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His taste was formed a good deal upon Cowley, as was natural; but he had of himself a love for conceits; and as he has more fire and rapidity than Cowley, (though Cowley was not wanting in these,) his style carries off, according to the principle of Longinus, conceits which might disgust if they were more coldly put, and more deliberately introduced.
His mind is eminently poetical. He turns every thing into imagination. It is like great painters, such as Titian or Rubens, representing common objects; quite naturally, indeed, but at the same time with a warmth and richness which they do not suggest to the minds of the vulgar observer, nor derive from the pencil of inferior artists, His elegant ideas and expressions are thrown out with a real delight, and scattered with an easy profuseness, where a writer of the later school would crow over them, and make much of them, individually.
When we see the spirit of Dryden bursting into poetry and imagination upon every subject, and particularly when, becoming more and more matured, he discards the love of ingenious conceits which he had been taught, and perhaps had taught himself, in his youth, it forms an extraordinary contrast with the very prosaic subjects, nay style, which he so frequently chooses and cultivates. But he was an eminently manly character. Poet as he was, he did not like, as Lord Byron says, to be “all poet.” But also, it was not a poetical age. If he did not write on poetical subjects, nobody else did.
More than any writer I know, he had a spontaneous facility in expressing things in verse. He came to his extraordinary facility of writing verse, slowly. His verses written under the age of thirty are few, and rather laboured. Ovid tells us, that he had the same faculty
when a boy. The case of Cowper, another great instance of poetical facility, differed from both: he simply did not write at all, till advanced in life.
Dryden's power of translation is astonishing for its freedom. Of course, he is not very faithful; but to write freely at all, with a model before him, shows great spirit.
A new poet, at the Restoration, laboured under a peculiar difficulty, from the almost entire extinction of elegant literature for eighteen years. Owing to the residence of the court, and many of the higher class of people, abroad, he had no certain measure, by which to judge what the taste of the nation would be. Literature and taste in France, in the meanwhile, had made an enormous progress. Dryden's mind was naturally complicated, almost contradictory; but in respect of models, he thought he might even cultivate extravagance, as Cowley, and others whom he had been used to read, had done; while at the same time he himself greatly promoted the French taste; which, even in its bolder state under Corneille, no longer allowed of that irregular freedom; but which, at the time when Dryden began to write plays, was about entering under the guidance of still more cautious, exact, judicious, and classical writers.
The introduction of actresses was another great revolution, against the habits of English dramatic composition. It is curious, that it led Dryden to introduce some most blustering and viraginous heroines: though never exclusively, as is the case in Corneille's Rodogune.
Dryden may be thought to have followed three different schools in his plays. We may suppose that upon the Restoration, people were too happy to haye any plays at all, and did not require any great force and solidity
at first. His Rival Ladies and Maiden Queen are light easy productions, partly in blank verse, and partly in rhyme; and, if imitations, founded on the school of Charles I.
Another style was the French: rhyming, and more pompous in manner; what he calls heroic plays.
Latterly he took to blank verse ; like other writers younger than himself, whose success perhaps confirmed him in the change; as Shakespeare followed his juniors. These plays are in a freer taste, as is natural, from the metre. They are generally in a stronger and bolder style, partly inspired by Shakespeare, partly by the general turn of actors, (and latterly, by Betterton in particular,) who were by that time accustomed to act Shakespeare, and to feel the effect which he produced; as, in Dryden's second period, Hart and Mohun probably re-acted upon his taste for blustering heroes. In these later plays, similes and imagery are less common; and he purposely omits, as he tells us in the preface to the Spanish Fryar, what he calls “the Dalilahs of the theatre, which cried shame upon him," that is, his rants and turgid passages.
The blustering characters in the rhyming plays are improbable on the whole; though real people, in that age, went a good way. The Duke de la Rochefoucault, I think, adopted, speaking of himself, a couplet from one of the French plays in that style:
"Pour mériter son cœur, pour plaire à ses beaux yeux,
J'ai fait la guerre aux rois, je l'aurois fait aux Dieux." But the fashion was at least temporary only; and they are a representation, perhaps, of an artificial state of society. The character of Dorax, like that of Pierre and Polydore in Otway, though partly artificial, is not even now impro
bable. It is taken from a sort of real character, always to be found, more or less, among young men of spirit, especially military men: self-confiding manly pride; the modern sense of honour; a real feeling, not merely as to women; mixed with another sort of feeling which is partly artificial and affected, and which, it may be said, is increased in the present day, by the increase of literature.
One would have thought, as these are taken from real life, that they might have been introduced into comedy. Maskwell is not such a character; he is simply odious. He has not even open daring. He is in no possible way the hero of his play, as those which I have mentioned are of theirs. He answers to the villain, not the bully, as they were called, of Dryden's plays.
The Orphan and Fair Penitent are indeed domestic tragedies, though in high life; but they are tragedies. Lothario is not the hero of the Fair Penitent, however; but I suspect, to many of the audience, he divides that honour. Polydore, we are somewhere told, was always the popular character in the Orphan,
Johnson remarks that “the want of morality may be justly objected to almost the whole of Otway's writings. In the tragedy of the Orphan, in which the distress arises solely from a vicious action of a young man, is this impious exclamation:
'Tis thus that Heav'n its empire doth maintain,
It may afflict, but man must not complain. How different from that in Shakespeare's Lear, of Edgar whose bastard brother had been accessary to their father Gloucester's miseries :
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Shakespeare had no love for bad characters; there is scarce any perfectly bad, that is, without excuse, in his plays.
The superior morality and delicacy of the Greek tragedies, over most of ours, is very remarkable indeed; and it seems to have been kept up, in a very great degree, by the audiences themselves; who cried out upon that sort of daring passages, which ours applauded. And we find, that their great comic writer attacks Euripides for this fault; as well as for the viciousness of some of his women.
It is curious, that in Dryden's later plays, two very opposite but simple characters, Dorax and Celidea, are made to adopt certain crooked schemes, one of which seems scarcely intelligible.
Dryden complains, as Southern did, that the audience would have tragi-comedy. They changed very suddenly then; for Rowe never has it. In one place, Dryden defends tragi-comedy; saying, that a man who cannot write it is but half a dramatist. Probably this might be an angry retort against some critic.
Notwithstanding the temporary nature of some of his subjects, and the temporary taste which he often followed, when we come to his mind in its natural, unconstrained, and at the same time, fully formed state, his way thinking and of writing is as free from temporary and individual peculiarity, as entirely above any thing odd, far-fetched, or fantastical, as congenial to the general ideas of human nature, and as fitted, therefore, for permanent approbation and imitation, as any that can be named.