It is perhaps natural that the picture most of us have of Dryden should be that of the Monarch of Will's Coffee House, the old giant surrounded by the lesser fry and the young aspirants, for that is the best documented. It slips us too easily that he spent the larger proportion of his life in the country, to which he was devoted, especially where fishing was to be had, and that his most taking epistle is the Horatian one to his kinsman John Driden in praise of the rural pieties. We forget earlier struggles, the squabbles with Howard and with Settle, and, properly, the gossip, unsubstantiated as it is, about his private life. The best portrait is that sketched by his young friend Congreve, whom he praised, we may think, beyond his merit, as he certainly did Addison.
He was of a nature exceedingly humane and compassionate, ready to forgive injuries, and capable of a sincere reconciliation with those that had offended him. His friendship, where he professed it, went beyond his professions. He was of very pleasing access; but somewhat slow, and, as it were, diffident in his advances to others ... He was extremely ready and gentle in his correction of the errors of any writer who thought fit to consult him, and full as ready and patient to admit of the reprehension of others, in respect of his own oversights and mistakes.
But his last years were far from placid. Battered by political circumstance, without hope of quiet leisure, condemned to write more and more to sustain his mentally deranged wife and his ailing son; he felt impelled to write:
What Virgil wrote in the vigour of his age, in plenty and at ease, I have undertaken to translate in my declining years; struggling with wants, oppressed by sickness, curbed in my genius, liable to be misconstrued in all I write; and my judges, if they are not very equitable, already prejudiced against me by the lying character which has been given them of my morals. Yet steady to my principles, and not dispirited by my afflictions, I have by the blessing of God on my endeavours, overcome all difficulties, and, in some measure, acquitted myself of the debt which I owed the public when I undertook this work.
Sanity, balance, these marked him to the last, and the zest which eabled him when nearly seventy, to brush off his forehead with a gesture of magnificent assurance such petty rivals as Milbourne and Blackmore, while with splendid dignity firmly drawing the limit of his error in the matter of the obscenity with which Collier had charged him. The non-juring parson had attacked him in his notorious Short View of the Stage, and though Dryden pleads guilty to the use of certain expressions, he asserts that Collier has traduced him:
Besides that, he is too much given to horse-play in his raillery: and comes to battle, like a dictator from the plough. I will not say, the Zeal of God's House has eaten him up; but I am sure it has devoured some part of his good manners and civility.
This might imply little were it not coupled with the homage he was always ready to pay to those who do things well, as good craftsmen, or good poets. One of the engaging things about him is the absence of rancour against the younger generation that would tread him down.
In thinking of Dryden it is a sense of overall greatness that remains; he is the superb all-round man. His influence has been enormous, but this is always a difficult matter to assess. It does, however, seem to be undoubted that he made the Ode live on as an English form, which he made shapely rather than formalized. It is certain that his Saint Cecilia Odes, 'Anne Killigrew', and perhaps others, prepared the ground for the odes of Collins and Gray, and made possible Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode' (which Dryden would have disliked for its imprecision) and the 'Ode to Duty'. By his example he sustained the variety of the lyric, and without him, for better or for worse, eighteenth-century poetry would have been very different from what it is: to begin with, one may say, 'No Dryden, no Pope', with all that that involves. It may be noted further that poets have turned to him in their distress, as Keats began to do when he found that Milton failed him. Craftsmen in poetry — that is to say good poets — even now are not slow to salute him; and those of us who venture upon the other harmony find ourselves echoing Matthew Arnold:
'Here at last we have the true English prose, a prose such as we would all gladly use if only we knew how.'
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