Page images
PDF
EPUB

-

I Dryden's beginnings-Close of the poetic age-Cause of literary decline

and regeneration.
11. Family--Education --Studies — Reading - Habits-Position-Character

Audience-Friendships-Quarrels-Harmony of his life and talent.
III. The theatres re-opened and transformed—The new public and the new

taste-Dramatic theories of Dryden--His judgment of the old English
theatre-His judgment of the new French theatre-Composite works
Incongruities of his drama-Tyrannic Love-Grossness of his characters

The Indian Emperor, Aureng-zebe, Almanzor.
IV. Style of his drama—Rhymed verse-Flowery diction--Pedantic tirades

Want of agreement between the classical style and romantic events-
How Dryden borrows and mars the inventions of Shakspeare and Milton

- Why this drama fell to the ground.
V. Merits of this drama-Characters of Antony and Don Sebastian-Otway-

Life-Works.

VI. Dryden as a writer-Kind, scope, and limits of his mind-Clumsiness in

flattery and obscenity—Heaviness in dissertation and discussion-Vigour

and fundamental uprightness.

VII. How literature in England is occnpied with politics and religion-Political

poems of Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal — Religious

poems, Religio Laici, The Hind and the Panther-Bitterness and viru-

lence of these poems-Mac Flecknoe.

VIII. Rise of the art of writing-Difference between the stamp of mind of the

artistic and classic ages-Dryden's manner of writing-Sustained and

oratorical diction.

IX. Lack of general ideas in this age and this stamp of mind, Dryden's transla-

tions — Adaptations-Imitations—Tales and letters — Faults--- Merits-

VOL. II.

A

Gravity of his character, brilliancy of his inspiration, fits and starts of poetic eloquence- Alexander's Feast, a song in honour of S. Cecilia's

Day. X. Dryden's latter days—Wretchedness—Poverty—Wherein his work is in.

complete-Death.

TOMEDY has led us a long way; we must return and consider

other kind of writings. A higher spirit moves amidst the great current. In the history of this talent we shall find the history of the English classical spirit, its structure, its gaps and its powers, its formation and its development.

1. The subject is a young man, Lord Hastings, who died of smallpox at the age of nineteen :

* His body was an orb, his sublime soul
Did move on virtue's and on learning's pole ;

. . Come, learned Ptolemy, and trial make
If thou this hero's altitude canst take.

Blisters with pride swell’d, which through 's filesh did sprout
Like rose-buds, stuck i' the lily skin about.
Each little pimple had a tear in it,
To wail the fault its rising did commit.
Or were these gems sent to adorn his skin,
The cabinet of a richer soul within ?
No comet need foretel his change drew on

Whose corpse might seem a constellation.'' With such a fine specimen, Dryden, the greatest poet of the classical age, made his appearance.

Such enormities indicate the close of a literary age. Excess of folly in poetry, like excess of injustice in political matters, lead up to and foretell revolutions. The Renaissance, unchecked and original, abandoned the minds of men to the fire and caprices of imagination, the oddities, curiosities, outbreaks of an inspiration which cares only to content itself, breaks out into singularities, has need of novelties, and loves audacity and extravagance, as reason loves justice and truth. After the extinction of genius folly remained; after the removal of inspiration nothing was left but absurdity. Formerly the internal disorder and dash produced and excused concetti and wild flights; thenceforth men threw them out in cold blood, by calculation and without excuse. Formerly they expressed the state of the mind, now they belie it. So are literary revolutions accomplished. The form, no longer original or spontaneous, but imitated and passed from hand to hand, outlives the old spirit which had created it,

1

Dryden's Works, ed. Sir Walter Scott, 2d ed., 18 vols., 1821, xi. 94.

and is in opposition to the new spirit which destroys it. This preliminary strife and progressive transformation make up the life of Dryden, and account for his impotence and his falls, his talent and his success.

II. Dryden's beginnings are in striking contrast with those of the poets of the Renaissance, actors, vagabonds, soldiers, who were tossed about from the first in all the contrasts and miseries of active life. He was born in 1631, of a good family; his grandfather and uncle were baronets; Sir Gilbert Pickering, his relative, was a knight, member of Parliament, one of Cromwell's council of twenty-one, one of the great officeholders of the new court. Dryden was brought up in an excellent school, under Dr. Busby, then in high repute; after which he passed four years at Cambridge. Having inherited by his father's death a small estate, he used his liberty and fortune only to maintain him in his studious life, and continued in seclusion at the University for three years more. Here you see the regular habits of an honourable and well-to-do family, the discipline of a connected and solid education, the taste for classical and exact studies. Such circumstances announce and prepare, not an artist, but a man of letters.

I find the same inclination and the same signs in the remainder of his life, private or public. He regularly spends his mornings in writing or reading, then dines with his family. His reading was that of a man of culture and a critical mind, who does not think of amusing or exciting himself, but who learns and judges. Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, and Persius were his favourite authors; he translated several; their names were always on his pen; he discusses their opinions and their merits, feeding himself on this reasoning which oratorical customs had imprinted on all the works of the Roman mind. He is familiar with the new French literature, the heir of the Latin, with Corneille and Racine, Boileau, Rapin and Bossu;' he reasons with them, often in their spirit, writes reflectively, seldom fails to arrange some good theory to justify each of his new works. He knew very well the literature of his own country, though sometimes not very accurately, gave to authors their due rank, classified the different kinds of writing, went back as far as old Chaucer, whom he transcribed and put into a modern dress. His mind thus filled, he would go in the afternoon to Will's coffeehouse, the great literary rendezvous: young poets, students fresh from the University, literary dilettante crowded round his chair, carefully placed in summer near the balcony,

Rapin (1621-1687), a French Jesuit, a modern Latin poet and literary critic. Bossn, or properly Lebossu (1631-1680), wrote a Traité du Poème épique, which had a great success in its day. Both critics are now completely forgotten. -TE

in winter by the fireside, thinking themselves fortunate to get in a word, or a pinch of snuff respectfully extracted from his learned snuff-box. For indeed he was the monarch of taste and the umpire of letters; he criticised novelties—Racine's last tragedy, Blackmore's heavy epic, Swift's first poems; slightly vain, praising his own writings, to the extent of saying that “no one had ever composed or will ever compose a finer ode' than his on Alexander's Feast; but gossipy, fond of that interchange of ideas which discussion never fails to produce, capable of enduring contradiction, and admitting his adversary to be in the right. These manners show that literature had become a matter of study rather than of inspiration, an employment for the taste rather than for the enthusiasm, a source of distraction rather than of emotion.

His audience, his friendships, his actions, his strifes, had the same tendency. He lived amongst great men and courtiers, in a society of artificial manners and measured language. He had married the daughter of Thomas Earl of Berkshire; he was historiographer, then poet-laureate. He often saw the king and the princes. He dedicated each of his works to some lord, in a laudatory, flunkeyish preface, bearing witness to his intimate acquaintance with the great. He received a purse of gold for each dedication, went to return thanks; introduces some of these lords under pseudonyms in his Essay on the Dramatic Art; wrote introductions for the works of others, called them Mæcenas, Tibullus, or Pollio; discussed with them literary works and opinions. The re-establishment of the court had brought back the art of conversation, vanity, the necessity for appearing to be a man of letters and of possessing good taste, all the company manners which are the source of classical literature, and which teach men the art of speaking well.? On the other hand, literature, brought under the influence of society, entered into society's interests, and first of all in petty private quarrels. Whilst men of letters learned etiquette, courtiers learned how to write. They soon became jumbled together, and naturally fell to blows. The Duke of Buckingham wrote a parody on Dryden, The Rehearsal, and took infinite pains to teach the chief actor Dryden's tone and gestures. Later, Rochester took up the cudgels against the poet, supported Settle against him, and hired a band of ruffians to beat him. Besides this, Dryden had quarrels with Shadwell and a crowd of others, and finally with Blackmore and Jeremy Collier. To crown all, he entered into the strife of political parties and religious sects, fought for the Tories and Anglicans, then for the Roman Catholics ; wrote The Medal, Absalom and Achitophel, against the Whigs; Religio Laici against Dissenters and Papists; then The Hind and Panther for James 11., with the logic of controversy and the bitterness of party. It is a long way from this

1 In his Defence of the Epilogue of the Second Part of the Conquest of Granada, iv. 226, Dryden says: “Now, if they ask me, whence it is that our conversation is so much refined ? I must freely, and without flattery, ascribe it to the court.'

combative and argumentative existence to the reveries and seclusion of the true poet. Such circumstances teach the art of writing clearly and soundly, methodical and connected discussion, strong and exact style, banter and refutation, eloquence and satire: these gifts are necessary to make a man of letters heard or believed, and the mind enters compulsorily upon a track when it is the only one that can conduct it to its goal. Dryden entered upon it spontaneously. In his second production,' the abundance of well-ordered ideas, the oratorical energy and harmony, the simplicity, the gravity, the heroic and Roman spirit, announce a classic genius, the relative not of Shakspeare, but of Corneille, capable not of dramas, but of discussions.

III. And yet, at first, he devoted himself to the drama: he wrote twentyseren pieces, and signed an agreement with the actors of the King's Theatre to supply them with three every year. The theatre, forbidden under the Commonwealth, had just re-opened with extraordinary magnificence and success. The rich scenes made moveable, the women's parts no longer played by boys, but by women, the novel and splendid waxlights, the machinery, the recent popularity of actors who had become heroes of fashion, the scandalous importance of the actresses, who were mistresses of the aristocracy and of the king, the example of the court and the imitation of France, drew spectators in crowds. The thirst for pleasure, long repressed, knew no bounds. Men indemnified themselves for the long abstinence imposed by fanatical Puritans; eyes and ear, disgusted with gloomy faces, nasal pronunciation, official ejaculations on sin and damnation, satiated themselves with sweet singing, sparkling dress, the seduction of voluptuous dances. They wished to enjoy life, and that in a new fashion ; for a new world, that of the courtiers and the idle, had been formed. The abolition of feudal tenures, the vast increase of commerce and wealth, the concourse of landed proprietors, who let their lands and came to London to enjoy the pleasures of the town and to court the favours of the king, had installed on the summit of society, in England as in France, rank, authority, the manners and tastes of the world of fashion, of the idle, the drawing-room frequenters, lovers of pleasure, conversation, wit, and breeding, occupied with the piece in vogue, less to amuse themselves than to criticise it. Thus was Dryden's drama built up; the poet, greedy of glory and pressed for money, found here both money and glory, and was half an innovator, with a large reinforcement of theories and prefaces, diverging from the old English drama, approaching the new French tragedy, attempting a compromise between classical eloquence and romantic truth, accommodating himself as well as he could to the new public, which paid and applauded him.

Heroic stanzas to the memory of Oliver Cromwell.

« PreviousContinue »