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JohX DRYden—who, as a writer of English prose, occupies a position not greatly inferior to that which belongs to him as a poet-was born at Aldwinkle, near Oundle, in Northamptonshire, on the 9th of August 1631. He was son of Erasmus Dryden, third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden of Canons Ashby, where the family, originally sprung from Cumberland, had been seated for several generations. Dryden was a pupil of the famous Dr. Busby, at Westminster School, whence, in 1650, he was elected to a Westminster scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the end of seven years he left the University and took up his abode in London, where he had the advantage of the countenance and assistance of his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, High Steward of Westminster, and Cromwell's Lord Chamberlain. Dryden is said to have acted as his secretary, and to have also served on one of the committees for the detection and punishment of Malignants.
One of his earliest essays in poetry was a tribute to the memory of Cromwell, entitled Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector. On the accession of King Charles, he sought to atone for this delinquency, as he probably then considered it, by the publication of his Astræa Redux: a Poem on the Happy Restoration of His Most Sacred Majesty. Thenceforth he took care that nothing should be wanting to the fervour of his loyalty. From this time, too, he seems to have made literature his profession, and to have become a constant writer for the stage. About 1670 he succeeded Davenant as Poet Laureate; and in the letters-patent by which he was appointed the grant is said to be made to “John Dryden, Master of Arts, in consideration of his many acceptable services theretofore done to His Majesty, and from an observation of his learning and eminent abilities, and his great skill and elegant style, both in verse and prose."
He had previously, in the year 1666, received the appointment of Historio. grapher Royal; and the emoluments of the two offices together way bave produced for him about £200 per annum, in addition to other perquisites and advantages.
Shortly after the accession of James II. Dryden passed over to the communion of the Church of Rome. The circumstances under which this change of religious profession took place were suspicious, or at least the time of its occurrence was opportune ; for adherence to Romanism was then the shortest and surest road to court-favour. It is certain also that Dryden showed the zeal of a new convert, and eagerly lent his talents to recommend the faith he had adopted, and to disparage the Church which he had deserted. It is, however, only fair to say, that he did not, like some others, when James had given place to William, and Protestantism was again in the ascendant, make a second recantation, but died in fellowship with the Roman Catholic Church, by whatever motives he may, in the first instance, have been led to join it. It is all in favour of his consistency that, after the Revolution was accomplished, he was necessarily obliged to surrender his appointments; and there is reason to fear that the closing years of this gifted writer's life were imbittered by poverty as well as darkened by domestic
His personal history is necessarily uneventful, as his time was mainly devoted to literature, and was chiefly spent in London. He was a frequenter of Wills' Coffee-house, where he had his summer-seat by the window, and his winter-seat by the fire, and where he was the presiding spirit of a circle of wits and men of fashion, who admired his poetry, and listened with deference to his opinions on literature.
He died in 1701, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his monument, with the simple inscription of his name, may still be seen. A strạnge story was put in circulation with respect to the circumstances of his funeral. It seems to be altogether false. Whoever is curious about the details of it, will find thein in the biographies of our author written by Johnson and Malone.
The prose works of Dryden are of a miscellaneous character. They consist chiefly of critical essays on polite literature, and of dedications and prefaces to his various poetical compositions.
The most important and elaborate are—An Essay on Dramatic Poetry; The Grounds of Criticism on Tragedy; A Discourse on Epic Poetry; and A Discourse on the Origin and Progress of Satire. The Essay on Dramatic Poetry is spoken of by Johnson as “the first regular treatise on the art of writing.” It undoubtedly is one of the very earliest attempts at literary criticism in our larguage, and still deserves to take its place amongst approved and standard compositions of this class. To modern readers, indeed, familiar with all that has been written during the present century on the drama, and on poetical literature generally, it may not seem to contain anything very original, elaborate, or refined. The critics of our own time, both German and English, have attained to such a power of appreciating the works of our great masters in dramatic and epic poetry, appear to have such an insight into the spirit of their writings, and analyze their plots, characters, and sentiments with such subtlety and precision, that they almost persuade us that criticism begins and ends with them, and that the efforts of earlier adventurers in the same direction are of little or no account. But such critics as Dryden really laid the foundation of all modern criticism; and with less metaphysical acuteness, with less affectation of interpreting the aims and conceptions of the author, they pointed out, with appreciation and accuracy, what was to be admired and what was to be censured in his work. At the same time it must be confessed that the taste of Dryden's contemporaries inclined too much to French models, and was more disposed to insist on the classical form of the drama, and on the rules laid down by Aristotle, than quite agrees with the views of an age distinguished by the revival of the romantic school of poetry. In these opinions Dryden himself was a sharer, Hence, among other things, his advocacy of the use of rhyme in tragedies. To the justification of this practice he devotes several pages of his Essay on Dramatic Poetry; and he recurs to the subject in several of his dedications and prefaces. He also contends strongly for the observance of the three famous unities of time, place, and action; and though he is far from being insensible to the transcendent merits of Shakspere, yet his estimate of him falls short of that standard which the enthusiastic admiration of our own age has set up. At the same time, his character of Shakspere has often been referred to as affording one of the happiest examples of his style, and is spoken of by Johnson (perhaps a little too favourably) as “a perpetual model of encomiastic criticism, exact without minuteness, and lofty without exaggeration.”
In connection with Dryden's criticisms, it may be remarked, that though himself a master of English style, he was very imperfectly acquainted with the history and structure of the English language. He censures Shakspere, and others of our earlier writers, for using words in an improper sense, for perversions of idiom and mistakes in grammar, without being aware that the supposed errors of which he complains are no errors at all, but conditions once proper to the language, and in harmony with that stage of development which it had reached when those writers made use of it.
The “Dedications” of our author are often written with great ease and elegance. No one ever conveyed the incense of flattery in choicer language; but it must be confessed that the flattery is often fulsome and excessive, and the compliments which he pays to his patrons as extravagant as they were undeserved. We offer, as an example, among our Extracts, that to the Marquis of Halifax, prefixed to his play of Arthur, written with great force and splendour of diction, and having the advantage also of being addressed to a nobleman who was not altogether undeserving of the magnificent tribute therein paid to him.
The prose style of Dryden is hardly surpassed by that of any other writer in our language. It is elevated, full, filowing, with great strength of substance and
harmony of cadence. We find in it something of that balance and antithesis which Johnson afterwards carried to excess; but it is free from the stiffness and monotony which there reason to complain of in Johnson. Pomp of diction and raciness of idiom are indeed remarkably combined; and the stately movement of the composition is often happily relieved by the use of popular phrases and homely Saxon turns of expression. Occasionally we meet with indications of carelessness or haste, with solecisms of grammar, or with sentences awkwardly or inaccurately put together. The general merits of the style, however, are so great—its point, vigour, and beauty so conspicuous and eminent—that few other English writers better deserve to be the subject of daily and nightly study for all those who wish to understand the resources of their language, and to acquire for themselves the power of using it with grace, eloquence, and force.
ESSAY ON DRAMATIC POETRY.
1. — INTRODUCTORY ACCOUNT OF THE OCCASION WHICH GAVE RISE
TO THE DISCOURSE.
It was that memorable day, in the first summer of the late war, when our navy engaged the Dutch; a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the globe, the commerce of nations, and the riches of the universe ; while these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our countrymen, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the enemies; the noise of the cannon from both navies reached our ears about the city, so that all men being alarmed with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which they knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the town almost empty, some took towards the park, some cross the river, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.
Amongst the rest, it was the fortune of Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, to be in company together; three of them persons whom their wit and quality have made known to all the town, and whom I have chose to hide under these ? borrowed names, that they may not suffer by so ill a relation as I am going to make of their discourse.
Taking then a barge, which a servant of Lisideius had provided for them, they made haste to shoot the bridge, and left behind them 3that great fall of waters which hindered them from hearing what they desired : after which, having disengaged themselves from many vessels which rode at anchor in the Thames, and almost blocked up the passage towards Greenwich, they ordered the watermen to let fall their oars more gently; and then, every one 4 favouring his own curiosity with a stríct silence, it was not long ere they perceived the air to break about them like the noise of distant thunder, or of swallows in a chimney: those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reached them, yet still seeming to retain somewhat of their first horror, which they had betwixt the fleets. After they had attentively listened till such time as the sound by little and little went from them, Eugenius, lifting up his head, and taking notice of it, was the first who 5 congratulated to the rest that happy omen of our nation's victory: adding, that we had but this to desire in confirination of it, that we might hear no more of that noise, which was now leaving the English coast. When the rest had concurred in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world have mistaken in him for ill-nature, said, smiling to us, that if the
concernment of this battle had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wished the victory at the price he knew he must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made on that subject: adding, that no argument could scape some of those eternal rhymers, who watch a battle with more diligence than the ravens and birds of prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry; while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their poems as to let them be often desired and long expected.—There are some of those impertinent people of whom you speak, answered Lisideius, who to my knowledge are already so provided, either way, that they can produce not only a panegyric upon the victory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy on the Duke ; wherein, after they have crowned his valour with many laurels,