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THE MEMORY OF OLIVER CROMWELL.
These verses compose the earliest of our author's political poems, and are among the first which he wrote, of any length or consequence. The first edition is now before me, by the favour of my friend Richard Heber, Esq.; and, while correcting this sheet, I received another copy from Mr Finlay, author of the “ Vale of Ellerslie.” It is of the last degree of rarity, since it has escaped the researches even of Mr Malone. The full title is, “ A Poem upon the Death of his late Highness Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland; written by Mr Dryden. London, printed for William Wilson, and are to be sold in WellYard, near Little St Bartholomew's Hospital, 1659,” 4to. Upon comparing this rare edition with those of a later date, no material alterations occur, excepting that the spelling is modernized, and the title abridged.
Some of our author's biographers have deemed it necessary to apologise for his chusing this subject, by referring to his near connection with Sir Gilbert Pickering, the friend and confident of the deceased usurper. There is, however, little reason to suppose, that Dryden did any violence to his own inclinations, to gratify the political feelings of his kinsman and patron. He had been bred in anti-monarchical principles, and did not probably change, till the nation changed with him. The character of Cromweli was in itself an inviting theme to so true a poet. The man, of whom Clarendon said, that even his enemies could not condemn him, without commending him at the same time," and of whose exploits Cowley has given so animating a detail; whom, in short, his very enemies could not mention without wonder, if they withheld applause,-afforded to those who favoured his politics many a point of view, in which the splendour of his character might hide its blemishes. It is remarkable, however, that, in handling this theme, Dryden has observed a singular and happy delicacy. The topic of the civil war is but slightly dwelt on; and, although Cromwell is extolled, his eulogist abstains from any reflections against those, through whom he cut his way to greatness. He considers the Protector when in his meridian height, but passes over the steps by which he attained that elevation. It is also remarkable, that although Sir Gilbert Pickering was one of Richard Cromwell's council, our author abstains from any compliment to that pageant of authority; when a panegyrick upon the son was a natural topic of consolation after mourning over the loss of his father. Sprat, upon the same occasion, did not omit this obvious topic, but launched forth into prophecies, to which the event did very little credit. +
7" What can be more extraordinary, than that a person of mean birth, no fortune, no eminent qualities of body, which have sometimes, or of mind, which have often, raised men to the highest dignities, should have the courage to attempt, and the happiness to succeed in, so inuprobable a design, as the destruction of one of the most ancient, and most solid founded monarchies upon the earth? That he should have the power, ur boldness, to put his prince and master to an open and intamous death? To banish that numerous and strongly allied family? To do all this under the name and wages of a parliament? To trample upon them, too, as he pleased, and spurn them out of doors when he grew weary of them ? To raise up a new and unheard-of monster out of their ashes? To stifle that in the very intancy, and set up himselt' above all things that ever were called sovereign in England ? To oppress all his enemies by arms, and all his friends afterwards by artifice? To serve all parties patiently for a while, and to command them victoriously at last ! To over-run each corner of the three nations, and overcome with equal facility both the riches of the south and the poverty of the north? To be feared and courted by all foreign princes, and adopted a brother 10 the gods of the earth? To call together parliaments with a word of his pen, and scatter them again with the breath of his mouth? To be humbly and daily petitioned, that he would please to be bired, at the rate of two millions a year, to be the master of those who had hired him before to be their servant? To bave the estates and lives of three kingdoms as much at his disposal, as was the little inheritance of his father, and to be as noble and liberal in the spending of them? And, lastly, (for there is no end of all the particulars of his glory,) to bequeath all this with one word to bis posterity? To dic with peace at hone, and triumph abroad? To be buried among kings, and with more than regal solemnity? And to leave a name behind him, not to be extinguished but with the whole world, which as it is now too little for his praises, so might have been too for his conquests, if the short line of his human life could have been stretched out to the extent of his immortal designs?"--Cowley's Works, Vol. II. p. 585.
Perhaps the facetious Tom Brown has hit upon the true reason of Dryden's choice of a subject, when he makes him say, " that he had no particular kindness for the person of Oliver; but that it was much the same with the poets as with the Jews-a hero cannot start up in any quarter of the world, be his quarrel right or wrong, but both are apt to think him the Messias, and presently pitch upon him as the fittest person to deliver the twelve tribes and the nine muses out of captivity."-Reasons of Mr Bayes' changing his religion,
Notwithstanding these symptoms of caution and moderation, the subject of this first public essay of our author's poetical talents was repeatedly urged against him during the political controversies in which, through the reigns of Charles II. and his brother, he was constantly engaged. One offended antagonist carried his malice so far, as actually to reprint an edition of the Elegy, with a dull postscript, in which he makes Dryden acknowledge his alleged apostacy. I
+ Nor only didst thou for thy age provide,
But for the years to come beside;
Shall pay unto thy fame as much as we;
They too are made by thee.
And when thy mortal work was done;
Thou him to bear thy burden chose,
Had he not been,
Not only to thy blood, but virtue, kin;
Their slavery and fears;
Guided himself by Gud;
Verses to the happy Memory of the late Lord Protector,
This edition occurs in the Luttrell Collection, and the title runs thus : " An Elegy on the Usurper 0. C. by the Author of · Absalom and Achito. phel;' published to show the loyalty and integrity of the Poet.”
Sir Roger L'Estrange, whose skill in music is said to have amused Croma well, wbo had some turn that way,
Of the poetical merits of the Elegy, we have elsewhere spoken more fully. The manly and solemn march of the stanza gave promise of that acute poetical ear, which afterwards enabled Dryden to harmonize our versification. The ideas, though often farfetched, and sometimes ambiguously expressed, indicate the strength and vigour of his mind. They give obvious tokens of a regeneration of taste; for though, in many instances, the conceits are very extravagant, yet they are, in general, much more moderate than those in the Elegy upon Lord Hastings, whose whole soul was rendered a celestial sphere, by the virtues which were stuck in it; and his body little less brilliantly ornamented by the pustules of smalll-pox,
which were first rose-buds, and then stars. The symptoms of emerging from the false taste and impertinent witticisms of Donne and Cowley, were probably more owing to our author's natural feeling of what were the proper attributes of poetry, than to any change in the taste of the age. Sprat, who also solemnizes the decease of Cromwell, runs absolutely riot in pindarics, and furnishes as excellent an instance of useless labour, and wit rendered ridiculous by misapplication, as can be found in Cowley himself. Cromwell's elevation is compared to the raising up of the brazen serpent, in the Pentateuch; § the classic metamorphosis of Ajax's blood into the hyacinth + furnishes a simile for the supposed revival of letters through the blood spilled by Cromwell; his sword is preferred to the flaming brand of the
I must confess, so infamous a knave
And, knowing he'll be beaten, still writes on, am I.
Thou, as once the healing serpent rose,
Was lifted up, not for thyself, but us.
Turned into letters; every leaf
Had on it wrote his epitaph :
Unwillingly to shed,
cherub, because it had made a paradise, which the other only guarded; finally, the Protector's temper grew milder in the progress of his warfare, as his armour, being made of steel, grew smoother by use. I
It must be allowed, that there are, in Dryden's poem, many, and greatly too many, epigrammatic turns; each is, however, briefly winded up in its own stanza ; while the structure of Sprat's poem enabled him to hunt down his conceits through all the doubling and winding of his long pindaric strophé. Dryden, for example, says, that Cromwell strewed the island with victories,
Thick as the galaxy with stars is sown. Sprat spins out nearly the same idea, in the following extraordinary manner:
Others' great actions are
But thine the milky way ;
Scarce any common sky did come between. By turning the reader's attention to this comparison betwixt the poems of Sprat and Dryden, I mean to shew, that our author was already weaning himself from that franticly witty stile of composition, which the most ingenious of his contemporaries continued to practise and admire; although he did not at once abandon it, but retrenched his quaint conceits before he finally discarded them.
The poem of Waller on Cromwell's death, excepting one unhappy and celebrated instance of the bathos, † is the best of his compositions; and, separately considered, must be allowed to be superior to that of Dryden, by whom he was soon after so far distanced in the poetical career.
Like steel, when it much work hath past,
That which was rough does shine at last ;