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guage is very illustriously displayed in our poetical translations of ancient writers; a work which the French seem to relinquish in despair, and which we were long unable to perform with dexterity. Ben Jonson thought it necessary to copy Horace almost word by word; Feltham, his contemporary and adversary, considers it as indispensably requisite in a translation to give line for line. It is said that Sandys, whom Dryden calls the best versifier of the last age, has struggled hard to comprise every book of the English "Metanorphoses" in the same number of verses with the original. Holiday had nothing in view but to show that he understood his author, with so little regard to the grandeur of his diction, or the volubility of his numbers, that his metres can hardly be called verses; they cannot be read without reluctance, nor will the labour always be rewarded by understanding them. Cowley saw that such copiers were a servile race: he asserted his liberty, and spread his wings so boldly that he left his authors. It was reserved for Dryden to fix the limits of poetical liberty, and give us just rules and examples of translation.
When languages are formed upon different principles, it is impossible that the same modes of expression should always be elegant in both. While they run on together, the closest translation may be considered as the best; but when they divaricate, each must take its natural course. Where correspondence cannot be obtained, it is necessary to be content with something equivalent. "Translation, therefore," says Dryden, "is not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase.'
All polished languages have different styles; the concise, the diffuse, the lofty, and the humble. In the proper choice of style consists the resemblance which Dryden principally exacts from the translator. He is to exhibit his author's thoughts in such a dress of diction as the author would have given them, had his language been English: rugged magnificence is not to be softened; hyperbolical ostentation is not to be repressed; nor sententious affectation to have its point blunted. A translator is to be like his author; it is not his business to excel him. The reasonableness of these rules seems sufficient for the vindication; and the effects produced by observing them were so happy, that I know not whether they were ever opposed but by Sir Edward Sherburne, a man whose learning was greater than his powers of poetry, and who, being better qualified to give the meaning than the spirit of Seneca, has introduced his version of three tragedies by a defence of close translation. The authority of Horace which the new translators cited in defence of their practice, he has, by a judicious explanation, taken fairly from them; but reason wants not Horace to support it
It seldom happens that all the necessary causes concur to any great effect: will is wanting to power, or power to will, or both are impeded by external obstructions. The exigencies in which Dryden was condemned to pass his life are reasonably supposed to have blasted his genius, to have driven out his works in a state or immaturity, and to have intercepted the fullblown elegance which longer growth would have supplied.
Poverty, like other rigid powers, is sometimes too hastily accused. If the excellence of Dryden's works was lessened by his indigence, their number was increased: and I know not how it will be proved, that if he had written less he would have written better; or that indeed he would have undergone the toil of an author, if he had not been solicited by something more pressing than the love of praise.
But, as is said by his "Sebastian,"
What had been, is unknown; what is, appears.
We know that Dryden's several productions were so many successive expedients for his support; his plays were therefore often borrowed; and his poems were almost all occasional.
In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with acquisitions. He whose work is general and arbitrary has the choice of his matter, and takes that which his inclination and his studies have best qualified him to display and decorate. He is at liberty to delay his publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself, till he has reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination, and polished away those faults which the precipitance of ardent composition is likely to leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of lines in the morning, and to have passed the day ir reducing them to fewer.
The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject. Whatever can happen to man has happened so often that little remains for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the public has an interest; and what happens to them, of good or evil, the poets have always considered a business for the Muse.
But after so many inauguratory gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly favoured by nature, or by fortune, who says any thing not said before. Even war and conquest, however splendid, suggest no new images; the triumphant chariot of a victorious monarch can be decked only with those ornaments that have graced his prede
Not only matter but time is wanting. The poem must not be delayed till the occasion is forgotten. The lucky moments of animated imagination cannot be attended; elegances and illustrations cannot be multiplied by gradual accumulation; the composition must be despatched, while conversation is yet busy, and admiration fresh; and haste is to be made, lest some other event should lay hold upon mankind.
Occasional compositions may however secure to a writer the praise both of learning and facility; for they cannot be the effect of long study, and must be furnished immediately from the treasures of the mind.
The death of Cromwell was the first public event which called forth Dryden's poetical powers. His heroic stanzas have beauties and defects; the thoughts are vigorous, and, though not always proper, show a mind replete with ideas; the numbers are smooth; and the diction, if not altogether correct, is elegant and easy.
Davenant was perhaps at this time his favourite author, though "Gondibert" never appears to have been popular; and from Davenant he learned to please his ear with the stanza of four lines alternately rhymed.
Dryden very early formed his versification; there are in this early production no traces of Donne's or Jonson's ruggedness; but he did not
so soon free his mind from the ambition of forced conceits. In his verses on the Restoration, he says of the King's exile,
Well might the ancient poets then confer,
We light alone in dark afflictions find.
His praise of Monk's dexterity comprises such a cluster of thoughts unallied to one another, as will not elsewhere be easily found:
'Twas Monk, whom Providence design'd to
Those real bonds false freedom did impose.
How hard was then his task, at once to be
The charge of muscles, nerves, and of the brain,
Deaf to complaints they wait upon the ill,
With Alga who the sacred altar strows?
Prayer storm'd the skies, and ravish'd Charles from thence,
As heav'n itself is took by violence.
And afterwards mentions one of the most awful passages of Sacred History.
Other conceits there are, too curious to be quite omitted; as,
For, by example most we sinn'd before,
How far he was yet from thinking it necessary to found his sentiments on nature, appears from the extravagance of his fictions and hyperboles :
The winds, that never moderation knew,
It is no longer motion cheats your view;
I know not whether this fancy, however little be its value, was not borrowed. A French poet read to Malherbe some verses, in which he represents France as moving out of its place to receive the King. "Though this," said Malherbe," was in my time, I do not remember it."
His poem on the "Coronation" has a more even tenor of thought. Some lines deserve to be quoted.
You have already quench'd sedition's brand;
The jealous sects that durst not trust their cause,
Here may be found one particle of that old versification, of which, I believe, in all his works, there is not another:
Nor is it duty, or our hope alone,
In the verses to the Lord Chancellor Clarendon, two years afterwards, is a conceit so hopeless at the first view, that few would have attempted it; and so successfuly laboured, that though at last it gives the reader more perplexity than pleasure, and seems hardly worth the study that it costs, yet must be valued as a proof of a mind at once subtle and comprehensive:
In open prospect nothing bounds our eye,
Let envy then those crimes within you see,
The joy and the revenge of ruin'd pride.
Into this poem he seems to have collected all his powers; and after this he did not often bring upon his anvil such stubborn and unmalleable thoughts; but, as a specimen of his abilities to unite the most unsociable matter, he has concluded with lines, of which I think not myself obliged to tell the meaning:
Yet unimpair'd with labours, or with time,
In the "Annus Mirabilis" he returned to the quatrain, which from that time he totally quitted, perhaps from experience of its inconThat though your orbs of different greatness be, vience, for he complains of its difficulty. This
Yet both are for each other's use disposed,
And as the Indies were not found before
is one of his greatest attempts. He had subjects equal to his abilities, a great naval war, and the fire of London. Battles have always been described in heroic poetry; but a sea-fight and artillery had yet something of novelty. New arts are long in the world before poets describe them; for they borrow every thing from their predecessors, and commonly derive
Whose guilty sweetness first their world betray'd; very little from nature or from life.
So by your counsels we are brought to view
There is another comparison, for there is little else in the poem, of which, though perhaps it cannot be explained into plain prosaic meaning, the mind perceives enough to be delighted, and readily forgives its obscurity for its magnificence:
How strangely active are the arts of peace,
To this succeed four lines, which perhaps afford Dryden's first attempt at those penetrating remarks on human nature, for which he seems to have been peculiarly formed:
was the first French writer that had ever hazarded in verse the mention of modern war, or the effects of gunpowder. We, who are less afraid of novelty, had already possession of those dreadful images. Waller had described a sea-fight. Milton had not yet transferred the invention of fire-arms to the rebellious angels.
This poem is written with great diligence, yet does not fully answer the expectation raised by such subjects and such a writer. With the stanza of Davenant he has sometimes his vein of parenthesis and incidental disquisition, and stops his narrative for a wise remark.
The general fault is, that he affords more sentiment than description, and does not so much impress scenes upon the fancy, as deduce consequences and make comparisons.
The initial stanzas have rather too much resemblance to the first lines of Waller's poem on the war with Spain; perhaps such a beginning is natural, and could not be avoided without Both Waller and Dryden might affectation. take their hint from the poem on the civil war of Rome, "Orbem jam totum," &c.
Of the King collecting his navy, he says,
Their way-laid wealth to Norway's coast they priated terms of art should be sunk in general
Then first the North's cold bosom spices bore, And Winter brooded on the Eastern Spring.
By the rich scent we found our perfumed prey,
Fiercer than cannon, and than rocks more hard,
These fight like husbands, but like lovers those;
Amidst whole heaps of spices lights a ball,
And now their odours arm'd against them fly;
And, though by tempests of the prize bereft,
And only yielded to the seas and wind.
In this manner is the sublime too often mingled with the ridiculous. The Dutch seek a shelter for a wealthy fleet: this surely needed no illustration; yet they must fly, not like all the rest of mankind on the same occasion, but "like hunted castors;" and they might with strict propriety be hunted; for we winded them by our their perfumes betrayed them. The husband and the lover, though of more dignity than the castor, are images too domestic to
expressions, because poetry is to speak a universal language. This rule is still stronger with regard to arts not liberal, or confined to few; and therefore far removed from common knowledge; and of this kind, certainly, is technical navigation. Yet Dryden was of opinion, that a sea-fight ought to be described in the nautical language; "and certainly," says he, "as those, who in a logical disputation keep to general terms, would hide a fallacy, so those who do it in poetical description would veil their ignorance."
Let us then appeal to experience: for by experience at last we learn as well what will please as what will profit. In the battle, his terms seem to have been blown away; but he deals them liberally in the dock:
So here some pick out bullets from the side,
With boiling pitch another near at hand
(From friendly Sweden brought) the seams instops;
Which, well laid o'er, the salt-sea waves withstand, And shake them from the rising beak in drops.
Some the gall'd ropes with dauby marling bind,
Or sear-cloth masts with strong tarpawling coats: To try new shrouds one mounts into the wind, And one below their ease or stiffness notes.
I suppose there is not one term which every reader does not wish away.
His digression to the original and progress of
navigation, with his prospect of the advancement which it shall receive from the Royal Sooiety, then newly instituted, may be considered as an example seldom equalled of seasonable excursion and artful return.
One line, however, leaves me discontented; he says, that, by the help of the philosophers,
Instructed ships shall sail to quick commerce,
Which he is constrained to explain in a note "by a more exact measure of longitude." It had better become Dryden's learning and genius to have laboured science into poetry, and have shown, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.
His description of the fire is painted by resolute meditation, out of a mind better formed to reason than to feel. The conflagration of a city, with all its tumults of concomitant distress, is one of the most dreadful spectacles which this world can offer to human eyes; yet it seems to raise little emotion in the breast of the poet; he watches the flame coolly from street to street, with now a reflection, and now a simile, till at last he meets the King, for whom he makes a speech, rather tedious in a time so busy; and then follows again the progress of the fire.
There are, however, in this part some passages that deserve attention; as in the beginning;
The diligence of trades and noiseful gain,
And luxury, more late, asleep were laid! All was the Night's, and in her silent reign No sound the rest of Nature did invade In this deep quiet
The expression "All was the Night's," is taken from Seneca, who remarks on Virgil's line,
Omnia noctis erant, placida composta quiete, that he might have concluded better,
Omnia noctis erant.
The following quatrain is vigorous and animated:
. The ghosts of traitors from the bridge descend
And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice. His prediction of the improvements which shall be made in the new city is elegant and poetical, and with an event which poets cannot always boast has been happily verified. The poem concludes with a simile that might have better been omitted.
Dryden, when he wrote this poem, seems not yet fully to have formed his versification, or settled his system of propriety.
From this time he addicted himself almost wholly to the stage, "to which," says he, "my genius never much inclined me," merely as the most profitable market for poetry. By writing tragedies in rhyme, he continued to improve his diction and his numbers. According to the opinion of Harte, who had studied his works with great attention, he settled his principles of versification in 1676, when he produced the play of "Aureng Zebe;" and, according to his own account of the short time in which he wrote "Tyrannic Love," and "The State of Innocence," he soon obtained the full effect of diligence, and added facility to exactness.
Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre, that we know not its effects upon the passions of an audience: but it has this convenience, that sentences stand more independent on each other, and striking passages are therefore easily selected and retained. Thus the description of night in “The Indian Emperor," and the rise and fall of empire in "The Conquest of Granada," are more frequently repeated than any lines in "All for Love," or "Don Sebastian."
To search his plays for vigorous sallies and sententious elegances, or to fix the dates of any little pieces which he wrote by chance, or by solicitation, were labour too tedious and minute.
His dramatic labours did not so wholly absorb his thoughts, but that he promulgated the laws of translation in a preface to the English Epistles of Ovid; one of which he translated himself, and another in conjunction with the Earl of Mulgrave.
"Absalom and Achitophel" is a work so well known, that a particular criticism is superfluous. If it be considered as a poem political and controversial, it will be found to comprise all the excellences of which the subject is susceptible; acrimony of censure, elegance of praise, artful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy turns of language, and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English composition.
It is not, however, without faults; some lines are inelegant or improper, and too many are irreligiously licentious. The original structure of the poem was defective; allegories drawn to great length will always break; Charles could not run continually parallel with David.
The subject had likewise another inconvenience; it admitted little imagery or description; and a long poem of mere sentiments easily becomes tedious; though all the parts are forcible; and every line kindles new rapture, the reader, if not relieved by the interposition of something that soothes the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.