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ART. III. Of Dramatic Poesie, an Essay, by John Dryden, Esq. London, 1688.
- Fungar vice cotis, acutum Reddere quæ ferrum valet, exors ipsa secandi.
seddere que certum valel, tauto Por a te Post Select Essays on the Belles Lettres, by Mr. Dryden. Glasgow,
1750. The Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden,
now first collected; with Notes and Illustrations ; an Account of the Life and Writings of the Author, grounded on Original and Authentic Documents; and a Collection of his Letters, the greater part of which has never before been published, by Edmond Malone, Esq. 4 vols. 8vo. 1800.
It has sometimes struck us with a feeling of regret, when fresh from the perusal of Dryden's prose, and under the recent impression of its unrivalled strength and freedom, that prescription should have confined the student of our language so exclusively to the period when it had assumed a more correct and regular character. We are far from meaning to deny the generally admitted supremacy of the writers of the succeeding age, and are orthodox enough in our opinions to agree, that the prose of Addison is the purest well of English at which we can possibly drink-still, however, vixere fortes ante Agamemnona multi—we must be allowed to exclaim against the monopoly which he exercises to the exclusion of some, who deserve an almost equal share of our attention. Besides, we cannot help thinking, on a comparison of the style of Dryden with that of the wits of Queen Anne, that the refinement to which our language attained in the writings of the latter, tended not a little to impair its vigour; and that, in being trained to a more “ measured mood,” and confined within stricter rules of courtly elegance, it has lost some of the free graces and lively expression of its eårlier and less cultivated state.
Correctness and propriety are doubtless necessary to the perfection of style, but they are too often the concomitants of languor and imbecility; and are seldom obtained without the sacrifice of those occasional felicities, which, like flowers in the clefts of a barren rock, are often found in the inequalities of a more rugged and careless composition.
The style of Addison we would liken to a clear and transparent stream, whose motion is too gentle to ruffle the surface or sully the purity of its waters; whilst that of Dryden has the impetuosity of a torrent, which often tears the weeds from its
banks, and stirs up the ooze from the bottom of its channel ; but that ooze is mixed with grains of precious gold, and those weeds contain amongst them, flowers of the most delightful hue and odour; whilst the very swiftness of the current fixes our regard more intently than the tranquil surface of the gentler stream. He seems to have principally aimed at being strong and forcible, and to this object every minor consideration is sacrificed.. To use the language of a noble poet, he wreaks his thoughts upon expression, and conveys them to the reader in the full force and energy of their first conception. He never appears to regard the mere structure of a sentence, nor is careful to wind it up in the neatest manner; neither are there marks of any subsequent labour, to polish and elaborate his style. We know, indeed, that he has been at the pains to revise some of his prose works, but his corrections are merely those of verbal inaccuracies, and ungrammatical structures, which crept into the most finished writings of the period; but, in general, he seems to have left his sentences just as they were struck off in the first heat of composition. There are, in consequence, some that have been roughly cast, which look rude and unfinished; sometimes there is a sharp edge, or abrupt projection, which a more fastidious taste might wish to see planed down, or rounded off; and, generally speaking, there is not that high polish, which is visible in the compositions of a later date; but all sense of this is lost in admiration of that matchless strength and occasional felicity, which are seldom found associated with strict correctness and undeviating propriety. He is, indeed, the very reverse of that correct and frugal genius which he somewhere describes—he is no judge, to a hair, of little decencies, nor afraid to hazard himself so far as to fall-he does not move cautiously and carefully on, and deliberately put his staff before him to feel his way-his motion is that of a giant, who delights to run his course, and exults in his strength, the elasticity of whose step, the firmness of whose tread, and the immortal vigour conspicuous in every motion, leave no eyes for any ungraceful attitude, or occasional impropriety of gesture.
It seems to us, that not even the most celebrated productions of his genius disclose a mind more forcible, or an imagination more ardent and fertile, than these off-hand compositions, where he used no effort, and intended nothing great. In a preface or a dedication, he sometimes appears to more advantage than in the elaborate drama to which they are appended; and whilst in the one, we have too often reason to sigh over the aberrations of genius, we cannot enough admire the vigorous intellect every where conspicuous in the other. Whatever topic he touches upon, no matter how barren or unpromising, the flowers are made to spring up on all sides, as in the most favourable soil;
and the fancy is every where at work, enlivening the most common-place subjects, and suggesting images of the greatest beauty. His mind must have been, indeed, inexhaustible, when he could thus afford to throw away upon his prose compositions a profusion of brilliant thoughts and lively conceptions, such as would have made the fortune of another writer. Yet, with all this, his style is neither florid nor over-wrought. A less powerful writer might have been encumbered with so much ornament, and one, of inferior judgment, have grown wanton amidst such boundless wealth ; but Dryden disposes of the whole with the utmost ease; and the appearance of his strength is never diminished, nor the vigour of his course abated, by the trappings with which his fancy invests him. He never bewilders himself, nor loses sight of his purpose in the multiplicity of ideas that come crowding thick upon him, but hurries on without tarrying to examine them minutely, or being at the pains fully to develope them. His flowers are seen only in the bud -his images rather hinted at than openly disclosed; he never dallies with a bright idea, or forsakes his argument to hunt it to the death, and exhilarate himself with the pleasures of the chase. This is the fault of writers whose fancy is less luxuriant, and invention less fertile. An excellent thought, with them, occurs too rarely to be lightly treated or speedily released. They are not satisfied without viewing it in every possible light, and pursuing it through all its varieties; they make the most of it whilst they have it, and, after many a fond parting look, dismiss it with reluctance. But Dryden had too rich store to have any occasion for such parsimonious frugality; and, as if his resources could never fail, he just glances at the lively thought he has started, and then abandons it with an indifference, that seems little short even of waste and extravagance.
The dedications which are prefixed to the several plays of Dryden are the most remarkable, if not the most meritorious, productions of which we shall have occasion to take notice. In an atmosphere where his genius might well be expected to droop, it flourishes as vigorously as in the most wholesome air; and round strains of the most egregious and unbounded adulation diffuses a glory, which dazzles by its brightness, and makes us admire where we ought only to feel disgust. His praises are not only lavished with a profusion which the most exalted merit could not justify, but he rains down a golden shower of virtues upon objects, which never enjoyed the least particle of what is so unsparingly attributed to them. Thus, Rochester is commended for delicacy of expression, and the decencies of behaviour-Danby, for financial skill and integrity-Leicester, for political neutrality—and that “ever unfortunate gentle
man," the Duke of Newcastle, for the signal success of his warlike achievements. To the latter he writes thus :
"As you came into the world with all the advantages of a noble birth and education, so you have rendered both yet more conspicuous by your virtue. Fortune, indeed, has perpetually crowned your undertakings with success, but she has only waited on your valour, not conducted it. She has ministered to your glory like a slave, and has been led in triumph by it; or at most, while honour led you by the hand to greatness, fortune only followed to keep you from sliding back in the ascent. That which Plutarch accounted her favour to Cimon and Lucullus, was but, her justice to your Grace; and never to have been overcome where you led in person, as it was more than Hannibal could boast, so it was all that Providence could do for that party which it had resolved to ruin. Thus, my lord, the last smiles of victory were on your arms; and every where else declaring for the rebels, she seemed to suspend herself, and to doubt, before she took her flight, whether she were able wholly to abandon that cause for which you fought.
“Thus, my lord, the morning of your life was clear and calm; and though it was afterwards overcast, yet, in that general storm, you were never without a shelter. And now you are happily arrived to the evening of a day às serene as the dawn of it was glorious; but such an evening as, I hope, and almost prophecy, is far from night; it is the evening of a summer's sun, which keeps the daylight long within the skies.”
In his dedication of the Conquest of Grenada, he gives his highness the Duke to understand, that he is the prototype of his heroes, the pattern of his imitation, and that in dedicating to him the faint representations of his own worth and value, “he only restores to him those ideas, which, in the more perfect part of his character, he has taken from him. Your whole life, (he continues,)
“ Has been a continued series of heroick actions, which you began so early, that you were no sooner named in the world, but it was with praise and admiration. Even the first blossoms of your youth paid us all that could be expected from a ripening manhood. · While you practised but the rudiments of war, you outwent all other captains; and have since found none to surpass but yourself alone. The opening of your glory was like that of light; you shone to us from afar, and disclosed your first beams on distant nations ; yet so, that the lustre of them was spread abroad, and reflected brightly on your native country. You were then an honour to it, when it was a reproach to itself; and when the fortunate usurper sent his arms to Flanders, many of the adverse party were vanquished by your fame, ere they tried your valour. The report of it drew over to your ensigns whole troops and companies of converted rebels; and made
them forsake successful wickedness, to follow an oppressed and exiled virtue.”
The Lord Treasurer Clifford is to be adored at a distance, and worshipped. The effects of his virtue are to be comprehended only by admiration; and the greatest note of admiration is silence.
“ It is that noble passion to which poets raise their audience in highest subjects, and they have then gained over them the greatest victory, when they are ravished into a pleasure which is not to be expressed by words. To this pitch, my lord, the sense of my gratitude had almost raised me;—to receive your favours, as the Jews of old received their law, with a mute wonder, to think, that the loudness of acclamation was only the praise of men to men, and that the secret homage of the soul was a greater mark of reverence than an outward ceremonious joy, which might be counterfeit, and must be irreverent in its tumult. Neither, my lord, have I a particular right to pay you my acknowledgments; you have been a good so universal, that almost every man in three nations may think me injurious to his propriety, that I invade your praises in undertaking to celebrate them alone; and that I have assumed to myself a patron, who was no more to be circumscribed than the sun and elements, which are of public benefit to human kind.”
But it is when he addresses the beautiful and illustrious of the other sex, that he rises into the highest heavens of flattery, and becomes transcendentally celestial.
“ But with whatsoever vanity this new honour of being your poet has filled my mind, I confess myself too weak for the inspiration; the priest was always unequal to the oracle; the god within him was too mighty for his breast. He laboured with the sacred revelation, and there was more of the mystery left behind, than divinity itself could enable him to express. I can but discover a part of your excellencies to the world ; and that too according to the measure of my own weakness. Like those who have surveyed the moon by glasses, I can only tell of a new and shining world above us, but not relate the riches and glories of the place; it is therefore that I have already waved the subject of your greatness, to resign myself to the contemplation of what is more peculiarly your's. Greatness is indeed communicated to some few of both sexes; but beauty is confined to a more narrow compass: it is only in your sex; it is not shared by many, and its supreme perfection is in you alone.
“ You are never seen but you are blest; and I am sure you bless all those who see you. We think not the day is long enough when we behold you; and you are so much the business of our souls, that while you are in sight, we can neither look nor think on any else. There are no eyes for other beauties; you only are present, and the rest of your sex are but the unregarded parts that fill your triumph.