« ForrigeFortsæt »
mode of literary treatment he neither influenced nor was influenced by them to any great extent. The representative man of the Restoration era is John Dryden, who in all respects was pre-eminently the child of his age. It has been truly said that the literary history of England for nearly a century and a half centres round three personalities, each in his day the focus of all that was said or written that was either wise or witty. “He who knows minutely the lives of Dryden, of Pope, and of Dr. Johnson, with their sayings and doings, their friendships and their enmities, knows intimately the course of English letters and poetry from the Restoration to the French Revolution.” Of Dryden especially it is true that by tracing the course of his literary activity we may form a very fair notion of all the characteristics and tendencies of the literature of his epoch. Dryden was born in 1631 at the Vicarage of Ald. winkle All Saints, in Northamptonshire. He was of good descent, his father being the son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, a baronet whose family originally came from the neighbourhood of the Border. Of Dryden's youth very little is known : indeed the information we possess respecting him at all periods of his life is not nearly so copious or so trustworthy as could be wished. About 1642 he entered Westminster School, of which the then head-master was Busby, whose flogging propensities have been widely celebrated. With all his severity, Busby was a most successful teacher, and Dryden, who seems to have been a favourite with him, always regarded him with affectionate respect. From Westminster, Dryden, in 1650, went to Cambridge, where he remained about seven years. During the earlier part of his residence there he got into trouble with the university authorities, and he does not appear to have afterwards cherished very kindly feelings towards his alma mater, In one of his prologues to the University of Oxford, he, in an indirect manner, shows his dislike to the sister uni ity :
“Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
Than his own inother university ;
135 Leaving Cambridge in 1657, Dryden settled in London, and attached himself to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was high in the favour of the Protector. Though over twentyseven years of age, he had as yet given very slender evidences of his literary power. A few occasional verses, in which it is hard to discern any indications of genius, were all that he had written. The earliest of these, a poem lamenting Lord Henry Hastings, who died of small-pox in the last year of Dryden's residence at Westminster, shows, in an amusing way, how Dryden's receptive mind had been impressed by the conceits of Cowley and the other poets of the metaphysical school. Describing the manner of his Lordship's death, the youthful poet says
* Each little pimple had a tear in it,
Whose corpse might seem a constellation.”
l all their curious fancies, never reached a greater height of absurdity than this; and Dryden, though it was many years later before he altogether abandoned such conceits, never again indulged in them so extravagantly. In 1658 he published his first poem of merit, the heroic stanzas on the death of Cromwell. The metre of the poem, dignified but rather cumbrous and difficult to handle, is imitated from the “ Gondibert” of Sir William Davenant, a poet and playwright of considerable merit, who became Laureate after the Restoration. When Charles became king, Dryden employed the pen which had panegyrised the Protector in panegyrising the new monarch. For this sudden change of opinion the best excuse that can be given is that stated by Johnson: "The reproach of inconstancy was, on this occasion, shared with such numbers that it produced neither hatred or disgrace ; if he changed, he changed with
the nation.” “ Astræa Redux,” a poem celebrating the return of Charles, appeared in 1660, the “Panegyric on the Coronation” in 1661, and the “ Epistle to the Lord Chancellor” (Clarendon) in 1662. All these poems are in the heroic couplet, the form of verse over which Dryden was afterwards to gain such a mastery. In 1663 appeared the “Epistle to Dr. Charleton," which Hallam very unjustly thought was the first of Dryden's works that possessed any considerable merit.
At the close of 1663, Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. This union is thought, though on no very certain evidence, to have been an unhappy one. Some months before his marriage, Dryden's first play, the “Wild Gallant,” was acted. During the Commonwealth the drama had lived in a stealthy and precarious kind of way, forbidden by the law and frowned upon by all who wished to stand well with the Puritans. At the Restoration it revived, and became, in fact, the best market which a man of literary talents could carry his wares to. It may be safely asserted that a writer, possessed like Dryden of a versatile genius, will, in almost every case, employ himselt mainly in the kind of work which he finds most remunerative, even though it may not be the kind of work for which he is best adapted. It is idle, therefore, to lament that so much of Diyılen's time should have been occupied in the composition of plays, none of which is of such value that it would be any serious loss to literature to be deprived of it, and which several writers of his time could have written almost, if not quite, as well. But we have good cause to lament that he should have prostituted his genius by, in his comic dramas, pandering shamelessly and recklessly to the licentious tastes of his audience. Altogether he wrote twenty-eight plays, the first appearing, as above stated, in 1663, the last, "Love Triumphant,” in 1694. In his comedies, indecency frequently takes the place of wit, and their merit in other respects is small. “I know," wrote Dryden himself, “I am not so fitted by nature to write comedy. My conversation is slow and duil, my humour saturnine and reserved. So that those who decry
137 my comedies do me no injury except it be in point of profit ; reputation in them is the last thing to which I shall pretend." Dryden's serious dramas fall into two well-marked divisions. The earlier of them are written in the pompous heroic style which had been made fashionable in England by Sir William Davenant, and the tragic portions are, like the similar parts of Davenant's plays, written in rhyming couplets. A good specimen of Dryden's dramas of rhymed declamation, as they may be called, is afforded by the “Conquest of Granada” (1670). The sublime rants of its hero, Almanzor, are difficult to regard in other than a humorous light, though, singularly enough, they seem to have inspired Dr. Johnson with a sort of admiration. “ All the rays of romantic heat,” he says, “ whether amorous or warlike, glow in Almanzor by a kind of concentration. He is above all laws; he is exempt from all restraints; he ranges the world at will, and governs wherever he appears. He fights without inquiring the cause, and loves in spite of the obligations of justice, of rejection by his mistress, and of prohibition from the dead. Yet the scenes are, for the most part, delightful; they exhibit a kind of illustrious depravity and majestic madness, such as, if it is sometimes despised, is often reverenced, and in which the majestic mingles with the astonishing." In 1668 Dryden had defended rhymed tragedies in an“ Essay on Dramatic Poesy," which first showed his skill in prose composition and his power of acute and discerning criticism. He did not, however, remain steadfast to the practice he then advocated. In 1671 appeared the famous burlesque called the “Rehearsal,” which inflicted a severe blow on the popularity of rhymed tragedies. This very amusing play, which will bear reading even by those whose knowledge of the literature of the age is not sufficient to enable them to appreciate all its allusions, was the work of the Duke of Buckingham, assisted by Samuel Butler, Thomas Sprat, afterwards made a bishop, and Martin Clifford, the head-master of the Charterhouse. Though it contained allusions to several other dramatists of the time, the main object of the “Rehearsal” was to caricature Dryden, who is represented under the name
. of Bayes, a nickname which stuck to him throughout life. Not only his literary but his personal peculiarities, his dress, his voice, his gesture, his habit of taking snuff, his favourite expletives are mercilessly ridiculed. This attack Dryden bore very stoically, making no reply, and continuing to write rhymed tragedies as before. At length his own good sense showed him that it would be better to abandon the practice, and return to the form of verse which had been employed with such eminent success by the Elizabethan dramatists. About 1678 appeared “ All for Love,” his first drama in blank verse, and one of his best plays from every point of view. There was something of audacity in writing a play on a subject which had already been handled by the greatest dramatist the world has ever seen in “ Anthony and Cleopatra." Yet with such vigour and force is “ All for Love” written, that it can sustain comparison with the work of Shakespeare, and still be admired. Dryden's other most famous play in blank verse is “Don Sebastian (1689), one scene in which, the altercation between Sebastian and Dorax, used to be very often given in books of extracts.
Having thus briefly dealt with Dryden as a dramatist, we now return to trace the course of his life. “ Annus Mirabilis" appeared in 1667, which, from a literary point of view, is one of the most important years of the seventeenth century. It witnessed the publication of “Paradise Lost,” the death of Denham, Cowley, and Jeremy Taylor, and the birth of Swift and Arbuthnot. “ Annus Mirabilis,” which is written in the same metre as “ Astræa Redux," commemorates the events of the “wonderful year” 1666, the great fire of London, and the Dutch war. Though frequently disfigured by “metaphysical ” conceits, it is a powerful piece of writing, and at once made Dryden the most illustrious poet of the day, Milton of course excepted. His “ Discourse on Dramatic Poesy" raised him to similar rank as a prose writer ; and in 1670 his merits in both capacities were recognised by his being appointed historiographer-royal and poet laureate. In the latter capacity he succeeded Sir William Davenant, who died in 1668. The two offices brought him a salary of