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rugged." In reality, it is a model of the plainer sort of
verse, and nearer to his own admirable prose than anything
else that can be cited.

One thing more, and a thing of the greatest importance,
has to be said about Dryden's satirical poems. There
never, perhaps, was a satirist who less abused his power for
personal ends. He only attacked Settle and Shadwell af-
ter both had assailed him in the most virulent and unpro-
voked fashion. Many of the minor assailants whom, as
we shall see, Absalom and Achitophel raised up against
him, he did not so much as notice. On the other hand,
no kind of personal grudge can be traced in many of his
most famous passages. The character of Zimri was not
only perfectly true and just, but was also a fair literary


tit-for-tat in return for the Rehearsal ; nor did Bucking-

' ^j

ham's foolish rejoinder provoke the poet to say another
word. Last of all, in no part of his satires is there the
slightest reflection on Rochester, notwithstanding the dis-
graceful conduct of which he had been guilty. Rochester
was dead, leaving no heirs and very few friends, so that at
any time during the twenty years which Dryden survived

v O V V /

him satirical allusion would have been safe and easy. But
Dryden was far too manly to war with the dead, and far
too manly even to indulge, as his great follower did, in
vicious flings at the living.

Absalom and Achitophel is perhaps, with the exception
of the St. Cecilia ode, the best known of all Drvden's


poems to modern readers, and there is no need to give any
very lengthy account of it, or of the extraordinary skill
with which Monmouth is treated. The sketch, even now
about the best existing in prose or verse, of the Popish
Plot, the character and speeches of Achitophel, the unap-
proached portrait of Zimri, and the final harangue of
David, have for generations found their places in every
book of elegant extracts, either for general or school use.
But perhaps the most characteristic passage of the whole,
as indicating the kind of satire which Dryden now intro-
duced for the first time, is the passage descriptive of
Shimei Slingsby Bethel the Republican sheriff of the

" But he, though bad, is followed by a worse,
The wretch, who heaven's anointed dared to curse;
Shimei whose youth did early promise bring
Of zeal to God, and hatred to his King
Did wisely from expensive sins refrain,
And never broke the Sabbath but for gain :
Nor ever was he known an oath to vent,
Or curse, unless against the government.


Thus heaping wealth, by the most ready way

Among the Jews, which was to cheat and pray ;

The City, to reward his pious hate

Against his master, chose him magistrate.

His hand a vare of justice did uphold,

His neck was loaded with a chain of gold.

During his office treason was no crime,

The sons of Belial had a glorious time :

For Shimei, though not prodigal of pelf,

Yet loved his wicked neighbour as himself.

When two or three were gathered to declaim

Against the monarch of Jerusalem,

Skimei was always in the midst of them :

And, if they cursed the King when he was by,

Would rather curse than break good company.

If any durst his factious friends accuse,

He packed a jury of dissenting Jews,

Whose fellow-feeling in the godly cause

Would free the suffering saint from human laws :

For laws are only made to punish those

Who serve the King, and to protect his foes.

If any leisure time he had from power,

Because 'tis sin to misemploy an hour,

His business was, by writing to persuade,

That kings were useless, and a clog to trade:

And that his noble style he might refine,

No Rechabite more shunned the fumes of wine.

Chaste were his cellars, and his shrieval board

The grossness of a city feast abhorred :

His cooks with long disuse their trade forgot ;

Cool was his kitchen, though his brains were hot.

Such frugal virtue malice may accuse,

But sure 'twas necessary to the Jews :

For towns, once burnt, such magistrates require,

As dare not tempt God's providence by fire.

With spiritual food he fed his servants well,

But free from flesh, that made the Jews rebel :

And M <>-(>' laws he held in more account,

For forty days of fasting in the mount."


There had been nothing in the least like this before.


The prodigality of irony, the sting in the tail of every
couplet, the ingenuity by which the odious charges are
made against the victim in the very words almost of the
phrases which his party were accustomed to employ, and
above all the polish of the language and the verse, and the
tone of half -condescending banter, were things of which
that time had no experience. The satire was as bitter as
Butler's, but less grotesque and less laboured.

It was not likely that at a time when pamphlet-writing
was the chief employment of professional authors, and
when the public mind was in the hottest state of excite-
ment, such an onslaught as Absalom and Achitopliel should
remain unanswered. In three weeks from its appearance
a parody, entitled Toiuser the Second, attacking Dryden,
was published, the author of which is said to have been
Henry Care. A few days later Buckingham proved,
with tolerable convincingness, how small had been his


own share in the Rehearsal, by putting forth some Po-
etical Reflections of the dreariest kind. Him followed an
anonymous Nonconformist with A Whip for the FooVs
Back, a performance which exposed his own back to a
much more serious flagellation in the preface to the
Medal. Next came Samuel Pordage's Azaria and Hushai.


This work of " Lame Mephibosheth, the wizard's son," is
weak enough in other respects, but shows that Dryden had
already taught several of his enemies how to write. Last-
ly, Settle published Absalom Senior, perhaps the w r orst of
all the replies, though containing evidences of its author's
faculty for "rhyming and rattling." Of these and of sub-
sequent replies Scott has given ample selections, ample,
that is to say, for the general reader. But the student of
Dryden can hardly appreciate his author fully, or estimate


the debt which the English language owes to him, unless
he has read at last some of them in full.

The popularity of Absalom and AcliitopJiel was immense,
and its sale rapid; but the main object, the overthrowing
of Shaftesbury, was not accomplished, and a certain tri-
umph was even gained for that turbulent leader by the fail-
ure of the prosecution against him. This failure was cele-
brated bv the strikinc; of a medal with the legend Laeta-

/ O O

mur. Thereupon Dryden wrote the Medal. A very
precise but probably apocryphal story is told by Spence
of its origin. Charles, he says, was walking with Dryden
in the Mall, and said to him, " If I were a poet, and I think
I am poor enough to be one, I would write a poem on such
a subject in such a manner," giving him at the same time
hints for the Medal, which, when finished, was rewarded
with a hundred broad pieces. The last part of the story is
not very credible, for the king was not extravagant towards
literature. The first is unlikely, because he was, in the first
place, too much of a gentleman to reproach a man to whom
he was speaking with the poverty of his profession ; and,
in the second, too shrewd not to see that he laid himself
open to a damaging repartee. However, the story is not
impossible, and that is all that can be said of it. The
Medal came out in March, 1682. It is a much shorter and
a much graver poem than Absalom and Achitophel, extend-
ing to little more than 300 lines, and containing none of
the picturesque personalities which had adorned its pred-
ecessor. Part of it is a bitter invective against Shaftes-


bury, part an argument as to the unfitness of republican
institutions for England, and the rest an "Address to the
A\ lii.irs," as the prose preface is almost exclusively. The
language of the poem is nervous, its versification less live-
ly than that of Absalom and Achitophel, but not less care-


ful. It is noticeable, too, that the Medal contains a line
of fourteen syllables,

" Thou leap'st o'er all eternal truths in thy Pindaric way.'*

The Alexandrine was already a favourite device of Dryden's,
but he has seldom elsewhere tried the seven-foot verse as a
variation. Strange to say, it is far from inharmonious in
its place, and has a certain connexion with the sense, though
the example certainly cannot be recommended for univer-
sal imitation. I cannot remember any instance in another


poet of such a licence except the well-known three in the
Revolt of Islam, which may be thought to be covered by
Shelley's prefatory apology.

The direct challenge to the Whigs which the preface
contained was not likely to go unanswered ; and, indeed,
Dryden had described in it with exact irony the character
of the replies he received. Pordage returned to the charge
with the Medal Reversed ; the admirers of Somers hope
that he did not write Dryden's Satire to his Muse ; and
there were many others. But one of them, the Medal of
John Bayes,'^ of considerably greater importance. It was
written by Thomas Shadwell, and is perhaps the most scur-
rilous piece of ribaldry which has ever got itself quoted in
English literature. The author gives a life of Dryden, ac-
cusing him pell-mell of all sorts of disgraceful conduct and
unfortunate experiences. His adulation of Oliver, his puri-
tanic relations, his misfortunes at Cambridge, his marriage,
his intrigues with Mrs. Reeve, &c., &c., are all raked up or
invented for the purpose of throwing obloquy on him.
The attack passed all bounds of decency, especially as it
had not been provoked by any personality towards Shad-
well, and for once Dryden resolved to make an example of
his assailant.


Thomas Shadwcll was a Norfolk man, and about ten
years Drydcn's junior. Ever since the year 1668 he had
been writing plays (chiefly comedies) and hanging about
town, and Dryden and he had been in. a manner friends.


They had joined Crowne in the task of writing down the
Empress of Morocco, and it does not appear that Dryden
had ever given Shadwcll any direct cause of offence. Shad-
well, however, who was exceedingly arrogant, and appar-
ently jealous of Drydcn's acknowledged position as leader
of the English drama, took more than one occasion of sneer-

^j *

ing at Dryden, and especially at his critical prefaces. Not
lon< before the actual declaration of war Shadwell had re-


ceived a prologue from Dryden, and the outbreak itself was
due to purely political causes, though no doubt Shadwell,
who was a sincere Whig and Protestant, was very glad to
pour out his pent-up literary jealousy at the same time.
The personality of his attack on Dryden was, however, in
the last deoree unwise ; for the house in which he lived

O '

was of glass almost all over. His manners are admitted
to have been coarse and brutal, his conversation unclean,
his appearance uninviting; nor was his literary personal-
ity safer from attack. He had taken Ben Jonson for his
model, and any reader of his comedies must admit that he
had a happy knack of detecting or imagining the oddities
which, after Ben's example, he called " humours." The
Sullen Lovers is in this way a much more genuinely amus-
ing play than any of Dryden's, and the Squire of Alsatia,
Bury Fair, Epsom Wells, the Virtuoso, <fcc., are comedies
of manners by no means unimportant for the social history
of the time. But whether it was owing to haste, as Roch-
ester pretended, or, as Dryden would have it, to certain in-
tellectual incapacities, there can be no doubt that nobody
ever made less use of his faculties than Shadwell. His


work is always disgraceful as writing; lie seems to have
been totally destitute of any critical faculty, and he mixes
up what is really funny with the dullest and most weari-
some folly and ribaldry. lie was thus given over entirely
into Dryden's hands, and the unmatched satire of Mac-
Fiecknoe was the result.

Flecknoe, whom but for this work no one would ever
have inquired about, was, and had been for some time, a
stock-subject for allusive satire. He was an Irish priest
who had died not long before, after writing a little good
verse and a great deal of bad. He had paid compliments
to Dryden, and there is no reason to suppose that Dryden
had any enmity towards him ; his part, indeed, is simply
representative, and the satire is reserved for Shadwell.
Well as they are known, the first twenty or thirty lines
of the poem must be quoted once more, for illustration
of Dryden's satirical faculty is hardly possible without
them :

"All human things are subject to decay,
And, when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was called to empire, and had governed long ;
In prose and verse was owned without dispute,
Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute.
This aged prince, now flourishing in peace,
And blessed with issue of a large increase,
Worn out with business, did at length debate
To settle the succession of the state ;
And, pondering which of all his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit,
Cried ' 'Tis resolved ! for nature pleads, that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me.
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dulness from his tender years ;
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he


Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,

But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,

Strike through and make a lucid interval ;

But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,

His rising fogs prevail upon the day.

Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye,

And seems designed for thoughtless majesty ;

Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,

And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.' '

AfacFlccknoe was published in October, 1682, but Dry-
den had not done with Shadwell. A month later can it-
out the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, in which
Xahum Tate took up the story. Tatc copied the versifi-
cation of his master with a good deal of success, though,
as it is known that Drvden o;ave strokes almost all through


the poem, it is difficult exactly to apportion the other lau-
reate's part. But the second part of Absalom and Achit-
ophel would assuredly never be opened were it not for a
long passage of about 200 lines, which is entirely Drv-
den's, and which contains some of his very best work.
Unluckilv it contains also some of his Greatest licences of

/ ~

expression, to which he was probably provoked by the un-
paralleled language which, as has been said, Shadwell and
others had used to him. The 200 lines which he gave
Tate are one string of characters, each more savage and
more masterly than the last. Ferguson, Forbes, and John-
son are successively branded ; Pordage has his ten syllables
of immortalizing contempt ; and then come the famous
characters of Doeg (Settle) and Og (Shadwell)

" T\vo fools that crutch their feeble sense on verse,
Who by my muse to all succeeding times
Shall live, in spite of their own doggrel rhymes."


The coarseness of speech before alluded to makes it im-
possible to quote these characters as a whole, but a cento
is fortunately possible with little loss of vigour.

" Doeg, though without knowing how or why,
Made still a blundering kind of melody ;
Spurred boldly on, and dashed through thick and thin,
Through sense and nonsense, never out nor in ;
Free from all meaning, whether good or bad,
And, in one word, heroically mad,
He was too warm on picking-work to dwell,
But fagoted his notions as they fell,
And, if they rhymed and rattled, all was well.
Railing in other men may be a crime,
But ought to pass for mere instinct in him ;
Instinct he follows, and no farther knows,
For, to write verse with him is to transprose;
'Twere pity treason at his door to lay,
Who makes heaven's gate a lock to its own key ;
Let him rail on, let his invective muse
Have four-and-tweuty letters to abuse.
Which, if he jumbles to one line of sense,
Indict him of a capital offence.
In fire-works give him leave to vent his spite,
Those are the only serpents he can write ;
The height of his ambition is, we know,
But to be master of a puppet-show ;
On that one stage his works may yet appear,
And a month's harvest keep him all the year.

" Now stop your noses, readers, all and some,
For here's a tun of midnight work to come,
Og from a treason-tavern rolling home.
Round as a globe, and liquored every chink,
Goodly and great he sails behind his link.
With all this bulk there's nothing lost in Og,
For every inch, that is not fool, is rogue.
The midwife laid her hand on his thick skull,
With this prophetic blessing Be thou dull !
G 5 7


Drink, swear, and roar ; forbear no lewd delight

Fit for thy bulk, do anything but write.

Thou art of lasting make, like thoughtless men,

A strong nativity but for the pen ;

Eat opium, mingle arsenic in thy drink,

Still thou mayest live, avoiding pen and ink.

I see, I see, 'tis counsel given in vain,

For treason, botched in rhyme, will be thy bane ;

Rhyme is the rock on which thou art to wreck,

'Tis fatal to thy fame and to thy neck.

Why should thy metre good King David blast?

A psalm of his will surely be thy last.

A double noose thou on thy neck dost pull

For writing treason, and for writing dull ;

To die for faction is a common evil,

But to be hanged for nonsense is the devil.

Hadst thou the glories of thy king exprest,

Thy praises had been satire at the best ;

But thou in clumsy verse, unlickt, unpointed,

Hast shamefully defied the Lord's anointed :

I will not rake the dunghill of thy crimes,

For who would read thy life that reads thy rhymes ?

But of King David's foes, be this the doom,

May all be like the young man Absalom ;

And for my foes may this their blessing be,

To talk like Doeg, and to write like thee."

No one, I think, can fail to recognise here the qualities
which have already been set forth as specially distinguish-
ing Dryden's satire, the fund of truth at the bottom of it,
the skilful adjustment of the satire so as to make faults of
the merits which are allowed, the magnificent force and
variety of the verse, and the constant maintenance of a
kind of superior contempt never degenerating into mere
railing, or losing its superiority in petty spite. The last
four verses in especial might almost be taken as a model
of satirical verse.


These verses were the last that Dryden wrote in the
directly satirical way. His four great poems the two
parts of Absalom and Achitophel, the Medal, and Mac-
Flecknoe, had been produced in rather more than a year,
and, high as was his literary position before, had exalted
him infinitely higher. From this time forward there could
be no doubt at all of his position, with no second at any
moderate distance, at the head of living English men of
letters. He was now to earn a new title to this position.
Almost simultaneously with the second part of Absalom
and Achitophel appeared Religio Laid.

Scott has described Religio Laid as one of the most
admirable poems in the language, which in some respects
it undoubtedly is ; but it is also one of the most singular.
That a man who had never previously displayed any par-
ticular interest in theological questions, and who had reach-
ed the age of fifty -one, with a reputation derived, until
quite recently, in the main from the composition of loose
plays, should appear before his public of pleasure-seekers
w T ith a serious argument in verse on the credibility of the
Christian religion, and the merits of the Anglican form
of doctrine and church government, would nowadays be
something more than a nine days' wonder. In Dryden's
time it was somewhat less surprising. The spirit of theo-
logical controversy was bred in the bone of the seventeenth
century. It will always remain an instance of the subor-
dination in Macaulay of the judicial to the advocating fac-
ulty, that he who knew the time so well should have ad-
duced the looseness of Dryden's plays as an argument
against the sincerity of his conversion. It is quite certain
that James the Second was both a man of loose life and
of thoroughly sincere religious belief ; it is by no means
certain that his still more profligate brother's unbelief was


not a mere assumption, and generally it may be noted that
the biographies of the time never seem to infer any con-
nexion between irregularity of life and unsoundness of re-
ligious faith. I have already shown some cause for dis-
believing the stories, or rather the assertions, of Dryden's
profligacy, though even these would not be conclusive
against his sincerity ; but I believe that it would be diffi-
cult to trace any very active concern in him for things
religious before the Popish Plot. Various circumstances
already noticed may then have turned his mind to the sub-
ject, and that active and vigorous mind when it once at-
tacked a subject rarely deserted it. Consistency was in no
matter Dryden's great characteristic, and the arguments of
Reliyio Laid are not more inconsistent with the arguments
of The Hind and the Panther than the handling of the


question of rhymed plays in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy
is with the arguments against them in the prefaces and
dissertations subsequent to Aurengzebe.

It has sometimes been sought to give Reliyio Laid a
political as well as a religious sense, and to connect it in
this way with the series of political satires, with the Duke
of Guise, and with the subsequent Hind and Panther. The
connexion, however, seems to me to be faint. The strug-
gles of the Popish Plot had led to the contests on the Ex-
clusion Bill on the one hand, and they had reopened the
controversial question between the Churches of England
and Rome on the other. They had thus in different ways
given rise to Absalom and Achitaphel and to Reliyio Laid,
but the two poems have no community but a community
of origin. Indeed, the suspicion of any political design
in Reliyio Laid is not only groundless but contradictory.
The views of James on the subject were known to every
one, and those of Charles himself are not likelv to have


been wholly hidden from an assiduous follower of the court,
and a friend of the king's greatest intimates, like Dryden.
Still less is it necessary to take account of the absurd sug-
gestion that Dryden wrote the poem as a stepping-stone to
orders and to ecclesiastical preferment. He has definitely
denied that he had at any time thoughts of entering the
church, and such thoughts are certainly not likely to have
occurred to him at the age of fifty. The poem, therefore,
as it seems to me, must be regarded as a genuine produc-
tion, expressing the author's first thoughts on a subject
which had just presented itself to him as interesting and
important. Such first thoughts in a mind like Dryden's,
which was by no means a revolutionary mind, and which
w r as disposed to accept the church as part and parcel of
the Tory system of principles, were pretty certain to take
the form of an apologetic harmonizing of difficulties and
doubts. The author must have been familiar with the
usual objections of the persons vaguely called Hobbists,
and with the counter - objections of the Romanists. He
takes them both, and he makes the best of them.

In its form and arrangement Religlo Laid certainly de-
serves the praise which critics have given it. Dryden's
overtures are very generally among the happiest parts of
his poems, and the opening ten or twelve lines of this
poem are among his very best. The bold enjambement of
the first two couplets, with the striking novelty of cadence
given by the sharply cut ccesura of the third line, is one
of his best metrical effects, and the actual picture of the
cloudy night-sky and the wandering traveller matches the
technical beauty of the verse. The rest of the poem is
studiously bare of ornament, and almost exclusively argu-
mentative. There is and could be nothing specially novel
or extraordinarily forcible in the arguments ; but they are


put with that case and apparent cogency which have been

Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 7 of 44)