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siderable. With his patrimony included, Malone lias cal-
culated that for great part of the time his income must
have been fully 7007. a year, equal in purchasing power
to 2000/. a year in Malone's time, and probably to nearer
3000/. now. In June, 1668, the degree of Master of Arts,
to which, for some reason or other, Drydcn had never pro-
ceeded at Cambridge, was, at the recommendation of the
king, conferred upon him by the Archbishop of Canter-
bury. Two vears later, in the summer of 1670, he was

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made poet laureate and historiographer royal. 1 Davcnant,
the last holder of the laureateship, had died two years
previously, and Howell, the well-known author of the Epis-
tolce Ho-Eliance, and the late holder of the historiogra-
phership, four years before. When the two appointments
were conferred on Dryden, the salary was fixed in the
patent at 200/. a yeaij, besides the butt of sack which the
economical James afterwards cut off, and arrears since
Davenant's death were to be paid. In the same year, 1670,
the death of his mother increased his income by the 201.
a year which had been payable to her from the North-
amptonshire property. From 1667, or thereabouts, Dry-
den had been in possession of a valuable partnership with
the players of the king's house, for whom he contracted to
write three plays a year in consideration of a share and a
quarter of the profits. Dryden's part of the contract was
not performed, it seems ; but the actors declare that, at any
rate for some years, their part was, and that the poet's
receipts averaged from 3007. to 4007. a year, besides which
he had (sometimes, at any rate) the third night, and (we

1 The patent, given by Malone, is dated Aug. 18. Mr. W. Noel
Sainsbury, of the Record Office, has pointed out to me a preliminary
warrant to "our Attorney or Solicitor Generall" to "prepare a Bill"
for the purpose dated April 13.

68 DRl'DEX. [CHAP.

may suppose always) the bookseller's fee for the copyright
of the printed play, which together averaged 1007. a play
or more. Lastly, at the extreme end of the period most
probably, but certainly before 1679, the king granted him
an additional pension of 100/. a year. The importance
of this pension is more than merely pecuniary, for this is
the grant, the confirmation of which, after some delay, by
James, was taken by Macaulay as the wages of apostasy.

The pecuniary prosperity of this time was accompanied
by a corresponding abundance of the good things which
general!} 7 go with wealth. Dryden was familiar with most
of the literary nobles and gentlemen of Charles's court,
and Dorset, Etherege, Mulgrave, Sedley, and Rochester
were among his special intimates or patrons, whichever
word may be preferred. The somewhat questionable boast
which he made of this familiarity Xemcsis was not long
in punishing, and the instrument which Nemesis chose was
Rochester himself. It might be said of this famous per-
son, whom Etherege has hit off so admirably in his
Dorimant, that he was, except in intellect, the worst of all

the courtiers of the time, because he was one of the most
radically unamiable. It was truer of him even than of


Pope, that he was sure to play some monkey trick or
other on those who were unfortunate enough to be his in-


timates. He had relations with most of the literary men

of his time, but those relations almost always ended badly.


Sometimes he set them at each other like dogs, or procured
for one some court favour certain to annoy a rival ; some-
times he satirized them coarsely in his foul-mouthed
poems ; sometimes, as we shall see, he forestalled the
Chevalier de Rohan in his method of repartee. As early
as 1675 Rochester had disobliged Dryden, though the ex-
act amount of the injury has certainly been exaggerated


by Malone, whom most biographers, except Mr. Christie,
have followed. There is little doubt (though Mr. Christie
thinks otherwise) that one of the chief functions of the
poet laureate was to compose masques and such like pieces
to be acted by the court ; indeed, this appears to have
been the main regular duty of the office at least in the
seventeenth century. That Crowne should have been
charged with the composition of Calisto was, therefore, a
slio-ht to Dryden. Crowne was not a bad plav-wrio-ht.

/ 1 */

He might perhaps, by a plagiarism from Lamb's criticism
on Heywood, be called a kind of prose Dry den, and a
characteristic savins: of Dryden's, which has been handed

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down, seems to show that the latter recognized the fact.


But the addition to the charge against Rochester that he
afterwards interfered to prevent an epilogue, which Dry den
wrote for Crowne' s piece, from being recited, rests upon
absolutely no authority, and it is not even certain that the

/ */ '

epilogue referred to was actually written by Dryden.

In the year 1679, however, Dryden had a much more
serious taste of Rochester's malevolence. He had recently
become very intimate with Lord Mulgrave, who had quar-
relled with Rochester. Personal courage was not Roches-
ter's forte, and he had shown the white feather when
challenged by Mulgrave. Shortly afterwards there was

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circulated in manuscript an Essay on Satire, containing
virulent attacks on the king, on Rochester, and the Duch-
esses of Cleveland and Portsmouth. How any one could
ever have suspected that the poem was Dryden's it is dif-
ficult to understand. To begin with, he never at any time
in his career lent himself as a hired literary bravo to any
private person. In the second place, that he should at-
tack the king, from whom he derived the greatest part of
his income, was inconceivable. Thirdly, no literary judge

70 DRYDEN. [CHAP. m.

could for one moment connect him with the shambling
doggrel lines which distinguish the Essay on Satire in its
original form. A very few couplets have some faint ring
of Drydcn's verse, but not more than is perceivable in the
work of many other poets and poetasters of the time.
Lastly, Mulgrave, who, with some bad qualities, was truth-
ful and fearless enough, expressly absolves Dryden as be-
ing not only innocent, but ignorant of the whole matter.
However, Rochester chose to identify him as the author,


and in letters still extant almost expressly states his belief
in the fact, and threatens to " leave the repartee to Black
Will with a cudgel." On the 18th December, as Dryden
was going home at night, through Rose Alley, Covent
Garden, he was attacked and beaten by masked men.
Fifty pounds reward (deposited at what is now called
Childs' Bank) was offered for the discovery of the offend-
ers, and afterwards a pardon was promised to the actual
criminals if they would divulge the name of their employ-
er, but no thin 2: came of it. The intelligent critics of the

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time affected to consider the matter a disgrace to Dryden,
and few of the subsequent attacks on him fail to notice
it triumphantly. How frequent those attacks soon be-
came the next chapter will show.



IN the year 1680 a remarkable change came over tin? char-
acter of Dryden's work. Had he died in this year (and he
had already reached an age at which many men's work is
done) he would not at the present time rank very high even
among the second class of English poets. In pure poe-
try he had published nothing of the slightest consequence
for fourteen years, and though there was much admirable
work in his dramas, they could as wholes only be praised
by allowance. Of late years, too, he had given up the
style rhymed heroic drama which he had specially
made his own. He had been for some time casting about
for an opportunity of again taking up strictly poetical
work ; and, as usually happens with the favourites of fort-
une, a better opportunity than any he could have elaborated
for himself was soon presented to him. The epic poem
which, as he tells us, he intended to write would doubtless
have contained many fine passages and much splendid
versification ; but it almost certainly would not have been
the best thing in its kind even in its own language. The
series of satirical and didactic poems which, in the space
of less than seven years, he was now to produce, occupies
the position which the epic would almost to a certainty
have failed to attain. Not only is there nothing better



of their own kind in English, hut it may almost be said
that there is nothing better in any other literary language.
Satire, argument, and exposition may possibly be half-
spurious kinds of poetry that is a question which need
not be argued here. But among satirical and didactic
poems Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Macflecknoe,
ReUyio Laid, The Hind and the Panther, hold the first
place in company with very few rivals. In a certain kind
of satire to be defined presently they have no rival at all ;
and in a certain kind of argumentative exposition they
have no rival except in Lucretius.

It is probable that, until he was far advanced in middle
life, Dryden had paid but little attention to political and
relio-ious controversies, though he was well enough versed

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in their terms, and had a logical and almost scholastic

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mind. I have already endeavoured to show the unlikeli-


ness of his ever having been a very fervent Roundhead,
and I do not think that there is much more probability
of his having been a very fervent Royalist. His literary
work, his few friendships, and the tavern-coffeehouse life
which took up so much of the time of the men of that
day, probably occupied him sufficiently in the days of his
earlier manhood. He was loyal enough, no doubt, not
merely in lip-loyalty, and was perfectly ready to furnish
an Amboyna or anything else that w r as wanted ; but for
the first eighteen years of Charles the Second's reign, the
nation at large felt little interest, of the active kind, in po-
litical questions. Dryden almost always reflected the sym-
pathies of the nation at large. The Popish Plot, however,
and the dano-erous excitement which the miso;overnment of


Charles, on the one hand, and the machinations of Shaftes-
bury, on the other, produced, found him at an age when
serious subjects are at any rate, by courtesy, supposed to


possess greater attractions than they exert in youth. Tra-
dition has it that he was more or less directly encouraged
by Charles to write one, if not two, of the poems which in
a few months made him the first satirist in Europe. It is
possible, for Charles had a real if not a very lively interest
in literature, was a sound enough critic in his way, and
had ample shrewdness to perceive the advantage to his
own cause which he might gain by enlisting Dryden.
However this may be, Absalom and Achitophel was pub-
lished about the middle of November, 1681, a week or so
before the grand jury threw out the bill against Shaftes-
bury on a charge of high treason. At no time before,
and hardly at any time since, did party-spirit run higher;
and though the immediate object of the poem was defeat-
ed by the fidelity of the brisk boys of the city to their
leader, there is no question that the poem worked power-
fully among the influences which after the most desperate
struggle, short of open warfare, in which any English sov-
ereign has ever been engaged, finally won for Charles the
victory over the Exclusionists, by means at least ostensibly
constitutional and legitimate. It is, however, with the lit-
erary rather than with the political aspect of the matter
that we are here concerned.

The story of Absalom and Achitophel has obvious capac-
ities for political adaptation, and it had been more than
once so used in the course of the century, indeed (it would
appear), in the course of the actual political struggle in
which Dryden now engaged. Like many other of the
greatest writers, Dryden was wont to carry out Moliere's
principle to the fullest, and to care very little for technical
originality of plan or main idea. The form which his
poem took w ? as also in many ways suggested by the pre-
vailing literary tastes of the day. Both in France and in
^F 4* 6


England the character or portrait, a set description of a
given person in prose or verse, had for some time been
fashionable. Clarendon in the one conntrv, Saint Evre-

/ '

mond in the other, had in particular composed prose por-
traits which have never been surpassed. Dryden, accord-
ingly, made his poem little more than a string of such
portraits, connected together by the very slenderest thread
of narrative, and interspersed with occasional speeches in
which the arguments of his own side were put in a light
as favourable, and those of the other in a li^ht as un-

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favourable, as possible. He was always very careless of
anything like a regular plot for his poems a carelessness
rather surprising in a practised writer for the stage. But
he was probably right in neglecting this point. The sub-
jects with which he dealt were of too vital an interest to
his readers to allow them to stay 'and ask the question,
whether the poems had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Sharp personal satire and biting political denunciation need-
ed no such setting as this a setting which to all appear-
ance Dryden was as unable as he was unwilling to give.
He could, however, and did, give other things of much
greater importance. The wonderful command over the
couplet of which he had displayed the beginnings in his
early poems, and which had in twenty years of play-writing
been exercised and developed till its owner was in as thor-
ough training as a professional athlete, was the first of
these. The second was a faculty of satire, properly so
called, which was entirely novel. The third was a faculty
of specious argument in verse, which, as has been said, no
one save Lucretius has ever equalled ; and which, if it falls
short of the great Roman's in logical exactitude, hardly
falls short of it in poetical ornament, and excels it in a
sort of triumphant vivacity which hurries the reader along,


whether he will or no. All these three gifts arc almost in-
differently exemplified in the scries of poems now imd< -r
discussion, and each of them may deserve a little consid-
eration before we proceed to give account of the poems

The versification of English satire before Dry den had
been almost without exception harsh and ruo-o-ed. There

i. G^J

are whole passages of Marston and of Donne, as well as
more rarely of Hall, which can only be recognised for verse
by the rattle of the rhymes and by a diligent scansion with
the finger. Something the same, allowing for the influence
of Waller and his school, may be said of Marvell and even
of Oldham. Meanwhile, the octosyllabic satire of Cleve-
land, Butler, and others, though less violently uncouth than


the decasyllabics, was purposely grotesque. There is some
difference of opinion as to how far the heroic satirists them-
selves were intentionally rugged. Donne, when he chose,
could write with perfect sweetness, and Marston could be
smooth enough in blank verse. It has been thought that
some mistaken classical tradition made the early satirists


adopt their jaw -breaking style, and there may be some-
thing to be said for this ; but I think that regard must,

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in fairness, also be had to the very imperfect command of
the couplet which they possessed. The languid cadence
of its then ordinary form was unsuited for satire, and the
satirists had not the art of quickening and varying it.
Hence the only resource was to make it as like prose as
possible. But Dryden was in no such case ; his native
gifts and his enormous practice in play- writing had made
the couplet as natural a vehicle to him for any form of
discourse as blank verse or as plain prose. The form of
it, too, which he had most affected, was specially suited for
satire. In the first place, this form had, as has already


been noted, a remarkably varied cadence ; in the second,
its strong antitheses and smart telling hits lent themselves

o o

to personal description and attack with consummate ease.
There are passages of Dryden's satires in which every
couplet has not only the force but the actual sound of a
slap in the faee. The rapidity of movement from one
couplet to the other is another remarkable characteristic.
Even Pope, master as he was of verse, often fell into the
fault of isolating his couplets too much, as if he expected
applause between each, and wished to give time for it.
Dryden's verse, on the other hand, strides along with a
careless Olympian motion, as if the writer were looking
at his victims rather with a kind of good-humoured scorn
than with any elaborate triumph.

This last remark leads us naturally to the second head,
the peculiar character of Dryden's satire itself. In this re-
spect it is at least as much distinguished from its prede-
cessors as in the former. There had been a continuous
Tradition among satirists that they must affect immense
moral indignation at the evils they attacked. Juvenal and
still more Persius are probably responsible for this; and
even Dryden's example did not put an end to the practice,
for in the next century it is found in persons upon whom
it sits with singular awkwardness such as Churchill and
Lloyd. Now, this moral indignation, apt to be rather tire-
some when the subject is purely ethical Marston is a glar-
ing example of this becomes quite intolerable when the
subject is political. It never does for the political satirist
to lose his temper, and to rave and rant and denounce with
the air of an inspired prophet. Dryden, and perhaps Dry-
den alone, has observed this rule. As I have just observed,
his manner towards his subjects is that of a cool and not
ill-humoured scorn. They are great scoundrels certainly,


but they are probably even more contemptible than they
are vicious. The well-known line

" They got a villain, and we lost a fool,"

expresses this attitude admirably, and the attitude in its
turn explains the frantic rage which Dryden's satire pro-
duced in his opponents. There is yet another peculiarity
of this satire in which it stands almost alone. Most satir-
ists are usually prone to the error of attacking either mere
types, or else individuals too definitely marked as individ-
uals. The first is the fault of Regnier and all the minor
French satirists ; the second is the fault of Pope. In the
first case the point and zest of the thing are apt to be lost,
and the satire becomes a declamation against vice and fol-
ly in the abstract ; in the second case a suspicion of per-
sonal pique comes in, and it is felt that the requirement of
art, the disengagement of the general law from the individ-
ual instance, is not sufficiently attended to. Regnier per-
haps only in Macette, Pope perhaps only in Atticus, escape
this Scylla and this Charybdis ; but Dryden rarely or nev-
er falls into cither's grasp. His figures are always at once
types and individuals. Zimri is at once Buckingham and
the idle grand seigneur who plays at politics and at learn-
ing ; Achitophel at once Shaftesbury and the abstract in-
triguer; Shiinei at once Bethel and the sectarian politician
of all days. It is to be noticed, also, that in drawing these
satirical portraits the poet has exercised a singular judgment
in selecting his traits. If Absalom and Acldtophel be com-
pared with the replies it called forth, this is especially no-
ticeable. Shadwell, for instance, in the almost incredibly
scurrilous libel which he put forth in answer to the Medal,
accuses Dryden of certain definite misdoings and missay-
ings, most of which are unbelievable, while others are in-


conclusive. Dry den, on the other hand, in the character
of Og, confines himself in the adroitest way to generalities.
These generalities are not only much more effective, but
also much more difficult of disproval. AY hen, to recur to
the already quoted and typical line attacking the unlucky
Johnson, Dryden says

" They got a villain, and we lost a fool,"

it is obviously useless for the person assailed to sit down
and write a rejoinder tending to prove that he is neither
one nor the other. He mio-ht clear himself from the


charge of villainy, but only at the inevitable cost of estab-
lishing that of folly. But when Shadwell, in unquotable
verses, says to Dryden, on this or that day you did such
and such a discreditable thing, the reply is obvious. In
the first place the charge can be disproved ; in the second
it can be disdained. When Dryden himself makes such
charges, it is always in a casual and allusive way, as if
there were no general dissent as to the truth of his alle-
gation, while he takes care to be specially happy in his
language. The disgraceful insinuation against Forbes,
the famous if irreverent dismissal of Lord Howard of

" And canting Nadab let oblivion damn,
Who made new porridge for the paschal lamb,"

justify themselves by their form if not by their matter.
It has also to be noted that Dryden's facts are rarely dis-
putable. The famous passage in which Settle and Shad-
well are yoked in a sentence of discriminating damnation
is an admirable example of this. It is absolutely true that
Settle had a certain faculty of writing, though the matter
of his verse was worthless ; and it is absolutely true that


Shadwell wrote worse, and was in some respects a duller
man, than any person of equal talents placed among Eng-
lish men of letters. There could not possibly be a more
complete justification of Macflecknoe than the victim's
complaint that " he had been represented as an Irish-
man, though Dryden knew perfectly well that he had
only once been in Ireland, and that was but for a few

Lastly has to be noticed Dryden's singular faculty of
verse argument. He was, of course, by no means the first
didactic poet of talent in England. Sir John Davies is
usually mentioned specially as his forerunner, and there
were others who would deserve notice in a critical history
of English poetry. But Dryden's didactic poems are quite
unlike anything which came before them, and have never
been approached by anything that has come after them.
Doubtless they prove nothing ; indeed, the chief of them,
The Hind and the Panther, is so entirely desultory that it
could not prove anything ; but at the same time they have
a remarkable air of proving something. Dryden had, in
reality, a considerable touch, of the scholastic in his mind.
He delights at all times in the formulas of the schools,
and his various literary criticisms are frequently very fair
specimens of deductive reasoning. The bent of his mind,
moreover, was of that peculiar kind which delights in ar-
guing a point. Something of this may be traced in the
singular variety, not to say inconsistency, even of his liter-
ary judgments. He sees, for the time being, only the point
which he has set himself to prove, and is quite careless of
the fact that he has proved something very different yes-
terday, and is very likely to prove something different still
to-morrow. But for the purposes of didactic poetry he
had special equipments unconnected with his merely logi-


cal power. He was at all times singularly happy and fer-
tile in the art of illustration, and of concealing the weak-

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ness of an argument in the most convincing way, by a
happy simile or jest. He steered clear of the rock on
which Lucretius has more than once gone nigh to split
the repetition of dry formulas and professional terms. In
the Hind and Panther, indeed, the argument is, in great
part, composed of narrative and satirical portraiture. The
Fable of the Pigeons, the Character of the Buzzard, and a
dozen more such things, certainly prove as little as the
most determined enemy of the belles lettres could wish.
But Rdiyio Laid, which is our best English didactic
poem, is not open to this charge, and is really a very
good piece of argument. Weaknesses here and there are,
of course, adroitly patched over with ornament, but still
the whole possesses a very fair capacity of holding water.
Here, too, the peculiar character of Drydeivs poetic style
served him well. He speaks with surely affected depre-
ciation of the style of the Religio as " unpolished and

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 6 of 44)