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The fact of his so betaking himself almost implied adhe-
rence to the royalist party. In the later years of the Com-
monwealth, English letters had rallied to a certain extent
from the disarray into which they were thrown by the
civil war, but the centres of the rally belonged almost ex-
clusively to the royalist party. Milton had long forsworn
pure literature, to devote himself to official duties with an
occasional personal polemic as a relief. Marvell and
Wither, the two other chief lights of the Puritan party,
could hardly be regarded by any one as men of light and
leading, despite the really charming lyrics which both of
them had produced. All the other great literary names
of the time were, without exception, on the side of the
exile. Hobbes was a royalist, though a somewhat singular
one ; Cowley was a royalist ; Herrick was a royalist, so was
Den ham; so was, as far as he was anything, the unstable
Waller. Moreover, the most practically active author of
the day, the one man of letters who combined the power


of organizing literary effort with the power of himself
producing literary work of merit, was one of the staunchest
of the king's friends. Sir William Davenant, without any
political concession, had somehow obtained leave from the
republican government to reintroduce theatrical entertain-
ments of a kind, and moderate royalists, like Evelyn, with
an interest in literature and the arts and sciences, were re-
turning to their homes and looking out for the good time
coming. That Dryden, under these circumstances, having
at the time a much more vivid interest in literature than
in politics, and belonging as he did rather to the Presby-
terian faction, who were everywhere returning to the roy-
alist political faith, than to the Independent republicans,
should become royalist in principle, was nothing surprising.
Those who reproach him with the change (if change it
was) forget that he shared it with the immense majority
of the nation. For the last half-century the literary cur-
rent has been so entirely on the Puritan side that we are
probably in danger of doing at least as much injustice to
the royalists as was at one time done to their opponents.
One thing in particular I have never seen fairly put as ac-
counting for the complete royalization of nearly the whole
people, and it is a thing which has a special bearing on
Dryden. It has been said that his temperament was
specially and exceptionally English. Now one of the most
respectable, if not the most purely rational features of the
English character, is its objection to wanton bloodshed
for political causes, without form of law. It was this, be-
yond all question, that alienated the English from James
the Second ; it was this that in the heyday of Hanoverian
power made them turn a cold shoulder on the Duke of
Cumberland; it was this which enlisted them almost as
one man against the French revolutionists; it was this

ZD '



\vliieh brought about in our own days a political move-
ment to which there is no need to refer more particular-
ly. Xo\v, it must be remembered that, either as the losing
party or for other reasons, the royalists were in the great
civil war almost free from the charge of reckless blood-
shedding. Their troops were disorderly, and given to
plunder, but not to cruelty. Xo legend even charges
;io-ainst Astley or Goring, against Rupert or Lunsford, any-
thing like the Drogheda massacre the effect of which on
the general mind Defoe, an unexceptionable witness, has
preserved by a chance phrase in Robinson Crusoe or the
hideous bloodbath of the Irishwomen after Xaseby, or the
brutal butchery of Dr. Hudson at Woodcroft, in Dryden's
own county, where the soldiers chopped off the priest's
fingers as he clung to the gurgoyles of the tower, and
thrust him back with pikes into the moat which, mutilated
as he was, he had managed to swim. A certain humanity
and absence of bloodthirstiness are among Dryden's most
creditable characteristics, 1 and these excesses of fanaticism
are not at all unlikely to have had their share in determin-
ing him to adopt the winning side when at last it won.
But it is perhaps more to the purpose that his literary lean-
ings must of themselves have inevitably inclined him in the
same direction. There was absolutely no opening for lit-
erature on the republican side, a fact of which no better

1 The too famous Political Prologues may, perhaps, be quoted
against me here. I have only to remark : first, that, bad as they are,
they form an infinitesimal portion of Dryden's work, and are in glar-
ing contrast with the sentiments pervading that work as a whole ;
-i-roiully, that they were written at a time of political excitement un-
paralleled in history, save once at Athens and once or twice at Paris.
But I cannot help adding that their denouncers usually seem to me
to be at least partially animated by the notion that Dry den wished
the wrong people to be hanged.


proof can be afforded than the small salary at which the
first man of letters then living was hired by a government
which, whatever faults it had, certainly did not sin l.y re-
warding its other servants too meagrely. That Dryden at
this time had any deep-set theological or political preju-
dices is very improbable. He certainly had not, like But-
ler, noted for years the faults and weaknesses of the domi-
nant party, so as to enshrine them in immortal ridicule
when the time should come. But he was evidently an
ardent devotee of literature ; he was not averse to the
pleasures of the town, which if not so actively interfered
with by the Commonwealth as is sometimes thought, were
certainly not encouraged by it ; and his friends and asso-
ciates must have been royalists almost to a man. So he
threw himself at once on that side when the chance came,
and had probably thrown himself there in spirit some
time before. The state of the literature in which he thus
took service must be described before we go any farther.

The most convenient division of literature is into poetry,
drama, and prose. AVith regard to poetry, the reigning
style at the advent of Dryden was, as everybody knows,
the peculiar style unfortunately baptized as " metaphysi-
cal." The more catholic criticism of the last 100 years
has disembarrassed this poetry of much of the odium
which once hung round it, without, however, doing full
justice to its merits. In Donne, especially, the king of the
school, the conceits and laboured fancies which distinguish


it frequently reach a hardly surpassed height of poetical
beauty. When Donne speculates as to the finding on the
body of his dead lover

"A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,"
when he tells us how


" I long to talk with some old lover's ghost,
Who died before the god of love was born;"

the effect is that of summer lightning on a dark night

o o o

suddenly exposing unsuspected realms of fantastic and
poetical suggestion. But at its worst the school was cer-
tainly bad enough, and its badnesses had already been ex-
hibited by Dry den with considerable felicity in his poem
on Lord Hastings and the small -pox. I really do not
know that in all Johnson's carefully picked specimens in
his life of Cowley, a happier absurdity is to be found than

"Each little pimple had a tear in it,
To wail the fault its rising did commit."

Of such a school as this, though it lent itself more direct-
ly than is generally thought to the unequalled oddities
of Butler, little good in the way of serious poetry could
come. On the other hand, the great romantic school was


practically over, and Milton, its last survivor, was, as has
been said, in a state of poetical eclipse. There was, there-
fore growing up a kind of school of good sense in poetry,
of which Waller, Denliam, Cowley, and Davenant were the
chiefs. Waller derives most of his fame from his lyrics,
inferior as these are to those of Herrick and Carew. Cow-
ley was a metaphysician with a strong hankering after
somethino- different. Denham, having achieved one ad-


mirable piece of versification, had devoted himself chiefly
to doggrel ; but Davenant, though perhaps not so good a
poet as any of the three, was a more living influence. His
early works, especially his dirge on Shakspearc and his
exquisite lines to the Queen, are of the best stamp of the
older school. His Gondibert, little as it is now read, and
unsuccessful as the quatrain in which it is written must al-
ways be for a very long work, is better than any long nar-


rative poem, for many a year before and after. Both his
poetical and his dramatic activity (of which more anon)
were incessant, and were almost always exerted in the di-
rection of innovation. But the real importance of these
four writers was the help they gave to the development of
the heroic couplet, the predestined common form of poetry
of the more important kind for a century and a half to
come. The heroic couplet was, of course, no novelty in
English ; but it had hitherto been only fitfully patronized
for poems of length, and had not been adapted for general
use. The whole structure of the decasvllabic line before


the middle of the seventeenth century was ill calculated
for the perfecting of the couplet. Accustomed either to
the stately plainness of blank verse, or to the elaborate in-
tricacies of the stanza, writers had got into the habit of
communicating to their verse a slow and somewhat Ian-


gnid movement. The satiric poems in which the couplet
had been most used were, either by accident or design,
couched in the roughest possible verse, so rough that in
the hands of Marston and Donne it almost ceased to be
capable of scansion. In general, the couplet had two
drawbacks. Either it was turned by means of enjambe-
ments into something very like rhythmic prose, with
rhymes straying about at apparently indefinite intervals,
or it was broken up into a staccato motion by the neglect
to support and carry on the rhythm at the termination
of the distichs. All the four poets mentioned, especially
the three first, did much to fit the couplet for miscellane-
ous work. All of them together, it is hardly needful to
say, did not do so much as the young Cambridge man
who, while doing bookseller's work for Herringman the
publisher, hanging about the coffee-houses, and planning
plays with Davenant and Sir Robert Howard, was wait-

18 DRYDE^ T . [CHAP.

ing for opportunity and impulse to help him to make
his wav.


The drama was in an even more critical state than
poetry pure and simple, and here Davenant was the im-
portant person. All the giant race except Shirley were
dead, and Shirley had substituted a kind of t rayed le bour-
yeoise for the work of his masters. Other practitioners
chiefly favoured the example of one of the least mutable
of those masters, and out -forded Ford in horrors of all
kinds, while the comedians clung still more tightly to the
humour-comedy of Jonson. Davenant himself had made
abundant experiments experiments, let it be added, some-
times of no small merit in both these styles. But the
occupations of tragedy and comedy were gone, and the
question was how to find a new one for them. Davenant
succeeded in procuring permission from the Protector,
who, like most Englishmen of the tim^, was fond of music,
to give what would now be called entertainments ; and the
entertainments soon developed into something like regu-
lar stage plays. But Shakspeare's godson, with his keen
manager's appreciation of the taste of the public, and his
travelled experience, did not content himself with deviating
cautiously into the old paths. He it was who, in the Siege
of Rhodes, introduced at once into England the opera, and
a less long-lived but, in a literary point of view, more im-
portant variety, the heroic play, the latter of which always
retained some tinge of the former. There are not many
subjects on which, to put it plainly, more rubbish has been
talked than the origin of the heroic play. Very few Eng-
lishmen have ever cared to examine accurately the connex-
ion between this singular growth and the classical tragedy
already flourishing in France ; still fewer have ever cared
to investigate the origins of that classical tragedy itself.


The blundering attribution of Dry den and his rivals to
Corneille and Racine, the more blundering attribution of
Corncillc and Racine to the Scudery romance (as if some-
body should father Shelley on Monk Lewis), has been gen-
erally accepted without much hesitation, though Drvdcn
himself has pointed out that there is but little connexion
between the French and the English drama; and thou-li

o ^

the history of the French drama itself is perfectly intelligi-
ble, and by no means difficult to trace. The French clas-
sical drama is the direct descendant of the drama of Sen-
eca, first imitated by Jodelle and Gamier in the days of
the Plelade ; nor did it ever quit that model, though in
the first thirty years of the seventeenth century something
was borrowed from Spanish sources. The English heroic
drama, on the other hand, which Davenant invented, which
Sir Robert Howard and Lord Orrery made fashionable, and
for which Dryden achieved a popularity of nearly twenty
years, was one of the most cosmopolitan I had almost
said the most mongrel of literary productions. It adopt-
ed the English freedom of action, multiplicity of character,
and licence of stirring scenes acted coram populo. It bor-
rowed lyrical admixture from Italy ; exaggerated and bom-
bastic language came to it from Spain ; and to France it
owed little more than its rhymed dialogue, and perhaps
something of its sighs and flames. The disadvantages of
rhyme in dramatic writing seem to modern Englishmen
so great that they sometimes find it difficult to understand

o /

how any rational being could exchange the blank verse
of Shakspeare for the rhymes of Dryden, much more for
the rhymes of his contemporaries and predecessors. But
this omits the important consideration that it was not the
blank verse of Shakspeare or of Fletcher that was thus
exchanged. In the three-quarters of a century, or there-


abouts, which elapsed between the beginning of the great
dramatic era and the Restoration, the chief vehicle of the
drama had degenerated full as much as the drama itself;
and the blank verse of the plays subsequent to Ford is of
anything but Shakspearian quality is, indeed, in many
cases such as is hardly to be recognised for verse at all.
Between this awkward and inharmonious stuff and the
comparatively polished and elegant couplets of the inno-
vators there could be little comparison, especially when
Dryden had taken up the couplet himself.

Lastly, in prose the time was pretty obviously calling
for a reform. There were great masters of English prose
living when Dryden joined the literary world of London,
but there was no generally accepted style for the journey-
work of literature. Milton and Taylor could arrange the
most elaborate symphonies ; Hobbes could write with a
crabbed clearness as lucid almost as the flowing sweetness


of Berkeley ; but these were exceptions. The endless sen-
tences out of which Clarendon is wont just to save him-
self, w 7 hen his readers are wondering whether breath and
brain will last out their involution ; the hopeless coils of
parenthesis and afterthought in which Cromwell's speech
lay involved, till Mr. Carlyle was sent on a special mission
to disentangle them, show the dangers and difficulties of
the ordinary prose style of the day. It was terribly cum-
bered about quotations, which it introduced with merciless
frequency. It had no notion of a unit of style in the sen-
tence. It indulged, without the slightest hesitation, in ev-

O ' O '

ery detour and involution of second thoughts and by-the-
way qualifications. So far as any models were observed,
those models were chiefly taken from the inflected lan-
guages of Greece and Rome, where the structural altera-
tions of the words according to their grammatical con-



nexion are for the most part sufficient to make the mean-
ing tolerably clear. Nothing so much as the lack of in-
flexions saved our prose at this time from sharing the fate
of German, and involving itself almost beyond the reach
of extrication. The common people, when not bent upon
line language, could speak and write clearly and straight-
forwardly, as Bunyan's works show to this day to all who
care to read. But scholars and divines deserved much less
well of their mother tongue. It may, indeed, be said that

o * *

prose w r as infinitely worse off than poetry. In the latter
there had been an excellent style, if not one perfectly suited
for all ends, and it had degenerated. In the former, noth-
ing like a general prose style had ever yet been elaborated
at all ; what had been done had been done chiefly in the
big-bow-wow manner, as Dryden's editor might have called
it. For light miscellaneous work, neither fantastic nor
solemn, the demand was only just being created. Cowley,
indeed, wrote well, and, comparatively speaking, elegantly,
but his prose w r ork was small in extent and little read in
comparison to his verse. Tillotson was Dryden's own
contemporary, and hardly preceded him in the task of

From this short notice it will be obvious that the gen-
eral view, according to which a considerable change took

' O O

place and was called for at the Restoration, is correct, not-
withstanding the attempts recently made to prove the con-
trary by a learned writer. Professor Masson's lists of men
of letters and of the dates of their publication of their
works prove, if he w T ill pardon my saying so, nothing.
The actual spirit of the time is to be judged not from the
production of works of writers who, as they one by one
dropped off, left no successors, but from those who struck
root downwards and blossomed upwards in the general

22 DRYDEX. [CHAP. i.

literary soil. Milton is not a writer of the Restoration,
though his greatest works appeared after it, and though he
survived it nearly fifteen years. Nor was Taylor, nor Claren-
don, nor Cowley : hardly even Davenant, or Waller, or But-
ler, or Denham. The writers of the Restoration are those
whose works had the seeds of life in them ; who divined
or formed the popular tastes of the period, who satisfied
that taste, and who trained up successors to prosecute and
modify their own work. The interval between* the prose
and the poetry of Dryden and the prose and the poetry of
Milton is that of an entire generation, notwithstanding the
manner in which, chronologically speaking, they overlap.
The objects which the reformer, consciously or uncon-
sciously, set before him have been sufficiently indicated.
It must be the task of the following chapters to show
how and to what extent he effected a reform ; what the
nature of that reform was ; what was the value of the work
which in effecting it he contributed to the literature of his



THE foregoing chapter will have already shown the chief
difficulty of writing a life of Dryden the almost entire
absence of materials. At the Restoration the poet was
nearly thirty years old ; and of positive information as to
his life during these thirty years we have half-a-dozen
dates, the isolated fact of his mishap at Trinity, a single
letter and three poems, not amounting in all to three hun-
dred lines. Nor can it be said that even subsequently,
during his forty years of fame and literary activity, posi-
tive information as to his life is plentiful. His works are
still the best life of him, and in so far as a biography of
Dryden is filled with any matter not purely literary, it
must for the most part be rilled with controversy as to his
political and religious opinions and conduct rather than
with accounts of his actual life and conversation. Omit-
ting for the present literary work, the next fact that we
have to record after the Restoration is one of some impor-
tance, though as before the positive information obtaina-
ble in connexion with it is but scanty. On the 1st of De-
cember, 1663, Dryden was married at St. Swithin's Church
to Laclv Elizabeth Howard, eldest daughter of the Earl of

/ ^j


This marriage, like most of the scanty events of Drv-



den's life, has been made the occasion of much and unnec-
essary controversy. The libellers of the Popish Plot dis-
turbances twenty years later declared that the character
of the bride was doubtful, and that her brothers had acted
towards Dryden in somewhat the same way as the Hamil-
tons did towards Grammont. A letter of hers to the Earl
of Chesterfield, which was published about half a century
ago, has been used to support the first charge, besides
abundant arguments as to the unlikelihood of an earl's
daughter marrying a poor poet for love. It is one of the
misfortunes of prominent men that when fact is silent
about their lives fiction is always busy. If we brush away
the cobwebs of speculation, there is nothing in the least
suspicious about this matter. Lord Berkshire had a large
family and a small property. Dryden himself was, as we
have seen, well born and well connected. That some of
his sisters had married tradesmen seems to Scott likely to
have been shocking to the Howards ; but he must surely
have forgotten the famous story of the Earl of Bedford's
objection to be raised a step in the peerage because it
would make it awkward for the younger scions of the
house of Russell to go into trade. The notion of an ab-
solute severance between Court and City at that time is
one of the many unhistorical fictions which have somehow
or other obtained currency. Dryden \vas already an inti-
mate friend of Sir Robert Howard, if not also of the other
brother, Edward, and perhaps it is not unnoteworthy that
Lady Elizabeth was five-and-twenty, an age in those days
somewhat mature, and one at which a young lady would
be thought wise by her family in accepting any creditable
offer. As to the Chesterfield letter, the evidence it con-
tains can only satisfy minds previously made up. It tes-
tifies certainly to something liko a "flirtation, and suggests


an interview, but there is nothing in it at all eompromi-
ing. The libels already mentioned are perfectly vague and
wholly untrustworthy.

It seems, though on no very definite evidence, that the
marriage was not altogether a happy one. Dryden ap-
pears to have acquired some small property in Wiltshire ;
perhaps also a royal grant which was made to Lady Eliz-
abeth in recognition of her father's services ; and Lord


Berkshire's Wiltshire house of Charlton became a countrv


retreat for the poet. But his wife was, it is said, ill-tem-
pered and not overburdened with brains, and he himself
was probably no more a model of conjugal propriety than
most of his associates. I say probably, for here, too, it is
astonishing how the evidence breaks down when it is ex-
amined, or rather how it vanishes altogether into air. Mr.
J. R. Green has roundly informed the world that " Dryden's
life was that of a libertine, and his marriage with a woman
who was yet more dissolute than himself only gave a new
spur to his debaucheries." We have seen what foundation
there is for this gross charge against Lady Elizabeth ; now
let us see what ground there is for the charge against Dry-
den. There are the libels of Shadwell and the rest of the
crew, to which not even Mr. Christie, a very severe judge
of Dryden's moral character, assigns the slightest weight ;
there is the immorality ascribed to Bayes in the Rehearsal,
a very pretty piece of evidence indeed, seeing that Bayes
is a confused medley of half-a-dozen persons ; there is a
general association by tradition of Dryden's name with
that of Mrs. Reeve, a beautiful actress of the day ; and
finally there is a tremendous piece of scandal which is the
battle-horse of the devil's advocates. A curious letter ap-
peared in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1745, the author
of which is unknown, though conjectures, as to which


there are difficulties, identify him \vith Dryden's youthful
friend Southern. " I remember," says this person, " plain
John Dryden, before he paid his court with success to
the great, in one uniform clothing of Norwich drugget. I

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 2 of 44)