« PreviousContinue »
The epitaph makes him forty-six years old: if Wood's account be right, he died in 1709.
He is known more by his familiarity with greater men, than by any thing done or written by himself.
His works are not numerous. In prose he wrote Eugenia, a defence of women; which Dryden honoured with a Preface.
Esculapius, or the Hospital of Fools, published after his death.
A collection of Letters and Poems, amorous and gallant, was published in the volumes called Dryden's Miscellany, and some other occasional pieces.
To his Poems and Letters is prefixed a very judicious preface upon Epistolary Composition and Amorous Poetry.
In his Golden Age restored, there was something of humour, while the facts were recent; but it now strikes no longer. In his imitation of Horace, the first stanzas are happily turned, and in all his writings there are pleasing passages. He has however more elegance than vigour, and seldom rises higher than to be pretty.'
DR Y DE N.
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 Aldwincle near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden of Tichmersh; who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Baroner, of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire; but the original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon.
He is reported by his last biographer, Derrick, to have inherited from his father 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 bis necessities. But though he had many enemies, who undoubtedly examined his life with a scrutiny sufficiently malicious, I do not remember that he 13 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 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 small-pox; and his poet has made of the pustules first rosebuds, and then gems; at last exaits them into stars; and says,
* He went når te Trinity College, anti was adın itted to 3 Batchelor's Degree in 16-3. 11.
please, and who perhaps knew that by his dexterity of versification he was more likely to excel others in rhyme than without it, very readily adopted his master's preference. He therefore made rhyming tragedies, till, by the prevalence of manifest propriety, he seems to have grown ashamed of making them any longer.
To this play is prefixed a very vehement defence of dramatick rhyme, in confutation of the preface to the Duke of Lerma, in which Sir Robert Howard had censured it.
In 1667 he published Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Wonders, which may be esteemed one of his most elaborate works.
It is addressed to Sir Robert Howard by a letter, which is not properly a dedication ; and, writing to a poet, he has interspersed many critical observations, of which some are common, and some perhaps ventured without much consideration. He began, even now, to exercise the domination of conscious genius, by recommending his own performance: “I am satisfied that as the “ Prince and General (Rupert and Monk] are incomparably the best subjects “ I ever had, so what I have written on them is much better than what I " bave performed on any other. As I have endeavcured to adorn my poem “ vith noble thoughts, so much more to express those thoughts with of6 elocution.”
It is written in quatrains, or heroick stanzas of four lines : a measure which he had learned from the Gondibert of Davenant, and which he then thought the most majestick that the English language affords. Of this stanza he mentions the encumbrances, encreased as they were ty the exactness which the age required. It was, throughout his life, very much his custom to recommend his works, by representation of the dificulties that he had encountered, without appearing to have suficiently considered, that where there is no difficulty there is no praise.
There seems to be in the conduct of Sir Robert Ioward and Dryden towards each other, something that is not now easily to be explained. Dryden, in his dedication to the earl of Orrery, had defended dramarick rhyme; and Howard, in the preface to a collection of plays, had censured his opinion. Dryden vindicated himself in his Dialogue on Dramatick Poetry; Howard, in his preface to the Duke of Lerma, animadverted on the Vindication; ard Dryden, in a Preface to the Indian Emperor, replied to the Animadversions with greai asperity, and almost with contumely. The dedication to this play is ciated the year in which the Annus Mirabilis was published. Here appears a strange inconsistency; but Langbaine affords some help, by relating that the answer to Howard was not published in the first edition of the play, but was added when it was afterwards re-printed; and as the Duke of Lerma did not appear till 1668, the same ycar in which the dialogue was published, there was time enough for enmity to grow up berween authors, who, writing hoth for the theatre, were naturally rivals.
He was now so much distinguished, that in 1668 he succeeded Sir William Davenant as poet-laureat. The salary of the laureat had been raised in favour of Jonson, by Charles the First, from an hundred marks to one hundred pounds a year, and a tierce of wine ; a revenue in those days not inadequate to the conveniences of life.
The same year he published his Essay on Dramatick Poetry, an elegant and instructive dialogue, in which we are told by Prior, that the principal character is meant to represent the dake of Dorset. This work seems to have given Addison a model for his Dialogues upon Medals.
Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen, (1639) is a tragi-comedy. In the preface he discusses a curious question, whether a poet can judge well of his own productions? and determines very justly, that, of the plan and disposition, and all that can be reduced to principles of science, the author may depend upon his own opinions ; but that, in those parts where fancy predominates, self-love may easily deceive. He might have observed, that wlrar is good only because it pleases, cannot be pronounced good till it has been found to please.
Sir Martin Marr-all (1668) is a comedy, published without preface or dedication, and at first without the name of the author. Langbaine charges it, like most of the rest, with plagiarism ; and observes that the song is translated from Voiture, allowing however that both the sense and measure are exactly observed.
The Tempest (1670) is an alteration of Shakspeare's play, made by Dryden in conjunction with Davenant, “ whom,” says he, “ I found of so quick a “ fancy, that nothing was proposed to him in which he could not suddenly
produce a thought extremely pleasant and surprising; and those first " thoughts of bis, contrary to the Latin proverb, were not always the least
happy, and as his fancy was quick, so likewise were the products of it remote and new.
He borrowed not of any other, and his imaginations were such as could not easily enter into any other man." The effect produced by the conjunction of these two powerful minds was, that to Shakspeare's monster Caliban is added a sister-monster Sycorax; and a woman, who, in the original play, had never seen a man, is in this brought acquainted with a man that had never seen a woman.
About this time, in 1673, Dryden seems to have had his quiet much disturbed by the success of the Empress of Morocco, a tragedy written in rhyme by Elkanah Settle; which was so much applauded, as to make him think his supremacy of reputation in some danger. Settle had not only been prosperous on the stage, but, in the confidence of success, had published bis play, with sculptures and a preface of defiance. Here was one offence added to another; and, for the last blast of inflammation, it was acted at Whitehall by the court-ladies.
Dryden could not now repress these emotions, which he called indignation, and others jealousy ; but wrote upon the play and the dedication such sriticism as malignant impatience could pour out in haste.
of Settle he gives this character. 56. He's an animal of a most depicted “ understanding, without conversation. His being is in a twilight of sepse, “ and some glimmerings of thought, which he can never fashion into wit or “ English. His style is boisterous and rough-hewn, his rhymne incorrigibly « lewd, and his numbers perputually harsh and ill-sounding. The little talent “ which he has, is fancy. He sometimes labours with a thought; but with “ the pudder he makes to bring it into the world, 'tis commonly still-born; “ so that for want of learning and elocution, he will never be able to express
any thing either naturally or justly !"
This is not very decent ; yet this is one of the pages in which criticism prevails over brutal fury. He proceeds: “ He has a heavy hand at fools, and a great “ felicity in writing nonsense for them. Fools they will be in spite of “ him. His King, his two empresses, his villain, and his sub-villain, nay “ his hero, have all a certain natural cast of the father-their folly was born es and bred in them, and something of the Elkanah will be visible.”
This is Dryden's general declamation ; I will not withold from the reader a particular remark. Having gone through the first act, he says, “ To conclude as this act with the most rumbling piece of nonsense spoken yet,
" To flattering lightning our feign’d smiles conform,
« Which back'd with thunder do but gild a storm.” “ Conform a smile to lightning, make a smile imitate lightning, and flattering light“ ning : lightning sure is a threatning thing... And this lightning must gild a
storm. Now if I must conform by smiles to lightning, then my smiles must “ gild a storm too: to gild with smiles is a new invention of gilding. And “ gild a storm by being backed with thunder. Thunder is part of the storm; «« so one part of the storm must help to gild another part, and help by backing; « as if a man would guild a thing the better for being backed, or having a « load
his back. So that here is gilding by conforming, smiling, lightning, “ backing, and thundering. The whole is as if I should say thus, I will make my « counterfeit smiles look like a flattering stone-horse, which, being backed “ with a trooper, does but gild the battle. I am mistaken if nonsense is not " here pretty thick sown. Sure the poet writ these two lines aboard some * smack in a storm, and being sea-sick, spewed up a good lump of clotted nonsense at once.”
Here is perhaps a sufficient specimen ; but as the pamphlet, though Dryden's has never been thought worthy of republication, and is not easily to be found, it may gratify curiosity to quote it more largely,
Whene'er she bleeds,
Than the infection that attends that breath. “ That attends that breath-The poet is at breath again ; breath can never escape him; and here he brings in a breath that must be infectious with