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JOHN DRYDEN, the subject of this memoir, was born & the parsonage house of Aldwinkle All-Saints, on or about the 9th day of August, 1631 ; his father Erasmus was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, baronet, of CauonsAshby, in the county of Northampton. The village then belonged to the family of Exeter, as we are informed by the poet himself, in the postscript to his Virgil. That his family were puritans may readily be admitted; but that they were anabaptists, although confidently asserted by some of our author's political or poetical antagonists, appears altogether improbable. Notwithstanding, therefore, the sarcasm of the Duke of Buckingham, the register of Aldwinkle All-Saints parish, had it been in existence, would probably have been found to contain the record of our poet's baptism.
Dryden seems to have received the rudiments of his education at Tichmarsh, and was admitted a king's scholar at Westminster, under the tuition of the celebrated Dr. Bushby, for whom he ever afterwards entertained the most sincere veneration. Under so able a teacher, he made rapid progress in classical learning. The bent of the juvenile poet, even at this early period, distinguished itself. He translated the third satire of Persius, as a Thursday night's task, and executed many other exercises of the same nature, in English verse, none of which aro
in existence. During the last year of his residenun at Westminster, the death of Henry Lord Hassings,
a young nobleman of great learning, and much belovein, called forth no less than ninety-eight elegies, one of which was written by our poet, then about eighteen years old.
Dryden, having obtained a Westminster scholarship, was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, on the 11th May, 1650, his tutor being the reverend .John Templer, M.A., a man of some learning, who wrote a Latin treatise in confutation of Hobbes, and a few theological tracts and single sermons.
Of his school performances we have only the Elegy on the death of Lord Hastings, which without his own testimony is enough to assure us that Cowley was his model; he has in it imitated Cowley's points of wit and quirks of epigram, with a similar contempt for the propriety of their application.
He took the degree of Bachelor, in January 1653–4, but neither became Master of rts, nor a Fellow of the university, and certainly never retained for it much of that veneration usually paid by an English scholar to his Alma Mater.
In June 1654, the death of his father, Erasmus Dryden, proved a temporary interruption to our author's studies. He left the university, on this occasion, to take possession of his inheritance, consisting of two-thirds of a small estate near Blakesley, in Northamptonshire, worth, in all, about sixty pounds a-year. The other third part of this small property was bequeathed to his mother during her life, and the property reverted to the poet after her uvath in 1676. With this little patrimony our author returned to Cambridge, where he continued until the middle of the
After leaving the university, our author entered the world, supported by friends, from whose character, principles, and situation, it might have been prophesied, with probability, that his success in life, and his literary reputation, would have been exactly the reverse of what they actually proved. Sir Gilbert Pickering was cousin-german to the poet, and also to his mother; thus standing related to Dryden in a double connexion. This gentleman was
a staunch puritan, and having set out as a reformer, ended by being a regicide, and an abettor of the tyranny of Cromwell. He was one of the judges of the unfortunate Charles; and though he did not sit in that bloody court upon the last and fatal day, yet he seems to have concurred in the most violent measures of the unconscientious men who did so. He had been one of the parliamentary counsellors of state, and hesitated not to be numbered among the godly and discreet persons who assisted Cromwell as a privy council. Moreover, he was lord chamberlain of the Protector's court, and received the honour of his mock peerage.
The patronage of such a person was more likely to have elevated Dryden to the temporal greatness and wealth acquired by the sequestrators and committee-men of that oppressive time, than to have aided him in attaining the summits of Parnassus.
In a youth entering life under the protection of such relations, who could have anticipated the future dramatist and poet-laureate, much less the advocate and martyr of prerogative and of the Stuart family, the convert and confessor of the Roman Catholic faith? In his after career, his early connexions with the puritans, and the principles of his kinsmen during the civil wars and usurpation, were often made subjects of reproach, to which he never seems to have deigned an answer. The death of Cromwell was the first theme of our poet's
Averse as the puritans were to any poetry, save that of Hopkins, of Withers, or of Wisdom, they may be reasonably supposed to have had some sympathy with Dryden's sorrow upon the death of Oliver, even although it vented itself in the profane and unprofitable shape of an elegy.
With the return of the king, the fall of Dryden's political patrons was necessarily involved. Sir Gilbert Pickering, having been one of Charles's judges, was too happy to escape into obscurity, under an absolute disqualification for holding any office,-political, civil, or ecclesiastical. The influence of Sir John Dryden was ended at the samo
time; and thus all these relations, under whose protaction) Dryden entered life, and by whose influence he was probably to have been aided in some path to wealth or eminence, became at once incapable of assisting him; and even connexion with them was rendered, by the change of times, disgraceful, if not dangerous. Yet it may be doubted whether Dryden felt this evil in its full extent. Sterne has said of a character," that a blessing which closed his mouth, or a misfortune which opened it with a good grace, were nearly equal to him; nay, that sometimes the misfortune was the more acceptable of the two." It is possible, by a parity of reasoning, that Dryden may have felt himself rather relieved from, than deprived of, his fanatical patrons, under whose guidance he could never hope to have indulged in that career of literary pursuit, which the new order of things presented to the ambition of the youthful poet; at least, he lost no time in useless lamentation, but, now in his thirtieth year, proceeded to exert that poetical talent, which had heretofore been repressed by his own situation, and that of the country.
Dryden, left to his own exertions, hastened to testify his joyful acquiescence in the restoration of monarchy, by publishing “ Astræa Redux," a poem which was probably distinguished among the innumerable congratulations poured forth upon the occasion; and he added to those which hailed the coronation, in 1661, the verses entitled “ A Panegyric to his Sacred Majesty.”
Science, as well as poetry, began to revive after the iron dominion of military fanaticism was ended; and Dryden, who through life was attached to experimental philosophy, speedily associated himself with those who took interest in its progress. He was chosen a member of the newly instituted Royal Society, 26th November, 1662; an honour which cemented his connexion with the most learned men of the time, and is an evidence of the respect in which he was already held. Most of these, and the discoveries by which they had distinguished themselves, Dryden took occasion to celebrate in his “Epistle to Dr. Walter Charleton," a learned physician, upon his treatise of Stone
henge. Gilbart, Boyle, Harvey, and Ent, are mentioned with enthusiastic applause, as treading in the path pointed out by Bacon, who first broke the fetters of Aristotle, and taught the world to derive knowledge from experiment. In these elegant verses, the author divests himself of all the flippant extravagance of point and quibble, in which, complying with his age, he had hitherto indulged, though of late in a limited degree.
The victory gained by the Duke of York over the Dutch fleet on the 3d of June, 1665, and his Duchess's subsequent journey into the north, furnished Dryden with the subject of a few occasional verses, in which the style of Waller (who came forth with a poem on the same subject) is successfully imitated.
His next poem was of greater length and importance ; it is an historical account of the events of the year 1666, under the title of “ Annus Mirabilis," to which distinction the incidents which had occurred in that space gave it some title.
The “Annus Mirabilis” evinces a considerable portion of labour and attention ; the lines and versification are highly polished, and the expression was probably carefully corrected. “Dryden,” as Johnson remarks,“ already exercised the superiority of his genius, by recommending his own performance, as written upon the plan of Virgil; and as no unsuccessful effort at producing those well-wrought images and descriptions, which create admiration, the proper object of heroic poetry.” The “ Annus Mirabilis” may indeed be regarded as one of Dryden's most elaborate pieces; although it is not written in his later, better, and most peculiar style of poetry. Mr. Hallam says, “ Variety is its chief want, as dignity is its greatest excellence; but in spite of this defect, and of much bad taste, we doubt whether so continued a strain of poetry could at that time be found in the language. Waller’s ‘Panegyric,' at least, and Denham's 'Cooper's Hill,' the most celebrated poems of the age, are very inferior to it.”
The Restoration brought with it a revival of the amusements of the stage, which under the Commonwealth had