his nativity,
which, casting it myself, I am sure is true, and all things
hitherto have happened accordingly to the very time that
I predicted them: I hope, at the same time, to recover
more health, according to my age. Remember me to poor
Harry, whose prayers I earnestly desire. My Virgil succeeds
in the world beyond its desert or my expectation.
You know the profits might have been more; but neither
my conscience nor my honour would suffer me to take
them: but I never can repent of my constancy, since I
am thoroughly persuaded of the justice of the cause for
which I suffer. It has pleased God to raise up many
friends to me amongst my enemies, though they who
ought to have been my friends are negligent of me. I am
called to dinner, and cannot go on with this letter, which
I desire you to excuse; and am
"Your most affectionate father,
[Footnote 92: The life of Dryden is written with more than Johnson's
usual copiousness of biography, and with peculiar vigour and justness of
criticism. "None, perhaps, of the Lives of the Poets," says the Edinburgh
Review, for October, 1808, "is entitled to so high a rank. No prejudice
interfered with his judgment; he approved his politics; he could feel no
envy of such established fame; he had a mind precisely formed to relish
the excellencies of Dryden--more vigorous than refined; more reasoning
than impassioned." Edinburgh Review, xxv. p. 117. Many dates, however,
and little facts have been rectified by Mr. Malone, in his most minute
Account of the Life and Writings of John Dryden; and sir Walter Scott, in
the life prefixed to his edition of Dryden's works, has been still more
industrious in the collection of incidents and contemporary writings,
that can only interest the antiquary. Those to whom Johnson's life seems
not sufficiently ample, we refer to the above works. For an eulogy
on Dryden's powers, as a satirist, see the notes on the Pursuits of
[Footnote 93: Mr. Malone has lately proved, that there is no satisfactory
evidence for this date. The inscription on Dryden's monument says only
"natus 1632." See Malone's Life of Dryden, prefixed to his Critical and
Miscellaneous Prose Works, p. 5. note. C.]
[Footnote 94: Of Cumberland. Ibid. p. 10. C.]
[Footnote 95: Mr. Malone has furnished us with a detailed account of
our poet's circumstances, from which it appears, that although he was
possessed of a sufficient income, in the early part of his life, he was
considerably embarrassed at its close. See Malone's Life, p. 440.]
[Footnote 96: Mr. Derrick's Life of Dryden was prefixed to a very
beautiful and correct edition of Dryden's Miscellanies, published by
the Tonsons, in 1760,4 vols. 8vo. Derrick's part, however, was poorly
executed, and the edition never became popular. C.]
[Footnote 97: He went off to Trinity college, and was admitted to a
bachelor's degree in Jan. 1653-4, and in 1657 was made M.A.]
[Footnote 98: This is a mistake; his poem on the death of lord Hastings
appeared in a volume entitled Tears of the Muses on the death of Henry
Lord Hastings. 8vo. 1649. M.]
[Footnote 99: The order of his plays has been accurately ascertained by
Mr. Malone. C.]
[Footnote 100: The duke of Guise was his first attempt in the drama, but
laid aside, and afterwards new modelled. See Malone, p. 51.]
[Footnote 101: See Malone, p. 91.]
[Footnote 102: He did not obtain the laurel till Aug. 18, 1670, but Mr.
Malone informs us, the patent had a retrospect, and the salary commenced
from the Midsummer after Davenant's death. C.]
[Footnote 103: Downes says it was performed on a very unlucky day, viz.
that on which the duke of Monmouth landed in the west; and he intimates,
that the consternation into which the kingdom was thrown by this event,
was a reason why it was performed but six times, and was in general ill
[Footnote 104: This is a mistake. It was set to musick by Purcell, and
well received, and is yet a favourite entertainment. H.]
[Footnote 105: Johnson has here quoted from memory. Warburton is the
original relater of this anecdote, who says he had it from Southern
himself. According to him, Dryden's usual price had been _four guineas_,
and he made Southern pay _six_. In the edition of Southern's plays, 1774,
we have a different deviation from the truth, _five_ and _ten_ guineas.
[Footnote 106: Dr. Johnson, in this assertion, was misled by Langbaine.
Only one of these plays appeared in 1678. Nor were there more than three
in any one year. The dates are now added from the original editions. R.]
[Footnote 107: It was published in 1672. R.]
[Footnote 108: This remark, as Mr. Malone observes, is founded upon
the erroneous dates with which Johnson was supplied by Langbaine. The
Rehearsal was played in 1671, but not published till the next year; The
Wild Gallant was printed in 1669, The Maiden Queen in 1668, Tyrannick
Love in 1670; the two parts of Granada were performed in 1669 and 1670,
though not printed till 1672. Additions were afterwards made to The
Rehearsal, and among these are the parodies on Assignation, which are not
to be found in Buckingham's play as it originally appeared. Mr. Malone
denies that there is any allusion to Marriage à-la-mode. See Malone, p.
100. J. B.]
[Footnote 109: It is mentioned by A. Wood, Athen, Oxon. vol. ii. p. 804.
2nd ed. C.]
[Footnote 110: Dryden translated two entire epistles, Canace to Macareus,
and Dido to Aeneas. Helen to Paris was translated by him and lord
Mulgrave. Malone, J.B.]
[Footnote 111: Azaria and Hushai was written by Samuel Pordage, a
dramatick writer of that time.]
[Footnote 112: Dr. John Reynolds, who lived temp. Jac. I. was at first a
zealous papist, and his brother William as earnest a protestant; but by
mutual disputation each converted the other. See Fuller's Church History,
p. 47. book x. II.]
[Footnote 113: This is a mistake. See Malone, p. 194, &c.]
[Footnote 114: All Dryden's biographers have misdated this poem, which
Mr. Malone's more accurate researches prove to have been published on the
4th of Oct. 1682.]
[Footnote 115: Albion and Albanius must, however, be excepted. R.]
[Footnote 116: This story has been traced to its source, and clearly
proved to be a fabrication, by Mr. Malone. See Malone's Life, 347.]
[Footnote 117: An earlier account of Dryden's funeral than that above
cited, though without the circumstances that preceded it, is given by
Edward Ward, who, in his London Spy, published in 1706, relates, that on
the occasion there was a performance of solemn musick at the college,
and that at the procession, which himself saw, standing at the end
of Chancery lane, Fleet street, there was a concert of hautboys and
trumpets. The day of Dryden's interment, he says, was Monday, the 13th of
May, which, according to Johnson, was twelve days after his decease,
and shows how long his funeral was in suspense. Ward knew not that
the expense of it was defrayed by subscription; but compliments lord
Jefferies for so pious an undertaking. He also says, that the cause of
Dryden's death was an inflammation in his toe, occasioned by the flesh
growing over the nail, which, being neglected, produced a mortification
in his leg. H.]
[Footnote 118: In the register of the College of Physicians, is the
following entry: "May 3, 1700. Comitiis Censoriis ordinariis. At the
request of several persons of quality, that Mr. Dryden might be carried
from the College of Physicians to be interred at Westminster, it was
unanimously granted by the president and censors."
This entry is not calculated to afford any credit to the narrative
concerning lord Jefferies. R.]
[Footnote 119: See what is said on this head with regard to Cowley and
Addison, in their respective lives.]
[Footnote 120: Preface to Ovid's Metamorphoses. Dr. J.]
[Footnote 121: We are not about to attempt a justification of Dryden's
strange use, in the above stanzas, of nautical phrases, but we must
remark, that Johnson's antipathy to ships, and every thing connected
with them, made him unusually sensitive of any thing like naval
technicalities. And yet surely the occasional and judicious use of them
in description is quite as allowable as the introduction of allusions to
the printing office or bookseller's shop, with which Johnson happened to
be familiar, and, therefore, did not disapprove. St. Paul did not disdain
to adopt naval phraseology in his exquisite narrative of his own perils
by sea. ED.]
[Footnoteb 122: A heart-sinking and painful depression has been
experienced by most of us on concluding a favourite author; but the
sensation has never been more vividly portrayed in language, than in the
above passage. ED.]
[Footnote 123: I cannot see why Johnson has thought there was any want of
clearness in this passage even in prose. Addison has given us almost the
very same thought in very good prose: "If we look forward to him [the
deity] for help, we shall never be in danger of falling down those
precipices which our imagination is apt to create. Like those who walk
upon a line, if we keep our eye fixed upon one point, we may step forward
securely; whereas an imprudent or cowardly glance on either side will
infallibly destroy us." Spectator, No. 615. J.B.]
[Footnote 124: This is an error. The alexandrine inserted among heroick
lines of ten syllables is found in many of the writers of queen
Elizabeth's reign. It will be sufficient to mention Hall, who has already
been quoted for the use of the triplet:
As tho' the staring world hang'd on his sleeve.
Whenever he smiles to laugh, and when he sighs to grieve.
Hall's Sat. book i. sat. 7.
Take another instance:
For shame! or better write or Labeo write none.
Hall's Sat. book ii. sat 1. J.B.]
Edmund Smith is one of those lucky writers who have, without much labour,
attained high reputation, and who are mentioned with reverence, rather
for the possession, than the exertion of uncommon abilities.
Of his life little is known; and that little claims no praise but what
can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous
purpose. His character, as given by Mr. Oldisworth, with all the
partiality of friendship, which is said, by Dr. Burton, to show "what
fine things one man of parts can say of another," and which, however,
comprises great part of what can be known of Mr. Smith, it is better to
transcribe, at once, than to take by pieces. I shall subjoin such little
memorials as accident has enabled me to collect.
Mr. Edmund Smith was the only son of an eminent merchant, one Mr. Neale,
by a daughter of the famous baron Lechmere. Some misfortunes of his
father, which were soon followed by his death, were the occasion of the
son's being left very young in the hands of a near relation, (one who
married Mr. Neale's sister,) whose name was Smith.
This gentleman and his lady treated him as their own child, and put him
to Westminster school, under the care of Dr. Busby; whence, after the
loss of his faithful and generous guardian, (whose name he assumed and
retained,) he was removed to Christ church, in Oxford, and there, by his
aunt, handsomely maintained till her death; after which he continued a
member of that learned and ingenious society, till within five years of
his own; though, some time before his leaving Christ church, he was
sent for by his mother to Worcester, and owned and acknowledged as
her legitimate son; which had not been mentioned, but to wipe off the
aspersions that were ignorantly cast by some on his birth. It is to be
remembered, for our author's honour, that, when at Westminster election
he stood a candidate for one of the universities, he so signally
distinguished himself by his conspicuous performances, that there arose
no small contention, between the representative electors of Trinity
college, in Cambridge, and Christ church, in Oxon, which of those two
royal societies should adopt him as their own. But the electors of
Trinity college having the preference of choice that year, they
resolutely elected him; who yet, being invited, at the same time, to
Christ church, chose to accept of a studentship there. Mr. Smith's
perfections, as well natural as acquired, seem to have been formed upon
Horace's plan, who says, in his Art of Poetry:
Ego nec studium sine divite vena,
Nec rude quid prosit video ingenium; alterius sic
Altera poscit opem res, et conjurat amice.
He was endowed by nature with all those excellent and necessary
qualifications which are previous to the accomplishment of a great man.
His memory was large and tenacious, yet, by a _curious felicity, chiefly_
susceptible of the finest impressions it received from the best authors
he read, which it always preserved in their primitive strength and
He had a quickness of apprehension, and vivacity of understanding, which
easily took in and surmounted the most subtile and knotty parts of
mathematicks and metaphysicks. His wit was prompt and flowing, yet
solid and piercing; his taste delicate, his head clear, and his way of
expressing his thoughts perspicuous and engaging. I shall say nothing of
his person, which yet was so well _turned_, that no neglect of himself in
his dress could render it disagreeable; insomuch, that the fair sex, who
observed and esteemed him, at once commended and reproved him by the name
of the _handsome_ sloven. An eager but generous and noble emulation grew
up with him; which (as it were a rational sort of instinct) pushed him
upon striving to excel in every art and science that could make him a
credit to his college, and that college the ornament of the most
learned and polite university; and it was his happiness to have several
contemporaries and fellow-students who exercised and excited this virtue
in themselves and others, thereby becoming so deservedly in favour with
this age, and so good a proof of its nice discernment. His judgment,
naturally good, soon ripened into an exquisite fineness and
distinguishing sagacity, which as it was active and busy, so it
was vigorous and manly, keeping even paces with a rich and strong
imagination, always upon the wing, and never tired with aspiring. Hence
it was, that, though he writ as young as Cowley, he had no puerilities;
and his earliest productions were so far from having any thing in them
mean and trifling, that, like the junior compositions of Mr. Stepney,
they may make grey authors blush. There are many of his first essays in
oratory, in epigram, elegy, and epick, still handed about the university
in manuscript, which show a masterly hand; and, though maimed and injured
by frequent transcribing, make their way into our most celebrated
miscellanies, where they shine with uncommon lustre. Besides those verses
in the Oxford books, which he could not help setting his name to, several
of his compositions came abroad under other names, which his own singular
modesty, and faithful silence, strove in vain to conceal. The Encaenia
and publick collections of the university upon state subjects, were
never in such esteem, either for elegy or congratulation, as when he
contributed most largely to them; and it was natural for those who knew
his peculiar way of writing, to turn to his share in the work, as by
far the most relishing part of the entertainment. As his parts were
extraordinary, so he well knew how to improve them; and not only to
polish the diamond, but enchase it in the most solid and durable metal.
Though he was an academick the greatest part of his life, yet he
contracted no sourness of temper, no spice of pedantry, no itch of
disputation, or obstinate contention for the old or new philosophy, no
assuming way of dictating to others, which are faults (though excusable)
which some are insensibly led into, who are constrained to dwell long
within the walls of a private college. His conversation was pleasant and
instructive, and what Horace said of Plotius, Varius, and Virgil, might
justly be applied to him:
Nil ego contulerim jucundo sanus amico. Sat. v. l. 1.
As correct a writer as he was in his most elaborate pieces, he read the
works of others with candour, and reserved his greatest severity for his
own compositions; being readier to cherish and advance, than damp or
depress a rising genius, and as patient of being excelled himself (if any
could excel him) as industrious to excel others.
'Twere to be wished he had confined himself to a particular profession,
who was capable of surpassing in any; but, in this, his want of
application was, in a great measure, owing to his want of due
He passed through the exercises of the college and university with
unusual applause; and though he often suffered his friends to call him
off from his retirements, and to lengthen out those jovial avocations,
yet his return to his studies was so much the more passionate, and
his intention upon those refined pleasures of reading and thinking
so vehement, (to which his facetious and unbended intervals bore no
proportion,) that the habit grew upon him; and the series of meditation
and reflection being kept up whole weeks together, he could better sort
his ideas, and take in the sundry parts of a science at one view, without
interruption or confusion. Some, indeed, of his acquaintance, who were
pleased to distinguish between the wit and the scholar, extolled him
altogether on the account of the first of these titles; but others, who
knew him better, could not forbear doing him justice as a prodigy in both
kinds. He had signalized himself, in the schools, as a philosopher and
polemick of extensive knowledge and deep penetration; and went through
all the courses with a wise regard to the dignity and importance of each
I remember him in the Divinity school responding and disputing with a
perspicuous energy, a ready exactness, and commanding force of argument,
when Dr. Jane worthily presided in the chair; whose condescending and
disinterested commendation of him gave him such a reputation, as
silenced the envious malice of his enemies, who durst not contradict
the approbation of so profound a master in theology. None of those
self-sufficient creatures, who have either trifled with philosophy, by
attempting to ridicule it, or have encumbered it with novel terms and
burdensome explanations, understood its real weight and purity half so
well as Mr. Smith. He was too discerning to allow of the character of
unprofitable, rugged, and abstruse, which some superficial sciolists, (so
very smooth and polite, as to admit of no impression,) either out of an
unthinking indolence, or an ill-grounded prejudice, had affixed to this
sort of studies. He knew the thorny terms of philosophy served well to
fence in the true doctrines of religion; and looked upon school-divinity
as upon a rough but well-wrought armour, which might at once adorn and
defend the christian hero, and equip him for the combat.
Mr. Smith had a long and perfect intimacy with all the Greek and Latin
classicks; with whom he had carefully compared whatever was worth
perusing in the French, Spanish, and Italian, (to which languages he was
no stranger,) and in all the celebrated writers of his own country.
But then, according to the curious observation of the late earl of
Shaftesbury, he kept the poet in awe by regular criticism; and, as it
were, married the two arts for their mutual support and improvement.
There was not a tract of credit, upon that subject, which he had not
diligently examined, from Aristotle down to Hedelin and Bossu; so that,
having each rule constantly before him, he could carry the art through
every poem, and at once point out the graces and deformities. By this
means he seemed to read with a design to correct, as well as imitate.
Being thus prepared, he could not but taste every little delicacy that
was set before him; though it was impossible for him, at the same time,
to be fed and nourished with any thing but what was substantial and
lasting. He considered the ancients and moderns not as parties or rivals
for fame, but as architects upon one and the same plan, the art of
poetry; according to which he judged, approved, and blamed, without
flattery or detraction. If he did not always commend the compositions of
others, it was not ill-nature, (which was not in his temper,) but strict
justice, that would not let him call a few flowers set in ranks, a glib
measure, and so many couplets, by the name of poetry: he was of Ben
Jonson's opinion, who could not admire
Verses as smooth and soft as cream,
In which there was neither depth nor stream.
And, therefore, though his want of complaisance for some men's
overbearing vanity made him enemies, yet the better part of mankind were
obliged by the freedom of his reflections.
His Bodleian Speech, though taken from a remote and imperfect copy, hath
shown the world how great a master he was of the Ciceronian eloquence,
mixed with the conciseness and force of Demosthenes, the elegant and
moving turns of Pliny, and the acute and wise reflections of Tacitus.
Since Temple and Roscommon, no man understood Horace better, especially
as to his happy diction, rolling numbers, beautiful imagery, and
alternate mixture of the soft and the sublime. This endeared Dr. Hannes's
odes to him, the finest genius for Latin lyrick since the Augustan age.
His friend Mr. Philips's ode to Mr. St. John, (late lord Bolingbroke,)
after the manner of Horace's Lusory or Amatorian Odes, is certainly a
masterpiece; but Mr. Smith's Pocockius is of the sublimer kind, though,
like Waller's writings upon Oliver Cromwell, it wants not the most
delicate and surprising turns peculiar to the person praised. I do not
remember to have seen any thing like it in Dr. Bathurst, who had
made some attempts this way with applause. He was an excellent judge of
humanity; and so good an historian, that in familiar discourse he would
talk over the most memorable facts in antiquity, the lives, actions, and
characters of celebrated men, with amazing facility and accuracy. As he
had thoroughly read and digested Thuanus's works, so he was able to copy
after him; and his talent in this kind was so well known and allowed,
that he had been singled out, by some great men, to write a history,
which it was for their interest to have done with the utmost art and
dexterity. I shall not mention for what reasons this design was dropped,
though they are very much to Mr. Smith's honour. The truth is, and I
speak it before living witnesses, whilst an agreeable company could
fix him upon a subject of useful literature, nobody shone to greater
advantage; he seemed to be that Memmius whom Lucretius speaks of:
Quem tu, dea, tempore in omni
Omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus.
His works are not many, and those scattered up and down in miscellanies
and collections, being wrested from him by his friends with great
difficulty and reluctance. All of them together make but a small part of
that much greater body which lies dispersed in the possession of numerous
acquaintance; and cannot, perhaps, be made entire without great injustice
to him, because few of them had his last hand, and the transcriber was
often obliged to take the liberties of a friend. His condolence for the
death of Mr. Philips is full of the noblest beauties, and hath done
justice to the ashes of that second Milton, whose writings will last as
long as the English language, generosity, and valour. For him Mr. Smith
had contracted a perfect friendship; a passion he was most susceptible
of, and whose laws he looked upon as sacred and inviolable.
Every subject that passed under his pen had all the life, proportion,
and embellishments bestowed on it, which an exquisite skill, a warm
imagination, and a cool judgment, possibly could bestow on it. The epick,
lyrick, elegiack, every sort of poetry he touched upon, (and he had
touched upon a great variety,) was raised to its proper height, and the
differences between each of them observed with a judicious accuracy. We
saw the old rules and new beauties placed in admirable order by each
other; and there was a predominant fancy and spirit of his own infused,
superiour to what some draw off from the ancients, or from poesies here
and there culled out of the moderns, by a painful industry and servile
imitation. His contrivances were adroit and magnificent; his images
lively and adequate; his sentiments charming and majestick; his
expressions natural and bold; his numbers various and sounding; and
that enamelled mixture of classical wit, which, without redundance and
affectation, sparkled through his writings, and was no less pertinent and
His Phaedra is a consummate tragedy, and the success of it was as great
as the most sanguine expectations of his friends could promise or
foresee. The number of nights, and the common method of filling the
house, are not always the surest marks of judging what encouragement a
play meets with; but the generosity of all the persons of a refined taste
about town was remarkable on this occasion; and it must not be forgotten
how zealously Mr. Addison espoused his interest, with all the elegant
judgment and diffusive good-nature for which that accomplished gentleman
and author is so justly valued by mankind. But as to Phaedra, she has
certainly made a finer figure under Mr. Smith's conduct, upon the English
stage, than either in Rome or Athens; and if she excels the Greek and
Latin Phaedra, I need not say she surpasses the French one, though
embellished with whatever regular beauties and moving softness Racine
himself could give her.
No man had a juster notion of the difficulty of composing than Mr. Smith;
and he sometimes would create greater difficulties than he had reason
to apprehend. Writing with ease, what (as Mr. Wycherley speaks) may
be easily written, moved his indignation. When he was writing upon a
subject, he would seriously consider what Demosthenes, Homer, Virgil,
or Horace, if alive, would say upon that occasion, which whetted him to
exceed himself, as well as others. Nevertheless, he could not, or would
not, finish several subjects he undertook; which may be imputed either
to the briskness of his fancy, still hunting after new matter, or to an
occasional indolence, which spleen and lassitude brought upon him, which,
of all his foibles, the world was least inclined to forgive. That this
was not owing to conceit and vanity, or a fulness of himself, (a frailty
which has been imputed to no less men than Shakespeare and Jonson,) is
clear from hence; because he left his works to the entire disposal of
his friends, whose most rigorous censures he even courted and solicited,
submitting to their animadversions, and the freedom they took with them,
with an unreserved and prudent resignation.
I have seen sketches and rough draughts of some poems he designed, set
out analytically; wherein the fable, structure, and connexion, the
images, incidents, moral episodes, and a great variety of ornaments, were
so finely laid out, so well fitted to the rules of art, and squared so
exactly to the precedents of the ancients, that I have often looked on
these poetical elements with the same concern with which curious men are
affected at the sight of the most entertaining remains and ruins of an
antique figure or building. Those fragments of the learned, which
some men have been so proud of their pains in collecting, are useless
rarities, without form and without life, when compared with these
embryos, which wanted not spirit enough to preserve them; so that I
cannot help thinking, that, if some of them were to come abroad, they
would be as highly valued by the poets, as the sketches of Julio and
Titian are by the painters; though there is nothing in them but a few
outlines, as to the design and proportion.
It must be confessed, that Mr. Smith had some defects in his conduct,
which those are most apt to remember who could imitate him in nothing
else. His freedom with himself drew severer acknowledgments from him than
all the malice he ever provoked was capable of advancing, and he did not
scruple to give even his misfortunes the hard name of faults; but, if the
world had half his good-nature, all the shady parts would be entirely
struck out of his character.
A man, who under poverty, calamities, and disappointments, could make so
many friends, and those so truly valuable, must have just and noble ideas
of the passion of friendship, in the success of which consisted the
greatest, if not the only, happiness of his life. He knew very well what
was due to his birth, though fortune threw him short of it in every other
circumstance of life. He avoided making any, though perhaps reasonable,
complaints of her dispensations, under which he had honour enough to be
easy, without touching the favours she flung in his way when offered to
him at the price of a more durable reputation. He took care to have no
dealings with mankind in which he could not be just; and he desired to
be at no other expense in his pretensions than that of intrinsick merit,
which was the only burden and reproach he ever brought upon his friends.
He could say, as Horace did of himself, what I never yet saw translated:
Meo sum pauper in aere.
At his coming to town, no man was more surrounded by all those who really
had or pretended to wit, or more courted by the great men, who had then a
power and opportunity of encouraging arts and sciences, and gave proofs
of their fondness for the name of patron in many instances, which will
ever be remembered to their glory. Mr. Smith's character grew upon his
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