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BY R. H. CASE, B.A.
In what I have to say about Dryden I shall not trouble you much with his shortcomings. They have had a lion's share of criticism during the last century; and perhaps a better excuse still, is that half his excellencies must likewise go unmentioned. It is because he is least known as a dramatist that I speak proportionately at large of his plays. They are not his greatest work, considered in their entirety, for he was driven to the stage by his necessities rather than by choice or aptitude; but, in them, he is frequently at his best as a poet; nor is their usual hasty dismissal in a sentence containing a nice assortment of adjectives such as indecent, profane, ill-constructed, ranting, and so forth, anything but the voice of those who are too careless or too unjust to report good as well as evil.
The so-called classical school of Dryden and Pope was overthrown, at the close of last century, by what is called the Romantic Revival. If, then, we sympathise with what was effected in that revival, first by its pioneers and afterwards by Burns and Cowper, by Wordsworth and Coleridge (as, indeed, we are bound to do), can we also sympathise with the earlier change in the contrary direction, from Romantic to Classical, from Elizabethan to Restoration literature, the change in which Dryden was concerned, and which Wordsworth and the rest ultimately reversed? It is manifest that such sympathy would be, and actually was, impossible to the generations which first
reaped the full benefit of the reversal, the benefit of a return to natural expression from art which had become. artificiality, from conventionalised nature to nature herself, and from the study of manners to that of the heart and affections,-in short, a return from errors which were simply the original order and restraint of the classical school pushed beyond all reasonable bounds. But the prime of that school was very different from its dotage; and now, at this distance of time, we can surely recognise that the first change was as inevitable as the one I have just described, and that, as Mr. Gosse puts it, "the classic movement supplied that basis of style in prose and verse upon which all more recent literature has been elevated."
We may well give our suffrages in favour of the Romantic literature of the age of Elizabeth; but when, in the years before the Civil War, its vitality had ebbed, and its faults and exaggerations were left in strong relief, one cannot wonder that men craved for commonsense instead of imagination run wild, and as regards the language of poetry, for some precise diction instead of the license into which the glorious flexibility of Elizabethan verse had degenerated. It was a revolt, then, to restraint and commonsense in matter, to elegance and sobriety of diction in imitation of the Latin poets, and to a more regular type of verse, that was mainly begun by Edmund Waller in the earlier years of Charles the First, and long afterwards endorsed and dignified by Dryden with all the force of a great and masculine genius; and the issue of it was the so-called Classical school of English poetry.
We might have had quite another tale to tell but for the fatality that attended that virile band of writers, the poetic sons of Ben Jonson-had Randolph lived, for instance; or, again, had not the nobler classicism of Milton been silenced for nearly twenty years during the
war and Commonwealth. In Milton's old age, Dryden became his first and greatest panegyrist, nor did he fail to benefit by his unbounded admiration for Paradise Lost. But suppose that Dryden, born twenty-three years after Milton, had found the influence of such a poet predominant in his early manhood! The inference needs no statement. Both poets began as novices in the school of Donne and Cowley, the school of fantastic conceits and far-fetched comparisons; but by long years of retirement and quiet study at his father's house at Horton, Milton worked out his own salvation in poetry years before the political troubles interrupted his pursuits. Dryden (when they were all at an end), situated in the entirely different atmosphere of the town, and fighting for position in the profession of letters, at last found solid ground in the new prosody of Waller; and in a series of heroic plays gradually gave to that verse a vigour and majesty, from which Pope was obliged to detract in order to supply additional correctness and polish. Pope, indeed, sublimed criticism into fine poetry when he spoke thus of Dryden's
Waller was smooth: but Dryden taught to join
but he somewhat injured the majesty thus celebrated. Pope and his followers became slaves to the heroic couplet, the reformed verse of Waller, in which the sense and line are coterminous, as contrasted with Elizabethan and modern ten-syllabled verse, in which the stops occur as often in the middle as at the end of a line. They scarcely wrote anything else; but not the least of Dryden's claims is his mastery of blank verse, and his command of metres as a lyric poet; and even his heroic verse has a variety of cadence unknown to later developments. Not infre
quently, he employs the older method, to avoid monotony or to heighten effect, as in those faultless lines which open. the "Hind and Panther," and in which he allegorically describes the Church of Rome. In these lines we observe the new prosody, with its decisive end-stopped movement and antithetical balance in the four opening lines,—and then the sudden change to the beautiful and flowing verse which emphasises the pathetic images of those that follow:
A milk-white hind, immortal and unchanged,
She feared no danger, for she knew no sin:
Yet had she oft been chased with horns and hounds,
And Scythian shafts; and many winged wounds
Aimed at her heart was often forced to fly
And doomed to death, though fated not to die.
Before considering the rhymed heroic plays, a few facts will serve to remind us of the course of Dryden's life, which covered the years between 1631 and 1700, from eleven years before the Civil War down to the last two years of William III, that is to say, from fifteen years after the death of Shakspere to the twelfth year of Pope. The grandson of a Northamptonshire baronet, he came of a puritan race on both sides, and could command considerable family influence before the Restoration but that event put an end to all hopes of advancement from this source, and, like everybody else, he was glad to hail the coming of Charles the Second in adulatory strains. Who can wonder, after the miserable period of self-seeking and anarchy that followed Cromwell's death in 1658! He gradually made his way as a dramatist, and obtained the favour of the court; he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire, (no very complacent
spouse) in December, 1663, before he had made his mark, and became Laureate, in succession to Sir Wm. D'Avenant, as well as Historiographer Royal, in 1670; but as his emoluments from these offices were always in arrear, and his gains from the theatre precarious, he was never more than temporarily affluent; and after the Revolution, when stripped of his offices as an adherent of James and a Papist, he found himself pitted against straitened resources, as well as obloquy, increasing weight of years, and family anxieties. Then, indeed, if not before, one must give one's heart to Dryden, so nobly did he bear his burdens, putting forth, in these years of stress, much of his best work, and toiling to the very last with a devotion and unselfishness that make us think of his great biographer and panegyrist, Sir Walter Scott. His conversion from Protestantism after the accession of James the Second was put in the worst light by Macaulay, with a somewhat unscrupulous statement as to his supposed reward, that documentary evidence has since disproved. But long before the production of these proofs, which was due to Mr. Robert Bell, Sir Walter Scott had declared strongly in favour of Dryden on the internal evidence of his religious poems, revealing the gradual growth of opinions whose logical issue was Roman Catholicism. I will refer later to passages which appeal to one's best instincts for belief in his disinterestedness in religion and in attachment to the royal house.
Under William the Third, Dryden could never be persuaded to court favour, and sadly disappointed his publisher, Jacob Tonson, by his refusal even to allow the dedication of his Virgil to the King. "Tonson," writes Dryden to his son, "has missed of his design in the dedication, though he had prepared the book for it; for in every figure of Æneas, he has caused him to be drawn