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JOHN DRYDEN. 1630--1700.
“ Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
John DRYDEN, the celebrated English poet, was born in Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire, 1631. He was educated in Westminster school, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. His first poem that attracted notice was his stanzas on Cromwell's death; but so exceedingly pliable was he, that, in 1660, he wrote a congratulatory address to Charles II., on his restoration to the throne of his ancestors. But this did not "put money in his purse," and he was soon obliged to betake himself to what was then a more profitable department of poetry, and write for the stage, which he continued to do for many years. In these literary labors he debased his genius to an extent which no “circumstances of the times” can excuse, by writing in a manner and style that entirely harmonized with the licentious spirit and taste of the court and age of Charles II.
In 1668 he succeeded Davenant as poet-laureate, which excited the envy of those who aspired to the same royal distinction. The most powerful of his enemies were the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, the former of whom ridiculed the poet in that well-known farce called “The Rehearsal.” In return, Dryden, in 1681, published his satire of “ Absalom and Achitophel,” perhaps the most vigorous as well as the most popular of all his poetical writings. This was speedily followed by “The Medal,” a bitter lampoon on Shaftesbury, and was followed up the next year by “ Mac Flecknoe,”1 and the second part of Absalom and Achitophel.” These were all most bitter satires upon his personal enemies, Buckingham, Monmouth, Shaftesbury, Settle, Shadwell, and others. In “ Absalom and Achitophel,” Monmouth figures under the former, and Shaftesbury under the latter name.
After the accession of James, (1685,) when Popery became the chief qualification for court favor, Dryden renounced Protestantism and turned Papist. He gained but little by it, though he wrote in defence of the Romish faith in « The Hind and the Panther." 2 In 1689, one year after the abdication of James, he would not take the required oaths to the government of William and Mary, and was therefore compelled to resign his office of poet-laureate, which, with a salary increased to £300, was conferred on Thomas Shadwell, whom Dryden thus satirized in his “ Mac Flecknoe :"
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
1 Mac is the Celtic for son; and Richard Flecknoe was an Irish Roman Catholic priest, and a wellknown hackneyed poetaster. The leading idea of the poem, therefore, is, to represent the solemn inauguration of one inferior poet as the successor (“son”) of another, in the monarchy of nonsense.
2 The idea of two beasts discussing arguments in theology, and quoting the Fathers, excited disgust or merriment, so that, as a work of controversy, it proved a complete failure.
8 That this is the language of bitter personal enmity, no one can doubt, from the fact that such a one as Dryden describes would not be honored with such a post. Accordingly, a modern critic (Retrospective Review, xvi. 56) says of Shadwell, “He was an accomplished observer of human nature, had a ready power of seizing the ridiculous in the manners of the times, was a man of sense and information, and displayed in his writings a very considerable fund of humor.”
The latter years of his life were devoted to the translation of Juvenal and Perseus, and of the Æneid, by which he is more known than by any of his original poetry, if we except the “Ode on St. Cecilia's Day," which he “ finished at one sitting,” as he himself said, while he was engaged in translating the Mantuan bard. This ode ranks among the best lyrical pieces in our language; but it contains some licentiousness of imagery and description which justly detracts from its general popularity. His last work was a Masque, composed about three weeks before his death, which took place on the 1st of May, 1700. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The character of Dryden is not such as to command our respect or esteem. He seems to have had no sound principles, either in morals or in religion. His movements were those of the weathercock, showing the current of the popular breeze. He wrote for the day, and he had his reward,-popularity for the time, but comparative neglect with posterity. As a poet he cannot take rank in the first class. A writer in the Retrospective Reviewl very justly remarks, that "it is well that his fame has become a settled conviction in the public mind, for were a man casually called upon to prove the truth of the position, though secure of ultimate victory, he would find the task not unencumbered with difficulty-he could not peal to any particular wo being universally read, and as universally admired and approved. His translations, it is true, are spirited, and convey all, and frequently more than the writer's meaning; but then, he has taken improper liberties with his author, and fills the mind of the reader with emotions of a different character than would be produced by the original. Then his plays are bombastic, and as a proof of their worthlessness, it may be alleged they are forgotten. His fables, his odes, his tales, his satires remain; all of which, it is clear, on the reading, could only be written by a man of gigantic genius, but are, as wholes, from the lapse of time and the occasional nature of many, and from the imperfections of haste and carelessness, far from being among the choice favorites of the common reader."
To these remarks may be added the discriminating criticism of Campbell:: “ He is a writer of manly and elastic character. His strong judgment gave force as well as direction to a flexible fancy; and his harmony is generally the echo of solid thoughts. But he was not gifted with intense or lofty sensibility; on the contrary, the grosser any idea is, the happier he seems to expatiate upon it. The transports of the heart, and the deep and varied delineations of the passions, are strangers to his poetry. He could describe character in the abstract, but could not embody it in the drama, for he entered into character more from clear perception than fervid sympathy. This great High Priest of all the Nine was not a confessor to the finer secrets of the human breast. Had the subject of Eloisa fallen into his hands, he would have left but a coarse draft of her passion.”
Such, I think, is a fair view of ryden's poetical character. True, Gray, in his “ Progress of Poesy,” alludes to the stately march and sounding energy of his rhymes;” and these qualities they certainly possess: and the same fastidious critic has justly immortalized the “ thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,” in his celebrated lyric, “ Alexander's Feast." But after all, he possesses in a slight degree, comparatively, those great qualities which make the true poet-imagination-fancy-invention—pathos-sublimity. That he might have done better than he has, I have not the least doubt. Hence, his case reads a most instructive lesson to men of intellect. Endowed with abi
1 Retrospective Review, 1. 113.
Specimens, l. 257.
lities of the highest order, he was clearly capable of producing such works as posterity would “not willingly let die.” But instead of spending his mighty strength upon those principles of immutable truth and of universal human nature, which will ever find a response in the human heart as long as there are hearts to feel; he wasted his time and debased his genius, by writing too much upon subjects of merely temporal interest, and in such a manner as to be in keeping with the corrupt sentiments and the licentious spirit of the age. When will men of genius, capable of exerting a mighty influence for good, for all coming time, learn to trample under their feet the false and debasing sentiments, dishonoring to God and degrading to man, that exist around them, and rise to immortality by the only sure paths-virtue and truth ? 1
ODE TO THE MEMORY OF MRS. ANNE KILLEGREW.
Thou youngest virgin-daughter of the skies,
Or, in procession fix'd and regular,
Or, call’d to more superior bliss,
Since heaven's eternal year is thine.
In no ignoble verse;
While yet a young probationer,
And candidate of heaven.
Our wonder is the less to find
But if thy pre-existing soul
Was formd at first with myriads more,
Who Greek or Latin laurels wore,
If so, then cease thy flight, О heaven-born mind!
1 Read-two articles on Dryden in the Retrospective Review, i. 113, and iv. 55: also, one in the Edinburgh, xiii. 116, and another in Macaulay's Miscellanies, i. 127. Also, in Blair's lectures, lect. xviii., and in Hallam's Literature, pp. 377 and 378. The best edition of Dryden's works is that by Sir Walter Scott, 18 vols. 8vo. Edinburgh, 1821.
Than was the beauteous frame she left behind. Return to fill or mend the choir of thy celestial kind.
O gracious God! how far have we
This lubrique and adulterate age,
T' increase the steaming ordures of the stage ? What can we say t excuse our second fall? Let this thy vestal, Heaven, atone for all; Her Arethusian stream remains unsoil'd, Unmix'd with foreign filth, and undefiled; Her wit was more than man; her innocence a child.
When in mid-air the golden trump shall sound,
To raise the nations under ground;
And there the last assizes keep
For those who wake, and those who sleep;
And foremost from the tomb shall bound,
VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS,
Paraphrased from the Latin Hymn.
1 Come, Creator Spirit.
2 A Greek word signifying advocate, belper, comforter.
Come, and thy sacred unction bring
Eternal Paraclete, to thee.
Imitated from Horace.
And put it out of Fortune's power:
And always in extreme.
Anon it lifts aloft the head,
And trunks of trees come rolling down;
Sheep and their folds together drown:
And rocks are from their old foundations torn;
He who can call to-day his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Be fair or foul, or rain or shine,
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power;