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Enter Cortez alone, in a nightgown.
(Scott-Saintsbury edition, ii. 360.) These lines Wordsworth rightly condemns as vague, bombastic, and senseless."! And, in a sentence of the dedication to the same play, Dryden proclaims his insensibility to the grander aspects of nature. “High objects, it is true," he tells us, "attract the sight; but it looks up with pain on craggy rocks and barren mountains, and continues not intent on any object which is wanting in shades and greens to entertain it."
In this fondness for abstraction Dryden is partly a follower of current poetic theories, which insisted on the generalizing, philosophic nature of poetry; partly true to his own temperament, which loved reasoning, in verse and out of it, at the expense of observation. His passion for ratiocination, which shows itself throughout his original works, from the fine-spun debates on love and honor in the heroic plays to the theological discussion in The Hind and the Panther, has given Dryden the reputation of a great and vigorous intellect. This reputation, which may have been increased by the blunt coarseness of his language, really a sign of a lack of delicacy rather than an indication of strength, is only partially deserved. Dryden originated no ideas, and in his analysis of old ones he was not profound. He seems often to gnaw at the rind of thought while others have reached the kernel. His arguments never become fused into a well-developed, coherent system; he excels primarily in expressing in clear, incisive, melodious language thoughts that he has borrowed from other men.
Dryden's literary greatness then depends, in greater measure than that of almost any other of the very greatest English poets, upon his mastery of the technique of his art. Indifferent to the beauty of nature, he was keenly susceptible to beauty of style; he was a critic by instinct, an author by training. In his criticism, and in his prose style, we may discover some explanation of his power as a writer of verse.
In Dryden's criticism two elements are constantly contending for mastery. By his passion for logic, he was attracted to the contemporary French critics, who busied themselves primarily with literary theory and loved to prescribe hard and fast rules for the guidance of future authors. Through his own writings he did much to introduce their tenets, and still more their general methods of work, into England. Hence he is justly praised by Dr. Johnson in a celebrated passage: “ Dryden may be properly considered as the father of English criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition. Of our former poets, the greatest dramatist wrote without rules, conducted through life and nature by a genius that rarely misled and rarely deserted him. Of the rest, those who knew the laws of propriety had neglected to teach them.” By criticism, Dr. Johnson here means dogmatic criticism. Yet Dryden was himself no dogmatist. Quite apart from his devotion to logical method, he had an instinctive sympathy with fine poetry wherever he found it; his appreciation was too catholic to be warped by compliance with any narrow critical creed. Hence, in contrast to Dr. Johnson, but with equal truth, Professor Ker can write: “The separate positive sentences of Dryden are of small account in his work as a critic. His virtue is that in a time when literature was pestered and cramped with formulas he
1 Essay, Supplementary to the Preface of the Edition of 1815; see Cambridge edition, page 811.
found it impossible to write otherwise than freely. He is sceptical, tentative, disengaged, where most of his contemporaries, and most of his successors for a hundred years, are pledged to certain dogmas and principles."! Finally, though the historical point of view never became prominent in Dryden's writings, his sound common sense made him see that every author must be judged not simply by a fixed code of literary principles, but with some reference to the spirit of the times in which he lived. Thus, when he came to discuss a poet whom he understood and loved, his respect for literary theory simply saved him from waywardness and eccentricity. Though his discussion of general literary problems now seems crude and mechanical, Dryden's comments on individual writers are still full of inspiration; of Shakespeare and Chaucer he has left appreciations which in their way have never been surpassed.
Dryden clothed his critical works in a prose style that has been described once for all by Dr. Johnson, whose manner is in quaint contrast to Dryden's own :
“Criticism, either didactic or defensive, occupies almost all his prose, except those pages which he has devoted to his patrons; but none of his prefaces were ever thought tedious. They have not the formality of a settled style, in which the first half of the sentence betrays the other The clauses are never balanced, nor the periods modeled. every word seems to drop by chance, though it falls into its proper place. Nothing is cold or languid: the whole is airy, animated, and vigorous; what is little, is gay; what is great, is splendid. He may be thought to mention himself too frequently; but while he forces himself upon our esteem, we cannot refuse him to stand high in his own. Everything is excused by the play-of-images and the sprightliness of expression. Though all is easy, nothing is feeble; though all seems careless, there is nothing harsh; and though since his earlier works more than a century has passed, they have nothing yet uncouth or obsolete.
“He who writes much will not easily escape a manner such a recurrence of particular modes as may be easily noted. Dryden is always another and the same; he does not exhibit a second time the same elegances in the same form, nor appears to have any art other than that of expressing with clearness what he thinks with vigor. His style could not easily be imitated, either seriously or ludicrously; for, being always equable and always varied, it has no prominent or discriminative characters. The beauty who is totally free from disproportion of parts and features cannot be ridiculed by an overcharged resemblance.”
Perhaps we can best explain the charm of Dryden's prose by saying that it represents the ideal of cultivated literary conversation. " Had he employed it for a wider range of subjects, it would probably have become less natural and artless. At least his verse, which he used for nearly all his important writing except his criticism, shows not only the author's perfect command of his material, but his careful study and deliberation. To the wonderful clearness which it shares with his prose, it adds that vigor of line and that rapidity of movement which are Dryden's distinguishing glory among all the English poets.
In his all-pervading clearness, both in his single sentences and in the general conduct of his poems, Dryden is in sharp contrast to the Elizabethan poets, and still more to the school of Cowley, whose follower he had been in his youth With him, clearness became as natural in verse as in prose; he aimed to be understood first of all, and would not let the search for more poetic qualities of style blind him to this first necessity. His dramas in this respect are far superior to those of Congreve or Southerne; considered merely as rapid narratives, thrown into the form of dialogue, they command very high praise. And sballow though the reasoning may be in Religio Laici or in The Hind and the Panther,
1 Essays of John Dryden, Oxford, 1900, vol. i, p. xv.
the reader is at least seldom left with the slightest doubt as to the poet's meaning. This remarkable clearness of diction and of construction Dryden owed primarily to his passion for logic and to his familiarity with French literature and criticism. He left it as a precious legacy to the writers who followed him, down to the rise of the romantic school. It would be wrong to say that Dryden alone made clearness the distinguishing virtue frequently, to be sure, at the expense of higher qualities — of all English poetry in the eighteenth century; but certainly he, as the teacher of Pope, deserves that praise more than any other one man.
Clearness Dryden could teach to his successors; he could not impart to them his vigor and his rapidity. The former is seen at its best in Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal, where each phrase is like the stroke of a hammer; the latter is the greatest excellence of his translations from Ovid, Virgil, and Chaucer, and reaches its highest point in Alexander's Feast. At first, in the heroic plays, this resonant declamation and this animated narrative were apt to degenerate into bombast; later they became the unaffected, apparently simple utterance of Dryden in verse, just as his graceful, conversational style was in prose. Here, though we cannot point to any one poet as his model, Dryden showed himself a follower of the great Elizabethans, rather than the founder of the Augustan school. He was himself fully conscious of his power: “I pretend to no dictatorship among my fellow poets,” he writes in his Dedication of the Æneis, “since, if I should instruct some of them to make well-running verses, they want genius to give them strength as well as sweetness ” (page 512). Pope, by emphasizing the pause at the close of each line, and still more that at the close of the couplet, made his verse more fit for a succession of epigrams than for the full-mouthed invective and impetuous narrative of which Dryden was the master. Pope's poems are like a string of beads and Dryden's like a firm, well-twisted cord.
Finally, Dryden's verse at its best, as in the opening lines of The Hind and the Panther, or the translation of the Æneis, has a rare musical quality. Accustomed to the elaborately varied verse forms of nineteenth-century poets, and to the incessantly changing harmonies of blank verse, modern readers do not always appreciate Dryden's consummate mastery of his own versification. Within the apparently narrow limits of the heroic couplet, he could subtly vary his style to suit his subject; he could, as he boasted, be “unpolished” and “rugged " in Religio Laici and majestic in some portions of The Hind and the Panther; he could be “sweet ” in translating Ovid, and reach severity in the nobler portions of Virgil.
In a celebrated passage, Matthew Arnold has termed Dryden “the puissant and glorious founder" of an age of prose and reason, an age whose writers are marked, above all else, by "regularity, uniformity, precision, balance.” If we make certain reservations, doubtless present in Arnold's own mind, the verdict is eminently just and penetrating. Dryden lacked the higher qualities of imagination and insight, but he was regular and uniform only in his hatred of eccentricity and bad taste; he was precise in his aversion to vagueness, and to the substitution of mere harmonious sound for solid sense; he showed balance in his continual dependence on his critical judgment, in his reverent attitude — much like Arnold's own — towards the poets of former times, and towards the critical good sense of his own period. His puissance and his glory are, that despite his lack of creative originality, he made his verse so fit an image of his own active and receptive mind.
UPON THE DEATH OF THE
Rare linguist, whose worth speaks itself,
whose praise, Tho'not his own, all tongues besides do raise! Then whom great Alexander may seem less, Who conquer'd men, but not their lan
guages. In his mouth nations speak; his tongue
might be Interpreter to Greece, France, Italy. His native soil was the four parts o'th'earth; All Europe was too narrow for his birth. A young apostle; and, (with rev'rence may I speak 'it,) inspir'd with gift of tongues, as
they. Nature gave him, a child, what men in vain Oft strive, by art tho’ further'd, to obtain. His body was an orb, bis sublime soul Did move on virtue's and on learning's pole: Whose reg'lar motions better to our view, Then Archimedes' sphere, the heavens did
shew. Graces and virtues, languages and arts, Beauty and learning, fild up all the parts. Heav'n's gifts, which do, like falling stars,
appear Scatter'd in others; all, as in their sphere, Were fix'd and conglobate in 's soul; and
thence Shone thro' his body, with sweet influence; Letting their glories so on each limb fall, The whole frame render'd was celestial. Come, learned Ptolemy, and trial make, If thou this hero's altitude canst take: But that transcends thy skill; thrice happy
all, Could we but prove thus astronomical. Liv’d Tycho now, struck with this ray,
which shone More bright i' th' morn, then others' beam
[The following poem, Dryden's first published work, is one of a number of pieces composing a small volume entitled, Lachryme Musarum, the Tears of the Muses, exprest in Elegies, written by divers persons of Nobility and Worth, upon the death of the most hopefull Henry, Lord Hastings, onely sonn of the Right Honourable Ferdinando, Earl of Huntingdon, Heirgenerall of the high-born Prince George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward the Fourth, collected and set forth by R. B. London, 1649. LA second issue of the book, differing very slightly from the first, is dated 1650.) The young nobleman, who seems to have been worthy of the praises heaped upon him, was born, according to Collins's Peerage of England, on January 16, 1630, and died of the smallpox on June 24, 1649. Among the contributors to Lachrymce Musarum were Denham, Marvell, Herrick, and Richard Brome, the last of whom is thought to have been the editor of the collection. Dryden's boyish elegy was written under the direct influence of Cowley, whom he later styles “the darling of my youth” (see p. 320, below); it is signed Johannes Dryden, Schola Westm. Alumnus. It was first reprinted in 1702, in the third edition of Miscellany Poems, the First Part.] Must noble Hastings immaturely die, The honor of his ancient family, Beauty and learning thus together meet, To bring a winding for a wedding sheet ? Must Virtue prove Death's harbinger? must
she, With him expiring, feel mortality ? Is death, sin's wages, grace's now ? shall
art Make us more learned, only to depart? If merit be disease; if virtue death; To be good, not to be; who'd then be
Himself to discipline? who'd not esteem Labor a crime? study self-murther deem ? Our noble youth now have pretense to be Dunces securely, ign'rant healthfully.
He'd take his astrolabe, and seek out here What new star 't was did gild our hemi
sphere. Replenish'd then with such rare gifts as
these, Where was room left for such a foul disease ?
The nation's sin hath drawn that veil, which With none but ghostly fathers in the street? shrouds
Grief makes me rail: sorrow will force its Our dayspring in so sad benighting clouds.
way; Heaven would no longer trust its pledge; And show'rs of tears tempestuous sighs best but thus
lay. Recall’d it; rapt its Ganymede from us. The tongue may fail, but overflowing eyes Was there no milder way but the smallpox, Will weep out lasting streams of elegies. The very filth'ness of Pandora's box ?
But thou, O virgin-widow, left alone, So many spots, like næves, our Venus soil ? Now thy belov’d, heaven-ravish'd spouse
is One jewel set off with so many a foil !
gone, Blisters with pride swell’d, which thro''s (Whose skilful sire in vain strove to apply flesh did sprout,
Med'cines, when thy balm was no remedy,) Like rose-buds, stuck i' th' lily skin about. With greater then Platonic love, O wed Each little pimple had a tear in it,
His soul, tho' not his body, to thy bed: To wail the fault its rising did commit: 60 Let that make thee a mother; bring thou Who, rebel-like, with their own lord at
Th’ ideas of his virtue, knowledge, worth; Thus made an insurrection 'gainst his life. Transcribe th' original in new copies; give Or were these gems sent to adorn his skin, Hastings o'th' better part: so shall he live The cab’net of a richer soul within ?
In 's nobler half; and the great grandsire be No comet need foretell his change drew on, Of an heroic divine progeny; Whose corpse might seem a constellation. An issue, which t' eternity shall last, O, had he died of old, how great a strife Yet but th' irradiations which he cast. Had been, who from his death should draw Erect no mausoleums ; for his best their life?
Monument is his spouse's marble breast. Who should, by one rich draught, become
whate'er Seneca, Cato, Numa, Cæsar, were;
TO HIS FRIEND JOHN HODDESLearn'd, virtuous, pious, great; and have
DON, ON HIS DIVINE EPI
GRAMS An universal metempsuchosis. Must all these ag'd sires in one funeral [This complimentary poem was prefixed to Expire? all die in one so young, so small ? a little volume entitled, Sion and Parnassus, or Who, had he liv'd his life out, his great fame Epigrams on severall texts of the Old and New Had swoll'n 'bove any Greek or Roman Testament; to which are added a Poem on the
Passion, a Hymn on the Resurrection, AscenBut hasty winter, with one blast, hath
tion, and Feast of Pentecost, by John Hoddesdon, brought
London, 1650; it is signed J. Dryden of Trin.
C. and headed To his friend the Authour, on his The hopes of autumn, summer, spring, to
divine Epigrams. A portrait of Hoddesdon as naught.
a youth of about Dryden's years forms the Thus fades the oak i’ th' sprig, i' th’ blade
frontispiece to the volume. Dryden's verses
distinctly show the influence of the Puritan Thus without young, this Phænix dies, new- atmosphere in which he was brought up.]
born. Must then old three-legg'd graybeards with Thou hast inspir'd me with thy soul, and I their gout,
Who ne'er before could ken of poetry, Catarrhs, rheums, achës, live three ages out ? Am grown so good proficient, I can lend Time's offal, only fit for th' hospital, A line in commendation of my friend. Or t' hang an antiquary's room withal ! Yet 't is but of the second hand; if aught Must drunkards, lechers, spent with sinning, There be in this,'t is from thy fancy brought. live
Good thief, who dar'st, Prometheus-like, With such helps as broths, possets, physic aspire,
And fill thy poems with celestial fire: None live, but such as should die ? shall we Enliven'd by these sparks divine, their rays meet
Add a bright luster to thy crown of bays.