Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

ble, that the tyranny of the French critics, fashionable as the literature of that country was. with Charles -and his courtiers, would have extended itself over England at the Restoration, had not a champion so powerful as Dryden placed himself in the gap. .

We have mentioned in its place his “ Essay on Dramatic Poetry,” the first systematic piece of criticism which our literature has to exhibit. In this Essay, he was accused of entertaining private views, of defending some of his own pieces, at least of opening the door of the theatre wider, and rendering its access more easy, for his own selfish convenience. Allowing this to be true in whole, as it may be in part, we are as much obliged to Dryden for resisting the domination of Gallic criticism, as we are to the fanatics who repressed the des. potism of the crown, although they buckled on their armour against white surplices, and the cross in baptism. The character which Dryden has drawn of our English dramatists in the Essay, and the various prefaces connected with it, have unequalled spirit and precision. The contrast of Ben Jonson with Shakespeare is peculiarly and strikingly felicitous. Of the latter portrait, Dr Johnson has said, that the editors

[blocks in formation]

and admirers of Shakespeare, in all their emulation of reverence, cannot boast of much more than of having diffused and paraphrased this epitome of excellence, of having changed Dryden's gold for baser metal, of lower value, though of greater bulk. While Dryden examined, discussed, admitted, or rejected the rules proposed by others, he forbore, from prudence, indolence, or a regard for the freedom of Parnassus, to erect himself into a legislator. His doctrines, which chiefly respect the intrinsic qualities necessary in poetry, are scattered, without system or pretence to it, over the numerous pages of préfatory and didactic essays, with which he enriched his publications. It is impossible to read far in any of them, without finding some maxim for doing or forbearing, which every student of poetry will do well to engrave upon the tablets of his memory. But the author's mode of instruction is neither harsh, nor dictatorial. When his opinion changed, as in the case of rhyming tragedies, he avows the change with candour, and we are enabled the more courageously to follow his guidance, when we perceive the readiness with which he retracts his path, if he strays into error. The gleams of philosophical spirit which so frequently illumine these pages of criticism; the lively and appropriate grace of illustration; the true and correct expression of the general propositions; the simple and unaffected passages,

in which, when led to allude to his personal labours and situation, he mingles the feelings of the man with the instructions of the critic,-unite to render Dryden's Essays the most delightful prose in the English language.

The didactic criticism of Dryden is necessari ly, at least naturally, mingled with that which he was obliged to pour forth in his own defence; and this may be one main cause of its irregular and miscellaneous form. What might otherwise have resembled the extended and elevated front of a regular palace, is deformed by barriers, ramparts, and bastions of defence; by cottages, mean additions, and offices necessary for personal accommodation. The poet, always most in earnest about his immediate task, used, without ceremony, those arguments which suited his present purpose, and thereby sometimes supplied his foes with weapons to assail another quarter. It also happens frequently, if the same allusion may be continued, that Dryden defends with obstinate despair, against the assaults of his foemen, a post which, in his cooler moments, he has condemned as untenable. However easily he may yield to internal conviction, and to the progress of his own improving taste, even these concessions, he sedulously informs us, are not wrung from him by the assault of his enemies; and he often goes out of his road to shew, that, though conscious he was in the wrong, he did not stand legally convicted by their arguments. To the chequered and inconsistent appearance which these circumstances have given to the criticism of Dryden, it is an additional objection, that through the same cause his studies were partial, temporary, and irregular. His mind was amply stored with acquired knowledge, much of it perhaps the fruits of early reading and application. But, while engaged in the hurry of composition, or overcome by the lassitude of continued literary labour, he seems frequently to have trusted to the tenacity of his memory, and so drawn upon this fund with injudicious liberality, without being sufficiently anxious as to accuracy of quotation, or even of assertion. If, on the other hand, he felt himself obliged to resort to more profound learning than his own, he was at little pains to arrange or digest it, or even to examine minutely the information he acquired, from hasty perusal of the books he consulted ; and thus but too often poured it forth in the crude form in which he had himself received it, from the French critic, or Dutch schoolman. The scholarship, for example, displayed in the Essay on Satire, has this raw and illarranged appearance; and stuck, as it awkwardly is, among some of Dryden's own beautiful and original writing, gives, like a borrowed and unbecoming garment, a mean and inconsistent appearance to the whole disquisition. But these occasional imperfections and inaccuracies are marks of the haste with which Dryden was compelled to give his productions to the world, and cannot deprive him of the praise due to the earliest and most entertaining of English critics.

I have thus detailed the life, and offered some remarks on the literary character, of John DryDEN: who, educated in a pedantic taste, and a fanatical religion, was destined, if not to give laws to the stage of England, at least to defend its liberties; to improve burlesque into satire; to free translation from the fetters of verbal metaphrase, and exclude it from the licence of

pa

« AnteriorContinuar »