To what precise end his talents were to be shaped did not at once seem plain. It was no easy time for men of letters, though Dryden had, to be sure, certain initial advantages. Both his parents came of estated gentlefolk with responsibilities to the community and some power in it, such people, in fact, by whom and between whom, the Civil War was fought out. From the first he must have come in touch with the political violence of his day, his family being ardently engaged in the struggle on the Puritan side: but he was too young to do more than see the conflict as a schoolboy in London might be expected to see it. The pupil at Westminster School already showed poetic leanings, not only by a prize translation from Persius, but also by a lament on his school-fellow Lord Hastings, a piece in couplets with some good lines, but made horrific with dire metaphysical conceits on the more loathsome manifestations of the smallpox from which Lord Hastings had died. In 1650 he was elected a Westminster Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he wrote two innocuous poems. He took his degree in 1654, the year his father died; and finding himself with a small estate, and his head 'too roving and active' for college life, he took himself off to London, where his fathers' cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, whom Cromwell had appointed his Lord Chamberlain, obtained him a post in the civil service. Nothing came from his pen until the death in 1658 of the Protector, to whose 'glorious memory' he 'consecrated' his Heroic Stanzas, a series of quatrains in which Cromwell's character is praised, but his politics silently shelved. At this time he seems to have begun his literary career by doing hackwork for the publisher Herringman, and by mixing with literary figures, such as Sir Robert Howard, whose sister, Lady Elizabeth, he married in 1663. At the Restoration in 1660 he came out with 'Astraea Redux', to welcome Charles II, in which significantly occur the lines:
At home the hateful names of parties cease,
And factious souls are wearied into peace.
Apart from other occasional verses in couplets, he printed no poem until 1666, when, ushered in by one of his discursive prefaces, he published 'Annus Mirabilis' a patchily brilliant poem of 304 quatrains, celebrating the triumphant issue of London from the calamities of unsuccessful war, the Great Plague, and the Fire of London.
But already by 1663 he had embarked on the period of playwriting which was to absorb most of his literary energies for nearly twenty years; and from the beginning we are increasingly made awake to where Dryden's clarify passionate interest in literature lay, namely to improve, clarify and enrich the language; also to 'reform its numbers', that is to bring order, grace, expressiveness, into verse writing. No mere study philologist, however, no armchair prosodist, he was all the time the eager craftsman, moulding as he went the, instrument he wished to use. Finding as he progressed that he had no particular vision of life to impart, except for his always constructive view of order, he was content to do what came to his hand to effect. He did not appear to mind what he wrote about, so long as in writing he could continue his great chosen mission; after all, what is subject matter 'before it is modelled by the art of him who writes it'? Almost the only poem that 'was neither imposed upon [him], nor so much as the subject given [him] by any man' was The Hind and the Panther. He had naturally an eye to what enabled him to live as one of the many struggling authors whose livelihood depended largely on the favour of the Court, the denizens of which, the aristocrats, the politicians, were themselves often no mean literary figures and capable of informed criticism. However, being made Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal from 1668 gave him status, and a small, irregularly paid income; thus when in the late seventies he tired of the theatre, it was natural for him to turn to polemical writing. In 1681 he produced the greatest political poem in the language, Absalom and Achitophel, followed by the two lengthy poems of religious argument; and always what he wrote was accompanied by an enriching critical preface, or Epistle Dedicatory. But after the Revolution of 1688, losing his official posts, he returned intermittently to the theatre to buttress up his failing finances: but more and more fell back upon translations of large extracts from Lucretius, Juvenal, Ovid, Horace, and of the whole of Virgil. His last volume, the Fables (1700), consists of stories freely rendered from Ovid, Boccaccio and Chaucer, always — at least this was part of his intention — with the purpose of seeing what he could make the language do, and what he himself could accomplish in perfecting the instrument. As he told his cousin, Mrs. Stewart, in 1699, he would wish people to
'consider [him] as a man who has done [his] best to improve the language, especially the poetry'.
We do not, of course, read the works of a creative writer merely for the sake of what he did for the language, but rather for what he did with it. Nevertheless with Dryden the two interests are inseparable, since his precepts seem to arise so spontaneously from what his practice as an artist impelled him to do. All the time he was trying to make the language, which was at that time in a state of confusion, into a valid, flexible instrument. Dissatisfied with the muddle, glorious though it sometimes is of, say, Cowley and Crashaw in verse, and the loaded style of Sir Thomas Browne in prose, he was anxious for directness. But not to excess. He was a member of the Royal Society committee, the results of whose cogitations, taken to their logical conclusion, led to the Projectors in Book III of Gullivers' Travels, who carried about sackfuls of objects to which they pointed instead of using their tongues. Dryden saw that what the Royal Society was aiming at simply would not do; words are not merely signs for objects; among other things they are, as Bagehot said, good to eat.
As early as his first critical essay, the Epistle Dedicatory of The Rival Ladies (1664), he throws in casually:
'I wish we might at length leave to borrow words from other nations, which is now a wantonness in us, not a necessity'
a point of view markedly at variance with his later judgement; but then Dryden was always ready to allow experience, the findings of the artificer, to qualify and alter his conclusions. He is the least dogmatic of theorizers because he is always close to the creative impulse, aware that 'technique' is not an absolute, but on each occasion the solution of a particular artistic problem. Thus he moved to another position as regards words. We find him saying in 1679, in the preface to his Troilus and Cressida, that the English language was 'full of monosyllables, and those clogged with consonants', and he wished to make it one worthy of English minds, which foreigners would not disdain to learn, so when we come to the Dedication of the Æneis (1697), we find him ready to borrow words, not indiscriminately, for fashion's sake, as Melantha did in his comedy Marriage-à-la-Mode, picking from a list that began en sottises and ended en ridicule, but judiciously, with attention to weight, and fine shades of meaning.
'Tis true that, when I find an English word significant and sounding, I neither borrow from the Latin nor any other language; but when I want at home, I must seek abroad.
If sounding words are not of our growth and manufacture, who shall hinder me to import them from a foreign country? I carry not out the treasure of the nation, which is never to return; but what I bring from Italy I spend in England ... I trade both with the living and the dead, for the enrichment of our native language.
His final pronouncement comes in the Preface to the Fables:
When an ancient word for its sound and significancy deserves to be revived, I have that reasonable veneration for antiquity to restore it. All beyond this is superstition. Words are not like landmarks, so sacred as never to be removed.
Dr. Johnson maybe used a somewhat clumsy metaphor when he said that Dryden 'found the language brick and left it marble', but we can see the force of the remark. In the middle of the century, it was something like a magnificent heap of rubble; he left it shapely and habitable; or if we prefer an organic metaphor, let us say that he found it a tangled forest shrubbery, and left it a grove of flowering trees. We have his beautifully modulated flow, the variation of phrase from the long supple sentence to the epigrammatic thrust, as also the vigour, the incisive stress where he wants it, the clarification of meaning.
'He is always shrewd and penetrating,' Landor commented, 'explicit and perspicuous, concise where conciseness is desirable, and copious where copiousness can yield delight.'
And though Landor was speaking of his poetry, the judgement is as true of his prose which, when he is in a gay confident mood, is as full of lively imagery as his verse.
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