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Who now habitually reads Dryden, unless it be for Alexander's Feast, and some hundred lines in Absalom and Achitophel ? Who did not read him until well into last century?
His contemporaries envied, abused, persecuted, starved, but admired and studied, him. They tolerated his threadbare love-songs, though Waller and Herrick were still among them. They echoed his judgement that
Our ladies and our men now speak more wit
In conversation than those poets writ, the poets being Ben Jonson ‘in his height ’, and his famous fellows. They agreed with him in thinking Chaucer no longer harmonious', and that Chapman-Keats's Chapman !-had' thrown Homer down as low as harsh numbers, improper English, and a monstrous length of verse could carry him '.1 The Annus Mirabilis has fine features. It is spacious, audacious, and breezy, if often ridiculous. The absurdities were not apparent to the eyes of 1666, any more than the ugliness of the conceit, in a juvenile poem, of the small-pox weeping scarring tears for its murder of young Lord Hastings. Dryden from boyhood to grey hairs knew his age, and was intensely of his age ; and his age was absolutely modern '. It believed devoutly in the perfection of its own taste and manners, in the eternal importance of its controversies. Dryden accepted and accentuated its characteristics. He enrolled his genius in its service. For a period like ours, ' modern' also, though,
it is to be hoped against hope, less bigoted in its modernity, it is difficult to appreciate the fury of partisan feeling with or against violent pamphlets in verse, such as The Medal, Religio Laici, or the Hind and the Panther, if not Absalom and Achitophel. But we must try to understand the writer's point of view, or a whole chapter in literature will be closed to us.
The wonder now is that the Georgian era esteemed him scarcely less highly than his own. Pope venerated him as Elisha Elijah. For fastidious Gray, who passes Pope by,
Wide o’er the fields of glory bear
wo coursers of ethereal race;
With necks in thunder clothed, and long-resounding pace. Scott, half a century later, did him homage as to a reigning monarch. In part-explanation we must remember that the contests in which he had vigorously combated, continued to rage, though the current had set adversely to his side. He had the benefit also of a long stagnation of poetical genius. Lovers of poetry, weary, if not of Pope, of his caricaturists, were almost compelled to travel a generation further back. Then finally, for the later age, as for his own, there was the natural title to admiration of a great writer, of great writing.
There after all is to be found the clue to the riddle of the Dryden-cult of a century and a half. From one motive or another he mixed himself up with matters alien to poetry. He sold himself to play writing for bread. In that capacity itself he tampered knowingly with 'Shakespeare's magic '. With, and leading, his pauper profession, which
must live by Courts, or starve, he helped to
Taint the Stage for some small snip of grain
Whether in pursuit of patrons, from contempt of the chiefs of the opposite camp, many of them turncoats and hypocrites, or from an element of honest, if mistaken, conviction, he threw himself into the discords of Whig and Tory, the State Church, Dissent, and Rome. He was a disputant of weight and renown. Wellington assured the British Cabinet that Napoleon's individual presence in the Peninsula would be equivalent to a French reinforcement of forty thousand men. Dryden's aid to either side meant as mighty an armament. Never writer, except Butler, argued like him in rhyme, whether in Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Religio Laici, or The Hind and the Panther. If, for instance, a preacher would borrow a sermon against Deism, he must search far before he discovered one loftier, or more apt, than the lines in Religio Laici, addressed to any one who fancies that :
Man by his own strength to Heaven would soar,
Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero ? ? But Dryden nowhere is a mere debater. He is a poet throughout, and fights in a poet's panoply, with a poet's
generous impulses. Doubtless it was a joy to him to launch, though, as we may well believe, in a wrong cause, the grand protest against theological intolerance :
Of all the tyrannies on human kind,
The laws of nations and of nature too.3 While the politician denounces Monmouth, the rebel, the poet appeals for a father's compassion to, and pride in, the son :
Whate'er he did was done with so much ease,
And Paradise was open'd in his face.4 It is again to the poet's sense of equity, resisting the politician's vindictiveness, that, as I will, in spite of jealous gossip, believe, we owe the magnanimous testimony to the incorrupt judge in the withering blast at the statesman turned demagogue.
It is highly to the credit of eighteenth-century intelligence that it condoned the partisanship, and recognized golden grains of inspiration like those. The nineteenth's and twentieth's literary curiosity is less strong. Unless in the form of elegant extracts it rejects the Court manifestoes ; and so far the neglect is not surprising. It is less excusable when it extends to the witty brimstone of Emperor Mac Flecknoe's devise of the Crown of Nonsense to a forgotten poetaster; for the reason that
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
But Shadwell never deviates into sense. 6
In its boisterous, rugged variety, it is an excellent, if rather too deliberate, example of onomatopoeia :
Who ever saw a noble sight,
As this so brave, so bloody sea-fight !? We are meant to feel, and, more or less, we do feel, from the British side, the surging backwards and forwards of the fortunes of the battle. It is a drama in two dozen lines. The Epistle to Kneller
Thy pictures look a voiceillustrates Dryden's wonderful capacity for simultaneous versifying and thinking. The fine lament for John Oldham's premature death possesses every quality of an epitaph, except pathos. That, always a rare emotion in him, sweetens the personal appeal, in the Epistle to Congreve, by the veteran,