1. The Devoted Life
From John Dryden by Bonamy Dobrée (1956)

Within a very few days of Dryden's death on 1 May 1700, his last written work, 'The Secular Masque', was performed as part of Vanbrugh's version of The Pilgrim. In it he sketched a picture of the preceding hundred years — the reign of James I with his love of hunting, the Civil Wars, the voluptuous Court of Charles II, symbolized in turn by Diana, Mars and Venus. It ended:

Momus. All, all of a piece throughout:Pointing to Diana Thy chase had a beast in view;To Mars Thy wars brought nothing about;To Venus Thy lovers were all untrue.
Janus. 'Tis well an old age is out.
Chronos. And time to begin a new.

The chorus rechanting the lines as a grand grand finale. The vigorous conclusion might serve as an epitome of the man; his admirable craftsmanship, his ironic vision of the social enthusiasms of his century, himself however no prey to disillusion, holding as he seemed to do that a new age really did mean a new beginning, to which his own unfailing vigour might contribute. Copiousness, energy, vitality, those are the key words for Dryden; not profundity, not subtlety, not exquisite delicacy, nor except rarely, by implication alone, deep conflict: but the energy of intellect flowing like sunlight over a wide landscape, the vitality of being inspiring a passion for his craft. These never abated. He was, as Congreve said, 'an improving writer to the last': and as he quite justly told of himself in his last great Preface of 1700:

'I think myself as vigorous as ever in the faculties of my soul ... What judgement I had, increases rather than diminishes; and thoughts, such as they are, come crowding in so fast upon me, that my only difficulty is to choose or to reject; to run them into verse, or to give them the other harmony of prose.'

It has been said that 'reading him we are aware of a character as solid as Dr. Johnson; but look for him, and he is not there: the lines of the human figure dissolve as you turn, into those of the literature of his own age'. Such embracing statements are never wholly true, but this one is not far off the mark. For since literature was the overriding interest of Dryden's life, becoming a fervour to purify the language of the tribe, all his endeavours, apart from the domestic ones, revolve about his own writings or those of others. Yet, picking up a hint here, reading between the lines there, we can see what the temperament was that made this passion the thing by which he lived. Involved by the nature of things in the affairs of his time, he to some extent shared its moral and intellectual fashions: but within him there lay a deep-rooted scepticism as to the value, even the virtue of, human effort, a sense that the gratification of ordinary everyday impulses, ambitions, or desires, was hardly worth while. The very animals, the birds even, are better adjusted:

Man only clogs with cares his happiness:
And, while he should enjoy his part of bliss,
With thoughts of what may be, destroys what is.

A juvenile fancy if you will (it occurs in an early play), an adolescent groping towards the commonplace that le mieux est l'ennemi du bien: but later we get a passage that seems to come, rather, from experience, as an achieved Stoicism:

In wishing nothing, we enjoy still most;
For even our wish is, in possession, lost:
Restless we wander to a new desire,
And burn ourselves by blowing up the fire:
We toss and turn about our feverish will,
When all our ease must come by lying still:
For all the happiness mankind can gain,
Is not in pleasure, but in rest from pain.

while at the end of Satan's first speech in The State of Innocence we meet a terrible heightening, a black vision of man's worst fate:

In liquid burnings, or on dry to dwell,
Is all the sad variety of hell.

So much, then, for the ordinary human strivings after happiness. Not that Dryden dwelt in unvaried gloom, or lacked joyousness. Far from it. His songs alone, his odes, some of which are paeans in praise of life, by their very radiance attest this. But where was the ultimate satisfaction? Not here, surely.

Was the life of affairs any better? Born in 1631, he passed his boyhood in the uneasy period of the Civil Wars; grown to manhood, he was employed in the service of the Commonwealth, as were Milton and Marvell, had a glimpse behind the scenes of the wranglings and dissensions of the chief participants, and witnessed the collapse of what to the Puritans was 'the good old cause'. What, after all, had been the result of the clash, the reward for all the bloodshed, and the expense of spirit? As he was to say in the Secular Masque:

The fools are only thinner,
  With all our cost and care;
But neither side a winner,
  For things are as they were.

Then, after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the ups and downs of politics, the intrigues, the shoddy ambitions, the cupidities and treacheries, the brutality inseparable from government: the whole business disgusted him. In one of his few, perhaps his only public, outbursts of temper he declared:

'No government has ever been, or ever can be, wherein time servers and block heads will not be uppermost. The persons only are changed, but the same jugglings in state, the same hypocrisy in religion, the same self-interest and mismanagement, will remain for ever.' ( — Dedication of Examen Poeticum, 1692.)

The satisfaction was not to be found there. In this realm Dryden's scepticism reaches its extreme point; it hardens into cynicism. There are better things to do than to bother about politics, let alone meddle in them. He came to be, he confessed in the Dedication of the Æneis (1697),

'of Montaigne's principles, that an honest man ought to be contented with that form of government, and with those fundamental constitutions of it, which he received from his ancestors, and under which he himself was born'.

It was a deep need for quiet, which implies order, which made him conservative, a Tory in politics, and a classicist in literature.

It was his mingled scepticism and love of order which more than anything brought about his change of faith, from near Dissent, to Catholicism, by way of the Church of England. Nevertheless in the field of religion we come to something deeply interesting in Dryden's make-up. It was a constant preoccupation with him, as we can tell from the religious arguments that occur again and again in his plays. His primary scepticism he expressed clearly enough in The Indian Emperour (1665), where one character says to two disputants:

In seeking happiness you both agree;
But in the search the paths so different be,
That all religions with each other fight,
While only one can lead us in the right.
But till that one hath some certain mark,
Poor human kind must wander in the dark.

His first reaction against the grimmer forms of dissent seems to have been — to judge from that curious quasi-mystical play Tyrannick Love — almost an exalted vision of God as Light, not very different, superficially at least, from Milton's. Here Damilcar, who occupies a state midway between man and the angels, appeals to a being higher than himself:

Mercy, bright spirit; I already feel
The piercing edge of thy immortal steel:
Thou, Prince of day, from elements art free:
And I all body when compared to thee.
Thou tread'st the Abyss of light!
And where it streams with open eyes can'st go:
We wander in the fields of air below;
Chang'lings and fools of Heaven: and thence shut out,
Wildly we roam in discontent about:
Gross-heavy-fed, next Man in ignorance and sin,
And spotted all without, and dusky all within,
Without thy sword I perish by thy sight
I reel, and stagger, and am drunk with light.

If he lacked, as we are told, the transcendental qualities that distinguish the greatest poets, he was certainly not unaware of them; yet we feel that when he touches upon them they are descriptions from outside rather than accounts of inner experience.

And no doubt the impulse of his religious change was partly political; for wearied with the incessant and violent controversies, the wildness of 'enthusiasm' which embraced the most fantastic religious deviations and disturbed social tranquility, he hankered after a creed with authority enough to appease the sectarian feuds that bedevilled politics;

For points obscure are of small use to learn;
But common quiet is mankind's concern.

he concluded in Religio Laici (1682). His path to Rome, in any event no easy one, was all the more difficult since it led in a direction away from his political loyalties. Moreover, in an age where politics and religion were so closely interwoven, to embrace a faith proscribed by government can have meant no half-conviction, in view of all that was involved by way of civil disabilities and the loss of any hope of preferment. For by nature he was a proud man, conscious of unusual powers, impatient of having thoughts or ideas dictated to him, with a good deal of the hubris proper to youth. As he tells us in that strange ratiocinative poem. The Hind and the Panther (1687):

My thoughtless youth was winged with vain desires,
My manhood, long misled by wandring fires,
Followed false lights; and when their glimpse was gone
My pride struck out new sparkles of her own.
Such was I, such by nature still I am;
Be thine the glory, and be mine the shame.

That, of course, is intellectual humility before the mysteries of religion, a result, perhaps, of profound scepticism of the validity of the reason beyond definite limits. But later we get something far more personal, connected it is true with religious submission, but revelatory of the struggle Dryden felt in giving up wordly position, not for that in itself alone, but for the cramping of his poetic mission:

If joys hereafter must be purchased here
With loss of all that mortals hold so dear,
Then welcome infamy and public shame,
And, last, a long farewell to worldly fame.
'Tis said with ease, but, O, how hardly tried
By haughty souls to human honour tied!
O sharp convulsive pangs of agonising pride!

Clearly he could not have stayed in the Anglican position so well argued in Religio Laici: persuaded from the first of the inefficacy of reason in this realm, he craved for a position based on something more secure than private judgement, one where he could say in all relief:

Rest then, my soul, from endless anguish freed.

Given, then, these attitudes to life, not of course established from the first, but arrived at, what was there for him to do? Born into an age of new and daring intellectual adventure, the age of Bacon, Descartes and Newton; of religious questioning with Port Royal and Pascal, the Cambridge Platonists and other more extravagant adventurers in thought, he was very much alive to what was going on. Unequal to philosophy, distasting the world of affairs, he decided, though he matured late, to become a writer; and aware of his power and his great ability, aimed at achieving fame. 'For what other reason', he was to ask rhetorically in the Dedication of Examen Poeticum (1693)

have I spent my life in so unprofitable a study? why am I grown old in seeking so barren a reward as fame? The same parts and application which have made me a poet might have raised me to any honours of the gown, which are often given to men of as little learning and less honesty than myself.

In application, in unceasing labour, that is where he got his satisfaction. And more than satisfaction: the shining reward accorded to those who lead the devoted life.

« NEXT » « Works & Life » « Classics » « Biographies » « Library »