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enthusiasm than usual; “Of the great poet whose life I am now to undertake,” &c. Pope's enthusiastic praise of his versification is familiar to us. What Pope praises with so much discrimination, he scarce ever attempted to imitate, except in the passage itself in which he praises it. The spleen, I may almost call it, of Hume, who calls the bulk of his works “the refuse of our language,” is remarkable; especially as Dryden was a Tory. But it is insufferable, that Hume should speak in that manner, who had no great right to call English his language at all. Dryden is exactly the best model of language, in prose or verse, we have to produce. We find that Mr. Fox had, at one time, intended to insert no word in his History, for which an authority could not be found in Dryden.
But this want of popularity is partly owing to his inequalities. Much of his poetry is uninteresting; and a good deal is incorrect, over-fanciful, or coarse; so much of the latter, that it is alone a sufficient reason, why his entire poems
cannot be given to women, or to young persons with a view to education. Many of his poems, too, are occasional; and relate, as a whole, to subjects no longer interesting.
Our general impression of his tragedies, especially those in verse, is, that they consist chiefly in absurd bluster (we are told that the Conquest of Granada was received by the audience, or at least by audiences after his time, as comedy); in chop-logic; and Frenchified galanterie; except what is mere inanity. I hope this collection will show, that there are other qualities, scattered at least: bursts of imagination, the more remarkable because they seem to force their way in spite of the spirit of the age, instead of harmonizing with it, as in
the case of Shakespeare: (I might say, in spite of dramatic propriety too, and of French example; for they are often in the form of regular similes) - very simple, child-like, and tender feeling--more rarely, that feeling which is to be expected in tragedy, grand flow of manly spirit.
There is, probably, no poet, who writes what is ridiculous, so much as Dryden in his plays; which is the more remarkable, because he himself ridiculed others more than any writer, perhaps. Many of these passages could not have been intended to be considered as altogether serious: and the same thing may be said of many passages in Corneille. I have inserted a few of these, to illustrate his character.
I do not pretend to make this an edition of Dryden in which only the tedious and disagreeable parts are left out: for that, I am afraid, would still be much too long for the general taste at present.
Walter Scott, in Marmion, speaks with most serious admiration, of the supposed merits which Dryden would have shown in his intended epic poem; and of the constraints imposed upon him, in making him write plays, &c. But I cannot help thinking there is some doubt about all this. There are very hasty and contradictory things in many of Dryden's prose works.. Where he says that his genius did not much incline him to the stage, there is some truth in that, certainly; judging from the plays themselves. But he did not think so while he was writing them. On the contrary, he certainly meant, in all but plain terms, to boast, that he had surpassed his dramatic predecessors. And in a very curious letter, by Mrs. Evelyn, it appears that others, good judges, thought so tou.
With regard to satire, which Walter Scott speaks of him as condemned to, no man ever lived, to whose genius, satire, such as he wrote, that is, individual satire, what in its lowest state was then called lampoon, was so thoroughly suited. Whether Archilochus surpassed him, we cannot tell. We may be sure that in one respect he did not; the extraordinary mixture of it with good-nature and ease. What Walter Scott might have observed, however, with regard to the romantic and chivalrous style, is, that Dryden, though he did not write a whole poem in that taste, wrote his plays, many of them at least, avowedly upon that plan. He tells us, in his Defence of heroic plays, that their subjects are such as are contained in the first two lines of Ariosto.
“Le donne, i cavalier, l'arme, gli amori,
Le cortesie, l'audaci imprese, io canto.” His Almanzor is certainly a romance character, beyond, I believe, any in Corneille : though indeed hardly beyond Achilles in Homer; who frightens a whole army merely with shouting; though it must be owned, when he comes to actual fighting, (as Sir Uvedale Price pointed out against Knight,) he tells his followers that he cannot do without their assistance; and does not, like some heroes in Ariosto, scatter whole armies before himself alone.
As to the loose style of Dryden, which Walter Scott mentions, I cannot think he was driven into it by the age in which he lived, or the court; though Pope seems to have thought so from his ejaculation, “Unhappy Dryden!" But Dryden is found fault with for the excess of it, by Lord Rochester himself; and not as his own opinion only, but that of the public; and one of his comedies is said to have been condemned by the audience, for this fault.
Dryden is never, properly speaking, heavy, when he is dull.
This is owing, perhaps, to the constant flow of his metre; but also, to the nature of his mind, which was not pedantic and oppressive, but went on in a stream of ideas, whatever they might be. And both the turn of his mind acted
the flow and forward movement of his mind. The converse might be said of Fletcher; whose natural coldness of mind, and stiff versification, react upon each other.
It is impossible to form a full idea of the merit of Dryden's versification, without reading it aloud, and rather rapidly. It is opposed, both to the careless, and the regular writers, of his time. The former, of course, are continually liable to be clumsy; and they, particularly, allowed themselves the resource of does make, for makes, &c.; nay, I have somewhere seen does do. Dryden, indeed, is not free from this. As to the regular, he went to work in a totally different manner from them, such as Waller, &c., who, like Pope afterwards, composed slowly, and repolished coolly and carefully. The harmony of Dryden arises from his mind being constantly turned to that object, as co-existent with the original conception of the thought. The consequence is, that sometimes his matter is neglected, and his verses have not much in them; which however is by no means his natural character; for his early works have rather too much thought than too little.
The style of Dryden seems to me the most perfect we have--classical, polished, cultivated; but vernacular, manly, bold, and full of individual feeling. These last qualities, some of those who followed him were for taming down, in order to carry the first to a still greater extent. Swift would have introduced a rule, to have no triplets or Alexandrines; but it would spoil Dryden's verse very much, to take them away.
It is possible that his Alexandrines were not altogethersuggested by Spenser; but partly, though irregular in the
way he introduces them, authorised in his mind by the very sources of his regularity, the French; and particularly Corneille, whose manly, and somewhat careless, flow must have been very pleasing to him.
When his versification was formed, it seems to have been an irresistible faculty; and that he went on turning into verse, for whole scenes or pages together, sometimes what was unimportant, sometimes what might be solid argument in prose, but still prose. I should make him very angry, but I cannot help comparing him, in this respect, to Wither.
But you can hardly complain, as Boileau does of Chapelain, “Que n'écrit il en prose?” Johnson thinks, that the principal disposition of Dryden's mind was to reasoning: but if that were the case, there would be more appearance of it, one would think, in the great quantity of prose compositions which he has left: on the contrary, these are remarkable for the lightness, and even versatility, of their propositions, and the absence of any thing like a habit of profound or exact reasoning, in maintaining them. It is true, they turn upon literary subjects, not on subjects requiring much deep argument; but compare the turn of mind which they display, with that of Johnson himself, for instance, in the same subjects. In short, to use an old expression, he was a reasoner among poets, but a poet among reasoners. He delighted to show his faculty of reasoning in verse; but it does not follow that his reasonings were clearer or better than other people's. If Cowper had written sermons, perhaps they would never have been noticed.