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His fate as a poet has been very singular. The Virgil Travestie, and his other burlesque performances, have been perpetuated by at least fifteen editions; while his poems, published in 1689, in which he displays taste and elegance, were never reprinted until 1810.
SIR WILLIAM DEN NY.
(Born circa 1630.) This gentleman wrote, in 1653, a poem entitled Pelecanicidium, or the Christian Adviser against Seif-murder; together with a Guide, and the Pilgrim's Pass to the Land of the Living. The author, in his preface, says :" Mine ears do tingle to hear so many sad relations, as ever since March last, concerning several persons of divers rank and quality, inhabiting within and about so eminent a city as late-famed London, that have made away and murdered themselves. I chose rather the quickness of verse than more prolix prose (with God's blessing first implored), to disenchant the possessed ; following diyinely-inspired David's example to quiet Saul with the melody of his harp."
(1632-1701.) Of the great poet whose life I am about to delineate, the curiosity which his reputation must excite will require a display more ample than can now be given. His contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, left his life unwritten; and nothing therefore can be known beyond what casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied.
John Dryden was born August 9, 1632, at Aldwinkle near Oundle; the son of Erasmus Dryden of Titchmersh, who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, baronet, of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire; but the original stock of the family was in the county of Cumberland.
He is reported by Derrick to have inherited from his father an estate of two hundred a year, and to have been bred, as was said, an Anabaptist. For either of these particulars no authority is given. Such a fortune ought to have secured him from that poverty which seems always to have oppressed him ; or if he had wasted it, to have made him ashamed of publishing his necessities. But though he had many enemies, who undoubtedly examined his life with a scrutiny sufficiently malicious, I do not remember that he is ever charged with waste of his patrimony. He was indeed sometimes reproached for his first religion. I am therefore inclined to believe that Derrick's intelligence was partly true and partly erroneous. From Westminster School, where he was instructed as one of the
# Johnson. VOL. II.
king's scholars by Dr. Busby, whom he long after continued to reverence, he was in 1650 elected to one of the Westminster scholarships at Cambridge.*
Of his school performances has appeared only a poem on the death of Lord Hastings, composed with great ambition of such conceits, as notwithstanding the reformation begun by Waller and Denham, the example of Cowley still kept in reputation. Lord Hastings died of the small-pox; and his poet has made of the pustules first rosebuds, and then gems, at last exalts them into stars, and says,
“No comet need foretell his change drew on,
Whose corpse might seem a constellation."
At the University he does not appear to have been eager of poetical distinction, or to have lavished his early wit either on fictitious subjects or public occasions. He probably considered that he who proposed to be an author ought first to be a student. He obtained, whatever was the reason, no fellowship in the college. Why he was excluded cannot now be known, and it is vain to guess ; had he thought himself injured, he knew how to complain. In the life of Plutarch
* He went off to Trinity College, and was admitted to a bachelor's degree in January 1654, and in 1657 was.made master of arts.
he mentions his education in the college with gratitude ; but in a prologue at Oxford he has these lines :
« Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
Than his own mother-university :
He chooses Athens in his riper age.” It was not till the death of Cromwell, in 1658, that he became a public candidate for fame, by publishing Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector; which, compared with the verses of Sprat and Waller on the same occasion, were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.
When the king was restored, Dryden, like the other panegyrists of usurpation, changed his opinion or his profession, and published “ Astrea Redux, a poem on the happy restoration and return of his most sacred majesty King Charles the Second."
The reproach of inconstancy was on this occasion shared with such numbers, that it produced neither hatred nor disgrace : if he changed, he changed with the nation. It was, however, not totally forgotten when his reputation raised him enemies.
The same year he praised the new king in a second poem on his restoration. In the Astrea was the line,
« An horrid stillness first invades the ear,
And in that silence we a tempest fear;" for which he was persecuted with perpetual ridicule, perhaps with more than was deserved. Silence is indeed mere privation, and so considered cannot invade : but privation likewise certainly is darkness, and probably cold; yet poetry has never been refused the right of ascribing effects or agency to them as to positive powers. No man scruples to say that darkness hinders him from his work, or that cold has killed the plants. Death is also privation ; yet who has made any difficulty of assigning to death a dart and the power of striking ?
In settling the order of his works there is some difficulty ; for even when they are important enough to be formally offered to a patron, he does not commonly date his dedication; the time of writing and publishing is not always the same ; nor can the first editions be easily found, if even from them could be obtained the necessary information.
The time at which his first play was exhibited is not certainly known, because it was not printed till it was, some years afterwards, altered and revived; but since the plays are said to be printed in the order in which they were written, from the dates of some, those of others may be inferred ; and thus it may be collected, that in 1663, in the thirty-second year of his life, he commenced a writer for the stage : compelled undoubtedly by necessity; for he appears never to have loved that exercise of his genius, or to have much pleased himself with his own dramas.
Of the stage, when he had once invaded it, he kept possession for many years : not, indeed, without the competition of rivals, who sometimes prevailed, or the censure of critics, which was often poignant and often just ; but with such a degree of reputation as made him at least secure of being heard, whatever might be the final determination of the public.
His first piece was a comedy called The Wild Gallant. He began with no happy auguries ; for his performance was so much disapproved that he was compelled to recall it, and change it from its imperfect state to the form in which it row appears, and which is yet sufficiently defective to vindicate the critics.
I wish that there were no necessity of following the progress of his theatrical fame, or tracing the meanders of his mind though the whole series of his dramatic performances; it will be fit, however, to enumerate them, and to take especial notice of those that are distinguished by any peculiarity, intrinsic or concomitant ; for the composition and fate of eight-and-twenty dramas include too much of a poetical life to be omitted.
In 1664 he published The Rival Ladies, which he dedicated to the Earl of Orrery, a man of high reputation both as a writer and as a statesman. In this play he made his essay of dramatic rhyme, which he defends in his dedication, with sufficient certainty of a favourable hearing, for Orrery was himself a writer of rhyming tragedies.
He then joined with Sir Robert Howard in The Indian Queen, a tragedy in rhyme. The parts which either of them wrote are not distinguished.
The Indian Emperor was published in 1667. It is a tragedy in rhyme, intended for a sequel to Howard's Indian Queen. Of this connection notice was given to the audience by printed bills distributed at the door ; an expedient supposed to be ridiculed in The Rehearsal, where Bayes tells how many reams he has printed, to instil into the audience some conception of his plot.
In this play is the description of night, which Rymer has made famous by preferring it to those of all other poets.
The practice of making tragedies in rhyme was introduced soon after the Restoration, as it seems, by the Earl of Orrery, in compliance with the opinion of Charles the Second, who had formed his taste by the French theatre; and Dryden, who wrote, and made no difficulty of declaring that he wrote only to please, and who perhaps knew that by his dexterity of versification he was more likely to excel others in rhyme than without it, very readily adopted his master's preference. He therefore made rhyming tragedies, till, by the prevalence of manifest propriety, he seems to have grown ashamed of making them any longer.
To this play is prefixed a very vehement defence of dramatic rhyme, in confutation of the preface to The Duke of Lerma, in which Sir Robert Howard had censured it.
In 1667 he published Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Wonders, which may be esteemed one of his most elaborate works.
It is addressed to Sir Robert Howard by a letter, which is not properly a declaration; and writing to a poet, he has interspersed many critical observations, of which some are common, and some perhaps ventured without much consideration. He began, even now, to exercise the domination of conscious genius, by recommending his own performance : “I am satisfied that, as the prince and general (Rupert and Monk) are incomparably the best subjects I ever had, so what I have written on them is much better than what I have performed on any other. As I have endeavoured to adorn my poem with noble thoughts, so much more to express those thoughts with elocution."
It is written in quatrains, or heroic stanzas of four lines; a measure which he had learned from the Gondibert of Davenant, and which he then thought the most majestic that the English language affords. Of this stanza he mentions the incumbrances, increased as they were by the exactness which the age required. It was, throughout his life, very much his custom to recommend his works by representation of the difficulties that he had encountered, without appearing to have sufficiently considered, that where there is no difficulty there is no praise.
There seems to be, in the conduct of Sir Robert Howard and Dryden towards each other, something that is not now easily to be explained. Dryden, in his dedication to the Earl of Orrery, had defended dramatic rhyme; and Howard, in the preface to a collection of plays, had censured his opinion. Dryden vindicated himself in his Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry; Howard, in his preface to The Duke of Lerma, animadverted on the vindication; and Dryden, in a preface to The Indian Emperor, replied to the animadversions with great asperity, and almost with contumely. The dedication to this play is dated the year in which the Annus Mirabilis was published. Here appears a strange inconsistency; but Langbaine affords some help, by relating that the answer to Howard was not published in the first edition of the play, but was added when it was afterwards reprinted ; and as The Duke of Lerma did not appear till 1668, the same year in which the dialogue was published, there was time enough for enunity to grow up between authors who, writing both for the theatre, were naturally rivals.
He was now so much distinguished, that, in 1668,* he succeeded Sir William Davenant as poet-laureate. The salary of the laureate had been raised in favour of Jonson, by Charles the First, from an hundred marks to one hundred pounds a year and a tierce of wine; a revenue in those days not inadequate to the conveniences of life.
The same year he published his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, an elegant and instructive dialogue, in which we are told by Prior, that the principal character is meant to represent the Duke of Dorset. This work seems to have given Addison a model for his Dialogues upon Medals.
Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen (1668), is a tragi-comedy. In the preface he discusses a curious question, whether a poet can judge well of his own productions and determines, very justly, that of the plan and disposition, and all that can be reduced to principles of science, the author may depend upon his own opinion; but that in those parts where fancy predominates, self-love may easily deceive. He might have observed, that what is good only because it pleases, cannot be pronounced good till it has been found to please.
* He did not obtain the laurel till August 18, 1670 ; but Mr. Malone inform us the patent had a retrospect, and the salary commenced from the midsummer after Davenant's death.