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Shakspeare's serpents liavc eaten bis up in time, and tin-
retribution is just, but the credit of the original feat is
hardly the less for that. In short, all, or almost all, Drv-
den's dramatic work is a tour dc force, but then it is such
a tour deforce as the world has hardly elsewhere seen, lie
was " bade to toil on to make them sport," and he obeyed
the bidding with perhaps less reluctance than he should
have shown. But he managed, as genius always does
manage, to turn the hack-work into a possession for evsr
here and there. Unluckily it was only here and there,
and no more can be claimed for it by any rational critic.

The subject of Dryden's prose work is intimately con-
nected with that of his dramatic performances. Had it
not been for the interest he felt in matters dramatic, he
might never have ventured into anything longer than a

/ e5 ~

preface ; and his prefaces would certainly have lacked the
remarkable interest in the history of style and in the his-
tory of criticism which they now possess. At the time
when he first began t*o write, the accepted prose style of
English was in much greater need of reform and reinforce-
ment than the accepted poetical style ; or, to speak more
properly, there was no accepted prose style at all. Great
masters - - Bacon, Hooker, Clarendon, Milton, Taylor,
Hobbes, Bunyan, and some others may be quoted from
the first two-thirds of the seventeenth century ; but their

w '

excellences, like the excellences of the writers of French
prose somewhat earlier, were almost wholly individual, and
provided in no way a model whereby the average writer
might form himself for average purposes. Now, prose is
above all things the instrument of the average purpose.
Poetry is more or less intolerable if it be not intrinsical-
ly and peculiarly good ; prose is the necessary vehicle of
thought. Up to Dryden's time no such generally avail-
I G* 9



able vehicle had been attempted or achieved by any one.
('lareii'lon had shown how genius can make the best of
the \\(.r>t style, whirh from any general point of view his
mu>t probably be pronounced to be. In his hands it is
alternately delightful or tolerable; in the hands of any-

. O

l.o.K else it would be simply frightful. His parentheses,
his asides, his endless involutions of phrase and thought,
>ave themselves as if by miracle, and certainly could not be
trusted so to save themselves in any less favoured hands.
Uacon and Hooker, the former in an ornate, the latter in a
-imple style, reproduce classical constructions and forms in
English. Taylor and Milton write poetry in prose. Quaint-
ness and picturesque matter justify, and more than justify,
Fuller and Browne. Bunyan puts the vernacular into print
with a sublime assurance and success. Hobbes, casting off
all ornament and all pretence of ornament, clothes his naked
strength in the simplest garment of words competent to
cover its nakedness. But none of these had elaborated, or
aimed at elaborating, a style suited *for every-day use for
the essayist and the pamphleteer, the preacher and the lay
orator, the historian and the critic. This was what Dry-
den did with little assistance from any forerunner, if it were
not Tillotson, to whom, as we know from Congreve, he ac-
knowledged his indebtedness. But Tillotson was not a
much older man than Dryden himself, and at least when
the latter bewail to write prose, his work was neither bulky
nor particularly famous. Nor in reading Tillotson, though
it i-> elear that he and Dryden were in some sort working
<>n the same lines, is it possible to trace much indebtedness
"ii the part of the poet. The sometime archbishop's ser-
m ins are excellent in their combination of simplicity with
a certain grace, but they are much less remarkable than
Dry !< -n'> own work for the union of the two. The oreat


fault of tlie elders had been, first, the inordinate length of
their sentences; secondly and this was rather a cause of


the first fault than an additional error their indulgence


in parenthetic quotations, borrowed arguments, and other
strengthen ers of the position of the man who has to rely
on authority ; thirdly, the danger to which they were al-
ways exposed, of slipping- into clumsy classicisms on one
side, or inelegant vernacular on the other. Dryden avoid-
ed all these faults, though his avoidance was not a matter
of a day or a year, nor was it, as far as can be made out,
altogether an avoidance of malice prepense. Accident fa-
voured hiu> in exactly the reverse way to that in which it
had favoured the reformer of French prose half a century
or so before. Balzac had nothing to say. and therefore was
extremely careful and exquisite in his manner of saying it.
Dryden had a great deal to say, and said it in the plain,
straightforward fashion which was of all things most likely
to be useful for the formation of a workman-like prose
style in English.

The influences of the post-Restoration period which, by
their working, produced the splendid variety and efficiency
of prose in the eighteenth century the century, par excel-
lence, of prose in English were naturally numerous; but
there were four which had an influence far surpassing that
of the rest. These four were the influences of the pul-
pit, of political discussion, of miscellaneous writing partly
fictitious, partly discursive and lastly, of literary criticism.
In this last Dryden himself was the great authority of the
period, and for many years it was in this form that he at
once exercised himself and educated his age in the matter
of prose writing. Accident and the circumstances of the
time helped to give him a considerable audience, and an
influence of great width, the critical spirit being extensive-

1 -j i PRYDFA. [CHAP.

Iv diffused at tlie time. This critical spirit was to a great
extent ;i reflection of that which, beginning with Malhcrbe,
ami eoiitinuino' with the institution and reinilation of the


Aeademv, had for some time been remarkable in France.
N.'t loti"- after the Restoration one of the subtlest and


most accomplished of all French critics took up his resi-
dence in England, and gave further impulse to the fashion
which Charles himself and many other cavaliers had al-
ivadv picked up. Saint Evremond lived in England for
some forty years, and during the greater part of that time
was an oracle of the younger men of wit and pleasure
about London. Now Saint Evremond was a remarkable
instance of that rare animal, the born critic ; even nowa-
days his critical dicta are worthy of all attention. He had
a kind of critical intuition, which is to be paralleled only
by the historical and scientific intuition which some of the
greatest historians and men of science have had. With
national and characteristic indolence he never gave himself
the trouble to learn English properly, and it is doubtful
whether he could have read a single English play. Yet
his critical remarks on some English poets, not borrowed
from his friends, but constructed from their remarks, as a
clever counsel would construct a pleading out of the infor-
mation furnished him, are extraordinarily acute and accu-
rate. The relish for literary discussion which Saint Evre-
mond shows was no peculiarity of his, though he had it in
super-eminent measure. It was fashionable in France, and
he helped to make it fashionable in England.

1 have seen this style of criticism dismissed contempt-
uously as "trifling;" but this is only an instance of the
strange power of reaction. Because for many years the
plan of criticising by rule and line was almost exclusively
pursued, and, as happens in the case of almost all exclusive


pursuits, was followed too far, it seems to some people
nowadays, that criticism ought to be confined to the ex-
pression, in more or less elegant language, of the feelings
of admiration or dislike which the subject criticised may
excite in the critic's mind. The critic ought to give this
impression, but he ought not to Ieav 7 e the other task nnat-
tempted, and the result of leaving it unattempted is to be
found in the loose and haphazard judgments which now
too often compose what is called criticism. The criticism
of the Gallic School, which Drychm and Saint Evremond
helped so much to naturalize in England, was at least not
afraid of giving a reason for the faith that was in it. The
critics strove to examine the abstract value of this or that
literary form, the propriety of this or that mode of expres-
sion, the limits to be imposed on the choice and disposition
of this or that subject. No doubt this often resulted in
looking merely at the stopwatch, as Sterne's famous phrase
has it. But it often resulted in something better, and it
at least produced something like reasonable uniformity of

Dryden's criticisms took, as a rule, the form of prefaces
to his plays, and the reading of the play ensured, to some
considerable extent, the reading of the preface. Probably
the pattern may be found in Corneille's Examens. Nor
must it be forgotten that the questions attacked in these
disquisitions were of real interest at the time to a large
number of persons; to a very much larger number rela-
tively, perhaps even to a much larger number absolutely,
than would now be the case. The first instance of a con-
siderable piece of prose written by Dryden was not, indeed,
a preface, though it was of the nature of one. The Essay
on Dramatic Poesy was written, according to its own show-
ing, in the summer of 1665, and published two or three


years later. It takes the form of a dialogue between in-
trrl.M-ntors, who are sufficiently identified with Dorset, Sed-
Irv, Sir Robert Howard, and Dry den himself. The argu-
ment turns on various questions of comparison between
da i'-al French and English dramas, and especially between
P^nglish dramas of the old and of the newer type, the lat-
ter of which Drvden defends. It is noticeable, however,


that this \vrv essay contained one of the best worded and
best thought-out of the author's many panegyrics upon
Shakspeare. Viewed sinfply from the point of view of style
this performance exhibits Dryden as already a considerable
master of prose, though, so far as we know, he had had no
practice in it beyond a few Prefaces and Dedications, if
we except the unacknowledged hackwork which he is some-
times said to have performed for the bookseller Herring-
man. There is still something of the older, length v sen-

Cj O v

tence, and of the tendency to elongate it by joint on joint
as fresh thoughts recur to the writer. But these elono-a-


tions rarely sacrifice clearness, and there is an almost total
absence, on the one hand, of the cumbrous classical con-
structions of the elders ; on the other, of the quaint collo-
quialisms which generally make their appearance when this
more ambitious style is discarded. The Essay w T as quickly
followed by a kind of reply from Sir Robert Howard, and
Dryden made a somewhat sharp rejoinder to his brother-
in-law in the defence of the Essay which he prefixed to his
play of The Indian Emperor. He was evidently very an-
gry with Sir Robert, who had, indeed, somewhat justified
ShadwelTs caricature of him as " Sir Positive At-All ;" and
this anger is not without effects on the style of the de-


t- nee. It- -cntcnccs are sharper, shorter, more briskly and
flippantly moulded than those of the Essay. Indeed, about
this time- -the time of his greatest prosperity Dryden


seems to have passed, somewhat late in life, through a pe-
riod of flippancy. He was for a few years decidedly pros-
perous, and his familiarity with men of rank and position
seems a little to have turned his head. It was at this time,
and at this time only, that he spoke disrespectfully of his
great predecessors, and insinuated, in a manner which, I
fear, must be called snobbish, that his own familiarity with


such models of taste and deportment as Rochester put him
in a very superior position for the drawing of character
to such humble and home-keeping folks as the old drama-
tists. These prefaces and dedications, however, even where
their matter is scarcely satisfactory, show an ever-growing
command of prose style, and very soon the resipiscence of
Dryden's judgment, and the result of his recently renewed
study of the older writers. The Preface to All for Love,
though short, and more familiar in style than the earlier

o >

work, is of excellent quality ; and the same may be said
of those to Troilus and Cressida and the Spanish Friar,
the latter of which is especially characteristic, and contains
some striking remarks on the old dramatists. The great
poetical works of the period between 1680 and 1687 are
also attended by prose introductions, and some of these
are exceedingly well done. The Epistle to the Whigs,
which forms the preface to the Medal, is a piece of po-
litical writing such as there had been hitherto but very
little in English, and it was admirably followed up by
thc Vindication of the Duke of Guise. On the other
hand, the preface to Religio Laid, though partly also
polemical, is a model of what may be called the exposi-
tory style. Dryden obtained no great credit for his con-
troversy with Stillingfleet, his Life of St. Francis Xavier,
or his History of the League, all of which were directly or
indirectly controversial, and concerned with the political


events of tin- time. As his lengthiest prose works, how-
ever, tln-v ran hardly be passed over without notice.

Tin- Involution, in throwing- Dry den back upon purely
literarv pursuits, did him no more harm in the way of
pne than of poetical composition. Not a few of his
Transitions have prose prefaces of peculiar excellence pre-
tixed. The sketch of Satire which forms the preface to
the Juvenal is one of the best of its author's performances.
The ^Eneid is introduced by an admirable dedication to
Mulgrave ; but the essay on the Georgics, though it is not,
indeed, Dryden's own, is almost more interesting in this
connexion than if it were ; for this essay came from the
pen of no less a person than Addison, then a young man
of five-and-twenty, and it enables us to judge of the in-
debtedness of the Queen Anne men to Dry den, in prose as
well as in poetry. It would be a keen critic who, knowing
Addison only from the Spectator, could detect his hand in
this performance. But it does not require much keenness
in any one who knows Dryden's prose and Addison's, to
trace the link of connexion which this piece affords. It
lies much nearer to the former than the latter, and it
shows clearly how the writer must have studied those-
'prefaces of Dryden" which Swift chose to sneer at. As
in poetry, however, so in prose, Dryden's best, or almost
his best work, was his last. The dedication of the fables
to the Duke of Ormond is the last and the most splendid
of hi- many pieces of polished flattery. The preface which
follows it is the last and one of the best examples of his
literary criticism.

It has been justly observed of Dryden's prose style that
it i<. fur tin' style of so distinguished a writer, singularly

'itute of mannerism. If we father any particular piece
him without knowing it to be his, it is not, as in the


case of most writers, because of some obvious trick of ar-
rangement or phraseology. The truth is, or at least the
probability, that Dryden had no thought of inventing or
practising a definite prose style, though he had more than
once a very definite intention in his practice of matters
poetical. Poetry was with him, as, indeed, it should be,
an end in itself; prose, as perhaps it should also be for
the most part, only a means to an end. He wanted, from
time to time, to express his ideas on certain points that in-
terested him ; to answer accusations which he thought un-

' O

just; to propitiate powerful patrons; sometimes, perhaps,
merely to discharge commissions with which he had been

*/ O

intrusted. He found no good instrument ready to his hand
for these purposes, and so, with that union of the practical
and literary spirit which distinguished him so strongly, he
set to work to make one. But he had no special predi-
lection for the instrument, except in so far as it served its
turn, and he had, therefore, no object in preserving any
special peculiarities in it except for the same reason. His
poetical and dramatic practice, and the studies w T hich that
practice implied, provided him with an ample vocabulary,
a strong, terse method of expression, and a dislike to ar-
chaism, vulgarity, or want of clearness. He therefore let
his words arrange themselves pretty much as they would,
and probably saw no object in such devices as the balanc-
ing of one part of a sentence by another, which attracted
so many of his successors. The long sentence, with its
involved clauses, was contrary to his habit of thought, and
would have interfered with his chief objects clearness and
precision. Therefore he, in the main, discarded it ; yet if
at any time a long and somewhat complicated sentence
seemed to him to be appropriate, he did not hesitate to
write one. Slipshod diction and cant vulgarities revolted


his notions of correctness and elegance, and therefore he
M-ldoin uses them ; yrt there are not very many writers in
whom colloquialisms occasionally occur with happier effect.
If a fault is to be found with his style, it probably lies in
a rrrtain abuse of figures and of quotation, for both of
which his strong tincture of the characteristics of the first


half of the century may be responsible, while the former,
at li-a-t, is natural to a poet. Yet, on the whole, his style,
if compared either with Hooker and Clarendon, Bacon and
Milton, on the one hand, or with Addison, and still more
the later eighteenth century writers, on the other, is a dis-
tinct Iv plain and homely style. It is not so vernacular as
i /

Bunyan or Defoe, and not quite so perfect in simplicity as
Swift. Yet with the work of these three writers it stands
at the head of the plainer English prose styles, possessing
at the same time a capacity of magnificence to which the
others cannot pretend. As there is no original narrative
of any length from Dryden's hand in prose, it is difficult
to say whether he could have discharged satisfactorily this
part of the prose-writers functions. The Life of Xavier
is good, but not of the best. For almost any other func-
tion, however, the style seems to be well adapted.

Now this, it must be remembered, was the great want
of the day in matter of prose style a style, namely, that
should be generally flexible and capable of adaptation, not
meivl\ to the purposes of the erudite and ambitious, but
to any purpose for which it might be required, and in
\\hirh the vernacular and the literary elements should be


properly blended and adjusted. It is scarcely too much
to -ay that, if, as some critics have inclined to think, the
influence of Dryden tended to narrow the sphere and
rrainj. tin- efforts <f English poetry, it tended equally to
large th, ^.h. ro and develope the energies of English


prose. It has often been noticed that poets, when they
have any faculty for prose writing-, are among the best of
prose writers, and of no one is this more true than it is of

Set prose passages of laboured excellence are not very
common with Dryden. But the two following, the first
being the famous character of Shakspeare from the Essay
on Dramatic Poesy, the second an extract from the preface
to the Fables, will give some idea of his style at periods
separated by more than thirty years. The one was his
first work of finished prose, the other his last :

"As Neander was beginning to examine 'The Silent Woman,'
Eugenius, earnestly regarding him ; I beseech you, Neauder, said he,
gratify the company, and me in particular, so far, as before you speak
of the play, to give us a character of the author ; and tell us frankly
your opinion, whether you do not think all writers, both French and
English, ought to give place to him. I fear, replied Neander, that in
obeying your commands I shall draw some envy on myself. Besides,
in performing them, it will be first necessary to speak somewhat of
Shakspeare and Fletcher, his rivals in poesy ; and one of them ,'in my
opinion, at least his equal, perhaps his superior. To begin then with
Shakspeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps an-
cient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the
images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not la-

riously, but luckily ; when he describes anything, you more than
see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learn-
ing, give him the greater commendation : he was naturally learned ;
he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature ; he looked in-
wards, and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike ;
were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest
of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid his comick wit degen-
erating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is
always great when some great occasion is presented to him ; no man
can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise
himself as high above the rest of poets,

'Quantum lenta soleut inter viburua cupressi.'


The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton say, that there was
no suoj.rt of which any poet ever writ but he would produce it much
better done in Shakspeare ; and however others are now generally
preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had con-
t.-mponine- with him, Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to
him in their esteem ; and in the last king's court, when Ben's repu-
tation was at highe.-t, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater
part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him."

" As for the religion of our poet, 1 he seems to have some little bias
towards the opinions of Wickliffe, after John of Gaunt, his patron;
-oinewhat of which appears in the ' Tale of Pierce Plowman ;' yet I
cannot blame him for inveighing so sharply against the vices of the
clergy in his age : their pride, their ambition, their pomp, their ava-
rice, their worldly interest, deserved the lashes which he gave them,
both in that and in most of his Canterbury Tales. Neither has his
contemporary, Boccace, spared them. Yet both those poets lived in
much esteem with good and holy men in orders; for the scandal
which is given by particular priests reflects not on the sacred func-
tion. Chaucer's Monk, his Canon, and his Friar took not from the
character of his Good Parson. A satirical poet is the check of the
laymen on bad priests. "\Ye are only to take care that we involve
not the innocent with the guilty in the same condemnation. The
good cannot be too much honoured, nor the bad too coarsely used ;
for the corruption of the best becomes the worst. When a clergy-
man is whipped, his gown is first taken off, by which the dignity of
his order is secured. If he be wrongfully accused, he has his action
of slandi-r: and it is at the poet's peril if he transgress the law.
But they will tell us that all kind of satire, though never so well de-
by particular priests, yet brings the whole order into con-
Is then the peerage of England anything dishonoured when
a p.-er suffers for his treason? If he be libelled, or any way de-
laiufd, he has his scandalum magnatum to punish the offender.
They who use this kind of argument seem to be conscious to them-
of -oinewhat which has deserved the poet's lash, and are less

1 Chaucer.


concerned for their publick capacity than for their private; at least,
there is pride at the bottom of their reasoning. If the faults of men
in orders are only to be judged among themselves, they arc all in
some sort parties ; for, since they say the honour of their order is
concerned in every member of it, how can we be sure that they will
be impartial judges? How far I may be allowed to speak my opin-
ion in this case, I know not ; but I am sure a dispute of this nature
caused mischief in abundance betwixt a King of England and an
Archbishop of Canterbury, one standing up for the laws of his land,

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 10 of 44)