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his wife, are very cordial, and full of thanks for presents
of country produce. On one occasion Dryden "intends"
that Ladv Elizabeth should " taste the plover he had re-
ceived," an incident upon which, if I were a commentator,
I should build a legend of conjugal happiness quite as
plausible, and probably quite as well founded, as the legend
of conjugal unhappiness which has actually been construct-
ed. Then there are injurious allusions to a certain par-
son's wife at Tichmarsh, who is "just the contrary" of Mrs.
Steward. Marrow puddings are next acknowledged, which
it seems were so good that they had quite spoiled Charles
Dryden's taste for any other. Then comes that sentence,
" Old men are not so insensible of beauty as, it may be,
YOU voting ladies think," which was elsewhere translated

* *

into eloquent verse, and the same letter describes the
writer as passing his time " sometimes with Ovid, some-
times with our old English poet Chaucer." More ac-
knowledgments of presents follow, and then a visit is
promised, with the prayer that Mrs. Steward will have
some small beer brewed for him without hops, or with a
very inconsiderable quantity, because the bitter beer at
Tichmarsh had made him very ill. The visit came off in
AU-IM. li; ( .9, and it is to be hoped that the beer was not
bitter. After his return the poet sends, in the pleasant old


fashion, a history of his journey back to London, whither
the stage coach took him out of his way, whereby, not
passing certain friends' houses, he missed " two couple of
rabbits, and Mr. Cole's Ribadavia wine," a stirrup cup of
the latter being probably intended. In November occurs
the famous description of himself as " a man who has
done his best to improve the language, and especially the
poetry," with much literary and political gossip, and occa-
sional complaints of bad health. This letter may perhaps
be quoted as a specimen :

"Nov. 7, 1699.

"MADAM, Even your expostulations are pleasing to me; for
though they show you angry, yet they are not without many expres-
sions of your kindness ; and therefore I am proud to be so chidden.
Yet I cannot so farr abandon my own defence, as to confess any idle-
ness or forgetfulness on my part. What has hind'red me from write-
ing to you was neither ill health, nor, a worse thing, ingratitude ; but
a flood of little businesses, which yet are necessary to my subsist-
ance, and of which I hop'd to have given you a good account before
this time : but the Court rather speaks kindly of me, than does any-
thing for me, though they promise largely ; and perhaps they think
I will advance as they go backward, in which they will be much de-
ceiv'd ; for I can never go an inch beyond my conscience and my
honour. If they will consider me as a man who has done my best to
improve the language, and especially the poetry, and will be content
with my acquiescence under the present government, and forbearing
satire on it, that I can promise, because I can perform it ; but I can
neither take the oaths, nor forsake my religion ; because I know not
what church to go to, if I leave the Catholique ; they are all so di-
vided amongst themselves in matters of faith necessary to salvation,
and yet all assumeing the name of Protestants. May God be pleased
to open your eyes, as he has open'd mine ! Truth is but one; and
they who have once heard of it can plead no excuse if they do not
embrace it. But these are things too serious for a trifling letter. If
you desire to hear anything more of my affairs, the Earl of Dorsett
and your cousin Montague have both seen the two poems to the
Duchess of Ormoud and my worthy cousin Driden ; and are of opin-

176 DRYDEX. [CHAP. vm.

ion that I never writt better. My other friends are divided in their
judgments which to preferr ; but the greater part are for those to
my dear kinsman ; which I have corrected with so much care, that
they will now be worthy of his sight, and do neither of us any dis-
honour after our death.

" There is this day to be acted a new tragedy, made by Mr. Hop-
kins, and, as I believe, in rhime. He has formerly written a play
in verse, called Boadicea, which you fair ladyes lik'd ; and is a poet
who writes good verses, without knowing how or why ; I mean, he
writes naturally well, without art, or learning, or good sence. Con-
greve is ill of the gout at Barnet Wells. I have had the honour of
a visite from the Earl of Dorsett, and din'd with him. Matters in
Scotland are in a high ferment, and next door to a breach betwixt
the two nations ; but they say from court that France and we are
hand and glove. 'Tis thought the king will endeavour to keep up a
standing army, and make the stirr in Scotland his pretence for it ; my
cousin Driden and the country party, I suppose, will be against it;
for when a spirit is raised, 'tis hard conjuring him down again. You
see I am dull by my writeing news; but it may be my cousin Creed
may be glad to hear what I believe is true, though not very pleasing.
I hope he recovers health in the country, by his staying so long in it.
My service to my cousin Stuart, and all at Oundle.

" I am, faire Cousine,

" Your most obedient servant,

" For Mrs. Stewart, Att

Cotterstock, near Oundle,

In Northamptonshire,

To be left at the Post-house in Onndle."



DRYDEN'S life lasted but a very short time after the publi-
cation of the Fables. He was, if not a very old man, close
upon his seventieth year. He had worked hard, and had
probably lived no more carefully than most of the men of
his time. Gout, gravel, and other disorders tormented him
sorely. The Fables were published in November, 1699,
and during the winter he was more or less ill. As has
been mentioned, many letters of his exist in reference to
this time, more in proportion than for any other period of
his life. Besides those to Mrs. Steward, there are some
addressed to Mrs. Thomas, a young and pretty literary
lady, who afterwards fell among the Philistines, and who
made use of her brief intimacy with the Dryden family to
romance freely about it, when in her later days she was
indigent, in prison, and, what was worse, in the employ of
Curll. One of these letters contains the frankest and most
graceful of Dryden's many apologies for the looseness
of his writings, accompanied by a caution to " Corinna "
against following the example of the illustrious Aphra
Behn, a caution which was a good deal needed, though un-
fortunately fruitless. In the early spring of 1700, or, ac-
cording to the calendar of the day, in the last months of
1699, some of Dryden's admirers got up a benefit per-


formancc for him at the Duke's Theatre. Fletcher's Pil-
grim was selected for the occasion, revised hy Vanbrugh,
and with the addition of a lyrical scene "by Dryden him-
self. He also wrote for the occasion a secular masque to
celebrate the opening* of a new century: the controversy
on the point whether 1700 belonged to the seventeenth
century or the eighteenth not having, it seems, arisen.
The performance took place, but the date of it is uncer-
tain, and it has been thought that it was not till after
Dryden's death. This happened in the following wise :
During the months of March and April Dryden was very
ill with 0'out. One toe became much inflamed, and not be-

O 7

ing properly attended to, it mortified. Hobbs, the surgeon,
was then called in, and advised amputation, but Dryden
refused on the score of his age, and the inutility of pro-
longing a maimed existence. The mortification spreading
farther, it was a case for amputation of the entire leg,
with probably dubious results, or else for certain death.
On the 30th of April the Postboy announced that "John
Dryden, Esq., the famous poet, lies a-dying," and at three
o'clock the next morning he died very quietly and peace-

His funeral was sufficiently splendid. Halifax is said
to have at first offered to discharge the whole cost him-
self, but other friends were anxious to share it, among
whom Dorset and Lord Jeffreys, the Chancellor's son, are
specially mentioned. The body was embalmed, and lay
in state at the College of Physicians for some days. On
the 13th of May the actual funeral took place at West-
minster Abbey, with a great procession, preceded at the
College by a Latin oration from Garth, the President, and
by the vino-ing o f Exegi Monumentum to music. Years
afterwards ''Corinna" forged for Cuiil a wild account of

ix.] CONCLUSION. 179

the matter, of which it is sufficient to say that it lacks the
slightest corroboration, and is intrinsically improbable, if
not impossible. It may be found in most of the biogra-
phies, and Mai one has devoted his usual patient industry
to its demolition. Some time passed before any monu-
ment was erected to Drvden in Poet's Corner, where he


had been buried by Chaucer and Cowley. Pcpys tells us
that Dorset and Montague were going to do it. But they
did not. Some time later Congreve complimented the
Duke of Newcastle on having given order for a monu-
ment, a compliment which his Grace obtained at a re-
markably cheap rate, for the order, if given, was never
executed. Finally, twenty years after his death, the Duke
of Buckinghamshire, better known under his former title

O '

of Lord Mulgrave, came to the rescue, it is said, owing to
a reflection of Pope's on Dryden's " rude and nameless
stone." The monument was not magnificent, but at any
rate it saves the poet from such dishonour as there may
be in a nameless grave. The hymn sung at his funeral
probably puts that matter most sensibly.

Dryden's wife lived until 1714, and died a very old
woman and insane. Her children, like her husband, had
died before her. Charles, the eldest, was drowned in the
Thames near Datchet, in 1704; John, the second, hardly
outlived his father a year, and died at Rome in 1701 ; the
third, Erasmus Henry, succeeded, in 1710, to the family
honours, but died in the same year. The house of Canons
Ashby is still held by descendants of the family, but in
the female line ; though the name has been unbroken, and
the title has been continued.

Something has already been said about the character of
Lady Elizabeth Dryden. It has to be added here that the
stories about her temper and relations with her husband


ami his friends, bear investigation as little as those about
her maidenly conduct. Most of them are mere hearsays,
and some not even that. Dry den, it is said, must have
lived unhappily with his wife, for he is always sneering at
matrimony. It is sufficient to say that much the same
might be said of every writer (at least for the stage) be-
tween the Restoration and the accession of Anne. Even
the famous line in Absalom and Achitoplid, which has
caused such scandal, is a commonplace as old at least as
Jean de Meuno- and the Roman de la Hose. "When Ma-


lone, on the authority of a Lady Dry den who lived a hun-
dred years later, but without a tittle of documentary evi-
dence, tells us that Lady Elizabeth was a shrew, we really
must ask what is the value of such testimony ? There is
one circumstantial legend which has been much relied on.
Dry den, it is said, was at work one day in his study, when
his wife came in, and could not make him listen to some-
thing she had to say. Thereupon said she, in a pet, " I
wish I were a book, and then perhaps you would pay me
some attention." " Then, my dear," replied this graceless
bard, "pray be an almanac, that I may change you at the
end of the year." The joke cannot be said to be brilliant ;
but, taking it as a true story, the notion of founding a
charge of conjugal unhappiuess thereon is sufficiently ab-
surd. Mrs. Thomas's romancings are worthy of no credit,
and even if thev were worthy of any, do not bear much

W V */ '

upon the question. All that can be said is, that the few
allusions to Lady Elizabeth in the poet's letters are made
in all propriety, and tell no tale of disunion. Of his chil-
dren it is allowed that he was excessively fond, and his per-
sonal ainial.ility is testified to with one consent by all his
frk-ndi who have left testimonies on the subject. Con-
grevc and "Granville the Polite" both mention his modest

ix.] CONCLUSION. 181

and unassuming demeanour, and the obligingness of his
disposition. Pope, it is true, has brought against him the
terrible accusation that he was "not a genteel man," be-
ing " intimate with none but poetical men." The fact on
which the charge seems to be based is more than dubious,
and Pope was evidently transferring his own conception of
Grub Street to the times when to be a poetical man cer-
tainly was no argument against gentility. Rochester, Mul-
grave, Dorset, Sedley, Etherege, Roscommon, make a very
odd assortment of ungenteel poetical friends.

It is astonishing, when one- comes to examine the mat-
ter, how r vague and shadowy our personal knowledge of
Dryden is. A handful of anecdotes, many of them un-
dated and unauthenticated except at third and fourth hand,
furnish us with almost all that we do know r . That he was
fond of fishing, and prided himself upon being a better
fisherman than Durfey ; that he took a good deal of snuff;
and that he did nofc drink much until Addison, in the last
years of his life, induced him to do so, almost exhausts
the lists of such traits which are recorded by others. His
; ' down look," his plumpness, his fresh colour are points
in which tradition is pretty well supported by the portraits
which exist, and by such evidence as can be extracted
from the libels against him. The famous picture of him
at "Will's, which every one repeats, and which Scott has
made classical in the Pirate, is very likely true enough to
fact, and there is no harm in thinking of Dryden in the
great coffee-house, with his chair in the balcony in sum-
mer, by the fire in winter, passing criticisms and paying
good-natured compliments on matters literary. He had,
he tells Mrs. Steward, a very vulgar stomach thus par-
tially justifying Pope's accusations and liked a chine of
bacon better than marrow puddings. He dignified Sam-


lid IVpys with the title of Padron Mio, and was invited
1>\ Samuel to eat a cold chicken and a salad with him in
return. According to one of the aimless gossiping stories,
which are almost all we possess, he once stayed with Mul-
urave at the great Yorkshire domain whence the title was
derived, and was cheated by Mulgrave at bowls a story
not so unbelievable as Mr. Bell seems to think, for every-
body cheated at play in those days ; and Mulgrave's dis-
inclination to pay his tradesmen 1 , or in any other way to
get rid of money, was notorious. But even the gossip
which has come down to us is almost entirely literary.
Thus we are told that when he allowed certain merits to
"starch Johnny Crowne" so called because of the unal-
terable stiffness and propriety of his collar and cravat he
used to add that " his father and Crowne's mother had
been great friends." It is only fair to the reputation of
Erasmus Dryden and of Mrs. Crowne to add that this must
have been pure mischief, inasmuch as itf is always said that
the author of Sir Courtly Nice was born in Nova Scotia.
His well-feigned denunciation of Smith and Johnson, his
tormentors, or rather the tormentors of his Eidolon Bayes,
as ''the coolest and most insignificant fellows" he had


ever seen on the stage, may be also recalled. Again, there
is a legend that Bolingbroke, when a young man, came in
one morning to see him, and found that he had been sit-
ing up all night writing the ode on St. Cecilia's Day. An-
other time Bolingbroke called on him, and was asked to

o '

outstay Jacob Tonson, so as to prevent some apprehended
incivility from the truculent Jacob. The story of his vex-
ation at the liberty taken with him by Prior and Monta-
u'li' 1 lias been already mentioned more than once, but may
be regarded with very considerable suspicion. Most fa-
mous perhaps of all such legends is that which tells of the

ix.] CONCLUSION. 183

unlucky speech, "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,"
than which never was there anything more true or more
unfortunate. Yet the enmity which, though it has been
exaggerated, the greatest English man of letters in the
next generation felt towards his kinsman ought not to be
wholly regretted, because it has produced one of the most
touching instances of literal devotion which even a com-
mentator ever paid to his idol. Swift, it must be remem-
bered, has injuriously stigmatized Dryden's prefaces as


" Merely writ at first for filling,

To raise the volume's price a shilling."

Hereupon Malone has set to, and has gravely demonstrated
that, as the price at which plays were then issued was fixed
and constant, the insertion of a long preface instead of a
short one, or indeed of any preface at all, could not have
raised the volume's price a penny. Next to Shadwell's
criticism on Macflecknoe, I think this may be allowed to be
the happiest example recorded in connexion with the life
of Dryden of the spirit of literalism.

Such idle stuff as these legends mostly are is indeed
hardly worth discussion, hardly even worth mentioning.
The quiet scenery of the Nene Valley, in which Dryden
passed all the beginning and not a little of the close of his
life ; the park at Charlton ; the river (an imaginary asso-
ciation perhaps, but too striking a one to be lost) on which
Crites and Eugenius and Neander rowed down pas.t the
" great roar of waters " at London Bridge, and heard the

C O '

Dutch guns as they talked of dramatic poesy ; the house
in Gerrard Street ; the balcony and coffee-room at Will's ;
the park where the king w r alked with the poet ; and, last
of all, the Abbey : these are the only scenes in which Dry-
den can be pictured even by the most imaginative lover


of the concrete picturesque. Very few days of his life
of nearlv seventy years emerge for us from the mass by
virtue of anv definite and detailed incident, the account of
v/hicli we have on trustworthy authority. It is a com-
monplace to say that an author's life is in his works.
But in Dryden's case it is a simple fact, and therefore a
biography of him, let it be repeated at the close as it was
asserted at the beo'innino- must consist of little but a dis-

O O 7

cussion and running comment on those works, and on the
characteristics, literary and personal, which are discoverable
in them.

It only now remains to sum up these characteristics,
which it must never be forgotten are of even more value
because of the representative character of Dryden than
because of his individual eminence. Many as are the
great men of letters who have illustrated English litera-
ture from the beginning to the present day, it may safely
be said that no one so represented his time and so in-
fluenced it as the man of letters whom we have been dis-
cussing. There are greater names in our literature, no
doubt ; there arc others as great or nearly so. But at no
time that I can think of was there any Englishman who,
for a considerable period, was so far in advance of his
contemporaries in almost every branch of literary work
as Dryden was during the last twenty years of the seven-
teenth century. To turn a satiric couplet of his own, by
the alteration of a single word, from an insult to a com-
pliment, we may say that he, at any rate during his last

" In prose and verse was owned without dispute
Within the realms of English absolute."

But his representative character in relation to the men o/
his time was almost more remarkable than his intellectual


and artistic superiority to them. Other great men of let-
ters, with perhaps the single exception of Voltaire, have
usually, when they represented their time at all, represent-
ed but a small part of it. With Dryden this was not the
case. Not only did the immense majority of men of let-
ters in his later days directly imitate him, but both then
and earlier most literary Englishmen, even when they did
not imitate him, worked on the same lines and pursued
the same objects. The eighteen volumes of his works
contain a faithful representation of the whole literary
movement in England for the best part of half a century,
and what is more, they contain the germs and indicate the
direction of almost the whole literary movement for nearly
a century more.


But Dryden was not only in his literary work a typical
Englishman of his time, and a favourably typical one ;
he was almost as representative in point of character.
The time was not the most showy or attractive in the
moral history of the nation, though perhaps it looks to
us not a little worse than it was. But it must be admit-
ted to have been a time of shameless coarseness in lan-
guage and manners ; of virulent and bloodthirsty party-
spirit; of almost unparalleled self-seeking and political
dishonesty; and of a flattering servility to which, in the
same w^ay, hardly any parallel can be found. Its chief
redeeming features were, that it was not a cowardly age,
and, for the most part, not a hypocritical one. Men seem
frequently to have had few convictions, and sometimes to
have changed them with a somewhat startling rapidity ;
but when they had them, they had also the courage of
them. They hit out with a vigour and a will which to
this day is refreshing to read of ; and when, as sometimes
happened, they lost the battle, they took their punishment,
X ]?1


as with perhaps some arrogance we are wont to say, like
Englishmen. Dryden had the merits and the defects
eminently ; but the defects were, after all, in a mild and
by no means virulent form. His character has had ex-
ceedingly hard measure since. During the last ten years
of his life, and for the most part of the half-century suc-
ceeding his death, his political principles were out of
favour, and this naturally prejudiced many persons against
his conduct even at the time when his literary eminence
was least questioned. In Johnson and in Scott, Dryden
found a brace of the doughtiest champions, as heartily
prepossessed in his favour as they were admirably armed
to fight his battles. But of late years he has again fallen
among the Philistines. It was obviously Lord Macaulay's
game to blacken the greatest literary champion of the
cause he had set himself to attack ; and I need not say
with what zest and energy Macaulay was wont to wield
the tar-brush. Some years later Dryden had the good
fortune to meet with an admirable editor of his poems.
I venture to think the late Mr. Christie's Globe edition
of our poet one of the very best things of the kind that
has ever been produced. From the purely literary point
of view there is scarcely a fault to be found with it. But
the editor unfortunately seems to have sworn allegiance
to Shaftesbury before he swore allegiance to Dryden.
He reconciled these jarring fealties by sacrificing the char-
acter of the latter, while admitting his intellectual great-
ness. An article to which I have more than once referred
in the Quarterly Review puts the facts once more in a
clear and fair light. But Mr. Green's twice-published his-
tory has followed in the old direction, and has indeed out-
Macaulayed Macaulny in reckless abuse. I believe that I
have put the facts at least so that any reader who takes

ix.] CONCLUSION. 187

the trouble niay judge for himself of the private conduct
of Dryden. His behaviour as a public man has also been
dealt with pretty fully ; and I think we may safely con-
clude that in neither case can the verdict be a really unfa-
vourable one. Dryden, no doubt, was not austerely virtu-
ous. He was not one of the men who lay down a compre-
hensive scheme of moral, political, and intellectual conduct,
and follow out that scheme, come wind, come weather. It
is probable that he was quite aware of the existence and
alive to the merits of cakes and ale. He was not an
economical man, and he had no scruple in filling up gaps
in his income with pensions and presents. But all these
things were the way of his world, and he was not exces-
sive in following it. On the other hand, all trustworthy

O ^

testimony concurs in praising his amiable and kindly dis-
position, his freedom from literary arrogance, and his will-
ingness to encourage and assist youthful aspirants in liter-
ature. Mercilessly hard as he hit his antagonists, it must
be remembered that he was rarely the first to strike. On

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 14 of 44)