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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 10, August, 1858 online

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most successful pageants, Herrick breaks forth, -


"Thou hadst the wreath before, now take the tree,
That henceforth none be laurel-crowned but thee." [13]


An aspiration fortunately unrealized.

It was not long before the death of Ben, that John Suckling, one of
his boon companions


"At those lyric feasts,
Made at 'The Sun,'
'The Dog,' 'The Triple Tun,'
Where they such clusters had
As made them nobly wild, not mad," [14]


handed about among the courtiers his "Session of the Poets," where an
imaginary contest for the laurel presented an opportunity for
characterizing the wits of the day in a series of capital strokes, as
remarkable for justice as shrewd wit. Jonson is thus introduced: -


"The first that broke silence was good old Ben,
Prepared with Canary wine,
And he told them plainly he deserved the bays,
For his were called works, while others' were but plays;

"And bid them remember how he had purged the stage
Of errors that had lasted many an age;
And he hoped they did not think 'The Silent Woman,'
'The Fox,' and 'The Alchymist' outdone by no man.

"Apollo stopt him there, and bid him not go on;
'Twas merit, he said, and not presumption,
Must carry it; at which Ben turned about,
And in great choler offered to go out;

"But those who were there thought it not fit
To discontent so ancient a wit,
And therefore Apollo called him back again,
And made him mine host of his own 'New Inn.'"


This _jeu d'esprit_ of Suckling, if of no value otherwise, would
be respectable as an original which the Duke of Buckinghamshire,[15]
Leigh Hunt,[16] and our own Lowell[17] have successfully and happily
imitated.

In due course, Laureate Jonson shared the fate of all potentates, and
was gathered to the laurelled of Elysium. The fatality occurred in
1637. When his remains were deposited in the Poet's Corner, with the
eloquent laconism above them, "O Rare Ben Jonson!" all the wits of the
day stood by the graveside, and cast in their tribute of bays. The
rite over, all the wits of the day hurried from the aisles of
Westminster to the galleries of Whitehall to urge their several claims
to the successorship. There were, of the elder time, Massinger,
drawing to the close of a successful career, - Ford, with his growing
fame, - Marmion, Heywood, Carlell, Wither. There was Sandys, especially
endeared to the king by his orthodox piety, so becoming the son of an
archbishop, and by his versions of the "Divine Poems," which were next
year given to the press, and which found a place among the half-dozen
volumes which a decade later solaced the last hours of his royal
master. There were the names, in the junior class, of Tom Carew, noted
for his amatory songs and his one brilliant masque, - Tom Killigrew, of
pleasant humor, and no mean writer of tragedy, - Suckling, the wittiest
of courtiers, and the most courtly of wits, - Cartwright, Crashaw,
Davenant, and May. But of all these, the contest soon narrowed down to
the two latter. William Davenant was in all likelihood the son of an
innkeeper at Oxford; he was certainly the son of the innkeeper's
wife. A rumor, which Davenant always countenanced, alleged that
William Shakspeare, a poet of some considerable repute in those times,
being in the habit of passing between Stratford-on-the-Avon and
London, was wont to bait and often lodge at this Oxford hostelry. At
one of these calls the landlady had proved more than ordinarily frail
or the poet more than ordinarily seductive, - who can wonder at even
virtue stooping to folly when the wooer was the Swan of Avon, beside
whom the bird that captivated Leda was as a featherless gosling? - and
the consequence had been Will Davenant, born in the year of our Lord
1605, Shakspeare standing as godfather at the baptism. A boy of lively
parts was Will, and good-fortune brought those parts to the notice of
the grave and philosophic Greville, Lord Brooke, whose dearest boast
was the friendship in early life of Sir Philip Sidney. The result of
this notice was a highly creditable education at school and
university, and an ultimate introduction into the foremost society of
the capital. Davenant, finding the drama supreme in fashionable
regard, devoted himself to the drama. He also devoted himself to the
cultivation of Ben Jonson, then at the summit of renown, assisting in
an amateur way in the preparation of the court pageants, and otherwise
mitigating the Laureate's labors. From 1632 to 1637, these aids were
frequent, and established a very plausible claim to the
succession. Thomas May, who shortly became his sole competitor, was a
man of elevated pretensions. As a writer of English historical poems
and as a translator of Lucan he had earned a prominent position in
British literature; as a continuator of the "Pharsalia" in Latin verse
of exemplary elegance, written in the happiest imitation of the
martyred Stoic's unimpassioned mannerism, he secured for British
scholarship that higher respect among Continental scholars which
Milton's Latin poems and "Defensio pro Populo Anglicano" presently
after confirmed. Of the several English writers of Latin verse, May
stands unquestionably in the front rank, alongside of Milton and
Bourne, - taking precedence easily of Owen, Cowley, and Gray. His
dramatic productions were of a higher order than Davenant's. They have
found a place in Dodsley's and the several subsequent collections of
early dramas, not conceded to the plays of the latter. Masque-making,
however, was not in his line. His invention was not sufficiently
alert, his dialogue not sufficiently lively, for a species of poetry
which it was the principal duty of the Laureate to furnish. Besides,
it is highly probable, his sympathies with rebellious Puritanism were
already so far developed as to make him an object of aversion to the
king. Davenant triumphed. The defeated candidate lived to see the
court dispersed, king and Laureate alike fugitive, and to receive from
the Long Parliament the place of Historiographer, as a compensation
for the lost bays. When, in 1650, he died, Cromwell and his
newly-inaugurated court did honor to his obsequies. The body was
deposited in Westminster Abbey; but the posthumous honor was in
reserve for it, of being torn from the grave after the Restoration,
and flung into a ditch along with the remains of three or four other
republican leaders.

Davenant's career in office was unfortunate. There is reason to doubt
whether, even before the rebellion broke out, his salary was regularly
paid him. During the Civil War he exchanged the laurel for a casque,
winning knighthood by his gallant carriage at the siege of Gloucester.
Afterward, he was so far in the confidence of Queen Henrietta Maria,
as to be sent as her envoy to the captive king, beseeching him to save
his head by conceding the demands of Parliament. When, the errand
proving abortive, the royal head was lost, Davenant returned to Paris,
consoled himself by finishing the first two books of his "Gondibert,"
and then, despairing of a restoration, embarked (in 1650) from France
for Virginia, where monarchy and the rights of Charles II were
unimpaired. Fate, however, had not destined him for a colonist and
backwoodsman. His ship, tempest-tossed, was driven into an English
port, and the poet was seized and carried close prisoner to
London. There the intervention of Milton, the Latin Secretary of the
Council, is said to have saved his life. He was kept in the Tower for
at least two years longer, however. The date of his release is
uncertain, but, once at liberty, Davenant returned ardently to his
former pursuits. A license was procured for musical exhibitions, and
the phrase "musical exhibitions" was interpreted, with official
connivance, as including all manner of dramatic performances. To the
Laureate and to this period belongs the credit of introducing scenery,
hitherto restricted to court masques, into the machinery of the
ordinary drama. The substitution of female for male actors, in
feminine characters, was also an innovation of this period. And as an
incident of the Laureateship there is still another novelty to be
noted. There is no crown without its thorns. The laurel renders the
pillow of the wearer as knotty, uneasy, and comfortless as does a
coronal of gold and jewels. Among the receipts of the office have been
the jokes, good and bad, the sneers, the satire of contemporary
wits, - such being the paper currency in which the turbulent subjects
of the laurel crown think proper to pay homage to their
sovereign. From the days of Will Davenant to these of ours, the custom
has been faithfully observed. Davenant's earliest assailants were of
his own political party, followers of the exiled Charles, the men whom
Milton describes as "perditissimus ille peregrinantium aulieorum
grex." These - among them a son of the memorable Donne, Sir John
Denham, and Alan Broderick - united in a volume of mean motive and
insignificant merit, entitled, "Verses written by Several of the
Author's Friends, to be reprinted with the Second Edition of
Gondibert." This was published in 1653. The effect of the onslaught
has not been recorded. We know only that Davenant, surviving it,
continued to prosper in his theatrical business, writing most of the
pieces produced on his stage until the Restoration, when he drew forth
from its hiding-place his wreath of laurel-evergreen, and resumed it
with honor.

A fair retrospect of Davenant's career enables us to select without
difficulty that one of his labors which is most deserving of
applause. Not his "Gondibert," notwithstanding it abounds in fine
passages, - notwithstanding Gay thought it worth continuation and
completion, and added several cantos, - notwithstanding Lamb eulogized
it with enthusiasm, Southey warmly praised, and Campbell and Hazlitt
coolly commended it. Nor his comedies, which are deservedly forgotten;
nor his improvements in the production of plays, serviceable as they
were to the acting drama. But to his exertions Milton owed impunity
from the vengeance otherwise destined for the apologist of regicide,
and so owed the life and leisure requisite to the composition of
"Paradise Lost." Davenant, grateful for the old kindness of the
ex-secretary, used his influence successfully with Charles to let the
offender escape.[18] This is certainly the greenest of Davenant's
laurels. Without it, the world might not have heard one of the
sublimest expressions of human genius.

Davenant died in 1668. The laurel was hung up unclaimed until 1670,
when John Dryden received it, with patent dated back to the summer
succeeding Davenant's death. Dryden assures us that it was Sir Thomas
Clifford, whose name a year later lent the initial letter to the
"Cabal," who presented him to the king, and procured his
appointment.[19] Masques had now ceased to be the mode. What the
dramatist could do to amuse the _blasé_ court of Charles II. he
was obliged to do within the limits of legitimate dramatic
representation, due care being taken to follow French models, and
substitute the idiom of Corneille and Molière for that of
Shakspeare. Dryden, whose plays are now read only by the curious, was,
in 1670, the greatest of living dramatists. He had expiated his
Cromwellian backslidings by the "Astraea Redux," and the "Annus
Mirabilis." He had risen to high favor with the king. His tragedies
in rhyming couplets were all the vogue. Already his fellow-playwrights
deemed their success as fearfully uncertain, unless they had secured,
price three guineas, a prologue or epilogue from the Laureate. So
fertile was his own invention, that he stood ready to furnish by
contract five plays a year, - a challenge fortunately declined by the
managers of the day. Thus, if the Laureate stipend were not punctually
paid, as was often the case, seeing the necessitous state of the royal
finances and the bevy of fair ladies, whose demands, extravagant as
they were, took precedence of all others, his revenues were adequate
to the maintenance of a family, the matron of which was a Howard,
educated, as a daughter of nobility, to the enjoyment of every
indulgence. These were the Laureate's brightest days. His popularity
was at its height, a fact evinced by the powerful coalitions deemed
necessary to diminish it. Indeed, the laurel had hardly rested upon
Dryden's temples before he experienced the assaults of an organized
literary opposition. The Duke of Buckingham, then the admitted leader
of fashionable prodigacy, borrowed the aid of Samuel Butler, at whose
"Hudibras" the world was still laughing, - of Thomas Sprat, then on the
high-road to those preferments which have given him an important place
in history, - of Martin Clifford, a familiar of the green-room and
coffee-house, - and concocted a farce ridiculing the person and office
of the Laureate. "The Rehearsal" was acted in 1671. The hero,
_Mr. Bayes_, imitated all the personal peculiarities of Dryden,
used his cant phrases, burlesqued his style, and exposed, while
pretending to defend, his ridiculous points, until the laugh of the
town was fairly turned upon the "premier-poet of the realm." The wit
was undoubtedly of the broadest, and the humor at the coffee-room
level; but it was so much the more effective. Dryden affected to be
indifferent to the satire. He jested at the time taken[20] and the
number of hands employed upon the composition. Twenty years later he
was at pains to declare his perfect freedom from rancor in consequence
of the attack.

There, is much reason to suspect, however, that "The Rehearsal" was
not forgotten, when the "Absalom and Achitophel" was written, and that
the character of _Zimri_ gathered much of its intense vigor and depth
of shadow from recollections of the ludicrous _Mr. Bayes_. The
portrait has the look of being designed as a quittance in full of old
scores. "The Rehearsal," though now and then recast and reënacted to
suit other times, is now no otherwise remembered than as the suggester
of Sheridan's "Critic."

Upon the heels of this onslaught others followed rapidly. Rochester,
disposed to singularity of opinion, set up Elkanah Settle, a young
author of some talent, as a rival to the Laureate. Anonymous bardings
lampooned him. _Mr. Bayes_ was a broad target for every shaft, so
that the complaint so feelingly uttered in his latter days, that "no
man living had ever been so severely libelled" as he, had a wide
foundation of fact. Sometimes, it must be owned, the thrusts were the
natural result of controversies into which the Laureate indiscreetly
precipitated himself; sometimes they came of generous partisanship in
behalf of friends, such friends, for example, as Sir Robert Howard,
his brother-in-law, an interminable spinner of intolerable verse, who
afflicted the world in his day with plays worse than plagues, and
poems as worthless as his plays. It was to a quarrel for and a quarrel
against this gentleman that we are indebted for the most trenchant
satire in the language. Sir Robert had fallen out with Dryden about
rhyming tragedies, of which he disapproved; and while it lasted, the
contest was waged with prodigious acrimony. Among the partisans of the
former was Richard Flecknoe, a Triton among the smaller scribbling
fry. Flecknoe - blunderingly classed among the Laureates by the
compiler of "Cibber's Lives of the Poets" - was an Irish priest, who
had cast his cassock, or, as he euphuistically expressed it, "laid
aside the mechanic part of priesthood," in order to fulfil the loftier
mission of literary garreteer in London. He had written poems and
plays without number; of the latter, but one, entitled "Love's
Dominion," had been brought upon the stage, and was summarily hissed
off. Jealousy of Dryden's splendid success brought him to the side of
Dryden's opponent, and a pamphlet, printed in 1668, attacked the
future Laureate so bitterly, and at points so susceptible, as to make
a more than ordinary draft upon the poet's patience, and to leave
venom that rankled fourteen years without finding vent.[21] About the
same time, Thomas Shadwell, who is represented in the satire as
likewise an Irishman, brought Sir Robert on the stage in his "Sullen
Lovers," in the character of _Sir Positive At-all_, a caricature
replete with absurd self-conceit and impudent dogmatism. Shadwell was
of "Norfolcian" family, well-born, well-educated, and fitted for the
bar, but drawn away from serious pursuits by the prevalent rage for
the drama. The offence of laughing at the poet's brother-in-law
Shadwell had aggravated by accepting the capricious patronage of Lord
Rochester, by subsequently siding with the Whigs, and by aiding the
ambitious designs of Shaftesbury in play and pamphlet, - labors the
value of which is not to be measured by the contemptuous estimate of
the satirist. The first outburst of the retributive storm fell upon
the head of Shadwell. The second part of "Absalom and Achitophel,"
which appeared in the autumn of 1682, contains the portrait of
_Og_, cut in outlines so sharp as to remind us of an unrounded
alto-rilievo: -


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 his 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!
Drink, swear, and roar, forbear no lewd delight
Fit for thy bulk; do anything but write.
Eat opium, mingle arsenic in thy drink,
Still thou mayst live, avoiding pen and ink.
I see, I see, 'tis counsel given in vain;
For treason botched in rhyme will be thy bane ....

A double noose thou on thy neck dost pull,
For writing treason, and for writing dull...

I will not rake the dunghill of thy crimes,
For who would read thy life who 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!


Of the multitudinous rejoinders and counterblasts provoked by this
thunder, Dryden, it is supposed, ascribed the authorship of one of the
keenest to Shadwell. We are to conceive some new and immediate
provocation as added to the old grudge, to call for a second attack so
soon; for it was only a month later that the "MacFlecknoe" appeared;
not in 1689, as Dr. Johnson states, who, mistaking the date, also errs
in assuming the cause of Dryden's wrath to have been the transfer of
the laurel from his own to the brows of Shadwell. "MacFlecknoe" is by
common consent the most perfect and perfectly acrid satire in English
literature. The topics selected, the foibles attacked, the ingenious
and remorseless ridicule with which they are overwhelmed, the
comprehensive vindictiveness which converted every personal
characteristic into an instrument for the more refined torment of the
unhappy victim, conjoin to constitute a masterpiece of this lower form
of poetical composition; - poetry it is not. While Flecknoe's
pretensions as a dramatist were fairly a subject of derision, Shadwell
was eminently popular. He was a pretender to learning, and,
entertaining with Dryden strong convictions of the reality of a
literary metempsychosis, believed himself the heir of Jonson's genius
and erudition. The title of the satire was, therefore, of itself a
biting sarcasm. His claims to sonship were transferred from Jonson,
then held the first of dramatic writers, to Flecknoe, the last and
meanest; and to aggravate the insult, the "Mac" was inserted as an
irritating allusion to the alleged Irish origin of both, - an allusion,
however harmless and senseless now, vastly significant at that era of
Irish degradation. Of the immediate effect of this scarification upon
Shadwell we have no information; how it ultimately affected his
fortunes we shall see presently.

During the closing years of Charles, and through the reign of James,
Dryden added to the duties of Court Poet those of political
pamphleteer and theological controversialist. The strength of his
attachment to the office, his sense of the honor it conferred, and his
appreciation of the salary we may infer from the potent influence such
considerations exercised upon his conversion to Romanism. In the
admirable portrait, too, by Lely, he chose to be represented with the
laurel in his hand. After his dethronement, he sought every occasion
to deplore the loss of the bays, and of the stipend, which in the
increasing infirmity and poverty of his latter days had become
important. The fall of James necessarily involved the fall of his
Laureate and Historiographer. Lord Dorset, the generous but sadly
undiscriminating patron of letters, having become Lord Chamberlain, it
was his duty to remove the reluctant Dryden from the two places, - a
duty not to be postponed, and scarcely to be mitigated, so violent was
the public outcry against the renegade bard. The entire Protestant
feeling of the nation, then at white heat, was especially ardent
against the author of the "Hind and Panther," who, it was said, had
treated the Church of England as the persecutors had treated the
primitive martyr, dressed her in the skin of a wild beast, and exposed
her to the torments of her adversaries. It was not enough to eject him
from office, - his inability to subscribe the test oaths would have
done so much, - but he was to be replaced by that one of his political
and literary antagonists whom he most sincerely disliked, and who
still writhed under his lash. Dorset appears to have executed the
disagreeable task with real kindness. He is said to have settled upon
the poet, out of his own fortune, an annuity equal to the lost
pension, - a statement which Dr. Johnson and Macaulay have repeated
upon the authority of Prior. What Prior said on the subject may be
found in the Dedication of Tonson's noble edition of his works to the
second Earl of Dorset: - "When, as Lord Chamberlain, he was obliged to
take the king's pension from Mr. Dryden, (who had long before put
himself out of a possibility of receiving any favor from the court,)
my Lord allowed him an equivalent out of his own estate. However
displeased with the conduct of his old acquaintance, he relieved his
necessities; and while he gave him his assistance in private, in
public he extenuated and pitied his error." But there is some reason
for thinking this equivalent was only the equivalent of one year's
salary, and this assistance casual, not stated; else we are at a loss
to understand the continual complaints of utter penury which the poet
uttered ever after. Some of these complaints were addressed to his
benefactor himself, as in the Dedication to Juvenal and Persius,
1692: - "Age has overtaken me, and _want_, a more insufferable
evil, through the change of the times, _has wholly disenabled
me_. Though I must ever acknowledge, to the honor of your Lordship,
and the eternal memory of your charity, that, since this revolution,
wherein I have patiently suffered the ruin of my small fortune, and
the loss of that poor subsistence I had from two kings, whom I served
more faithfully than profitably to myself, - then your Lordship was
pleased, out of no other motive than your own nobleness, without any
desert of mine, or the least solicitation from me, to make me a most
bountiful _present_, which, in that time when I was most in want
of it, came most seasonably and unexpectedly to my relief." This
passage was the sole authority, we suspect, Prior had for a story
which was nevertheless sufficiently true to figure in an adulatory
dedication; and, indeed, Prior may have used the word "equivalent"
loosely, and had Dorset's gift been more than a year's income, Dryden
would hardly have called it a "present," - a phrase scarcely applicable
to the grant of a pension.[22]

Dismissed from office and restored to labors more congenial than the
dull polemics which had recently engaged his mind, Dryden found
himself obliged to work vigorously or starve. He fell into the hands
of the booksellers. The poems, it deserves remark, upon which his fame
with posterity must finally rest, were all produced within the period
bounded by his deposition and his death. The translations from
Juvenal, the versions of Persius and of Virgil, the Fables, and the
"Ode upon St. Cecilia's Day," were the works of this period. He lived
to see his office filled successively by a rival he despised and a
friend who had deserted him, and in its apparently hopeless


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 10, August, 1858 → online text (page 2 of 20)