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strange fascination, and the ease with which it carries off


the reader into unfamiliar and yet delightful lands, where
nothing is disturbing and unreasonable, and yet everything
is surprising and unhackneyed. How much more strongly
this power must have been exerted on a singularly prosaic
age, in which the majority of persons would, like Prior

1 I do not here concern myself with the hypothesis of the spnri-
ousness of this poem.

viii.] THE FABLES. 161

and Montague, have cast aside as nonsense worthy only of
children the gracious, shadowy imaginations of mediaeval
thought, we in the nineteenth century can hardly put our-
selves in the condition to estimate. But it must always
remain one of Dryden's highest titles to fame that he was
able thus to make extremes meet. He seems, indeed, to
have had not only the far from ordinary faculty of recog-
nising good literature wherever he met it, but the quite ex-
traordinary faculty of making other people recognise it too
by translating it into the language which they were capa-
ble of comprehending. A passage may be worth quoting :

" To this the dame replied : ' Fair daughter, know
That what you saw was all a fairy show ;
And all those airy shapes you now behold
Were human bodies once, and clothed with earthly mould.
Our souls, not yet prepared for upper light,
Till doomsday wander in the shades of night ;
This only holiday of all the year,
We, privileged, in sunshine may appear ;
With songs and dance we celebrate the day,
And with due honours usher in the May.
At other times we reign by night alone,
And posting through the skies pursue the moon ;
But when the morn arises, none are found,
For cruel Demogorgon walks the round,
And if he finds a fairy lag in light,
He drives the wretch before, and lashes into night.

" 'All courteous are by kind ; and ever proud
With friendly offices to help the good.
In every land we have a larger space
Than what is known to you of mortal race ;
Where we with green adorn our fairy bowers,
And even this grove, unseen before, is ours.
Know farther, every lady clothed in white,
And crowned with oak and laurel every knight,


Arc servants to the Leaf, by liveries known

Of innocence ; and I myself am one.

Saw you not her so graceful to behold,

In white attire, and crowned with radiant gold ?

The sovereign lady of our land is she,

Diana called, the queen of chastity ;

And, for the spotless name of maid she bears,

That Agnus castm in her hand appears ;

And all her train, with leafy chaplets crowned,

Were for unblamed virginity renowned ;

But those the chief and highest in command

Who bear those holy branches in their hand,

The knights adorned with laurel crowns are they,

Whom death nor danger ever could dismay,

Victorious names, who made the world obey :

W T ho, while they lived, in deeds of arms excelled,

And after death for deities were held.

But those who wear the woodbine on their brow,

Were knights of love, who never broke their vow ;

Firm to their plighted faith, and ever free

From fears, and fickle chance, and jealousy.

The lords and ladies, who the woodbine bear,

As true as Tristram and Isotta were.' '

Why Dryden selected the Wife of Bath's Tale among
his few translations from Chaucer, it is not very easy to
say. It is a sufficiently harmless fa bliau, but it cannot be
said to come up in point of merit to many others of the
Canterbury Tales. The enemies of our poet would doubt-
less say that he selected it because of the unfavourable
opinions as to womankind which it contains. But then
those same enemies would find it difficult to say why he
did not choose instead the scandalous prologue which
anites opinions of womankind at least as unfavourable
with other matter of the sort which hostile criticism sup-
poses to have been peculiarly tempting to Dryden. In the
actual tale as given in the Fables there is some alloy of

viii.] THE FABLES. 163

this kind, but nothing that could bo at all shocking to the
age. The length of the story is in proportion more am-
plified than is the case with the others. Probably the
argumentative gifts of the old hag who turned out not to
be an old hag attracted Dryden, for he was always at his
best, and must have known that he was always at his best,
in passages of the kind. The pleading of the crone is one
of his best efforts. A certain desultoriness which is to
be found in Chaucer is changed into Dryden's usual chain
of serried argument, and it is much less surprising in the
translation than in the original that the knight should

O c3

have decided to submit at once to such a she-lawyer. But
-.the " wife " herself has something to complain of Dryden.
Her fancy for widowhood is delicately enough put in the
original :

" [Sende] grace to overlive them that we wed."

Dryden makes it much blunter?

" May widows wed as often as they can,
And ever for the better change their man."

The Character of a Good Parson admits itself to be
" enlarged " from Chaucer, and, indeed, the termination,
to the extent of some forty lines, is wholly new, and writ-
ten with special reference to the circumstances of the
time. To this character there is a pleasant little story
attached. It seems from a letter to Pepys that the diarist
had himself recommended the character in the original to
Dryden's notice. When the verses were done, the poet
told Pepys of the fact, and proposed to bring them for
his inspection. The answer contained a sentence which
displays a much greater antipathy to parsons than that
which, if we may believe Lord Macaulay, who perhaps


borrowed the idea from Stillingfleet or Collier, Dryden
himself felt. Pepys remarks that he hopes "from your
copy of this good parson to fancy some amends made me
for the hourly offence I bear with from the sight of so


many lewd originals." What particular trouble Pepys
had to bear at the hands of the lewd originals it would


be hard to say. But time-server as he had once been
he was in all probability sufficiently Jacobite at heart to
relish the postscript in Dryden's version. This transfers
the circumstances of the expulsion of the Nonjurors to the
days of Richard the Second and Henry of Bolingbroke.
Nor, had there still been a censorship of the press, is it at
all probable that this postscript would have been passed for
publication. The following verses are sufficiently pointed:

" Conquest, an odious name, was laid aside ;
When all submitted, none the battle tried.
The senseless plea of right by providence
Was by a flattering priest invented since,
And lasts no longer than the present sway,
But justifies the next which comes in play.
The people's right remains ; let those who dare
Dispute their power when they the judges are."

The character itself is also very much enlarged ; so much
so that the original can only be said to have furnished the
heads for it. Dryden has done few better things.

The selections from Boccaccio, like those from Chaucer,
may or may not have been haphazard. The first, at any
rate, which has been, as a rule, the worst thought of, ex-
plains itself sufficiently. The story of Tancred and Sigis-
munda, perhaps, afforded room for " loose descriptions ;"
it certainly afforded room for the argument in verse of

/ o

uhich Dryden was so great a master. Although the hints
of the original have been somewhat coarsely amplified, the


speech of Sigismunda is still a very noble piece of verse,
Mild her final address to her husband's heart almost better.
Here is a specimen :

" ' Thy praise (and thine was then the public voice)
First recommended Guiscard to my choice:
Directed thus by thee, I looked, and found
A man I thought deserving to be crowned ;
First by my father pointed to my sight,
Nor less conspicuous by his native light ;
His mind, his mien, the features of his face,
Excelling all the rest of human race :
These were thy thoughts, and thou couldst judge aright,
Till interest made a jaundice in thy sight.
Or, should I grant thou didst not rightly see,
Then thou wert first deceived, and I deceived by thee.
But if thou shalt allege, through pride of mind,
Thy blood with one of base condition joined,
'Tis false, for 'tis not baseness to be poor :
His poverty augments thy crime the more ;
Upbraids thy justice with the scant regard
Of worth ; whom princes praise, they should reward.
Are these the kings intrusted by the crowd
With wealth, to be dispensed for common good ?
The people sweat not for their king's delight,
To enrich a pimp, or raise a parasite ;
Theirs is the toil ; and he who well has served
His country, has his country's wealth deserved.
Even mighty monarchs oft are meanly born,
And kings by birth to lowest rank return ;
All subject to the power of giddy chance,
For fortune can depress or can advance ;
But true nobility is of the mind,
Not given by chance, and not to chance resigned.

" ' For the remaining doubt of thy decree,
What to resolve, and how dispose of me ;
Be warned to cast that useless care aside
Myself alone will for myself provide.


If, in thy doting and decrepit age,
Thy soul, a stranger in thy youth to rage,
Begins in cruel deeds to take delight,
Gorge with my blood thy barbarous appetite ;
For I so little am disposed to pray
For life, I would not cast a wish away.
Such as it is, the offence is all my own ;
And what to Guiscard is already done,
Or to be done, is doomed, by thy decree,
That, if not executed first by thee,
Shall on my person be performed by me.

" 'Away ! with women weep, and leave me here,
Fixed, like a man, to die without a tear ;
Or save, or slay us both this present hour,
'Tis all that fate has left within thy power.' "

The last of the three, Cymon and Iphigenia, has been a
great favourite. In the original it is one of the most un-
interesting stories of the Decameron, the sino-le incident of

O y ^

Cymon's falling in love, of which not very much is made,
being the only relief to a commonplace tale of violence
and treachery, in which neither the motives nor the char-
acters of the actors sufficiently justify them. The Italian,
too, by making Iphigenia an unwilling captive, takes away
from Cymon the only excuse he could have had. The three
harming lines with which Dry den's poem opens

" Old as I am, for lady's love unfit,
The power of beauty I remember yet,
Which once inflamed my soul, and still inspires my wit,"

have probably bribed a good many readers, and certainly
tho whole volume of the Fables is an ample justification
"f the poet's boast, not only as regards beauty of one kind,
but of all. The opening triplet is followed by a diatribe
against Collier, which at first seems in very bad taste ; but
it is made-, with excellent art, to lead on to a description of

viii.] THE FABLES. If, 7

the power of love, to which the story yokes itself most nat-
urally. Nor is any praise too high for the description of
the actual scene in which Cyraon is converted from his
brutishness by the sight of Iphigenia, an incident of which,
as has been said, the original takes small account. But
even with the important alterations which Dryden has in-
troduced into it, the story, as a storv, remains of but sec-

/ ' ~ f

ond-rate interest.

Nothing of this sort can be said of Theodore and Hono-


ria. I have said that Ellis's commendation of it may be
excessive ; but that it goes at the head of all the poetry
of the school of which Dryden was a master is absolutely
certain. The original here is admirably suggestive: the
adaptation is more admirable in its obedience to the sug-
gestions. It has been repeatedly noticed with what art
Dryden has gradually led up to the horror of the phan-
tom lady's appearance, which is in the original introduced
in an abrupt and casual way ; while the matter-of-factness
of the spectre's address, both to Theodore himself and to
the friends who wish afterwards to interfere in his vic-
tim's favour, is most happily changed in the English poem.
Boccaccio, indeed, master as he was of a certain kind of
pathos, did not, at least in the Decameron, succeed with
this particular sort of tragedy. His narrative has alto-
gether too much of the chronicle in it to be fully impres-
sive. Here Dry den's process of amplification has been of
the utmost service. At almost every step of the story he
has introduced new touches which transform it altogether,


and leave it, at the close, a perfect piece of narrative of
the horrible kind. The same abruptness which has been
noticed in the original version of the earlier part of the
story appears in the later. In Dryden, Honoria, impressed
with the sight, and with Theodore's subsequent neglect of


her, dreams of what she has seen, and thinks over what
-ho has divamt, at last, and only at last, resolving to sub-
due her pride and consent to Theodore's suit. Boccaccio's
heroine goes straight home in a business-like manner, and
sends " a trusty damsel " that very evening to inform her
lover that she surrenders. This is, to say the least, sud-
den. In short, the comparison is here wholly in favour of
the English poet. Nor, if we drop the parallel, and look
at Theodore and Honoria merely by itself, is it less ad-

The purely original poems remain to be noticed. Of
the Epistle to John Driden we know that Dryden him-
self thought highly, while the person to whom, it was ad-
dressed was so pleased with it that he gave him " a noble
present," said by family tradition to have been 500/., but
which Malone, ex sua conjectura^ reduces to 100/. John
Driden was the poet's cousin, and his frequent host at
Chesterton. He was a bachelor, his house being kept by
his sister Honor ; he was a member of Parliament, and an
enthusiastic sportsman. Chesterton had come into the
Dryden family by marriage, and John Driden inherited
it as the second son. The poem contains, in allusion to
Driden's bachelorhood, one of those objurgations on mat-
rimony which have been interpreted in a personal sense,
but which are, in all probability, merely the commonplaces
of the time. Besides wives, physicians were a frequent
subject of Dryden's satire ; and the passage in this poem
t!>out the origin of medicine has been learnt by almost
every one. It might not have been written but for Black-
more's sins, for Dryden had, in the postscript to his Virgil,
paid an elaborate compliment to two ornaments of the
profession. But it is naturally enough connected with a
compliment to his cousin's sportsmanship. Then there is

vin.] THE FABLES. 169

what might be called a " Character of a good Member of
Parliament," fashioned, of course, to suit the case of the
person addressed, who, though not exactly a Jacobite, was
a member of the Opposition. The poem ends with a
most adroit compliment at once to the subject and to the
writer. These complimentary pieces always please pos-
terity with a certain drawback, unless, like the lines to
Congreve, and the almost more beautiful lines on Oldham,
they deal with merits which are still in evidence, and are
not merely personal. But the judgment of Dorset and
Montague, who thought of this piece and of the exquisite
verses to the Duchess of Ormond that he " never writ bet-
ter," was not far wrong.

The only piece that remains to be noticed is better
known even than the Epistle to John Driden. Alexander's
Feast was the second ode which Dryden wrote for the
" Festival of St. Cecilia." He received for it 40/., which,
as he tells his sons that the writing of it " would be
noways beneficial," was probably unexpected, if the state-
ment as to the payment is true. There are other legendary
contradictions about the time occupied in writing it, one
story saying that it was done in a single night, while an-
other asserts that he was a fortnight in composing or cor-
recting it. But, as has been frequently pointed out, the
two statements are by no means incompatible. Another
piece of gossip about this famous ode is that Dryden at
first wrote Lais instead of Thais, which " small mistake "
he bids Tonson in a letter to remember to alter. Little
criticism of Alexander's Feast is necessary. Whatever
drawbacks its form may have (especially the irritating
chorus), it must be admitted to be about the best thing of
its kind, and nothing more can be demanded of any poetry
than to be excellent in its kind. Dryden himself thought
M 8* 12


it the best of all his poetry, and he had a remarkable fac-
ulty of self-criticism.

"I'll is volume of poems was not only the last that Dry-
den produced, but it also exhibits his poetical character in
its very best and most perfect form. lie had, through all
his long literary life, been constantly a student, always his
own scholar, always correcting, varying, re-arranging, and
refining. The citations already given will have shown at
what perfection of metre he had by this time arrived.
Good as his early (if not his earliest) works are in this
respect, it must be remembered that it was long before he
attained his greatest skill. Play-writing in rhyme and
blank verse, practice in stanzas, and Pindarics, and irreg-
ular lyrical measures, all went to furnish him with the ex-
perience he required, and which certainly was not in his
case the school of a fool.

Beginning with a state of pupilage to masters who were
none of the best, he subsequently took little instruction,
except of a fragmentary kind, from any living man except
Milton in poetry, and, as he told Congreve, Tillotson in
prose. But he was none the less constantly teaching him-
self. His vocabulary is naturally a point of great impor-
tance in any consideration of his influence on our literature.
His earliest work exhibits many traces of the scholastic
and pedantic phraseology of his immediate forerunners.
It is probable that in his second period, when his activity
was chiefly dramatic, he might have got rid of this, had
not the tendency been strengthened by the influence of
Milton. At one period, again, the Gallicizing tendencies
of the time led him to a very improper and inexcusable
importation of French words. This, however, he soon
dropped. In the meridian of his powers, when his great
satires were produced, these tendencies, the classical and

viii.] THE FABLES. 171

the Gallican, in action and re-action with his full command
of English, vernacular and literary, produced a dialect
which, if not the most graceful that the language has ever
known, is perhaps the strongest and most nervous. Little
change takes place in the last twenty years, though the
tendency to classicism and archaism, strengthened it may
be by the work of translation, not unfrequently reappears.
In versification the great achievement of Dryden was the
alteration of what may be called the balance of the line,
causing it to run more quickly, and to strike its rhymes
with a sharper and less prolonged sound. One obvious
means of obtaining this end was, as a matter of course, the
isolation of the couplet, and the avoidance of overlapping
the different lines one upon the other. The effect of this
overlapping, by depriving the eye and voice of the expec-
tation of rest at the end of each couplet, is always one of
two things. Either the lines are converted into a sort of
rhythmic prose, made musical by the rhymes rather than
divided by them, or else a considerable pause is invited at
the end of each, or of most lines, and the cadence of the
whole becomes comparatively slow and languid. Both
these forms, as may be seen in the works of Mr. Morris,
as well as in the older writers, are excellently suited for
narration of some considerable length. They are less well

o */

suited for satire, for argument, and for the moral reflec-

CJ '

tions which the age of Dryden loved. He, therefore, set
himself to elaborate the couplet with its sharp point, its
quick delivery, and the pistol-like detonation of its rhyme.
But there is an obvious objection, or rather there are sev-
eral obvious objections which present themselves to the
couplet. It was natural that to one accustomed to the
more varied range of the older rhythm and metre, there
might seem to be a danger of the snip-snap monotony


into which, as we know, it did actually fall when it passed
out of the hands of its first great practitioners. There
might also be a fear that it would not always be possible
to compress the sense of a complete clause within the nar-
row limits of twenty syllables. To meet these difficulties
Dry den resorted to three mechanical devices the hemi-
stich, the Alexandrine, and the triplet ; all three of which
could be used indifferently to eke out the space or to give
variety of sound. The use of the hemistich, or fragment-
ary line, appears to have been based partly on the well-
known practice of Virgil, partly on the necessities of
dramatic composition where the unbroken English couplet
is to English ears intolerable. In poetry proper the hemi-
stich is anything but pleasing, and Dry den, becoming con-
vinced of the fact, almost discarded it. The Alexandrine
and the triplet he always continued to use, and they are
to this day the most obvious characteristics, to a casual
observer, of his versification. To the Alexandrine, judi-
ciously used, and limited to its proper acceptation of a verse
of twelve syllables, I can see no objection. The metre,
though a well-known English critic has maltreated it of
late, is a very fine one ; and some of Dryden's own lines
are unmatched examples of that " energy divine " which
has been attributed to him. In an essay on the Alex-


andrine in English poetry, which yet remains to be writ-
ten, and which would be not the least valuable of contri-
butions to poetical criticism, this use of the verse would
have to be considered, as well as its regular recurrent em-
ployment at the close of the Spenserian stanza, and its
continuous use, of which not many poets besides Dray ton
and Mr. Browning have given us considerable examples.
An examination of the Polyolbion and of Fifim at the
/'<">, side by side, would, I think, reveal capacities some-


what unexpected even in this form of arrangement. But
so far as the occasional Alexandrine is concerned, it is not
a hyperbole to say that a number, out of all proportion, of
the best lines in English poetry may be found in the clos-
ing verses of the Spenserian stave as used by Spenser him-
self, by Shelley, and by the present Laureate, and in the
occasional Alexandrines of Dryden. The only thing to
be said against this latter use is, that it demands a very
skilful ear and hand to adjust the cadence. So much for
the Alexandrine.

For the triplet I must confess myself to be entirely
without affection. Except in the very rare cases when its
contents come in, in point of sense, as a kind of paren-
thesis or aside, it seems to me to spoil the metre, if any-
thing could spoil Dryden's verse. That there was some
doubt about it even in the minds of those who used it,
may be inferred from the care they generally took to ac-
company it in print with the bracket indicator, as if to
invite the eye to break it gently to the ear. So strong
was Dryden's verse, so well able to subdue all forms to
its own measure, that in him it mattered but little ; in his
followers its drawbacks at once appeared.

A few personal details not already alluded to remain as
to Dryden's life at this time. To this period belongs the
second and only other considerable series of his letters.
They are addressed to Mrs. Steward, a cousin of his,


though of a much younger generation. Mrs. Steward was
the daughter of Mrs. Creed, the already-mentioned inde-
fatigable decorator of Northamptonshire churches and
halls, and she herself was given to the arts of painting and
poetry. She had married Mr. Elmes Steward, a mighty
sportsman, whose house at Cotterstock still exists by the
roadside from Oundle to Peterborough. The correspond-

1 7 1 DRYDEX. [CHAP.

ence extends over the last eighteen months of the poet's
life, be'/iiming in October, 1698, and not ending till a
week or two before his death in the spring of 1700. Mrs.
Steward is said to have been about eight-and-twenty at the
time, and beautiful. The first letter speaks of a visit soon
to be paid to Cotterstock after many invitations, and is
rather formal in style. Thenceforward, however, the epis-
tles, sometimes addressed to Mr. Steward (Dryden not in-
frequently spells it Stewart and Stuart), and sometimes to

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 13 of 44)