« PreviousContinue »
DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON, borrowing a classic metaphor, which describes what Augustus did for Rome, says in reference to English poetry, that Dryden found it brick and left it marble. Let it not be forgotten that Johnson, in his “Lives of the Poets,” (a most unsafe book,) has ignored Shakspere and vilified Milton. To the mental
eye of the ponderous critic, “Paradise Lost” and “Macbeth" were built of common brick, while Dryden's Satires and Fables shone with the lustre of Parian stone. We condemn the comparison as wholly exaggerated, and partly untrue; and yet we would not for a moment deny Dryden's exalted rank as a poet and a master of the English tongue. Our knowledge of Dryden's early life is meagre. Born of Puri
tan parents, on the 9th of August 1631, at Aldwinckle 1631 in Northamptonshire, he received his school education
at Westminster, under Dr. Busby, of birchen memory.
Then, elected a Westminster scholar, he passed to Trinity College, Cambridge, where, no doubt, he wrote English verses, as he had often done at school. But he seems to have passed without marked distinction through his college course.
When the great Oliver died, the young poet created some sensation by a copy of verses which he wrote upon the sad event. Two years later, he celebrated the restoration of Charles Stuart, in a poem called Astræa Redux. So sudden a change of politica)
WRITING FOR THE THEATRES.
principle has been harshly blamed; but we can scarcely censure young Dryden for feeling, as all England felt at the time, that a load of fear had rolled away when Charles came back from exile to fill his father's throne.
Inheriting only a small estate of £60 a year, Dryden was com pelled to take to literature as a profession, devoting his pen at first to the service of the newly-opened theatres. The Wild Gallant was his first play. His marriage with Lady Elizabeth Howard took place about the opening of his theatrical career.
Then play after play came flowing from his fertile pen; all tainted, sad to say, with the gross licentiousness of that shameful age; and cramped, like the shape of a tight-laced fashionable, into rhyming couplets, which were but a poor substitute for the noble music of Shakspere's blank-verse. In all, during eight and twenty years Dryden produced eight and twenty plays; among the chief of which we may note The Indian Emperor (1667), and The Conquest of Granada (1672). This dramatic authorship was then the only field in which an author could hope to reap a fair crop of guineas, for the sale of books was as yet miserably small It is sad to contemplate a man of genius driven to waste the electric force of his mind upon a kind of writing for which his talents were but slightly fitted—sad to see the composer of one of the finest English odes, and of satires that rival the master-pieces of Juvenal, forced to drudge for a dissolute green-room, and to play the rhyming buffoon for a coarse and ribald pit. Nor was this the only evil. Mean passions were engendered by this pitiful struggle for popular applause. Poor Elkanah Settle, a rhymster of the day, one of Rochester's creatures, who was afterwards impaled on the point of Dryden's satiric pen, incurred great John's wrath by some slight successes in the dramatic line, which the silly man had prefaced with a puny war-blast of defiance. The torrent of abuse, which Dryden poured round this shallow brain, would better become a shrewish fishwife than one of England's greatest bards.
Let us turn from the mournful sight of wasted and degraded genius to Dryden's other works. Though writing so busily for the stage, he had yet found spare hours to produce bis Annus
ABSALOM AND ACHITOPAEL."
Mirabilis, a poem on the year of the Great Fire, and his Essay on Dramatic Poesy; in the latter of which he labours hard but vainly to prove that rhyme is suited to tragedy. The Essay is a valuable piece of criticism, which derives additional charms from the elegance of its prose and its frank avowal of Shakspere's surpassing genius. And here, dismissing Dryden's prose, we may say that few English authors have written prose so well. His Prefaces and Dedications & things which, though now nearly banished from our books, were then most elaborate pieces of writing—are brilliant and polished essays upongarious topics of literature and art.
Not unprofitably did Vryden fight the battle of life with his pen.
His dramatic work brought him over £300 a year; in 1670 he became poet-laureate (worth £100 a year and a tierce of wine), and royal historiographer (worth another £100 a year.) The pity is, that for this £500 a year he had to dip his pen in pollution, on peril of losing the favour of a wicked Court.
At fifty, Dryden's genius was in full bloom. In 1681 he produced that marvellous group of satiric portraits which forms the first part of Absalom and Achitophel. Old Testament names, borrowed from David's day, denote the leading men of the corrupted
English court. Monmouth was Absalom; Shaftesbury, 1681 Achitophel; Buckingham, Zimri. * And never has poet
winged more terrible weapons of political warfare than
the shower of bright and poisoned lines that fell on the luckless objects of Dryden's rage. Conscious for the first time, after this great effort, of the dreadful wounds his pen could give, the poet did not henceforth spare its use. Other satires, The Medal, launched against Shaftesbury alone, and Mac Flecknoe, hurled at the head of poet Shadwell, speedily followed ; but neither of these came up in poetry or point to his great satire of 1681.
The poem, Religio Laici, written about this time, displays the author's mind convulsed with religious doubts. A severe mental struggle resulted in his abandonment of Protestantism for the Roman Catholic faith; an event which, unhappily for his repu
* The satirist had a special grudge against Buckingham, who, in 1671, brought out a farce called The Rehearsal, in which Dryden and his heroic dramas were held up to
TRANSLATION OF VIRGIL.
tation, occurred at a time when such a change was the high road to royal favour. It is right, however, to say, that the pension of £100, which some believe him to have received as the reward of his defection, had been already granted by Charles, and was now merely restored by James. On the whole, the change seems to have been one for which Dryden had deeper motives than the desire of gold or royal favour. He reared his children, and died in the Roman Catholic faith. In a beautiful allegory, The Hind and Panther, he exhibits his new-born affection for the Church of his adoption, which he paints as a “milk-white hind, immortal and unchanged.” The Church of England is represented by the panther, “the fairest creature of the spotted kind”; while dissenting sects play their various parts as bears, hares, boars, and other animals.
4 spite of the grotesque antithesis involved in making wild beasts discuss theology, it affords a splendid specimen of Dryden's chief quality—his power of reasoning in rhyme.
When William and Mary ascended the English throne, Dryden, who thus lost his laureateship with its guineas and its wine, sank into a bookseller's hack, depending for daily bread almost entirely upon his pen. He then undertook a work for which his genius was quite unfitted—the translation into English verse of the sweet and graceful Virgil. The verses of the Latin poet have the velvet bloom, the dewy softness, the delicate odour of a flower; the version of the Englishman has the hardness and brilliance of a gem : and, when we find only flowers cut in stone, where we expect to see flowers blooming in sweet reality—no matter how skilful the lapidary, how rich the colouring, or pure the water of the jewel-admiring the triumph of art, we miss the sweetness of nature, and long to exchange the rainbow play of coloured light for the stealing fragrance and tender hues of the living blossom. For this heavy task of turning the Georgics and the Æneid into English pentameters, the work of three toilsome years, the poet received £1200. The translation 1697 was published in 1697. It was not his first task of the kind. The year before, he had translated part of Juvenal and all Persius; and, earlier, had employed his pen upon scattered
poems from Horace, Ovid, and Theocritus. We think sorrowfully of the old man toiling at his desk upon this heavy task, often pursuing the “sad mechanic exercise” with little heart; for we believe he must have felt that his English rendering did not breathe the true spirit of Virgil's verse. Yet, in spite of such occasional clouds, the sunset of his life was fair. He was the great literary lion of his day; and no country stranger, of any taste for letters, thought his round of London sights complete, unless he had been to Will's Coffee-honse in Russell Street, where, ensconced in a snug arm-chair, by the fire or out on the balcony, according to the season, old John sat, pipe in hand, laying down the law upon disputed points in literature or politics. Happy was the favoured rustic who could boast to his admiring friends that he had got a pinch of snuff from the great man's box!
During these sunset years he wrote his finest lyric—the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, which is generally known as Alexander's Feast, and which, notwithstanding Hallam's unfavourable opinion, still remains a favourite ; and not without deserving to be so. It cost him a fortnight's toil. Changing his metre with the variations of his theme, the poet sweeps the strings of the fierce and softer passions of the human breast; or, to use another figure, choosing with rapid and skilful finger the brightest threads from what is to many the tangled skein of our English tongue, he weaves of them a brilliant tapestry, glowing with a succession of fair and terrible pictures. No English poem better illustrates the wonderful pliancy of the tongue we speak. But it takes a master's touch. to weave the threads as Dryden did ; his silk and gold would change in meaner hands to grey hemp and rusted wire.
The composition of his Fables occupied the poet's last two years. For this work, of about twelve thousand lines, he received somewhat more than £250 from Jacob Tonson, who sold books at the Judge's Head in Chancery Lane. “The Fables” rank with Dryden's finest works. Consisting of tales from Boccaccio and Chaucer, dressed in modern diction, they are, unhappily, often stained with a deeper tinge of licentiousness than even the originals possess.