« PreviousContinue »
It is another of his hasty productions ; for the heat of his imagination raised it in a month.
This composition is addressed to the princess of Modena, then duchess of York; in a strain of flattery which disgraces genius, and which it was wonderful that any man that knew the meaning of his own words could use without self-detestation. It is an attempt to mingle earth and heaven, by praising human excellence in the language of religion.
The preface contains an apology for heroick verse and poetick licence ; by which is meant not any liberty taken in contracting or extending words, but the use of bold figures, and ambitious fictions.
The reason which he gives for printing what was never acted, cannot be " overpassed : I was induced to it in my own defence, many hundred copies - of it being dispersed abroad without my knowledge or consent; and every
one gathering new faults, it became at length a libel against me.” These copies as they gathered faults were apparently manuscript; and helived in an age very unlike ours, if many hundred copies of fourteen hundred lines were likely to be transcribed. An author has a right to print his own works, and needs not seek an apology in falsehood; but he that could bear to write the dedication felt no pain in writing the preface.
Aureng Zebe (1676) is a tragedy founded on the actions of a great prince then reigning, but over nations not likely to employ their criticks upon the transactions of the English stage. If he had known and disliked his own chafacter, cur trade was not in those times secure from his resentment.
His country is at such a distance, that the manners might be safely falsified, and the incidents feigned; for the remoteness of place is remarked, by Racine, to afford the same conveniencies to a poet as length of time.
This play is written in rhyme; and has the appearance of being the most elaborate of all the dramas: The personages are imperial; but the dialogue is often domestick, and therefore susceptible of sentiments accomodated to familiar incidents. The complaint of life is celebrated, and there are many other passages that may be read with pleasure.
This play is addressed to the earl of Mulgrave, afterwards duke of Buckingham, himself, if not a poet, yet a writer of verses, and a critick. In this address Dryden gave the first hints of his intention to write an epic poem. He mentions his design in terms so obscure, that he seems afraid lest his plan should be purloined, as, he says, happened to him when he told it inore plainly in his preface to Juvenal.“ The design,” says he, “ you know is great, “ the story English, and neither too near the present times, nor too distant from them."
All for Love, or the World well lost (1678), a tragedy founded upon the story of Antony and Cleopatra, he tells us, " is the only play which he wrote for “ himself;" the rest were given to the people. It is by universal consent accounted the work in which he has admitted the fewest improprieties of style or
character; but it has one fault cqual to many, though rather moral than critical, that by admitting the romantick omnipotence of Love, he has recommended, as laudable and worthy of imitation, that conduct which, through all ages, the good have censured as vicious, and the bad despised as foolish.
Of this play the prologue and the epilogue, though written upon the common topicks of malicious and ignorant criticism, and without any particular relation to the characters or incidcats of the drama, are deservedly celebrated for their elegance and spriteliness.
Limberham, or the kind Keeper, (1680), is a comedy, which, after the third night, was prohibited as too indecent for the stage. What gave offence was in the printing, as the author says, altered or omitted. Dryden confesses, that its indecency was objected to ; but Langbaine who yet seldom favours him, imputes its expulsion to resentment, because it“ so much exposed the keeping
part of the town."
Oedipus (1679) is a tragedy formed by Dryden and Lee, in conjunction, from the works of Sophocles, Seneca, and Corneille. Dryden planned the scenes, and composed the first and third acts.
Don Sebastian (1690) is commonly esteemed either the first or second of his dramatick performances. It is too long to be all acted, and has many characters and many incidents; and though it is not without sallies of frantick dignity, and more noise than meaning, yet-as it makes approaches to the possibilities of real life, and has some sentiments which leave a strong impression, it continued long to attract attention. Amidst the distresses of princes, and the vicissitudes of empire, are inserted several scenes which the writer intended for comick; but which, I suppose, that age did not much commend, and this would not endure. There are, however, passages of excellence universally acknowledged; the dispute and the reconciliation of Dorax and Sebastian has always been admired.
This play was first acted in 1690, after Dryden had for some years discontinued dramatick poetry.
Amphitryon is a comedy derived from Plautus and Moliere. The dedication is dated Oct. 1690. This play seems to have succeeded at its first appearance; and was, I think, long considered as a very diverting entertainment.
Cleomenes (1692) is a tragedy, only remarkable as it occasioned an incident related in the Guardian, and allusively mentioned by Dryden in his preface. As he came out from the representation, he was accostedthus by some airy stripling: “ Had I been left alone with a young beauty, I would not have spent my
« time like your Spartan." " That, Sir,” said Dryden,“ perhaps is true ; but give me leave to tell you, that you are no hero.”
King Arthur (1691) is another opera. It was the last work that Dryden performed for King Charles, who did not live to see it exhibited, and it does not seem to have been ever brought upon the stage*. ' In the dedication to the
marquis * This is a mistake. It was set to music by Purcell, and well received, and is yet a favourite entertaininent. H.
marquis of Halifax, there is a very elegant character of Charles, and a pleasing account of his latter life. When this was first brought upon the stage, news that the duke of Monmouth had landed was told in the theatre ; upon which the company departed, and Arthur was exhibited no more.
His last draina was Love Triumphant, a tragi-comedy. In his dedication to the earl of Salisbury, he mentions“ the lowness of fortune to which he has “ voluntarily reduced himself, and of which he has no reason to be ashamed."
This play appeared in 1694. It is said to have been unsuccessful. The catastrophe, proceeding merely from a change of mind, is confessed by the author to be defecțive. Thus he began and ended his dramatick labours with ill success,
From such a number of theatrical pieces it will be supposed, by most readers, that he must have improved his fortune ; at least, that such diligence with such abilities must have set penury at defiance. But in Dryden's time the drama was very far from that universal approbațion which it has now obtained. The play-house was abhorred by the Puritans, and avoided by those who desired the character of seriousness or decency, A grave lawyer tould have debased his dignity, and a young trader would have impaired his credit, by appearing in those mansions of dissolute licentiousness. The profits of the theatre, when so many classes of the people were deducted from the audience, were not great; and the poet had for a long time but a a single night. The first that had two nights, was Southern; and the first that had three was Rowe. There were, however, in those days, arts of improving a poet's profit, which Dryden forbore to practise ; and a play therefore seldom produced more than a hundred pounds, by the accumulated gain of the third night, the dedication, and the copy.
Almost every piece had a dedication, written with such elegance and luxuriance of praise, as neither haughtiness nor avarice could be imagined able to resist. But he seems to have made Hattery too cheap. That praise is worth nothing of which the price is known,
To increase the value of his copies, he often accompanied his work with a preface of criticism ; a kind of learning then almost new in the English language, and which he, who had considered with great accuracy the principles of, writing, was able to distribute copiously, as occasions arose. By these dissertations the publick judgment must have been much improved; and Swift, who conversed with Dryden, relates that he regretted the success of his own instructions, and found his readers made suddenly too skilful to be easily satisfied.
His prologues had such reputațion, that for some time a play was considered as less likely to be well received, if some of his verses did not introduce it. The price of a prologue was two guineas, till, being asked to write one for Mr, Southern, he demanded three ; " Not," said he, “ young man, out of " disrespect to you, but the players have had my goods too cheap."
Though he declares, that in his own opinion his genius was not dramatick, he had great confidence in his own fertility : for he is said to have engaged by contract, to furnish four plays a year.
It is certain that in one year, 1678*, he published All for Love, Assigration, two parts of the Conquest of Granada, Sir Matin Marr-all, and the State of Innocence, six complete plays ; with a celerity of performance, which, though all Langbaine's charges of plagiarism should be allowed, shews such facility of composition, such readiness of language, and such copiousness of sentiment, as, since the time of Lopez de Vega, perhaps no other author has ever possessed.
He did not enjoy his reputation, however great, nor his profits, however small, without molestation. He had criticks to endure, and rivals to oppose. The two most distinguished wits of the nobility, the duke of Buckingham and earl of Rochester, declared themselves bis enemies.
Buckingham characterises him, in 1671, by the name of Bayes in the Rehearsal; a farce which he is said to have written with the assistance of Butler the author of Hudibras, Martin Clifford of the Charterhouse, and Dr. Sprat, the friend of Cowley, then his chaplain. Dryden and his friends laughed at the length of time, and the number of hands employed upon this performance; in which, though by some artifice of action it yet keeps possession of the stage, it is not possible now to find any thing that might not have been written without so long delay, or a confederacy so numerous.
To adjust the minute events of literary history, is tedious and troublesome; it requires indeed no great force of understanding, but often depends upon enquiries which there is no opportunity of making, or is to be fetched from books and pamphlets not always at hand.
The Rehearsal was played in 1671+, and yet is represented as ridiculing passages in the Conquest of Granada and Assignation, which were not published till 1678, in Marriage Alamode published in 1873, and in Tyrannick Love of 1577. These contradictions shew how rashly satire is applied.
It is said that this farce was originally intended against Davenant, who in the first draught was characterised by the name of Bilboa. Davenant had been a soldier and an adventurer.
There is one passage in the Rehearsal still remaining, which seems to have related originally to Davenant. Bayes hurts his nose, and comes in with brown paper applied to the bruise : how this affected Dryden does not appear. Davenant's nose had suffered such diminution by mishaps among the women, that a patch upon that part evidently denoted him.
* Dr. Johnson in this affertion was mifled 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 origiedition. E
+ It was published in 1672. E,
| The Conquest of Granada vas published in 1672, The Assigratier in 1673, Marriage Alamode in the same year, and Tyrannick Lore in 1572.
It is said likewise that Sir Robert Howard was once meant. The design was probably to ridicule the reigning poet, whoever he might be.
Much of the personal satire, to which it inight owe its first reception, is now lost or obscured. Bayes probably imitated the dress, and mimicked the manner, of Dryden ; the cant words which are so often in his mouth may be supposed to have been Dryden's habitual phrases, or customary exclamations. Bayes, when he is to wiite, is blooded and purged: this, as Lamotte relates himself to have heard, was the real practice of the poet.
There were other strokes in the Rehearsal by w nich malice was gratified ; the debate between Love and Honcur, which keeps prince Volscius in a single boot, is said to have alluded to the misconduct of the duke of Ormond, who lost Dublin to the rebels while he was toying with a mistress.
The earl of Rochester, to suppress the reputation of Dryden, took Settle into his protection, and endeavoured to persuade the publick that its approbation had been to that time misplaced. Settle was a while in high reputation, his E m. press of Morocco, having first delighted the town, was carried in triumph to Whitehall, and played by the ladies of the court. Now was the poetical meteor at the highest; the next moment began its fall. Rochester withdrew his patronage; seeming resolved, says one of his biographers, “ to have a “ judgment contrary to that of the town.” Perhaps being unable to endure any reputation beyond a certain height, even when he had himself contributed to raise it.
Neither criticks nor rivals did Dryden much mischief, unless they gained from his own temper the power of vexing him, which his frequent bursts of resentment give reason to suspect. He is always angry at some past, or afraid of some future censure; but he lessens the smarts of his wounds by the balm of his own approbation, and endeavours to repel the shafts of criticism by opposing a shield of adamantine confidence.
The perpetual accusation produced against him, was that of plagiarism against which he never attempted any vigorous defence ; for, though he was perhaps sometimes injuriously censured, he would, by denying part of the charge, have confessed the rest; and as his adversaries had the proof in their own hands, he, who knew that wit had little power against facts, wisely left, in that perplexity which generally produces, a question which it was his interest to suppress, and which, unless provoked by vindication, few were likely to examine.
Though the life of a writer, from about thirty-five to sixty-three, may be supposed to have been sufficiently busied by the composition of eightand twenty pieces for the stage, Dryden found room in the same space for many other undertakings.
But, how much soever he wrote, he was a least once suspected of writing more; for in 1679 a paper of verses, cailed an Essay on Satire, was shewn