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Great, the first monarch who ever sat on the English throne. Two years after Dryden came to London, Cromwell expired, and the poet wrote and published his Heroic Stanzas on the hero's death, which we consider really his earliest poem.
When Richard resigned, Dryden, in common with the majority of the nation, saw that the Roundhead cause was lost, and hastened to carry over his talents to the gaining side. For this we do not blame him very severely, although it certainly had been nobler . if, like Milton, he had clung to his party. Sir Walter Scott remarks, that Dryden never retracted the praise he gave to Cromwell. In “ Absalom and Achitophel” he sneers at Richard as Ishbosheth, but says nothing against the deceased giant Saul. It is clear, too, that at first his desertion of the Cromwell party was a loss to the poet. He lost the chance of their favour, in case a reaction should come, his situation as secretary, and the shelter of Pickering's princely mansion. As might have been expected, his ancient friends were indignant at the change, and not less so at the alteration he thought proper at the same time to make in the spelling of his namefrom Driden to Dryden.
He went to reside in the obscure house of one Herringman, a bookseller, in the New Exchange, and became for life: a professional author. His enemies afterwards reproachedi him bitterly for his mean circumstances at this period of his life, and asserted that he was a mere drudge to Herringman. He, at all events, did little in his own proper. poetic calling for two years. A poem on the Coronation of Charles, well fitted to wipe away the stain of Cromwellism, and to attract upon the poet the eye of that Rising-Sun, whose glory he sang with more zeal than truth ; a panegyric on the Lord Chancellor; and a satire on the Dutch; were all, and are all short, and all savour of a vein somewhat hide-bound. He planned, indeed, too, and partly wrote, one or more plays, and was considered of consequence enough to be elected a member of the Royal Society in 1662. Previous to this he had been introduced, through Herringman, to Sir Robert: Howard, son of the first Earl of Berkshire, and a relation of Edward Howard, the author of “ British Princes," and the
object of the witty wrath of Butler. Sir Robert, too, had a poetical propensity, and Dryden and he became and continued intimate for a number of years, the poet assisting the knight in his literary compositions, particularly in a play entitled “The Indian Queen;" and the latter inviting the former to the family seat at Charlton, where Dryden met in an unlucky hour his future wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, the sister of Sir Robert. It was on the 1st of December 1663, in St Swithin’s, London, and with the consent of the Earl, who settled about £60 a-year on his daughter, that this unhappy. union took place. The lady seems to have had absolutely none of the qualities which tend either to command a husband's respect or to conciliate his regard, but is described as a woman of violent temper and weak understanding. Much of the bitterness of Dryden's satire, some of the coarse licentiousness of his plays, and all the sarcasms at matrimony which he has scattered in multitudes, throughout his works, may be traced to his domestic unhappiness.
Otherwise, the match had some advantages. It broke up, for a time at least, some licentious connexions he had formed, particularly, after a time, one with Mrs Reeves the actress, with whom, having laid aside his Norwich drugget, he used to eat tarts at the Mulberry Gardens, “ with a sword and a Chadreux wig.” It secured to him, including his own property, an income of about £100 a-year—a sum equal to £300 now—and which, on the death of his mother, three years later, was increased by £20 more, or £60 at the present value of money. He was thus protected for life against the meaner and more miserable necessities of the literary man, under which many of his importunate rivals were crushed; and if he could not always command luxuries, he was always sure of bread.
To improve his circumstances, however, and to enable him to keep up a style of living in unison with his lady's rank, he must write, and the question arose, what mode of composition was likely to be the most lucrative ? Were he to continue to indite panegyrical verses, like those to Clarendon, he stood a chance of having a few guineas tossed to him now and then by a patron, like a crust to an unfortunate cur.. Were he to translate, or write prefaces for the booksellers, he might pay his bill for salt, if diligent enough. For Satires as yet there was little demand. The follies of the more fanatical of the Puritans were too recent, although they were beginning to ripen for the hand of Butler; and the far grosser absurdities of the Cavaliers were yet in blossom. There remained nothing for an aspiring author but the stage, which during the previous regime had been abolished. While the French Revolution was in progress, ay, even in the depths of the reign of terror, the theatres were all open, and all crowded; but when Cromwell was enacting his solemn and solitary part, before God, angels, and men, the petty potentates—the gods and goddesses of the stage — vanished into thin air. At his tremendous stamp their cue had been “ Exeunt omnes ;" and if the spirit of Shakspeare himself had witnessed the departure, he would have added his Amen. And had he watched in their stead the gigantic actor treading his trembling stage alone, with all the world looking on, he might. have remembered and re-applied his own magnificent words
“ O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention !
No sooner had this great man passed away, and an earinest age with him, and Charles mounted the throne, than from the darkest recesses of the stews and the taverns, from the depths within depths of Alsatia or Paris, the whole tribe of dancers, fiddlers, drabs, mimes, stage-players, and playwrights, knowing that their enemy was dead, and their hour of harvest had come, emerged in swarming multitudes-multitudes swelled by the vast tribe of play-goers, who had been counting the hours since a Falstaff had made them laugh, an Ophelia made them weep, and a Lear made them tremble.
And had this only issued in the revival of the drama of Shakspeare and Johnson, few could have had much to say in objection; for that, in general, was as pure as it was powerful. But, alas, besides them there had been a Beaumont, a Fletcher, and a Massinger, with their unutterable abominations. Nay, the king and courtiers had imported from France a taste which required for its gratification a licentiousness still more abandoned, and to be cast, besides, into forms and shapes, as stiff, stately, and elaborate as the material was vile, and were not contented with pollution unless served up in a new, piquant, and unnatural manner. Our poet understood this movement of his time right well, and determined to conform to it. He knew that he could, better than any man living, pander to the popular appetite for the melodramatic, for the grandiloquent, and for the obscene. He knew the taste of Charles, and that he, above all cooks, could dress up a ragout of that putrid perfection which his king relished. And he set himself with his whole might so to do, and for thirty years and more continued his degradation of genius -a degradation unexampled, whether we consider the powers of the writer, the coarseness, quantity, and elaboration of the pollutions he perpetrated, or the length of time in which he was employed, in thus “profaning the God-given strength and marring the lofty line.”
His other biographers—Dr Johnson, alone, with brevity and seeming reluctance-have enumerated and characterised all Dryden's plays. We have decided only to speak of them very generally, and that for the following reasons :- - 1st, We are reprinting none of them; 2dly, From what we have read of them, we are certain that, even as works of art, they are utterly unworthy of their author, and that in morals they are, as a whole, a disgrace to human nature. We are not the least lenient or indulgent of critics. We have every wish to pity the errors, and to bear with the frequent escapades and aberrations of genius. But when we see, as in Dryden's case, what we are forced to consider either a deliberate and systematic attempt to poison the sources of virtue, or, at least, an elaborate and incessant habit age."
of conformity to the bad tastes of a bad age, we can think of no plea fully available for his defence. Vain to say, " he wrote for bread." He did not-he wrote only for the luxuries, not the staff of life. Vain to say,
Vain to say, "he consulted the taste of his audience, and suited their atmosphere.” But why did he select that atmosphere as his ? And why so much gratuitous and superfluous iniquity in his works ? “But he wrote to gratify his monarch." This would form a good enough excuse for a Sporus, " a white curd of ass' milk,” but not for a strong man like Dryden. But he was no worse than others of his
Pitiful apology! since, being the ablest man of his day, and therefore bound to be before it, he was in reality behind it, his plays excelling all contemporary productions in wickedness as well as in wit. But his own
conduct was latterly irreproachable." This we doubt, and Scott doubts so too. But even though it were true, it were damaging, because it would deprive him of the plea of passion, and reduce him from the warm human painter to the cold demonlike sculptor of unclean and abominable ideas. It never can be forgotten, that whenever Dryden translated a filthy play, he made it filthier than in the original, and that he has once and again scattered his satyr-like fancies in spots such as the Paradise of Milton, aud the Enchanted Isle of Shakspeare, which every imagination and every heart previously had regarded as holy ground. The only extenuating circumstance we can mention is, that his pruriency was latterly in part relinquished and much deplored by himself, and that his poetry is, on the whole, free from it. In our critical paper, prefixed to the Second Volume, we intend to examine the question, how far an author's faults are, or are not to be charged upon
His next poem was “ Annus Mirabilis,” published in 1667, and counted justly one of his most vigorous, though also one of the faultiest of his poems. It includes glowing, although somewhat quaint and fantastic, descriptions of the Dutch War and the Great Fire in London. In 1668, by the death of Sir William Davenant, the post of Poet-Laureate became vacant, and Dryden was appointed to it. He was