« AnteriorContinua »
to be solicited: and he retired from a cold reception, not submissive but indiginant, with such reverence of his own greatness as made bim unwilling to expose it to neglect or violation. .
His modesty was by no means inconsistent with ostentatiousness; he is diligent enough to remind the world of his merit, and expresses with very little scruple his high opinion of his own powers; but his self commendations are read without scorn or indignation ; we allow his claims, and love his frankness.
Tradition, however, has not allowed that his confidence in himself exempted him from jealousy of others. He is accused of envy and insidiousness; and is particularly charged with inciting Creech to translate Horace, that he might lose the reputation which Lucretiùs had given him.
Of this charge we immediately discover that it is merely conjectural; the -purpose was such as no man would confess; and a crime that admits no proof, why should we believe?
He has been described as magisterially presiding over the younger writers, and assuming the distribution of poetical same; but he who excels has a right to teach, and he whose judgment is incontestable may without usurpation examine and decide.
Congreve represents him as ready to advise and instruct; but there is reason to believe that his communication was rather useful than entertaining. He declares of himself that he was saturnine, and not one of those whose spritely sayings diverted company; and one of his censurers makes him say,
Nor wine nor love could ever see me gay;
There are men whose powers operate only at leisure and in retirement, and whose intellectual vigour deserts them in conversation; whom merriment confuses, and objection disconcerts ; whose baslıfulness restrains their exertion, and suffers them not to speak till the time of speaking is past; or whose attention to their own character makes them unwilling to utter at hazard whar has not been considered, and cannot be recalled.
Of Dryden's sluggishness in conversation it is vain to scarch or to guess the cause. He certainly wanted neither sentiments nor language; his intellectual treasures were great, though they were locked up
from his own use. " thoughts," when he wrote, “ flowed in upon him so fast, that his only care
was which to chuse, and which to reject.” Such rapidity of composition naturally promises a flow of talk, yet we must be content to believe what an enemy says of him, when he likevisc says it of himself.
But whatever was his character as a companion, it appears that he lived in familiarity with the highest persons of his time. It is related by Carte of the duke of Ormond, that he used often to pass a night with Dryden and those with whom Dryden consorted; who they were, Carte has not told; but certainly the convivial
table at which Ormond sat was not surrounded with a plebeian society. He was indeed reproached with boasting of his familiarity with the great; and Horace will support him in the opinion, that to please superiors is not the lowest kind of merit.
The merit of pleasing must, however, be estimated by the means. Favour is not always gained by good actions or laudable qualities. Caresses and preferments are often bestowed on the auxiliaries of vice, the procurers of pleasure or the flatterers of vanity. Dryden has never been charged with any personal agency unworthy of a good character : he abetted vice and vanity only with his pen. One of his enemies has accused him of lewdness in his conversation; but, if accusation without proof be credited, who shall be innocent?
His works afford too many examples of dissolute licentiousness, and abject adulation; but they were probably, like his merriment, artificial and constrained; the effects of study and meditation, and his trade rather than his pleasure.
Of the mind that can trade in corruption, and can deliberately pollute itself with ideal wickedness for the sake of spreading the contagion in society, I wish not to conceal or excuse the depravity.--Such degradation of the dignity of genius, such abuse of superlative abilities, cannot be contemplated but with grief and indignation. What consolation can be had, Dryden has afforded, by living to repent, and to testify his repentance.
Of dramatick immorality he did not want examples among his predecessors, or companions among his contemporaries; but in the meanness and servility of hyperbolical adulation, I know not whether, since the days in which the Romar emperors were deified, he has been ever equalled, except by Afra Behn in an address to Eleanor Gwyn. When once he has undertaken the task of praise, he no longer retains shame in himself, nor supposes it in his patron. As many odoriferous bodies are observed to diffuse perfumes from year to year, without sensible diminution of bulk or weight, he appears never to have impoverished his mint of flattery by his expences, however lavish. He had all the forms of excellence, intellectual and moral, combined in his mind, with endless variation ; and when he had scattered on the hero of the day the golden shower of wit and virtue, he had ready for him, whom he wished to court on the morrow, new wit and virtue with another stamp. Of this kind of meanness he never seems to decline the pratcice or lament the necessity: he considers the great as entitled to encomiastick homage, and brings praise rather as a tribute than a gift, more delighted with the fertility of his invention, than mortified by the prostitution of his judgment. It is indeed not certain, that on-these occasions his judgment much rebelled against his interest. There are minds which easily sink into submission, that look on grandeur with undistinguishing reverence, and discover no defect where there is elevation of rank and affluence of riches. ссе
With his praises of others and of himself is always intermingled a strain of discontent and lamentation, a sullen growl of resentment, or a querulous murmur of distress. His works are under-valued, his merit is unrewarded, and " he has few thanks to pay his stars that he was born among Englishmen.” To his criticks he is sometimes contemptuous sometimes resentful, and sometimes submissive. The writer who thinks his works formed for duration, mistakes his interest wlien he mentions his enemies. He degrades his own dignity by shewing that he was affected by their censures, and gives lasting importance to names, which, left to themselves, would vanish from remembrance, From this principle Dryden did not often depart ; his complaints are for the greater part general; he seldom pollutes bis page with an adverse name. He condescended indeed to a controversy with Settle, in which he perhaps may be considered rather as assaulting than repelling; and since Settle is sụnk into oblivion, his libel remains injurious only to himself.
Among answers to criticks, no poetical attacks, or altercations, are to be included ; they are like other poems, effusions of genius, produced as much to obtain praise as to obviare censure. These Dryden practised, and in these he excelled.
Of Collier, Blackmore and Milbourne, he has made mention in the preface to his fables. To the censure of Collier, whose remarks may be rather termed admonitions than criticisms, he makes little reply ; being, at the age of sixty-eight, attentive to better things than the claps of a playhouse. He complains of Colliers zudeness, and the “ horse-play of his raillery;" and asserts that " in many places he has perverted by his glosses the meaning" of what he censures ; but in other things he confesses that he is justly taxed; andsays with great caįmness and candour,“ I have pleaded guilty to all thoughts for expressions of mine that can be truly accused of obscenity, immorality,
or profaneness, and retract them, If he be my enemy, let him triumph;
if he bę my friend, he will be glad of my repentance." Yet as our best dispcsitions are imperfect, he left standing in the same book a reflection on Collier of great asperity, and indeed of more asperity than wit.
Black more he represents as made his enemy by the poem of Absalom and Achitophel, which " he thinks a little hard upon his fanatick patrons ;” and charges him with borrowing the plan of his Arthur from the preface to Juvenal, “ though he had," says he, as tho baseness not to acknowledge his bene
factor, but instead of it to traduce me in a libel."
Thc libel in which Blackmore traduced him was a Satire upon Wil; in wbich having lamented the exuberance of false wit and the deficiency of true, be proposes that all wit should be re-coined before it is current, and appoints masters of assay who shall reject all that is light or debased,
Tis irue, that when the coarse and worthless dross
Ev'n Congreye, Southern, manly Wycherley;
And wicked mixture, shall be purg'd away! Thus stands the passage in the last edition ; but in the original there was an abatement of the censure, beginning thus :
But what reniains will be so pure, twill bear
Th' examination of the most severe. Blackmore, finding the censure resented, and the civility disregarded, ungenercusly omitted the softer part. Such variations discover a writer who consults bis passions more than his virtue; and it may be reasonably supposed that Dryden imputes his enmity to its true cause,
Of Milbourne he wrote only in general terms, such as are always ready at the call of anger, whether just or not; a short extract will be sufficient. “ He " pretends a quarrel to me, that I have fallen foul upon priesthood; if I have, "I am only to ask pardon of good priests, and am afraid his share of the " reparation will come to little. Let him be satisfied that he shall never be " able to force himself upon me for an adversary; I contemn him too much
to enter into competition with him. " As for the rest of those who have written against me, they are such "scoundrels, that they deserve not the least notice to be taken of them. * Black more and Milbourne are only distinguished from the crowd by being " remembered to their infamy."
Dryden indeed discovered, in many of his writings, an affected and absurd malignity to priests and priesthood, which naturally raised him many enemies, and which was sometimes as unseasonably resented as it was exerted. Trapp is angry that he calls the sacrificer in the Georgicks “ the holy butcher :" the translation is not indeed ridiculous ; but Trapp's anger arises from his zzal, not for the author, but the priest ; as if any reproach of the follies of Paganism could be extended to the preachers of truth. Dryden's dislike of the priesthood is imputed by Langbaine, and I think by Brown, to a repulse which he suffered when he solicited ordination ; but he denies, in the preface to his Fables, that he ever designed to enter into the church ; and such a denial he would not have hazarded, if he could have been convicted of falsehood.
Malevolence to the clergy is seldom at a great distance from irreverence of religion, and Dryden affords no exception to this observation. His writings exhibit many passages, which, with all the allowance that can be made for characters and occasions, are such as picty would not have admitted, and such 23 may vitiate light and unprincipled minds.
But there is no reason for supDesing that he disbelieved the religion which he disobeyed. He forgot his duty
rather than disowned it. His tendency to profaneness is the effect of levity negligence, and loose conversation, with a desire of accommodating himsel to the corruption of the times, by venturing to be wicked as far as he durst. When he professed himself a convert to Popery, he did not pretend to have received any new conviction of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
The persecution of criticks was not the worst of his vexations; he was much more disturbed by the importunities of want. His complaints of poverty are so frequently repeated, either with the dejection of weakness sinking in helpless misery, or the indignation of merit claiming its tribute from man: kind, that it is impossible not to detest the age which could impose on such a man the necessity of such solicitations, or not to despise the man who coule submit to such solicitations without necessity.
Whether by the world's neglect, or his own imprudence, I am afraid tha the greatest part of his life was passed in exigencies. Such outcries were surely never uttered but in severe pain. Of his supplies or his expences no probable estimate can now be made. Except the salary of the Laureat, to which king James added the office of Historiographer, perhaps with some additional emoluments, his whole revenue seems to have been casual ; and it is well known that he seldom lives frugally who lives by chance. Hope is always liberal; and they that trust her promises make little scruple of revelling to-day on the profits of the morrow.
Of his plays the profit was not great, and of the produce of his other works very little intelligence can be had. By discoursing with the late'amiable Mr. Tonson, I could not find that any memorials of the transactions between his predecessor and Dryden had been preserved, except the following papers
“I do hereby promise to pay John Dryden, Esq. or order, on the 25th of “ March, 1699; the sum of two hundred and fifty guineas, in consideration es of ten thousand verses, which the said John Dryden, Esq. is to deliver to “me Jacob Tonson, when finished, whereof seven thousand five hundred
verses, more or less, are already in the said Jacob Tonson's possession. “ And I do hereby farther promise, and engage myself, to make up the said “ sum of two hundred and fifty guineas three hundred pounds sterling to the " said John Dryden, Esq. his executors, administrators, or assigns, at the “ beginning of the second impression of the said ten thousand verses.
« In witness whereof I have here unto set my hand and seal, this 20th day of March, 1698-9.
66 Ben. Portlock.