Page images
PDF
EPUB

minds as Dryden's, contempt for their predecessors and a genuine preference of their sorry foreign models to Shakespeare. The revolution, which they effected in matters of taste may be compared to the contemporary revolution in politics. The Restoration government was a sad decline

[ocr errors]

from the wise and sturdy sway of Cromwell. Nevertheless the English nation accepted and maintained it as the best arrangement which the circumstances of the time admitted. So the new style in literature was universally accepted because the old style was for a time effete; because tasks had been imposed and needs had arisen to which it was unable to respond; because, in short, a prosaic age craved a prosaic literature. We look, therefore, on the Restoration period as anything but an ideal epoch, but at the same time as a most momentous one; as one to which we are indebted for much of our present command over the resources of our language; and to which Britain owes very much of her present power over the world. Acquaintance with its leading representatives also proves that, if less picturesque figures than their predecessors, they were not inferior in mental power. And, although the age is justly regarded as in the main an age of prose; yet, as poets respond most readily to the influences of their time, and are usually in the van of intellectual revolutions, so the leading figure in the literary history even of this epoch of prose is a poet-Dryden, doubtless the most prosaic of all our great poets, but inferior to none in intellectual force and one whose poverty and pliability made him the mirror of the less worthy tendencies of his time on the one hand, while his higher aspirations and the force of his genius rendered him no less the representative of its better qualities on the other. With Dryden, therefore, we commence our survey.

;

CHAPTER I.

JOHN DRYDEN AS A POET.

John DRYDEN was born August 9, 1631, at Aldwinkle All Saints, between Thrapston and Oundle, in Northamptonshire. He was the grandson of Sir Erasmus Dryden, baronet, of Canons Ashby, in the same county; and his father possessed a small landed property, which he transmitted to the poet. Dryden maintained a connection with his native county all his life, but it was never close; of the rest of the world, outside London and Cambridge, he only occasionally saw anything. Few of our great writers have been so thoroughly identified with the metropolis, of which he became an inhabitant at an early age by his entry at Westminster School, the precise date of which is unknown. Locke and South were among his schoolfellows. He must have distinguished himself, having been elected to Cambridge in 1650. Before leaving Westminster he had made his first appearance as an author by the publication of a copy of verses on the death from small-pox of his schoolfellow Lord Hastings, an unintentional reductio ad absurdum of the reigning fashion of extravagant conceits in the style of Marino and Gongora. This composition, otherwise worthless, foreshadows in a manner the whole of Dryden's

He was not one of the writers who themselves form the taste by which they are ultimately judged, but rather one of those who achieve fame by doing best

career.

L

[ocr errors]

1

what all desire to be done... the representatives of their age, not its reformers. Little is known of his career at Cambridge except that he was on one occasion discommoned and gated' for some irregularity, that he took his degree in 1654, and, though obtaining no fellowship, continued to reside until about 1657, when he removed to London, with what precise plans or expectations is un. certain. The general knowledge displayed in his critical writings (he scarcely ever, says Johnson, appears to want book-learning but when he mentions books) justifies the conclusion that his time had been employed in study: how greatly his mind had matured was attested by his verses on the death of Cromwell (1658), which, if disfigured by some conceits, exhibit a more sustained elevation than any contemporary except Milton or Marvell could have attained. They were rivalled by his congratulatory verses on the Restoration (1660), which naturally exposed him to the reproach of inconsistency, but, as Johnson remarks, If he changed, he changed with the nation.' There can, indeed, be no doubt that the establishment of a settled government was approved by the good sense as well as by the loyalty of the country, and although circumstances were to make Dryden the most formidable of political controversialists upon paper, his temperament was not that of a polemic, and, save when he had committed himself too far to retreat, he was always ready to acquiesce in what com. mended itself to the general sentiment of his countrymen. The Restoration was also a joyful event to men of letters, if for no other reason than that it re-opened the stage,

· He was an ungrateful son of his alma mater, having pointedly declared his preference for Oxford. Perhaps this disloyalty may be connected with the appearance at Cambridge of a pamphlet against him, in the form of a mock defence against “ the censure of the Rota,” in the same year (1673).

a

which, while as yet the periodical press was not, afforded the best market and the readiest opportunity for literary talent. Dryden is said to have had a play ready soon after the Restoration, and it is difficult to understand, except from a certain inertness in his constitution, ever most readily responsive to the spur of necessity, why he should have so long delayed his appearance as a dramatist. The determining motive may ultimately have been his marriage (not, apparently, à very fortunate one) to Lady Elizabeth Howard, eldest daughter of the Earl of Berkshire, in December, 1663; for in that year he produced his first play, The Wild Gallant, and from that time we find him, for many years, sedulously at work to earn money by a description of literary activity notoriously uncongenial to him. Only one of his numerous plays, he tells us, was written to please himself. The long list includes, The Indian Emperor (1665), in which, instead of reforming the weak blank verse of his day, which would have been a most important service, he fell in with the prevalent fashion of rhymed tragedy; Tyrannic Love (1669), and The Conquest of Granada (1672), in which he carries rhymed bombast as far as it would go, but at the same time displays surprising energy and vigour; Aurengzebe (1675.), also a rhyming play, but a great improvement; All for Love (1678), and Don Sebastian (1690), examples of a purer taste; and The Spanish Friar (1683), and Amphitryon (1690), his best comedies. These pieces, the chief landmarks of his dramatic career, will be subsequently considered.

Returning to the incidents of Dryden's life, we find little to chronicle for several years except the births of three children, his elevation to the laureateship in 1670, and various literary controversies of no interest at this day except as they served to call forth the admirable critical prefaces by which he did more for English prose style than his poetry was at that time effecting for English

It is remarkable how late his genius flowered, and how long he was in discovering his proper path. He might never have found it at all but for the accidental coincidence of the political controversies of his time with his official position as poet laureate. This seemed to impose on Dryden the duty of coming to the assistance of the Court, and his recognition of the obligation produced (1681) Absalom and Achitophel, which at once gave him the distinction of the greatest satirist our literature had yet produced, the most consummate artist in the heroic couplet, and the most cogent reasoner in rhyme. The Medal, occasioned by a medal struck by the City in honour of the failure of the indictment of Shaftesbury, was suggested as the subject of a poem by Charles II. The fact has been doubted, and does not rest upon very strong external authority, but is confirmed by a letter from Dryden to the Treasurer, Hyde, now in the British Museum, shown by internal evidence to have been written after the publication of Absalom and Achitophel, and consequently after the striking of the medal on occasion of Shaftesbury's acquittal. In this, after speaking of bis expense in the education of his children, complaining of the irregular receipt of his pension, and remarking that even a quarter in advance ‘is but the Jesuits' powder to my disease, the fit will return a fortnight hence,' he adds, 'I am going to write somewhat by his Majesty's command, and cannot stir into the country for my health and studies till I secure my family from want.' This can hardly have been anything but The Medal. The appeal, after some delay,

verse,

34

1 Malone thinks that it was the translation of The History of the League, but Dryden can have hardly deemed country retirement necessary for a work of this nature.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »