Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Dramatic Works of John Dryden Vol. I. by Sir Walter Scott

Part 7 out of 7

Adobe PDF icon
Download The Dramatic Works of John Dryden Vol. I. pdf
File size: 0.8 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

language of polite literature in England. Other instances might be given
of similar oversights, which, in the situation of Dryden, are
sufficiently pardonable.

Upon the whole, in introducing these romances of Boccacio and Chaucer to
modern readers, Dryden has necessarily deprived them of some of the
charms which they possess for those who have perused them in their
original state. With a tale or poem, by which we have been sincerely
interested, we connect many feelings independent of those arising from
actual poetical merit. The delight, arising from the whole, sanctions,
nay, sanctifies, the faulty passages; and even actual improvements, like
supplements to a mutilated statue of antiquity, injure our preconceived
associations, and hurt, by their incongruity with our feelings, more
than they give pleasure by their own excellence. But to antiquaries
Dryden has sufficiently justified himself, by declaring his version made
for the sake of modern readers, who understand sense and poetry as well
as the old Saxon admirers of Chaucer, when that poetry and sense are put
into words which they can understand. Let us also grant him, that, for
the beauties which are lost, he has substituted many which the original
did not afford; that, in passages of gorgeous description, he has added
even to the chivalrous splendour of Chaucer, and has graced with
poetical ornament the simplicity of Boccacio; that, if he has failed in
tenderness, he is never deficient in majesty; and that if the heart be
sometimes untouched, the understanding and fancy are always exercised
and delighted.

The philosophy of Dryden, we have already said, was that of original and
penetrating genius; imperfect only, when, from want of time and of
industry, he adopted the ideas of others, when he should have communed
at leisure with his own mind. The proofs of his philosophical powers are
not to be sought for in any particular poem or disquisition. Even the
"Religio Laici," written expressly as a philosophical poem, only shows
how easily the most powerful mind may entangle itself in sophistical
toils of its own weaving; for the train of argument there pursued was
completed by Dryden's conversion to the Roman Catholic faith.[15] It is
therefore in the discussion of incidental subjects, in his mode of
treating points of controversy, in the new lights which he seldom fails
to throw upon a controversial subject, in his talent of argumentive
discussion, that we are to look for the character of Dryden's moral
powers. His opinions, doubtless, are often inconsistent, and sometimes
absolutely contradictory; for, pressed by the necessity of discussing
the object before him, he seldom looked back to what he said formerly,
or forward to what he might be obliged to say in future. His sole
subject of consideration was to maintain his present point; and that by
authority, by declamation, by argument, by every means. But his
philosophical powers are not the less to be estimated, because thus
irregularly and unphilosophically employed. His arguments, even in the
worst cause, bear witness to the energy of his mental conceptions; and
the skill with which they are stated, elucidated, enforced, and
exemplified, ever commands our admiration, though, in the result, our
reason may reject their influence. It must be remembered also, to
Dryden's honour, that he was the first to hail the dawn of experimental
philosophy in physics; to gratulate his country on possessing Bacon,
Harvey, and Boyle; and to exult over the downfall of the Aristotelian
tyranny.[16] Had he lived to see a similar revolution commenced in
ethics, there can be little doubt he would have welcomed it with the
same delight; or had his leisure and situation permitted him to dedicate
his time to investigating moral problems, he might himself have led the
way to deliverance from error and uncertainty. But the dawn of
reformation must ever be gradual, and the acquisitions even of those
calculated to advance it must therefore frequently appear desultory and
imperfect. The author of the _Novum Organum_ believed in charms and
occult sympathy; and Dryden in the chimeras of judicial astrology, and
probably in the jargon of alchemy. When these subjects occur in his
poetry, he dwells on them with a pleasure which shows the command they
maintained over his mind. Much of the astrological knowledge displayed
in the Knight's Tale is introduced, or at least amplified, by Dryden;
and while, in the fable of the Cock and the Fox, he ridicules the
doctrine of prediction from dreams, the inherent qualities of the four
complexions,[17] and other abstruse doctrines of Paracelsus and his
followers, we have good reason to suspect that, like many other
scoffers, he believed in the efficacy and truth of the subject of his
ridicule. However this shade of credulity may injure Dryden's character
as a philosopher, we cannot regret its influence on his poetry. Collins
has thus celebrated Fairfax:--

"Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind,
Believed the magic wonders which he sung."

Nor can there be a doubt that, as every work of imagination is tinged
with the author's passions and prejudices, it must be deep and energetic
in proportion to the character of these impressions. Those superstitious
sciences and pursuits, which would, by mystic rites, doctrines, and
inferences, connect us with the invisible world of spirits, or guide our
daring researches to a knowledge of future events, are indeed usually
found to cow, crush, and utterly stupefy, understandings of a lower
rank; but if the mind of a man of acute powers, and of warm fancy,
becomes slightly imbued with the visionary feelings excited by such
studies, their obscure and undefined influence is ever found to aid the
sublimity of his ideas, and to give that sombre and serious effect,
which he can never produce, who does not himself feel the awe which it
is his object to excite. The influence of such a mystic creed is often
felt where the cause is concealed; for the habits thus acquired are not
confined to their own sphere of belief, but gradually extend themselves
over every adjacent province: and perhaps we may not go too far in
believing, that he who has felt their impression, though only in one
branch of faith, becomes fitted to describe, with an air of reality and
interest, not only kindred subjects, but superstitions altogether
opposite to his own. The religion, which Dryden finally adopted, lent
its occasional aid to the solemn colouring of some of his later
productions, Tipon which subject we have elsewhere enlarged at some

The occasional poetry of Dryden is marked strongly by masculine
character. The Epistles vary with the subject; and are light, humorous,
and satirical, or grave, argumentative, and philosophical, as the case
required. In his Elegies, although they contain touches of true feeling,
especially where the stronger passions are to be illustrated, the poet
is often content to substitute reasoning for passion, and rather to show
us cause why we ought to grieve, than to set us the example by grieving
himself. The inherent defect in Dryden's composition becomes here
peculiarly conspicuous; yet we should consider, that, in composing
elegies for the Countess of Abingdon, whom he never saw, and for Charles
II., by whom he had been cruelly neglected, and doubtless on many
similar occasions, Dryden could not even pretend to be interested in the
mournful subject of his verse; but attended, with his poem, as much in
the way of trade, as the undertaker, on the same occasion, came with his
sables and his scutcheon. The poet may interest himself and his reader,
even to tears, in the fate of a being altogether the creation of his own
fancy, but hardly by a hired panegyric on a real subject, in whom his
heart acknowledges no other interest than a fee can give him. Few of
Dryden's elegiac effusions, therefore, seem prompted by sincere sorrow.
That to Oldham may be an exception; but, even there, he rather strives
to do honour to the talents of his departed friend, than to pour out
lamentations for his loss. Of the Prologues and Epilogues we have spoken
fully elsewhere.[19] Some of them are coarsely satirical, and others
grossly indelicate. Those spoken at Oxford are the most valuable, and
contain much good criticism and beautiful poetry. But the worst of them
was probably well worth the petty recompence which the poet
received.[20] The songs and smaller pieces of Dryden have smoothness,
wit, and when addressed to ladies, gallantry in profusion, but are
deficient in tenderness. They seem to have been composed with great
ease; thrown together hastily and occasionally; nor can we doubt that
many of them are now irrecoverably lost. Mr. Malone gives us an instance
of Dryden's fluency in extempore composition, which was communicated to
him by Mr. Walcott. "Conversation, one day after dinner, at Mrs.
Creed's, running upon the origin of names, Mr. Dryden bowed to the good
old lady, and spoke extempore the following verses:--

"So much religion in _your_ name doth dwell,
Your soul must needs with piety excel.
Thus names, like [well-wrought] pictures drawn of old,
Their owners' nature and their story told.--
Your name but half expresses; for in you
Belief and practice do together go.
My prayers shall be, while this short life endures,
These may go hand in hand, with you and yours;
Till faith hereafter is in vision drowned,
And practice is with endless glory crowned."

The Translations of Dryden form a distinguished part of his poetical
labours. No author, excepting Pope, has done so much to endenizen the
eminent poets of antiquity. In this sphere, also, it was the fate of
Dryden to become a leading example to future poets, and to abrogate laws
which had been generally received although they imposed such trammels on
translation as to render it hardly intelligible. Before his
distinguished success showed that the object of the translator should be
to transfuse the spirit, not to copy servilely the very words of his
original, it had been required, that line should be rendered for line,
and, almost, word for word. It may easily be imagined, that, by the
constraint and inversion which this cramping statute required, a poem
was barely rendered _not Latin_, instead of being made English, and
that, to the mere native reader, as the connoisseur complains in "The
Critic", the interpreter was sometimes "the harder to be understood of
the two." Those who seek examples, may find them in the jaw-breaking
translations of Ben Jonson and Holyday. Cowley and Denham had indeed
rebelled against this mode of translation, which conveys pretty much the
same idea of an original, as an imitator would do of the gait of
another, by studiously stepping after him into every trace which his
feet had left upon the sand. But they assumed a licence equally faulty,
and claimed the privilege of writing what might be more properly termed
imitations, than versions of the classics. It was reserved to Dryden
manfully to claim and vindicate the freedom of a just translation; more
limited than paraphrase, but free from the metaphrastic severity exacted
from his predecessors.

With these free yet unlicentious principles, Dryden brought to the task
of translation a competent knowledge of the language of the originals,
with an unbounded command of his own. The latter is, however, by far the
most marked characteristic of his Translations. Dryden was not indeed
deficient in Greek and Roman learning; but he paused not to weigh and
sift those difficult and obscure passages, at which the most learned
will doubt and hesitate for the correct meaning. The same rapidity,
which marked his own poetry, seems to have attended his study of the
classics. He seldom waited to analyse the sentence he was about to
render, far less scrupulously to weigh the precise purport and value of
every word it contained. If he caught the general spirit and meaning of
the author, and could express it with equal force in English verse, he
cared not if minute elegancies were lost, or the beauties of accurate
proportion destroyed, or a dubious interpretation hastily adopted on the
credit of a _scholium_. He used abundantly the licence he has claimed
for a translator, to be deficient rather in the language out of which he
renders, than of that into which he translates. If such be but master of
the sense of his author, Dryden argues, he may express that sense with
eloquence in his own tongue, though he understand not the nice turns of
the original. "But without the latter quality he can never arrive at the
useful and the delightful, without which reading is a penance and
fatigue."[21] With the same spirit of haste, Dryden if often contented
to present to the English reader some modern image, which he may at once
fully comprehend, instead of rendering precisely a classic expression,
which might require explanation or paraphrase. Thus the _pulchra
Sicyonia_, or buskins of Sicyon, are rendered,

"Diamond-buckles sparkling in their shoes."

By a yet more unfortunate adaptation of modern technical phraseology,
the simple direction of Helenus,

"_Laeva tibi tellus, et longo laeva pelantur
AEquora circuitu: dextrum fage lillus et undas_,"

is translated,

"Tack to the larboard, and stand off to sea,
Veer starboard sea and land:"

--a counsel which, I shrewdly suspect, would have been unintelligible,
not only to Palinurus, but to the best pilot in the British navy.[22] In
the same tone, but with more intelligibility, if not felicity, Dryden
translates _palatia coeli_ in Ovid, the _Louvre of the sky_; and, in the
version of the first book of Homer, talks of the court of Jupiter in the
phrases used at that of Whitehall. These expressions, proper to modern
manners, often produce an unfortunate confusion between the age in which
the scene is laid, and the date of the translation. No judicious poet is
willing to break the interest of a tale of ancient times, by allusions
peculiar to his own period: but when the translator, instead of
identifying himself as closely as possible with the original author,
pretends to such liberty, he removes us a third step from the time of
action, and so confounds the manners of no less than three distinct
eras,--that in which the scene is laid, that in which the poem was
written, and that, finally, in which the translation was executed. There
are passages in Dryden's AEneid, which, in the revolution of a few pages,
transport our ideas from the time of Troy's siege to that of the court
of Augustus, and thence downward to the reign of William the Third of

It must be owned, at the same time, that when the translator places
before you, not the exact words, but the image of the original, as the
classic author would probably have himself expressed it in English, the
licence, when moderately employed, has an infinite charm for those
readers for whose use translations are properly written. Pope's Homer
and Dryden's Virgil can never indeed give exquisite satisfaction to
scholars, accustomed to study the Greek and Latin originals. The minds
of such readers have acquired a classic tone; and not merely the ideas
and poetical imagery, but the manners and habits of the actors, have
become intimately familiar to them. They will not, therefore, be
satisfied with any translation in which these are violated, whether for
the sake of indolence in the translator, or ease to the unlettered
reader; and perhaps they will be more pleased that a favourite bard
should move with less ease and spirit in his new habiliments, than that
his garments should be cut upon the model of the country to which the
stranger is introduced. In the former case, they will readily make
allowance for the imperfection of modern language; in the latter, they
will hardly pardon the sophistication of ancient manners. But the mere
English reader, who finds rigid adherence to antique costume rather
embarrassing than pleasing, who is prepared to make no sacrifices in
order to preserve the true manners of antiquity, shocking perhaps to his
feelings and prejudices, is satisfied that the Iliad and AEneid shall
lose their antiquarian merit, provided they retain that vital spirit and
energy, which is the soul of poetry in all languages, and countries, and
ages whatsoever. He who sits down to Dryden's translation of Virgil,
with the original text spread before him, will be at no loss to point
out many passages that are faulty, many indifferently understood, many
imperfectly translated, some in which dignity is lost, others in which
bombast is substituted in its stead. But the unabated vigour and spirit
of the version more than overbalances these and all its other
deficiencies. A sedulous scholar might often approach more nearly to the
dead letter of Virgil, and give an exact, distinct, sober-minded idea of
the meaning and scope of particular passages. Trapp, Pitt, and others
have done so. But the essential spirit of poetry is so volatile, that it
escapes during such an operation, like the life of the poor criminal,
whom the ancient anatomist is said to have dissected alive, in order to
ascertain the seat of the soul. The carcase indeed is presented to the
English reader, but the animating vigour is no more. It is in this art,
of communicating the ancient poet's ideas with force and energy equal to
his own, that Dryden has so completely exceeded all who have gone
before, and all who have succeeded him. The beautiful and unequalled
version of the Tale of Myrrha in the "Metamorphoses," the whole of the
Sixth AEneid, and many other parts of Dryden's translations, are
sufficient, had he never written one line of original poetry, to
vindicate the well-known panegyric of Churchill:--

"Here let me bend, great Dryden, at thy shrine,
Thou dearest name to all the tuneful Nine!
What if some dull lines in cold order creep,
And with his theme the poet seems to sleep?
Still, when his subject rises proud to view,
With equal strength the poet rises too:
With strong invention, noblest vigour fraught,
Thought still springs up, and rises out of thought;
Numbers ennobling numbers in their course,
In varied sweetness flow, in varied force;
The powers of genius and of judgment join,
And the whole art of poetry is thine."

We are in this disquisition naturally tempted to inquire, whether Dryden
would have succeeded in his proposed design to translate Homer, as
happily as in his Virgil? And although he himself more fiery, and
therefore better suited to his own than that of the Roman poet, there
may be room to question, whether in this case he rightly estimated his
own talents, or rather, whether, being fully conscious of their extent,
he was aware of labouring under certain deficiencies of taste, which
must have been more apparent in a version of the Iliad than of the
AEneid. If a translator has any characteristic and peculiar foible, it is
surely unfortunate to choose an original, who may give peculiar
facilities to exhibit them. Thus, even Dryden's repeated disclamation of
puns, points, and quibbles, and all the repentance of his more sober
hours, was unable, so soon as he began to translate Ovid, to prevent his
sliding back into the practice of that false wit with which his earlier
productions are imbued. Hence he has been seduced, by the similarity of
style, to add to the offences of his original, and introduce, though it
needed not, points of wit and antithetical prettinesses, for which he
cannot plead Ovid's authority. For example, he makes Ajax say of
Ulysses, when surrounded by the Trojans,

"No wonder if he roared that all might hear,
His elocution was increased by fear."

The Latin only bears, _conclamat socios._ A little lower,

"_Opposui molem clypei, texique jacentem_,"

is amplified by a similar witticism,

"My broad buckler hid him from the foe,
Even the shield trembled as he lay below."

If, in translating Ovid, Dryden was tempted by the manner of his
original to relapse into a youthful fault, which he had solemnly
repented of and abjured, there is surely room to believe, that the
simple and almost rude manners described by Homer, might have seduced
him into coarseness both of ideas and expression, for which the studied,
composed, and dignified style of the Aeneid gave neither opening nor
apology. That this was a fault which Dryden, with all his taste, never
was able to discard, might easily be proved from various passages in his
translations, where the transgression is on his own part altogether
gratuitous. Such is the well-known version of

"_Ut possessor agelli
Diceret, hoec mea sunt, veteres migrate coloni,
Nune vidi," etc._

"When the grim captain, with a surly tone,
Cries out, Pack up, ye rascals, and be gone!
Kicked out, we set the best face on't we could," etc.

In translating the most indelicate passage of Lucretius, Dryden has
rather enhanced than veiled its indecency. The story of Iphis in the
Metamorphoses is much more bluntly told by the English poet than by
Ovid. In short, where there was a latitude given for coarseness of
description and expression, Dryden has always too readily laid hold of
it. The very specimen which he has given us of a version of Homer,
contains many passages in which the antique Grecian simplicity is
vulgarly and inelegantly rendered. The Thunderer terms Juno

"My household curse, my lawful plague, the spy
Of Jove's designs, his other squinting eye."

The ambrosial feast of Olympus concludes like a tavern revel:--

"Drunken at last, and drowsy, they depart
Each to his house, adored with laboured art
Of the lame architect. The thundering God,
Even he, withdrew to rest, and had his load;
His swimming head to needful sleep applied,
And Juno lay unheeded by his side."

There is reason indeed to think, that, after the Revolution, Dryden's
taste was improved in this, as in some other respects. In his
translation of Juvenal, for example, the satire against women, coarse as
it is, is considerably refined and softened from the grossness of the
Latin poet; who has, however, been lately favoured by a still more
elegant, and (excepting perhaps one or two passages) an equally spirited
translation, by Mr. Gifford of London. Yet, admitting this apology for
Dryden as fully as we dare, from the numerous specimens of indelicacy
even in his later translations, we are induced to judge it fortunate
that Homer was reserved for a poet who had not known the age of Charles
II.; and whose inaccuracies and injudicious decorations may be pardoned,
even by the scholar, when he considers the probability, that Dryden
might have slipped into the opposite extreme, by converting rude
simplicity into indecency or vulgarity. The AEneid, on the other hand, if
it restrained Dryden's poetry to a correct, steady, and even flight, if
it damped his energy by its regularity, and fettered his excursive
imagination by the sobriety of its decorum, had the corresponding
advantage of holding forth to the translator no temptation to licence,
and no apology for negligence. Where the fervency of genius is required,
Dryden has usually equalled his original; where peculiar elegance and
exact propriety is demanded, his version may be sometimes found flat and
inaccurate, but the mastering spirit of Virgil prevails, and it is never
disgusting or indelicate. Of all the classical translations we can
boast, none is so acceptable to the class of readers, to whom the
learned languages are a clasped book and a sealed fountain. And surely
it is no moderate praise to say, that a work is universally pleasing to
those for whose use it is principally intended, and to whom only it is
absolutely indispensable.

The prose of Dryden may rank with the best in the English language. It
is no less of his own formation than his versification, is equally
spirited, and equally harmonious. Without the lengthened and pedantic
sentences of Clarendon, it is dignified where dignity is becoming, and
is lively without the accumulation of strained and absurd allusions and
metaphors, which were unfortunately mistaken for wit by many of the
author's contemporaries. Dryden has been accused of unnecessarily
larding his style with Gallicisms. It must be owned that, to comply
probably with the humour of Charles, or from an affectation of the
fashionable court dialect, the poet-laureate employed such words as
_fougue, fraicheur_, etc., instead of the corresponding expressions in
English; an affectation which does not appear in our author's later
writings. But even the learned and excellent Sir David Dalrymple was led
to carry this idea greatly too far. "Nothing," says that admirable
antiquary, "distinguishes the genius of the English language so much as
its general naturalisation of foreigners. Dryden in the reign of Charles
II., printed the following words as pure French newly imported: _amour,
billet-doux, caprice, chagrin, conversation, double-entendre,
embarrassed, fatigue, figure, foible, gallant, good graces, grimace,
incendiary, levee, maltreated, rallied, repartee, ridicule, tender,
tour_; with several others which are now considered as natives.--
'Marriage a la Mode.'"[23] But of these words many had been long
naturalised in England, and, with the adjectives derived from them, are
used by Shakespeare and the dramatists of his age.[24] By their being
printed in italics in the play of "Marriage a la Mode," Dryden only
meant to mark, that Melantha, the affected coquette in whose mouth they
are placed, was to use the _French_, not the vernacular pronunciation.
It will admit of question, whether any single French word has been
naturalised upon the sole authority of Dryden.

Although Dryden's style has nothing obsolete, we can occasionally trace
a reluctance to abandon an old word or idiom; the consequence, doubtless
of his latter studies in ancient poetry. In other respects, nothing can
be more elegant than the diction of the praises heaped upon his patrons,
for which he might himself plead the apology he uses for Maimbourg,
"who, having enemies, made himself friends by panegyrics." Of these
lively critical prefaces, which, when we commence, we can never lay
aside till we have finished, Dr. Johnson has said with equal force and
beauty,--"They have not the formality of a settled style, in which the
first half of the sentence betrays the other. The clauses are never
balanced, nor the periods modelled; every word seems to drop by chance,
though it falls into its proper place. Nothing is cold or languid; the
whole is airy, animated, and vigorous; what is little is gay, what is
great is splendid. He may be thought to mention himself too frequently;
but while he forces himself upon our esteem, we cannot refuse him to
stand high in his own. Everything is excused by the play of images and
the sprightliness of expression. Though all is easy, nothing is feeble;
though all seems careless, there is nothing harsh; and though, since his
earlier works, more than a century has passed, they have nothing yet
uncouth or obsolete."

"He, who writes much, will not easily escape a manner, such a recurrence
of particular modes as may be easily noted. Dryden is always _another
and the same._ He does not exhibit a second time the same elegancies in
the same form, nor appears to have any art other than that of expressing
with clearness what he thinks with vigour. His style could not easily be
imitated, either seriously or ludicrously; for, being always equable and
always varied, it has no prominent or discriminative characters. The
beauty, who is totally free from disproportion of parts and features,
cannot be ridiculed by an overcharged resemblance."

The last paragraph is not to be understood too literally; for although
Dryden never so far copied himself as to fall into what has been
quaintly called _mannerism_; yet accurate observation may trace, in his
works, the repetition of some sentiments and illustrations from prose to
verse, and back again to prose.[24] In his preface to the _AEneid_, he
has enlarged on the difficulty of varying phrases, when the same sense
returned on the author; and surely we must allow full praise to his
fluency and command of language, when, during so long a literary career,
and in the course of such a variety of miscellaneous productions, we can
detect in his style so few instances of repetition, or self-imitation.

The prose of Dryden, excepting his translations, and one or two
controversial tracts, is entirely dedicated to criticism, either general
and didactic, or defensive and exculpatory. There, as in other branches
of polite learning, it was his lot to be a light to his people. About
the time of the Restoration, the cultivation of letters was prosecuted
in France with some energy. But the genius of that lively nation being
more fitted for criticism than poetry; for drawing rules from what
others have done, than for writing works which might be themselves
standards; they were sooner able to produce an accurate table of laws
for those intending to write epic poems and tragedies, according to the
best Greek and Roman authorities, than to exhibit distinguished
specimens of success in either department; just as they are said to
possess the best possible rules for building ships of war, although not
equally remarkable for their power of fighting them. When criticism
becomes a pursuit separate from poetry, those who follow it are apt to
forget, that the legitimate ends of the art for which they lay down
rules, are instruction or delight, and that these points being attained,
by what road soever, entitles a poet to claim the prize of successful
merit. Neither did the learned authors of these disquisitions
sufficiently attend to the general disposition of mankind, which cannot
be contented even with the happiest imitations of former excellence, but
demands novelty as a necessary ingredient for amusement. To insist that
every epic poem shall have the plan of the Iliad and AEneid, and every
tragedy be fettered by the rules of Aristotle, resembles the principle
of an architect, who should build all his houses with the same number of
windows, and of stories. It happened too, inevitably, that the critics,
in the plenipotential authority which they exercised, often assumed as
indispensable requisites of the drama, or epopeia, circumstances, which,
in the great authorities they quoted, were altogether accidental and
indifferent. These they erected into laws, and handed down as essentials
to be observed by all succeeding poets; although the forms prescribed
have often as little to do with the merit and success of the originals
from which they are taken, as the shape of the drinking-glass with the
flavour of the wine which it contains. "To these encroachments," says
Fielding, after some observations to the same purpose, "time and
ignorance, the two great supporters of imposture, gave authority; and
thus many rules for good writing have been established, which have not
the least foundation in truth or nature; and which commonly serve for no
other purpose than to curb and restrain genius, in the same manner as it
would have restrained the dancing-master, had the many excellent
treatises on that art laid it down as an essential rule, that every man
must dance in chains."[25] It is probable, that the tyranny of the
French critics, fashionable as the literature of that country was with
Charles and his courtiers, would have extended itself over England at
the Restoration, had not a champion so powerful as Dryden placed himself
in the gap. We have mentioned in its place his "Essay on Dramatic
Poetry," the first systematic piece of criticism which our literature
has to exhibit. In this Essay, he was accused of entertaining private
views, of defending some of his own pieces, at least of opening the door
of the theatre wider, and rendering its access more easy, for his own
selfish convenience. Allowing this to be true in whole, as it may be in
part, we are as much obliged to Dryden for resisting the domination of
Gallic criticism, as we are to the fanatics who repressed the despotism
of the crown, although they buckled on their armour against white
surplices, and the cross in baptism. The character which Dryden has
drawn of our English dramatists in the Essay, and the various prefaces
connected with it, have unequalled spirit and precision. The contrast of
Ben Jonson with Shakespeare is peculiarly and strikingly felicitous. Of
the latter portrait, Dr. Johnson has said, that the editors and admirers
of Shakespeare, in all their emulation of reverence, cannot boast of
much more than of having diffused and paraphrased this epitome of
excellence, of having changed Dryden's gold for baser metal, of lower
value, though of greater bulk. While Dryden examined, discussed,
admitted, or rejected the rules proposed by others, he forbore, from
prudence, indolence, or a regard for the freedom of Parnassus, to erect
himself into a legislator. His doctrines, which chiefly respect the
intrinsic qualities necessary in poetry, are scattered, without system
of pretence to it, over the numerous pages of prefatory and didactic
essays, with which he enriched his publications. It is impossible to
read far in any of them, without finding some maxim for doing or
forbearing, which every student of poetry will do well to engrave upon
the tablets of his memory. But the author's mode of instruction is
neither harsh nor dictatorial. When his opinion changed, as in the case
of rhyming tragedies, he avows the change with candour, and we are
enabled the more courageously to follow his guidance, when we perceive
the readiness with which he retracts his path, if he strays into error.
The gleams of philosophical spirit which so frequently illumine these
pages of criticism; the lively and appropriate grace of illustration;
the true and correct expression of the general propositions; the simple
and unaffected passages, in which, when led to allude to his personal
labours and situation, he mingles the feelings of the man with the
instructions of the critic,--unite to render Dryden's Essays the most
delightful prose in the English language.

The didactic criticism of Dryden is necessarily, at least naturally,
mingled with that which he was obliged to pour forth in his own defence;
and this may be one main cause of its irregular and miscellaneous form.
What might otherwise have resembled the extended and elevated front of a
regular palace, is deformed by barriers, ramparts, and bastions of
defence; by cottages, mean additions, and offices necessary for personal
accommodation. The poet, always most in earnest about his immediate
task, used, without ceremony, those arguments, which suited his present
purpose, and thereby sometimes supplied his foes with weapons to assail
another quarter. It also happens frequently, if the same allusion may be
continued, that Dryden defends with obstinate despair, against the
assaults of his foemen, a post which, in his cooler moments, he has
condemned as untenable. However easily he may yield to internal
conviction, and to the progress of his own improving taste, even these
concessions, he sedulously informs us, are not wrung from him by the
assault of his enemies; and he often goes out of his road to show, that,
though conscious he was in the wrong, he did not stand legally convicted
by their arguments. To the chequered and inconsistent appearance which
these circumstances have given to the criticism of Dryden, it is an
additional objection, that through the same cause his studies were
partial, temporary, and irregular. His mind was amply stored with
acquired knowledge, much of it perhaps the fruits of early reading and
application. But, while engaged in the hurry of composition, or overcome
by the lassitude of continued literary labour, he seems frequently to
have trusted to the tenacity of his memory, and so drawn upon this fund
with injudicious liberality, without being sufficiently anxious as to
accuracy of quotation, or even of assertion. If, on the other hand, he
felt himself obliged to resort to more profound learning than his own,
he was at little pains to arrange or digest it, or even to examine
minutely the information he acquired, from hasty perusal of the books he
consulted; and thus but too often poured it forth in the crude form in
which he had himself received it, from the French critic, or Dutch
schoolman. The scholarship, for example, displayed in the Essay on
Satire, has this raw and ill-arranged appearance; and stuck, as it
awkwardly is, among some of Dryden's own beautiful and original writing,
gives, like a borrowed and unbecoming garment, a mean and inconsistent
appearance to the whole disquisition. But these occasional imperfections
and inaccuracies are marks of the haste with which Dryden was compelled
to give his productions to the world, and cannot deprive him of the
praise due to the earliest and most entertaining of English critics.

I have thus detailed the life, and offered some remarks on the literary
character, of JOHN DRYDEN: who, educated in a pedantic taste, and a
fanatical religion, was destined, if not to give laws to the stage of
England, at least to defend its liberties; to improve burlesque into
satire; to free translation from the fetters of verbal metaphrase, and
exclude it from the licence of paraphrase; to teach posterity the
powerful and varied poetical harmony of which their language was
capable; to give an example of the lyric ode of unapproached excellence;
and to leave to English literature a name, second only to those of
Milton and of Shakespeare.

[1] Life and Works of Arthur Maynwaring, 1715, p. 17.

[2] So says Charles Blount, in the dedication to the _Religio Laici_. He
is contradicted by Tom Brown.

[3] In a poem published on Dryden's death, by Brome, written, as Mr.
Malone conjectures, by Captain Gibbon, son of the physician.

[4] In "The Postboy," for Tuesday, May 7, 1700, Playford inserted the
following advertisement:

"The death of the famous John Dryden, Esq., Poet-Laureate to their two
late Majesties, King Charles, and King James the Second, being a subject
capable of employing the best pens; and several persons of quality, and
others, having put a stop to his interment, which is designed to be in
Chaucer's grave, in Westminster Abbey; this is to desire the gentlemen
of the two famous Universities, and others, who have a respect for the
memory of the deceased, and are inclinable to such performances, to send
what copies they please, as Epigrams, etc., to Henry Playford, at his
shop at the Temple 'Change, in Fleet Street, and they shall be inserted
in a Collection, which is designed after the same nature, and in the
same method (in what language they shall please), as is usual in the
composures which are printed on solemn occasions, at the two
Universities aforesaid."

This advertisement (with some alterations) was continued for a month in
the same paper.

"Thy reliques, Rowe, to this fair urn we trust,
And sacred place by Dryden's awful dust:
Beneath a rude and nameless stone he lies,
To which thy tomb shall guide inquiring eyes:
Peace to thy gentle shade, and endless rest!
Blest in thy genius, in thy love too, blest!
One greatful woman to thy fame supplies,
What a whole thankless land to his denies."

[6] The epitaph at first intended by Pope for this monument was,

"This Sheffield raised; the sacred dust below
Was Dryden once:--the rest, who does not know?"

Atterbury had thus written to him on this subject, in 1720: "What I said
to you in mine, about the monument, was intended only to quicken, not to
alarm you. It is not worth your while to know what I meant by it; but
when I see you, you shall. I hope you may be at the Deanery towards the
end of October, by which time I think of settling there for the winter.
What do you think of some such short inscription as this in Latin, which
may, in a few words, say all that is to be said of Dryden, and yet
nothing more than he deserves?


"To show you that I am as much in earnest in the affair as you yourself,
something I will send you of this kind in English. If your design holds,
of fixing Dryden's name only below, and his busto above, may not lines
like these be graved just under the name?

This Sheffield raised, to Dryden's ashes just;
Here fixed his name, and there his laureled bust:
What else the Muse in marble might express,
Is known already: praise would make him less.

"Or thus:

More needs not; when acknowledged merits reign,
Praise is impertinent, and censure vain."

The thought, as Mr. Malone observes, is nearly the same as in the
following lines in "Luctus Britannici," by William Marston, of Trinity
College, Cambridge:

"_In_ JOANNEM DRYDEN, _poelarum facile principem._

Si quis in has aedes intret fortasse viator,
Busta poetarum dum veneranda notet,
Cernat et exuvias Drydeni,--plura referre
Haud opus: ad laudes _vox ea_ sola satis."

[7] Life of Pope.

[8] ["The Bacon of the rhyming tribe," as Landor has since called him in
a vigorous description (_Works_, vol. viii. p. 137).--ED.]

[9] [Transcriber's note: "See page 39" in original. This is to be found
in Section I.]

[10] "_Novimus judicium Drydeni de poemate quodam Chauceri, pulchro sane
illo, et admodum laudando, nimirum quod non modo vere epicura sit, sed
Iliada etiam alque Aeneada aequet, imo superet. Sed novimus eodem
tempore viri illius maximi non semper accuratissimas esse censuras, nec
ad severissimam critices normam exactas: illo judice id plerumque
optimum est, quod nunc prae manibus habet, et in quo nunc occupatur_."

[11] Dryden was not the first who translated this tale of terror. There
is in the collection of the late John, Duke of Roxburghe, "A Notable
History of Nastagio and Traversari, no less pitiful than pleasaunt;
translated out of Italian into English verse, by C.T. London, 1569."

[12] "_Amor puo troppo piu, che ne voi ne io possiamo_." This sentiment
loses its dignity amid the "levelling of mountains and raising plains,"
with which Dryden has chosen to illustrate it.

[13] An emblem of a similar kind is said to have been found in the
palace of Tippoo Sultan.

[14] As "Near bliss, and yet not blessed." And this merciless quibble,
where Arcite complains of the flames he endures for Emily:--

"Of such a goddess no time leaves record,
Who burnt the temple where she was adored."--Vol. xi.

Yet Dryden, in the preface, declaims against the "_inopem me copia
fecit_," and similar jingles of Ovid.

[15] [Transcriber's note: "See p. 258" in original. This is to be found
in Section VI.]

"The longest tyranny that ever swayed,
Was that wherein our ancestors betrayed
Their free-born reason to the Stagyrite,
And made his torch their universal light.
So truth, while only one supplied the state,
Grew scarce, and dear, and yet sophisticate.
Still it was bought, like emp'ric wares, or charms,
Hard words sealed up with Aristotle's arms."

[17] These I found quaintly summed up in an old rhyme:
"With a red man read thy rede,
With a brown man break thy bread,
On a pale man draw thy knife,
From a black man keep thy wife."

[18] See the introduction to Britannia Rediviva, vol. x.

[19] Vol. x.

[20] It is twice stated in these volumes (p. 246, and vol. x.), on the
authority of the "Life of Southerne," that Dryden had originally five
guineas for each prologue, and raised the sum to ten guineas on occasion
of Southerne's requiring such a favour for his first play. But I am
convinced the sum is exaggerated; and incline now to believe, with Dr.
Johnson, that the advance was from _two_ to _three_ guineas only. [See
note _supra_, l.c.--ED.]

[21] Life of Lucian, vol. xviii.

[22] [Is it possible that in this famous passage "Veer" is a clerical
error or a misprint for "Ware"? This would at once make sense and a
literal version.--ED.]

[23] Poems from the Bannatyne Manuscript, p. 228.

[24] Shakespeare has _capricious, conversation_, fatigate
(if not _fatigue_), _figure, gallant, good graces; incendiary_ is in
Minshew's "Guide to the Tongues," ed. 1627. _Tender_ often occurs in
Shakespeare both as a substantive and verb. And many other of the above
words may be detected by those who have time and inclination to search
for them, in authors prior to Dryden's time. [See, for a discussion of
Dryden's Gallicisms, vol. xviii. of the present edition.--ED.]

[24] The remarkable phrase, "to possess the soul in patience," occurs in
"The Hind and Panther;" and in the Essay on Satire, vol. xiii., we have
nearly the same expression. The image of a bird's wing flagging in a
damp atmosphere occurs in Don Sebastian, and in prose elsewhere, though
I have lost the reference. The same thought is found in "The Hind and
Panther," but is not there used metaphorically:--

"Nor need they fear the dampness of the sky
Should flag their wings, and hinder them to fly."

Dryden is ridiculed by an imitator of Rabelais, for the recurrence of
the phrase by which he usually prefaces his own defensive criticism:
"_If it be allowed me to speak so much in my own commendation;--_ see
Dryden's preface to his Fables, or to any other of his works that you
please." The full title of this whimsical tract, from which Sterne
borrowed several hints, is "An Essay towards the theory of the
intelligible world intuitively considered. Designed for forty-nine
parts. Part Third, consisting of a preface, a postscript, and a little
something between, by Gabriel Johnson; enriched by a faithful account of
his ideal voyages, and illustrated with poems by several hands, as
likewise with other strange things not insufferably clever, nor
furiously to the purpose; printed in the year 17," etc. [The phrase
mentioned first is perhaps less remarkable than Scott's apparent
forgetfulness of its Biblical origin.--ED.]

[25] Introduction to Book Fifth of "Tom Jones."


Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest