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have ate tarts with him and Madam Reeve at the Mul-
berry Garden, when our -author advanced to a sword and
a Chedreux wig." Perhaps there is no more curious in-
stance of the infinitesimal foundation on which scandal
builds than this matter of Dryden's immorality. Putting
aside mere vague libellous declamation, the one piece of
positive information on the subject that we have is anon-
ymous, was made at least seventy years after date, and
avers that John Dryden, a dramatic author, once ate tarts
with an actress and a third person. This translated into
the language of Mr. Green becomes the dissoluteness of a

* C5

libertine, spurred up to new debaucheries.

It is immediately after the marriage that we have almost


our first introduction to Dryden as a live man seen by live
human beings. And the circumstances of this introduc-
tion are characteristic enough. On the 3rd of February,
1664, Pepys tells us that he stopped, as he was going to
fetch his wife, at the great coffee-house in Covent Garden,
and there he found " Dryden, the poet I knew at Cam-
bridge," and all the W'its of the town. The company
pleased Pepys, and he made a note to the effect that " it
will be good coming thither." But the most interesting
thing is this glimpse, first, of the associates of Dryden at
the university ; secondly, of his installation at Will's, the
famous house of call, where he was later to reign as undis-
puted monarch ; and, thirdly, of the fact that lie was al-
ready recognised as " Dryden the poet." The remainder
of the present chapter will best be occupied by pointing
out what he had done, and in brief space afterwards did


do, to earn that title, reserving the important subject of
his dramatic activity, which also began about this time,
for separate treatment.

The lines on the death of Lord Hastings, and the lines
to Hoddesdon, have, it has been said, a certain promise
about them to experienced eyes, but it is of that kind of
promise which, as the same experience teaches, is at least
as often followed by little performance as by much. The
lines on Crormvell deserve less faint praise. The following
stanzas exhibit at once the masculine strength and origi-
nality which were to be the poet's great sources of power,
and the habit of conceited and pedantic allusion which he
had caught from the fashions of the time :

" Swift and resistless through the land he passed,

Like that bold Greek who did the East subdue,
And made to battle such heroic haste
As if on wings of victory he flew.

" He fought secure of fortune as of fame,

Till by new maps the island might be shown
Of conquests, which he strew r ed where'er he came,
Thick as the galaxy with stars is sown.

J< His palms, though under weights they did not stand,

Still thrived ; no winter did his laurels fade.
Heaven in his portrait showed a workman's hand,
And drew it perfect, yet without a shade.

" Peace was the prize of all his toil and care,

Which war had banished, and did now restore :
Bologna's walls so mounted in the air
To seat themselves more surely than before."

An impartial contemporary critic, if he could have an-
ticipated the methods of a later school of criticism, might
have had some difficulty in deciding whether the masterly
plainness, directness, and vigour of the best lines here ought


or ought not to excuse the conceit about the palms and the
weights, and the fearfully far-fetched piece of fancy histo-
ry about Bologna. Such a critic, if he had had the better
part of discretion, would have decided in the affirmative.
There were not three poets then living who could have
written the best lines of the Heroic Stanzas, and what is
more, those lines were not in the particular manner of
either of the poets who, as far as general poetical merit
goes, might have written them. But the Restoration,
which for reasons given already I must hold to have been
genuinely welcome to Dryden, and not a mere occasion of
profitable coat-turning, brought forth some much less am-
biguous utterances. Astrcea Redux (1660), a panegyric
on the coronation (1661), a poem to Lord Clarendon
(1662), a few still shorter pieces of the complimentary
kind to Dr. Charleton (1663), to the Duchess of York
(1665), and to Lady Castlemaine (166-?), lead up to An-
nus Mirab'dis at the beginning of 1667, the crowning ef-
fort of Dryden's first poetical period, and his last before
the long absorption in purely dramatic occupations which
lasted till the Popish Plot and its controversies evoked
from him the expression of hitherto unsuspected powers.

These various pieces do not amount in all to more than
two thousand lines, of which nearly two-thirds belong to
Annus Mirabilis. But they were fully sufficient to sliow
that a new poetical power had arisen in the land, and their
qualities, good and bad, might have justified the anticipa-
tion that the writer would do better and better work as he
grew older. All the pieces enumerated, with the exception
of Annus Mirabilis, are in the heroic couplet, and their
versification is of such a kind that the relapse into the
quatrain in the longer poem is not a little surprising. But
nothing is more characteristic of Dryden than the extreme-


ly tentative character of his work, and he had doubtless not
yet satisfied himself that the couplet was suitable for nar-
rative poems of any length, notwithstanding the mastery
over it which he must have known himself to have attain-
ed in his short pieces. The very first lines of Astrcea Re-
dux show this mastery clearly enough.

"Now with a. general peace the world was blest,
While ours, a world divided from the rest,
A dreadful quiet felt, and worser far
Than arms, a sullen interval of war."

Here is already the energy divine for which the author
was to be famed, and, in the last line at least, an instance
of the varied cadence and subtly - disposed music which
were, in his hands, to free the couplet from all charges of
monotony and tameness. But almost immediately there
is a falling off. The poet goes off into an unnecessary
simile preceded by the hackneyed and clumsy " thus," a
simile quite out of place at the opening of a poem, and
disfigured by the too famous, " an horrid stillness first in-
vades the ear," which if it has been extravagantly blamed
and it seems to me that it has certainly will go near
to be thought a conceit. But we have not long to wait
for another chord that announces Dryden :

" For his long absence Church and State did groan,
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne.
Experienced age in deep despair was lost
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal crost.
Youth, that with joys had unacquainted been,
Envied grey hairs that once good days had seen.
We thought our sires, not with their own content,
Had, ere we came to age, our portion spent."

Whether the matter of this is suitable for poetry or not is


one of those questions on which doctors will doubtless
disagree to the end of the chapter. But even when we
look back through the long rows of practitioners of the
couplet who have succeeded Dryden, we shall, I think,
hardly find one w r ho is capable of such masterly treatment
of the form, of giving to the phrase a turn at once so clear
and so individual, of weighting the verse with such dignity,
and at the same time winging it with such lightly flying
speed. The poem is injured by numerous passages in-
troduced by the usual " as " and " thus " and " like," which
w r ere intended for ornaments, and which in fact simply
disfigure. It is here and there charged, after the manner
of the day, with inappropriate and clumsy learning, and
with doubtful Latinisms of expression. But it is redeemed
by such lines as

" When to be God's anointed was his crime ;"

as the characteristic gibe at the Covenant insinuated by
the description of the Guisean League

" As holy and as Catholic as ours ;"

as the hit at the

" Polluted nest
Whence legion twice before was dispossest ;"

as the splendid couplet on the British Amphitrite

" Proud her returning prince to entertain
With the submitted fasces of the main."

Such lines as these must have had for the readers of 1660
the attraction of a novelty which only very careful stu-
dents of the literature of the time can understand now.
The merits of Astrcea Redux must of course not be judged
by the readers acquiescence in its sentiments. But let


any one read the following passage without thinking of
the treaty of Dover and the closed exchequer, of Madam
Carwell's twelve thousand a year, and Lord Russell's scaf-
fold, and he assuredly will not fail to recognise their beauty :

" Methinks I sec those crowds on Dover's strand,
Who in their haste to welcome you to land
Choked up the beacli with their still-growing store,
And made a wilder torrent on the shore :
While, spurred with eager thoughts of past delight,
Those who had seen you court a second sight,
Preventing still your steps, and making haste
To meet you often wheresoe'er you past.
How shall I speak of that triumphant day
When you renewed the expiring pomp of May ?
A month that owns an interest in your name ;
You and the flowers are its peculiar claim.
That star, that at your birth shone out so bright
It stained the duller sun's meridian light,
Did once again its potent fires renew,
Guiding our eyes to find and worship you."

The extraordinary art with which the recurrences of the
you and your in the circumstances naturally recited with
a little stress of the voice are varied in position so as to
o-ive a corresponding variety to the cadence of the verse, is

t i. o *

perhaps the chief thing to be noted here. But a compari-
son with even the best couplet verse of the time will show
many other excellences in it. I am aware that this style
of minute criticism has gone out of fashion, and that the
variations of the position of a pronoun have terribly little
to do with "criticism of life;" but as I am dealing with
a great English author whose main distinction is to have
reformed the whole formal part of English prose and Eng-
glish poetry, I must, once for all, take leave to follow the
only road open to rne to show what he actually did.


The other smaller conplet-poems which have been men-
tioned are less important than Astrcea Redux, not merely
in point of size, but because they are later in date. The
piece on the coronation, however, contains lines and pas-
sages equal to any in the longer poem, and it shows very
happily the modified form of conceit which Dryden,
throughout his life, was fond of employing, and which,
employed with his judgment and taste, fairly escapes the
charges usually brought against " Clevelandisms," while it
helps to give to the heroic the colour and picturesqueness
which after the days of Pope it too often lacked. Such
is the fancy about the postponement of the ceremony-

" Had greater haste these sacred rites prepared,
Some guilty months had in our triumph shared.
But this untainted year is all your own,
Your glories may without our crimes be shown."

And such an exceedingly fine passage in the poem to
Clarendon, which is one of the most finished pieces of
Dryden's early versification

" Our setting sun from his declining seat
Shot beams of kindness on you, not of heat :
And, when his love was bounded in a few
That were unhappy that they might be true,
Made you the favourite of his last sad times ;
That is, a sufferer in his subjects' crimes :
Thus those first favours you received were sent,
Like Heaven's rewards, in earthly punishment.
Y r et Fortune, conscious of your destiny,
Even then took care to lay you softly by,
Ami wrapt your fate among her precious things,
Kept fresh to be unfolded with your King's.
Shown all at once, you dazzled so our eyes
As new-born Pallas did the god's surprise ;


When, springing forth from Jove's new-closing wound,
She struck the warlike spear into the ground ;
Which sprouting leaves did suddenly enclose,
And peaceful olives shaded as they rose."

For once the mania for simile and classical allusion has
not led the author astray here, but has furnished him with
a very happy and legitimate ornament. The only fault
in the piece is the use of " did," which Dryden never
wholly discarded, and which is perhaps occasionally allow-
able enough.

The remaining poems require no very special remark,
though all contain evidence of the same novel and un-
matched mastery over the couplet and its cadence. The
author, however, was giving himself more and more to the
dramatic studies which will form the subject of the next
chapter, and to the prose criticisms which almost from the
first he associated with those studies. But the events of
the year 1666 tempted him once more to indulge in non-
dramatic work, and the poem of Annus Mirabilis was the
result. It seems to have been written, in part at least, at
Lord Berkshire's seat of Charlton, close to Malmesbury,
and was prefaced by a letter to Sir Robert Howard. Dry-
den appears to have lived at Charlton during the greater
part of 1665 and 1666, the plague and fire years. He
had been driven from London, not merelv bv dread of

/ t/

the pestilence, but by the fact that his ordinary occupation
was gone, owing to the closing of the play-houses, and he
evidently occupied himself at Charlton with a good deal
of literary work, including his essay on dramatic poetry,
his play of the Maiden Queen, and Annus Mirabilis itself.
This last was published very early in 1667, and seems to
have been successful. Pepys bought it on the 2nd of Feb-
ruary, and was fortunately able to like it better than he did


Hudibms. " A very good poem," the Clerk of the Acts
of the Navy writes it down. It may be mentioned in
passing that during this same stay at Charlton Dryden's
eldest son Charles was born.

Annus Mirabilis consists of 304 quatrains on the Gon-
dibert model, reasons for the adoption of which Dryden
gives (not so forcibly, perhaps, as is usual with him) in the
before-mentioned letter to hi:; brother-in-law. He speaks of
rhyme generally with less respect than he was soon to show,
and declares that he has adopted the quatrain because he
judges it " more noble and full of dignity " than any other
form he knows. The truth seems to be that he was still
to a great extent under the influence of Davenant, and that
Gondibert as yet retained sufficient prestige to make its
stanza act as a not unfavourable advertisement, of poems
written in it. With regard to the nobility and dignity
of this stanza, it may safely be said that Annus Mira-
bilis itself, the best poem ever written therein, killed it by
exposing its faults. It is, indeed, at least when the rhymes
of the stanzas are unconnected, a very bad metre for the
purpose ; for it is chargeable with more than the disjoint-
edness of the couplet, without the possibility of relief;
while, on the other hand, the quatrains have not, like the
Spenserian stave or the ottava rima, sufficient bulk to form
units in themselves, and to include within them varieties
of harmony. Despite these drawbacks, however, Dryden
produced a very fine poem in Annus Mirabilis, though I
am not certain that even its best passages equal those
cited from the couplet pieces. At any rate, in this poem
the characteristics of the master in what may be called
his poetical adolescence are displayed to the fullest extent.
The weight and variety of his line, his abundance of illus-
tration and fancy, his happy turns of separate phrase, and


his singular faculty of bending to poetical uses the most
refractory names and things, all make themselves fully felt
here. On the other hand, there is still an undue tendency
to conceit and exuberance of simile. The famous lines

"These fight like husbands, but like lovers those ;
These fain would keep, and those more fain enjoy ;"

are followed in the next stanza by a most indubitably
" metaphysical " statement that

" Some preciously by shattered porcelain fall,
And some by aromatic splinters die."

This cannot be considered the happiest possible means of
informing us that the Dutch fleet was laden with spices
and magots. Such puerile fancies are certainly unworthy
of a poet who could tell how

" The mighty ghosts of our great Harrys rose
And armed Edwards looked with anxious eyes ;"

and who, in the beautiful simile of the eagle, has equalled
the Elizabethans at their own weapons. I cannot think,
however, admirable as the poem is in its best passages (the
description of the fire, for instance), that it is technically
the equal of Astrcea Redux. The monotonous recurrence
of the same identical cadence in each stanza a recurrence
which even Dryden's art was unable to prevent, and which
can only be prevented by some such interlacements of
rhymes and enjambements of sense as those which Mr.
Swinburne has successfully adopted in Laus Veneris in-
jures the best passages. The best of all is undoubtedly
the following :

"In this deep quiet, from what source unknown,
Those seeds of fire their fatal birth disclose ;
And first few scattering sparks about were blown,
Big with the flames that to our ruin rose.


" Then in some close-pent room it crept along,

And, smouldering as it went, in silence fed ;
Till the infant monster, with devouring strong,
Walked boldly upright with exalted head.

"Kow, like some rich and mighty murderer,

Too great for prison which he breaks with gold,
Who fresher for new mischiefs does appear,
And dares the world to tax him with the old.

" So 'scapes the insulting fire his narrow jail,

And makes small outlets into open air ;
There the fierce winds his tender force assail,
And beat him downward to his first repair.

" The winds, like crafty courtesans, withheld

His flames from burning but to blow them more;
And, every fresh attempt, he is repelled
With faint denials, weaker than before.

" And now, no longer letted of his prey,

He leaps up at it with enraged desire,
O'erlooks the neighbours with a wide survey,
And nods at every house his threatening fire.

" The ghosts of traitors from the Bridge descend,

With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice ;
About the fire into a dance they bend

And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice."

The last stanza, indeed, contains a fine image finely ex-
pressed, but I cannot but be glad that Dryden tried no
more experiments with the recalcitrant quatrain.

Annus Mirabilis closes the series of early poems, and
for fourteen years from the date of its publication Dryden
was known, with insignificant exceptions, as a dramatic
writer only. But his efforts in poetry proper, though they
had not as yet resulted in any masterpiece, had, as I have


endeavoured to point out, amply entitled him to the posi-
tion of a great and original master of the formal part of
poetry, if not of a poet who had distinctly found his way.
He had carried out a conception of the couplet which was
almost entirely new, having been anticipated only by some
isolated and ill -sustained efforts. He had manifested an
equal originality in the turn of his phrase, an extraordina-
ry command of poetic imagery, and, above all, a faculty of
handling by no means promising subjects in an indispu-
tably poetical manner. Circumstances which I shall now
proceed to describe called him away from the practice of
pure poetry, leaving to him, however, a reputation, amply
deserved and acknowledged even by his enemies, of pos-
sessing unmatched skill in versification. Nor were the
studies upon which he now entered wholly alien to his
proper function, though they were in some sort a bye-
work. They strengthened his command over the lan-
guage, increased his skill in verse, and, above all, tended
by degrees to reduce and purify what was corrupt in his
phraseology and system of ornamentation. Fourteen years
of dramatic practice did more than turn out some admira-
ble scenes and some even more admirable criticism. They
acted as a filtering reservoir for his poetical powers, so
that the stream which, when it ran into them, was the
turbid and rubbish - laden current of Annus Mirabilis,
flowed out as impetuous, as strong, but clear and with-
out base admixture, in the splendid verse of Absalom and



THERE are not many portions of English literature which
have been treated with greater severity by critics than the
Restoration drama, and of the Restoration dramatists few
have met with less favour, in proportion to their general
literary eminence, than Dryden. Of his comedies, in par-
ticular, few have been found to say a good word. His
sturdiest champion, Scott, dismisses them as "heavy ;" Haz-
litt, a defender of the Restoration comedy in general, finds
little in them but " ribaldry and extravagance ;" and I have
lately seen them spoken of with a shudder as "horrible."
The tragedies have fared better, but not much better ; and
thus the remarkable spectacle is presented of a general
condemnation, varied only by the faintest praise, of the
work to which an admitted master of English devoted,

O '

almost exclusively, twenty years of the flower of his man-
hood. So complete is the oblivion into which these dramas
have fallen, that it has buried in its folds the always charm-
ing and sometimes exquisite songs which they contain.
I^xcept in Congreve's two editions, and in the bulky edi-
tion of Scott, Dryden's theatre is unattainable, and thus the
majority of readers have but little opportunity of correct-
ing, from individual study, the unfavourable impressions
derived from the verdicts of the critics. For myself, I am


very far from considering- Drydcn's dramatic work as on a
level with his purely poetical work. But, as nearly always
happens, and as happened, by a curious coincidence, in the
case of his editor, the fact that he did something else much
better has obscured the fact that he did this tbino: in not


a few instances very well. Scott's poems as poems arc far
inferior to his novels as novels ; Dryden's plays are far in-
ferior as plays to his satires and his fables as poems. But
both the poems of Scott and the plays of Dryden are a
great deal better than the average critic admits.

That dramatic work went somewhat against the o-rain


with Dryden, is frequently asserted on his own authority,
and is perhaps true. He began it, however, tolerably early,
and had finished at least the scheme of a play (on a sub-
ject which he afterwards resumed) shortly after the Resto-
ration. As soon as that event happened, a double in-
centive to play-writing began to work upon him. It was
much the most fashionable of literary occupations, and also
much the most lucrative. Dryden was certainly not indif-
ferent to fame, and, though he was by no means a covetous
man, he seems to have possessed at all times the perfect
readiness to spend whatever could be honestly got which
frequently distinguishes men of letters. He set to work
accordingly, and produced in 1663 the Wild Gallant. We
do not possess this play in the form in which it was first
acted and damned. Afterwards Lady Castlemaine gave it
her protection ; the author added certain attractions ac-
cording to the taste of the time, and it was both acted and
published. It certainly cannot be said to be a great suc-
cess even as it is. Dryden had, like most of his fellows,
attempted the Comedy of Humours, as it was called at
the time, and as it continued to be, and to be called, till
the more polished comedy of manners, or artificial comedy,


succeeded it, owing to the success of Wycherley, and still
more of Conoreve. The number of comedies of this kind


written after 1620 is very large, while the fantastic and
poetical comedy of which Shakspeare and Fletcher had al-
most alone the secret had almost entirely died out. The
merit of the Comedy of Humours is the observation of
actual life which it requires in order to be done well, and
the consequent fidelity with which it holds up the muses'
looking-glass (to use the title of one of Randolph's plays)
to nature. Its defects are its proneness to descend into
farce, and the temptation which it gives to the writer to
aim rather at mere fragmentary and sketchy delineations
than at finished composition. At the Restoration this
school of drama was vigorously enough represented by

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