Copyright
John Morley.

English men of letters (Volume 3) online

. (page 5 of 44)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 5 of 44)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


wise inexplicable conduct. His attack on Settle is, from
a strictly literary point of view, one of his most unjustifia-
ble acts. The pamphlet, it is true, is said to have been
mainly "Starch Johnny" Crow r ne's, and the character of
its strictures is quite different from Dryden's broad and
catholic manner of censuring. But the adage, " tell me



54 DRYDEX. [CHAP.

with whom you live," is peculiarly applicable in such a
case, and Dryden must be held responsible for the assault,
whether its venom be really due to himself, to Crowne, or
to the foul-mouthed libeller of whose virulence the laure-
ate himself was in years to come to have but too familiar
experience.

A very different play in 1672 gave Dryden almost as
much credit in comedy as the Conquest of Granada in
tragedy. There is, indeed, a tragic or serious underplot
(and a very ridiculous one, too) in Marriage a la Mode.
But its main interest, and certainly its main value, is comic.
It is Dryden's only original excursion into the realms of
the higher comedy. For his favourite pair of lovers he
here substitutes a quartette. Rhodophil and Doralice arc
a fashionable married pair, who, without having actually
exhausted their mutual affection, are of opinion that their
character is quite gone if they continue faithful to each
other any longer. Rhodophil accordingly lays siege to
Melantha, a young lady who is intended, though he does
not know this, to marry his friend Palamede, while Pala-

J

mede, deeply distressed at the idea of matrimony, devotes
himself to Doralice. The cross purposes of this quartette
are admirably related, and we are given to understand that
no harm comes of it all. But in Doralice and Melantha
Dryden has given studies of womankind quite out of his
usual line. Melantha is, of course, far below Millamant,
but it is not certain that that delightful creation of Con-
greve's genius does not owe something to her. Doralice,
on the other hand, has ideas as to the philosophy of flirta-
tion which do her no little credit. It is a thousand pities
that the play is written in the language of the time, which
makes it impossible to revive and difficult to read without
disgust.



m.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY. 55

Nothing of this kind can or need be said about the
play which followed, the Assignation. It is vulgar, coarse,
and dull; it was damned, and deserved it; while its suc-
cessor, Amboyna, is also deserving of the same epithets,
though being a mere play of ephemeral interest, and serv-
ing its turn, it was not damned. The old story of the
Amboyna massacre a bad enough story, certainly was
simply revived in order to excite the popular wrath against
the Dutch.

The dramatic production which immediately succeeded
these is one of the most curious of Dryden's perform-
ances. A disinclination to put himself to the trouble of
designing a wholly original composition is among the most
noteworthy of his literary characteristics. No man fol-
lowed or copied in a more original manner, but it always
seems to have been a relief to him to have something to
follow or to copy. Two at least of his very best produc-
tions All for Love and Palamon and Arcite are spe-
cially remarkable in this respect. We can hardly say that
the State of Innocence ranks with either of these ; yet it
has considerable merits merits of which very few of
those who repeat the story about " tagging Milton's verses "
are aware. As for that story itself, it is not particularly
creditable to the good manners of the elder poet. " Ay,
young man, you may tag my verses if you will," is the
traditional reply which Milton is said to have made- to
Dryden's request for permission to write the opera, The
question of Dryden's relationship to Milton and his early
opinion of Paradise Lost is rather a question for a Life of
Milton than for the present pages : it is sufficient to say
that, with his unfailing recognition of good work, Dryden
undoubtedly appreciated Milton to the full long before
Addison, as it is vulgarly held, taught the British public



56 DRYDEN. V CHAP -

to admire him. As for the State of Innocence itself, the
conception of such an opera has sometimes been derided
as preposterous a derision which seems to overlook the
fact that Milton was himself, in some degree, indebted to
an Italian dramatic original. The piece is not wholly in
rhyme, but contains some very fine passages.

The time was approaching, however, when Dryden was
to quit his " long-loved mistress Rhyme," as far as dra-
matic writing was concerned. These words occur in the
prologue to Aurengzebe, which appeared in 1675. It would
appear, indeed, that at this time Dryden was thinking of
deserting not merely rhymed plays, but play-writing alto-
gether. The dedication to Mulgrave contains one of sev-
eral allusions to his well-known plan of writing a great
heroic poem. Sir George Mackenzie had recently put
him upon the plan of reading through most of the earlier
English poets, and he had done so attentively, with the
result of aspiring to the epic itself. But he still continued
to write dramas, though Aurengzebe was his last in rhyme,
at least wholly in rhyme. It is in some respects a very
noble play, free from the rants, the preposterous bustle,
and the still more preposterous length of the Conquest of
Granada, while possessing most of the merits of that sin-
gular work in an eminent degree. Even Dryden hardly
ever went farther in cunning of verse than in some of the

CJ

passages of Aurenyzebe, such as that well-known one which
seems to take up an echo of Macbeth :

"When I consider life, 'tis all a cheat.
Yet, fooled with hope, men favour the deceit,
Trust on, and think to-morrow will repay.
To-morrow's falser than the former day,
Lies worse, and while it says, we shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possest.



in.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY. &7

Strange cozenage! none would live- p:i.-t \.\UH again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain,
And from the dregs of life think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.
I'm tired with waiting for this chemic gold
Which fools us young and beggars us when old."

There is a good deal of moralizing of this melancholy
kind in the play, the characters of which are drawn with
a serious completeness not previously attempted by the
author. It is perhaps the only one of Dryden's which,
with very little alteration, might be acted, at least as a
curiosity, at the present day. It is remarkable that the
structure of the verse in the play itself would have led to
the conclusion that Dryden was about to abandon rhyme.
There is in Aurengzebe a great tendency towards ci(/<nnbc-
ment ; and as soon as this tendency gets the upper hand,
a recurrence to blank verse is, in English dramatic writing

o o *

tolerably certain. For the intonation of English is not,
like the intonation of French, such that rhyme is an abso-
lute necessity to distinguish verse from prose ; and where
this necessity does not exist, rhyme must always appear
to an intelligent critic a more or less impertinent intrusion
in dramatic poetry. Indeed, the main thins: which had

j. / * C?

for a time converted Dryden and others to the use of the
couplet in drama was a curious notion that blank verse
was too easy for long and dignified compositions. It was
thought by others that the secret of it had been lost, and
that the choice was practically between bad blank verse
and good rhyme. In All for Love Dryden very shortly
showed, ambulando, that this notion was wholly ground-
less. From this time forward he was faithful to the model
he had now adopted, and which was of the greatest im-
portance he induced others to be faithful too. Had it
E 5



68 DRYDEX. [CHAP.

not been for tins, it is almost certain that Venice Preserved
would have been in rhyme ; that is to say, that it would
have been spoilt. In this same year, 1675, a publisher,
Bentley (of whom Dry den afterwards spoke with consid-
erable bitterness), brought out a play called The Mistaken
Husband, which is stated to have been revised, and to have
had a scene added to it by Dryden. Dryden, however,
definitely disowned it, and I cannot think that it is in any
part his ; though it is fair to say that some good judges,
notably Mr. Swinburne, think differently. 1 Nearly three
years passed without anything of Drydeirs appearing, and
at last, at the end of 1677, or the beginning of 1678, ap-
peared a play as much better than Aurengzebe as Aureng-
zebe was better than its forerunners. This was All for
Love, his first drama, in blank verse, and his " only play
written for himself." More will be said later on the cu-
rious fancy which made him tread in the very steps of
Shakspeare. It is sufficient to say now that the attempt,
apparently foredoomed to hopeless failure, is, on the con-
trary, a great success. Antony and Cleopatra and All for

1 The list of Dryden's spurious or doubtful works is not large or
important. But a note of Pepys, mentioning a play of Dryden en-
titled Ladies d la Mode, which was acted and damned in 1668, has
puzzled the commentators. There is no trace of this Ladies d la
Mode. But Mr. E. W. Gosse has in his collection a play entitled The
Mall, or The Modish Lovers, which he thinks may possibly be the very
"mean thing" of Pcpys' scornful mention. The difference of title
is not fatal, for Samuel was not over-accurate in such matters. The
play is anonymous, but the preface is signed J. D. The date is 1674,
and the printing is execrable, and evidently not revised by the author,
whoever he was. Notwithstanding this, the prologue, the epilogue,
and a song contain some vigorous verse and phrase sometimes not a
little suggestive of Dryden. In the entire absence of external evi-
dence connecting him with it, the question, though one of much in-
terest, is perhaps not one to be dealt with at any length here.



in.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY.

Love, when they are contrasted, only show by the contract,
the difference of kind, not the difference of derive, be-
tween their writers. The heroic conception has heiv, in
all probability, as favourable exposition given to it as it is
capable of, and it must be admitted that it makes a not un-
favourable show even without the "dull sweets of rhyme"
to drug the audience into good humour with it. The fa-
mous scene between Antony and Ventidius divides with
the equally famous scene in Don Sebastian between Sebas-
tian and Dorax the palm among Dryden's dramatic efforts.
But as a whole the play is, I think, superior to Don Sebas-
tian. The blank verse, too, is particularly interesting, be-
cause it was almost its author's first attempt at that crux ;
and because, for at least thirty years, hardly any tolerable
blank verse omitting of course Milton's had been writ-
ten by any one. The model is excellent, and it speaks
Dryden's unerring literary sense, that, fresh as he was from
the study of Paradise Lost, and great as was his admira-
tion for its author, he does not for a moment attempt to
confuse the epic and the tragic modes of the style. All
for Love was, and deserved to be, successful. The play
which followed it, Limberkam, was, and deserved to be,
damned. It must be one of the most astonishing things

O O

to any one who has not fully grasped the weakness as well
as the strength of Dryden's character, that the noble mat-
ter and manner of Aurengzebe and All for Love should
have been followed by this filthy stuff. As a play, it is by
no means Dryden's worst piece of work ; but, in all other
respects, the less said about it the better. During the time
of its production the author collaborated with Lee in writ-
ing the tragedy of CEd'qnis, in which both the friends are
to be seen almost at their best. On Dryden's part, the
lyric incantation scenes are perhaps most noticeable, and



60 DRYDEX. [CRAP.

Lee mingles throughout his usual bombast with liis usual

o o

splendid poetry. If any one thinks this expression hy-
perbolical, I shall only ask him to read (Ed'qnis, instead
of taking the traditional witticisms about Lee for gospel.
There is of course plenty of

" Let gods meet gods and jostle in the dark,"

and the other fantastic follies, into which " metaphysical''
poetry and " heroic " plays had seduced men of talent,
and sometimes of genius ; but these can be excused when
they lead to such a passage as that where CEdipus cries

" Thou coward ! yet

Art living ? canst not, wilt not find the road
To the great palace of magnificent death,
Though thousand ways lead to his thousand doors
Which day and night are still unbarred for all."

(Edipus led to a quarrel with the players of the King's
Theatre, of the merits of which, as we only have a one-
sided statement, it is not easy to judge. But Dryden
seems to have formed a connexion about this time with
the other or Duke's company, and by them (April, 1679)
a "pot-boiling" adaptation of Troilus and Cressida was
bron o-lit out, which inio-ht much better have been left un-

^j / ^3

attempted. Two years afterwards appeared the last play
(leaving operas and the scenes contributed to the Duke of
Guise out of the question) that Dryden was to write for
many years. This was The Spanish Friar, a popular piece,
possessed of a good deal of merit, from the technical point
of view of the play-wright, but which I think has been
somewhat over-rated, as far as literary excellence is con-
cerned. The principal character is no doubt amusing, but
he is heavily indebted to Falstaff on the one hand, and to
Fletcher's Lopez on the other ; and he reminds the reader



in.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY. r,i

of both his ancestors in a way which cannot but be un-
favourable to himself. The play is to me most interesting
because of the light it throws on Dryden's grand charac-
teristic, the consummate craftsmanship with which he could
throw himself into the popular feeling of the hour. This
"Protestant play' is perhaps his most notable achieve-
ment of the kind in drama, and it may be admitted that

J

some other achievements of the same kind are less cred-
itable.

Allusion has more than once been made to the very high
quality, from the literary point of view, of the songs which
appear in nearly all the plays of this long list. They con-
stitute Dryden's chief title to a high rank as a composer
of strictly lyrical poetry ; and there are indeed few things
which better illustrate the range of his genius than these
exquisite snatches. At first sight, it would not seem by
any means likely that a poet whose greatest triumphs were
won in the fields of satire and of argumentative verse

o

should succeed in such things. Ordinary lyric, especially
of the graver and more elaborate kind, might not surprise
us from such a man. But the sono - o-ift is something dis-

<-} O O

tinct from the faculty of ordinary lyrical composition ; and
there is certainly nothing which necessarily infers it in the
pointed declamation and close-ranked argument with which
the name of Dryden is oftenest associated. But the later
seventeenth century had a singular gift for such perform-
ance a kind of swan-song, it might be thought, before
the death-like slumber which, with few and brief intervals,
was to rest upon the English lyric for a hundred years.
Dorset, Rochester, even Mulorave, wrote singularly fasci-

L^ <^ /

nating songs, as smooth and easy as Moore's, and with far
less of the commonplace and vulgar about them. Aphra
Behn was an admirable, and Tom Durfey a far from des-



62 DRYDEX. [CHAP

picablc, songster. Even among the common run of play-
wrights, who have left no lyrical and not much literary
reputation, scraps and snatches which have the true song
stamp are not unfrcquently to be found. But Drydcn
excelled them all in the variety of his cadences and the

/

ring of his lines. Nowhere do we feel more keenly the
misfortune of his licence of language, which prevents too
many of these charming songs from being now quoted or
sung. Their abundance may be illustrated by the fact
that a single play, The Mock Astrologer, contains no less
than four songs of the very first lyrical merit. " You
charmed me not with that fair face," is an instance of the
well-known common measure which is so specially Eng-
lish, and which is poetry or doggrel according to its ca-
dence. "After the pangs of a desperate lover" is one
of the rare examples of a real dactylic metre in English,
were the dactyls are not, as usual, equally to be scanned
as anapaests. " Calm was the even, and clear was the sky,"
is a perfect instance of what may be called archness in
song; and "Celimena of my heart," though not much
can be said for the matter of it, is at least as much a met-
rical triumph as any of the others. Xor are the other
plays less rich in similar work. The song beginning
" Farewell, ungrateful traitor," gives a perfect example of
a metre which has been used more than once in our own
days with great success ; and " Long between Love and
Fear Phyllis tormented," which occurs in The Assignation,
gives yet another example of the singular fertility with
which Dryden devised and managed measures suitable for
song. His lyrical faculty impelled him also especially
in his early plays to luxuriate in incantation scenes, lyr-
ical dialogues, and so forth. These have been ridiculed,
not altogether unjustly, in The Rehearsal ; but the incan-



in.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY. (,:;

tation scene in CEdipus is very far above the average of
such things; and of not a few passages in Kiny Arthxr
at least as much may be said.

Dryden's energy was so entirely occupied with play-
writing during this period that he had hardly, it would
appear, time or desire to undertake any other work. To-
wards the middle of it, however, when he had, by poems
and plays, already established himself as the greatest liv-
ing poet Milton being out of the question he began to
be asked for prologues and epilogues by other poets, or
bv the actors on the occasion of the revival of old plays.

/ i tj

These prologues and epilogues have often been comment-
ed upon as one of the most curious literary phenomena of
the time. The custom is still, on special occasions, spar-
ingly kept up on the stage; but the prologue, and still
more the epilogue, to the Westminster play are the chief
living representatives of it. It was usual to comment in
these pieces on circumstances of the day, political and oth-
er. It was also usual to make personal appeals to the au-
dience for favour and support very much in the manner
of the old Trouveres when they commended their wares.
But more than all, and worst of all, it was usual to indulge
in the extremes! licence both of lancmao-e and meaning.

O O ~

The famous epilogue one of Dryden's own to Tyran-
nic Love, in which Mrs. Eleanor Gwyn, being left for dead
on the stage, in the character of St. Catherine, and being
about to be carried out by the scene-shifters, exclaims

" Hold ! are you mad ? you damned confounded dog,
I am to rise and speak the epilogue,"

is only a very mild sample of these licences, upon which
Macaulay has commented with a severity which is for
once absolutely justifiable. There was, however, no poet



64 DRYDEX. [CHAP.

who had the knack of telling allusion to passing events
as Drydcn had, and he was early engaged as a prologue
writer. The first composition that we have of this kind
written for a play not his own is the prologue to AUnuna-
zar, a curious piece, believed, but not known, to have been
written by a certain Tomkis in James the First's reign,
and ranking among the many which have been attributed
with more or less (generally less) show of reason to Shak-
speare. Dryden's knowledge of the early English drama
was not exhaustive, and he here makes a charge of plagi-
arism against Ben Jonson, for which there is in all proba-
bility not the least ground. The piece contains, however,
as do most of these vigorous, though unequal composi-
tions, many fine lines. The next production of the kind
not intended for a play of his own is the prologue to the
first performance of the king's servants, after they had
been burnt out of their theatre, and this is followed bv

/

many others. In 1673 a prologue to the University of
Oxford, spoken when the Silent Woman was acted, is the
first of many of the same kind. It has been mentioned
that Dryden speaks slightingly of these University prol-
ogues, but they are among his best pieces of the class, and
are for the most part entirely free from the ribaldry with
which he was but too often wont to alloy them. In these
years pieces intended to accompany Carlell's Arviragus
and Philida, Etherege's Man of Mode, Charles Davenant's
Circe, Lee's Mithridates, Shad well's True Widow, Lee's
Ccesar Borgia*, Tate's Loyal General, and not a few others
occur. A specimen of the style in which Dryden excelled
so remarkably, and which is in itself so utterly dead, may
fairly be given here, and nothing can be better for the
purpose than the most famous prologue to the University
of Oxford. This is the prologue in which the poet at



in.] PERIOD OF DRAMATIC ACTIVITY. 65

once displays his exquisite capacity for flattery, liis com-
mand over versification, and his singular antipathy to his
own Alma Mater; an antipathy which, it may be pointed
out, is confirmed by the fact of his seeking his master's
decree rather at Lambeth than at Cambridge. "Whether

C7 O

any solution to the enigma can be found in Dennis's re-
mark that the " younger fry " at Cambridge preferred Set-
tle to their own champion, it would be vain to attempt to
determine. The following piece, however, may be taken
as a fair specimen of the more decent prologue of the
later seventeenth century :

i

" Though actors cannot much of learning boast,
Of all who want it, we admire it most :
We love the praises of a learned pit,
As we remotely are allied to wit.
We speak our poet's wit, and trade in ore,
Like those who touch upon tVe golden shore ;
Betwixt our judges can distinction make,
Discern how much, and why, our poems take ;
Mark if the fools, or men of sense, rejoice ;
Whether the applause be only sound or voice.
When our fop gallants, or our city folly,
Clap over-loud, it makes us melancholy :
We doubt that scene which does their wonder raise,
And, for their ignorance, contemn their praise.
Judge, then, if we who act, and they who write,
Should not be proud of giving you delight.
London likes grossly ; but this nicer pit
Examines, fathoms all the depths of wit ;
The ready finger lays on every blot ;
Knows what should justly please, and what should not.
Xature herself lies open to your view,
You judge, by her, what draught of her is true,
Where outlines false, and colours seem too faint,
Where bunglers daub, and where true poets paint.
4



66 DRYDEN. [CHAP.

But by the sacred genius of this place,

By every Muse, by each domestic grace,

Be kind to wit, which but endeavours well,

And, where you judge, presumes not to excel.

Our poets hither for adoption come,

As nations sued to be made free of Rome ;

Not in the suffragating tribes to stand,

But in your utmost, last, provincial band.

If his ambition may those hopes pursue,

Who with religion loves your arts and you,

Oxford to him a dearer name shall be,

Than his own mother-university.

Thebes did his green, unknowing youth engage;

He chooses Athens iu his riper age."

During this busy period, Dryden's domestic life had
been comparatively uneventful. His eldest son bad been
born either in 1665 or in 1666, it seems not clear which.
His second son, John, was born a year or two later ; and
the third, Erasmus Henry, in May, 1669. These three
sons were all the children Lady Elizabeth brought him.
The two eldest went, like their father, to Westminster,
and had their schoolboy troubles there, as letters of Dryden
still extant show. During the whole period, except in his
brief visits to friends and patrons in the country, he was
established in the house in Gerrard Street, which is identi-
fied with his name. 1 While the children were young, his
means must have been sufficient, and, for those days, con-

1 A house in Fetter Lane, now divided into two, bears a plate stating
that Dryden lived there. The plate, as I was informed by the pres-
ent occupiers, replaces a stone slab or inscription which was destroy-
ed in some alterations not very many years ago. I know of no ref-
erence to this house in any book, nor does Mr. J. C. Collins, who
called my attention to it. If Dryden ever lived here, it must have
been between his residence with Herringman and his marriage.



Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 5 of 44)