Page images
PDF
EPUB

rather than disowned it. His tendency to profaneness is the effect of levity, negligence, and loose conversation, with a desire of accommodating himself to the corruption of the times, by venturing to be wicked as far as he durst. When he professed himself a convert to Popery, he did not pretend to have received any new conviction of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

The persecution of criticks was not the worst of his vexations ; he was much more disturbed by the importunities of want. His complaints of poverty are so frequently repeated, either with the dejection of weakness sinking in helpless misery, or the indignation of merit claiming its tribute from mankind, that it is impossible not to detest the age which could impose on such a man the necessity of such solicitations, or not to despise the man who could submit to such solicitations without necessity.

Whether by the world's neglect, or his own imprudence, I am afraid that the greatest part of his life was passed in exigencies. Such outcries were surely never uttered but in severe pain. Of his supplies or his expences no probable estimate can now be made. Except the salary of the Laureat, to which king James added the office of Historiographer, perhaps with some additional emoluments, his whole revenue seems to have been casual ; and it is well known that lie seldom lives frugally who lives by chance. Hope is always liberal; and they that trust hier promises make little scruple of revelling to-day on the profits of the morrow.

Of his plays the profit was not great, and of the produce of his other works very little intelligenee can be had. By discoursing with the late amiable Mr. Tonson, I could not find that any memorials of the transactions between his predecessor and Dryden had been preserved, except the following papers :

“ I do hereby promise to pay John Dryden, Esq. or order, on the 25th of “ March, 1699; the sum of two hundred and fifty guineas, in consideration “ of ten thousand verses, which the said John Dryden, Esq. is to deliver to “me Jacob Tonson, when finished, whereof seven thousand five hundred “ verses, more or less, are already in the said Jacob Tonson's possession. “ And I do hereby farther promise, and engage myself, to make up the said “ sum of two hundred and fifty guineas three hundred pounds sterling to the “ said John Dryden, Esq. his executors, administrators, or assigns, at the " beginning of the second impression of the said ten thousand verses.

" In witness whereof I have here unto set my hand and seal, this 20th day of March, 1698-9.

« Jacob Tonson. " Sealed and delivered, being first duly stampt, pursuant " to the acts of parliament, for that purpose, in the

[ocr errors]

presence of

• Ben. Portlock.
« Will. Congreve."

« March

" March 24th, 1698. « Received then of Mr. Jacob Tonsen the sum of two hundred sixty“ eight pounds fifteen shillings, in pursuance of an agreement for ten thousand “ verses, to be delivered by ine to the said Jacob Tonson, whereof I have “ already delivered to him about seven thousand five hundred, more or less ; “ he the said Jacob Tonson being obliged to make up the aforesaid sum of two “ bundred sixty-eight pounds fifteen skillings three lindred pounds, at the beginning of the second impression of the aforesaid ten thousand verses ;

I say, received by me

“ John Dryden. “ Witness Charles Dryden." Two hundred and fifty guineas, at 11. Is. 6d. is 2681. 15s.

It is manifest, from the dates of this contract, that it relates to the volume of Fables, which contains about twelve thousand verses, and for. which therefore the payment must have been afterwards enlarged.

I have been told of another letter yet iemaining, in which he desires Tonson to bring him money, to pay for a watch which he had ordered for his son, and which the maker would not leave without the price.

The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence. Dryden had probably no recourse in his exigencies but to his bookseller. The particular character of Tonson I do not know; but the general conduct of traders was much less liberal in those times than in our own; their views werë narrower, and their manners grosser. To the mercantile ruggedness of that race, the delicacy of the poet was sometimes exposed. Lord Bolingbroke, who in his youth had cultivated poetry, related to Dr. King of Oxford, that one day; when he visited Dryden, they hcard, as they were conversing, another person entering the house. “ This,” said Dryden, “is Tonson. You will take “ care not to depárt before he goes away: for I have not completed the sheet “ which I promised him; and if you leave me unprotected, I'must suffer all « the rudeness to which his resentment can prompt his tongue.”

What rewards he obtained for his poems, besides the payment of the bookseller, cannot be known: Mr. Derrick, who consulted some of his relations, was informed that his Fables obtained five hundred pounds from the dutchess of Ormond; a present not unsuitable to the magnificence of that splendid family; and he quotes Moyle, as relating that forty pounds were paid by a musical society for the use of Alexander's Feast.

In those days the economy of government was yet unsettled, and the payments of the Exchequer were dilatory and uncertain : of this disorder there is reason to believe that the Lauréat sometimes felt the effects; for in one of his prefaces he complains of those, who, being intrusted with the distribution of the Prince's bounty, suffer those that depend upon it to languish in 'penury. Of his petty babits or slight amusements, tradition has retained little. Of the only two men whom I have found to whom he was personally known, one told me, that at the house which he frequented, called Will's Coffee-house, the appeal upon any literary dispute was made to him ; and the other related, that his armed chair, which in the winter had a settled and prescriptive place by the fire, was in the summer placed in the balcony, and that he called the two places his winter and his summer seat. This is all the intelligence which his two survivors afforded me.

One of his opinions will do him no honour in the present age, though in his own time, at least in the beginning of it, he was far from having it confined to himself. He put great confidence in the prognostications of judicial astrology. In the Appendix to the Life of Congreve is a narrative of some of his predictions wonderfully fulfilled; but I know not the writer's means of information, or character of veracity. That he had the configurations of the horo-scope in his mind, and considered them as influencing the affairs of men, he does not forbear to hint.

The utmost malice of the stars is past.
Now frequent trines the happier lights among,
And high-rais'd Jow, from his dark prison freed,
Those weights took off that on his planet hung,

Will gloriously the new-laid works succeed. He has elsewhere shewn his attention to the planetary powers; and in the preface to his Fables has endeavoured obliquely to justify his superstition, by attributing the same to some of the Ancients. The latter, added to this narrative, leaves no doubt of his notions or practice.

So slight and so scanty is the knowledge which I have been able to collect concerning the private life and domestick manners of a man, whom every English generation must mention with reverence as a critick and a poet.

DRYDEN may be properly considered as the father of English criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition. Of our former poets, the greatest dramatist wrote without rules, conducted through life and nature by a genius that rarely misled, and rarely deserted him. Of the rest, those who knew the laws of propriety had neglected to teach thein.

Two Arts of English Poetry were written in the days of Elizabeth by Webb and Puttenham, from which something might be learned, and a few hints had been given by Jonson and Cowley; but Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poetry was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing.

He who having formed his opinions in the present age of English literature, turns back to percsethis dialogue, will not perhaps find much increase of knowJedge, or much novelty of instruction ; but he is to remember that critical principles were then in the bands of a few, who had ġathered them partly

from

[ocr errors]

from the Ancients, and partly from the Italians and French. The structure of dramatic poems was then not generally understood. Audiences applauded by instinct ; and poets perhaps often pleased by chance.

A writer who obtains his full purpose loses himself in his own lustre. Of an opinion which is no longer doubted, the evidence ceases to be examined. Of an art universally practised, the first teacher is forgotten. Learning once made popular is no longer learning; it has the appearance of something which we have bestowed upon ourselves as the dew, appears to rise from the field which it refreshes.

To judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time, and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his means of supplying them. That which is easy at one time was difficult at another. Dryden at least imported his science, and gave his country what it wanted before; or rather, he imported only the materials, and manufactured them by his own skill.

The dialogue on the Drama was one of his first essays of criticism, written when he was yet a timorous candidate for reputation, andtherefore laboured with that diligence which he might allow himself somewhat to remit, when his name gave sanction to his positions, and his awe of the public was abated, partly by custom, and partly by success. It will not be easy to find, in all the opulence of our language, a treatise so artfully variegated with successive representations of opposite probabilities, soenlivened with imagery, so brightened with illustrations. His portraits of the English dramatists are wrought u'ith great spirit and diligence. The account of Shakspeare may stand as a perpetual model of encomiastick criticism; exact without minuteness, and lofty without exaggeration. The praise lavished by Longinus, on the attestation of the heroes of Marathon, by Demosthenes, fades away before it. In a few lines is exhibited a character, so extensive in its comprehension, and so curious in its limitations, that nothing can be added, diminished, or reformed; nor can the editors and admirers of Shakspeare, in all their emulation of reverence, 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.

In this, and in all his other essays on the same subject, the criticism of Dryden is the criticism of a poet; not a dull collection of theorems, nor a rude detection of faults, which perhaps the censor was not able to have committed; but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight is mingled with instruction, and where the author proves his right of judgment, by his power of performance.

The different manner and effect with which critical knowledge may be conveyed, was perhaps never more clearly exemplified than in the performances of Vol. I.

Dd

Rymer

[ocr errors]

Rymer and Dryden. It was said of a dispute between two mathematicians, “ malim cum Scaligero errare, quam cum Clavio recte sapere;” that "it was “ more eligible to go wrong with one, than right with the other.” A tendency of the same kind every mind must feel at the perusal of Dryden's prefaces and Rymer's discourses. With Dryden we are wandering in quest of Truth; whom, we find, if we find her at all, drest in the graces of elegance; and if we miss her, the labour of the pursuit rewards itself; we are led only through fragrance and flowers. Rymer, without taking a nearer, takes a rougher way ; every step is to be made through thorns and brambles; and Truth, if we meet her, appears repulsive by her mien, and ungraceful by her habit. Dryden's criticism has the majesty of a queen; Rymer's has the ferocity of a tyrant

As he had studied with great diligence the art of poetry, and enlarged or rectified his notions, by experience perpetually increasing, he had his mind stored with principles and observations; he poured out his knowledge with little labour; for of labour notwithstanding ihe multiplicity of his productions, there is sufficient reason to suspect that he was not a lover. To write con a more, with fondness forthe employment, with perpetualtouchesand retouches, with unwillingness to take leave of his own idea, and an unwearied pursuit of unattainable perfection, was, I think, no part of his character.

His criticism may be considered as general or occasional. In his general precepts, which depend upon the nature of things, and the structure of the human mind, he may doubtless be safely recommended to the confidence of the reader; but his occasional and particular positions were sometimes interested, sometimes negligent, and sometimes capricious. It is not without reason that Trap, speaking of the praises which he bestows on Palemon and Arcite, says, “ Novimus 6. judicium Drydeni de poemate quodam Chauceri, pulchro sane illo, & admo“dum laudando, nimirum quod non modovereepicum sit, sed Iliada etiam atque " /Eneada æquet, imo superet. Sed novimus eodem tempore viri illius maximi

non semper accuratissimas esse censuras, nec ad severissimam critices nor“mam exactas: illo judice id plerumque optimum est, quod nunc præ mani• bus habet, & in quo nunc occupatur."

He is therefore by no mcans constant to himself. His defence and désertion of dramatick rhyme is generally known. Spence, in his remarks on Pope's Odyssey, produces what he thinks an unconquerable quotation from Dryden's preface to the Æneid, in favour of translating an epick poem into blank verse; but he forgets that when his author attempted the Iliad, some years afterwards, he departed from his own decision, and translated into rhyme.

When he has any objection to obviate, or any licence to defend, he is not very scrupulous about what he asserts, nor very cautious, if the preser:t purpose be served, not to entangle himself in his own sophistries. But when all arts are exhausted, like other hunted animals, he somctimes stands at bay; when he

cannot

« PreviousContinue »