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, 1631, at Aldwincle, near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden, of Tichmersh, who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Bart., of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire, but the 10 original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon. He is reported by his last biographer, 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 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 corps 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 purposed 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 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;
Thebes did his rude unknowing youth engage;
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 like-wise 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.
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