Page images
PDF
EPUB

JOHN DRYDEN.

Ꭰ Ꭱ YᎠ E N. /

1631–1700.

Born at Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire — Educated at Westminster

and Cambridge — His late appearance as a Poet — His first Verses — His Panegyric on Cromwell — His Poem on the Restoration — His first Play – Revival of the Drama - Heroic Plays with Rhyme Becomes a constant Writer for the Stage — Made Poet Laureate His controversy with Settle and Shadwell -- Is ridiculed by the Duke of Buckingham in The Rehearsal' - Is beaten by bullies hired by the Earl of Rochester — His Political and Religious Satires — Publishes 'Absalom and Achitophel'- 'The Medal' -- 'Mac Flecknoe'— Is converted to the Church of Rome - Publishes The Hind and the l'anther' - Loses his office of Poet Laureate — His translations from Juvenal. Ovid, and Persius — His translation of Virgil — Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, and Fables — Death and burial in Westminster Abbey - Works and Character.

Of the great poet whose life I am about to delineate, the curiosity which his reputation must excite will require a display more ample than can now be given. His contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, left his life unwritten ; and nothing therefore can be known beyond what casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied.

John Dryden was born August 9, 1631, at Aldwinkle, near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden of Tichmarsh, who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Baronet, of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire ; but the original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon.

! This is said too incautiously. So much since Johnson wrote has been discovered about Dryden (chiefly by the industry of Malone), that we now know more of him than of any other author of his age.

? Among the Ashmolean MSS. (No, 243, Black's Catalogue,' col. 206) Dryden's nativity is fixed on the 19th August, 1631. The exact period of his birth is still uncertain.

3 Originally in Cumberland. The first migration of a Dryden into Northamptonshire occurred early in the reign of Elizabeth; and the first connexion of a Dryden with the county of Huntingdon in or about 1632.

He is reported by his last biographer, Derrick,* to have inherited from his father 5 an estate of two hundred a-year, and to have been bred, as was said, an Anabaptist. For either of these particulars no authority is given. Such a fortune ought to have secured him from that poverty which seems always to have oppressed him; or, if he had wasted it, to have made him ashamed of publishing his necessities. But though he had many enemies, who undoubtedly examined his life with a scrutiny sufficiently malicious, I do not remember that he is ever charged with waste of his patrimony. He was, indeed, sometimes reproached for his first religion. I am therefore inclined to believe that Derrick’s intelligence was partly true, and partly erroneous.

From Westminster School, where he was instructed as one of the King's scholars by Dr. Busby, whom he long after continued to reverence, he was in 1650 [11th May] elected to one of the Westminster scholarships at Cambridge.?

Of his school performances has appeared only a poem on the death of Lord Hastings, composed with great ambition of such conceits as, notwithstanding the reformation begun by Waller and Denham, the example of Cowley still kept in reputation. Lord Hastings died of the smallpox; and his poet has made of the pustules first rosebuds, and then gems; at last exalts them into stars, and says,

“No comet need foretell his change drew on,
Whose corpse might seem a constellation.” 9

* Derrick's Life of Dryden' was written for an edition of Dryden's Miscellaneous Poems,' 4 vols. 8vo. 1760. It is a poor performance.

5 His father died in 1654. This inheritance was two-thirds of a small estate near Blakesley, in Northamptonshire, worth in all about 601, a year. The remaining third became the property of Dryden at his mother's death in 1676. The poet was the eldest of fourteen children.

6 Derrick's authority was probably the lampoons of the last age.—MALONE'S Life of Dryden, p. 37.

7 At Trinity College. He was admitted to a Bachelor's Degree in January, 1653-4, and to his M.A. Degree 17th June, 1668.

8 One of ninety-eight. Published in a volume entitled Tears of the Muses on the Death of Henry, Lord Hastings.' 8vo. 1649.

Mason relates, in his “Life of Whitehead,' that Gray, who admired Dryden almost beyond bounds, used to remark that the poem on Lord Hastings gave not so much as the slightest promise of future excellence, and seemed to indicate a bad natural ear for versification.

At the university he does not appear to have been eager of poetical distinction, or to have lavished his early wit either on fictitious subjects or public occasions. He probably considered that he who proposed to be an author ought first to be a student. He obtained, whatever was the reason, no fellowship in the college.10 Why he was excluded cannot now be known, and it is vain to guess : had he thought himself injured, he knew how to complain. In the Life of Plutarch’he mentions his education in the college with gratitude ; " but in a prologue at Oxford he has these lines :

“ Oxford to him a dearer name shall be

Than his own mother-university;
Thebes did his green, unknowing youth engage ;

He chooses Athens in his riper age.” 12 It was not till the death of Cromwell,13 in 1658 [Sept. 3], that he became a public candidate for fame, by publishing (1659] • Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector,' which, compared with the verses of Sprat and Waller on the same occasion, were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.

When the King was restored, Dryden, like the other panegyrists of usurpation, changed his opinion or his profession, and published [1660] · Astræa Redux; a Poem on the happy Restoration and Return of his sacred Majesty King Charles the Second.'

10 “ While at college our author's conduct seems not to have been uniformly regular. He was subjected to slight punishment for contumacy to the ViceMaster; and seems, according to the statement of an obscure libeller [supposed to be Shadwell], to have been engaged in some public and notorious dispute with a nobleman's son, probably on account of the indulgence of his turn for satire."—WALTER SCOTT, p. 22. See also MALONE, p. 16.

11 I read Plutarch in the library of Trinity College in Cambridge, to which foundation I gratefully acknowledge a great part of my education.--DRYDEN.

12 To Mr. Ralph Rawson, lately Fellow of Brasen Nose College.

Though I of Cambridge was, and far above
Your mother Oxford did my Cambridge love,
I those affections (for your sake) remove,
And above Cambridge now do Oxford love.

Sir Aston COKAINE's Poems, 1658. 13 He had appeared before this as a poet a second time, by some commendatory verses prefixed, in 1650, to the ‘Poems of John Hoddesdon.'.... “ After residing seven years at Cambridge, about the middle of the year 1657 he removed to London.”-MALONE, p. 26.

« PreviousContinue »