The time at which his first play was exhibited is not certainly known, because it was not printed till it was some years afterwards altered and revived; but since the plays are said to be printed in the order in which they were written, from the dates of some, those of others may be inferred; and thus it maybe collected that in 1663, in the thirty-second year of his life, he commenced a writer for the stage; compelled undoubtedly by necessity, for he appears never to have loved that exercise of his genius, or to have much pleased himself with his own dramas.
Of the stage, when he had once invaded it, he kept possession for many years; not indeed without the competition of rivals who sometimes prevailed, or the censure of critics, which was often poignant and often just; but with such a degree of reputation as made him at least secure of being heard, whatever might be the final determination of the public.
His first piece was a comedy called the 'Wild Gallant.' He began with no happy auguries, for his performance was so much disapproved, that he was compelled to recall it, and change it from its imperfect state to the form in which it now appears, and which is yet sufficiently defective to vindicate the critics.
I wish that there were no necessity of following the progress of his theatrical fame, or tracing the meanders of his mind through the whole series of his dramatic performances; it will be fit, however, to enumerate them, and to take especial notice of those that are distinguished by any peculiarity intrinsic or concomitant; for the composition and fate of eight-and-twenty dramas include too much of a poetical life to be omitted.
In 1664 he published the 'Rival Ladies,' which he dedicated to the Earl of Orrery, a man of high reputation both as a writer and a statesman. In this play he made his essay of dramatic rhyme, which he defends in his dedication with sufficient certainty of a favourable hearing; for Orrery was himself a writer of rhyming tragedies.
He then joined with Sir Robert Howard in the 'Indian Queen,' a tragedy in rhyme. The parts which either of them wrote are not distinguished.
The 'Indian Emperor' was published in 1667. It is a tragedy in rhyme, intended for a sequel to Howard's 'Indian Queen'. Of this connection notice was given to the audience by printed bills, distributed at the doors; an expedient supposed to be ridiculed in 'The Rehearsal,' when Bayes tells how many reams he has printed to instill into the audience some conception of his plot.
In this play is the description of Night, which Rymer has made famous by preferring it to those of all other poets.
The practice of making tragedies in rhyme was introduced soon after the Restoration, as it seems, by the Earl of Orrery, in compliance with the opinion of Charles the Second, who had formed his taste by the French theatre; and Dryden, who wrote, and made no difficulty of declaring that he wrote, only to please, and who perhaps knew that by his dexterity of versification he was more likely to excel others in rhyme than without it, very readily adopted his master's preference. He therefore made rhyming tragedies, till, by the prevalence of manifest propriety, he seems to have grown ashamed of making them any longer.
To this play is prefixed a very vehement defence of dramatic rhyme, in confutation of the preface to the 'Duke of Lerma,' in which Sir Robert Howard had censured it.
In 1667 he published 'Annus Mirabilis,' the 'Year of Wonders,' which may be esteemed one of his most elaborate works.
It is addressed to Sir Robert Howard by a letter, which is not properly a dedication; and, writing to a poet, he has interspersed many critical observations, of which some are common, and some perhaps ventured without much consideration. He began, even now, to exercise the domination of conscious genius by recommending his own performance: —
'I am satisfied that as the Prince and General [Rupert and Monk] are incomparably the best subjects I ever had, so what I have written on them is much better than what I have performed on any other. As I have endeavoured to adorn my poem with noble thoughts, so much more to express those thoughts with elocution.'
It is written in quatrains, or heroic stanzas of four lines; a measure which he had learned from the 'Gondibert' of Davenant, and which he then thought the most majestic that the English language affords. Of this stanza he mentions the encumbrances, increased as they were by the exactness which the age required. It was, throughout his life, very much his custom to recommend his works, by representation of the difficulties that he had encountered, without appearing to have sufficiently considered, that where there is no difficulty there is no praise.
There seems to be in the conduct of Sir Robert Howard and Dryden towards each other something that is not now easily to be explained. Dryden, in his dedication to the Earl of Orrery, had defended dramatic rhyme; and Howard, in the preface to a collection of plays, had censured his opinion. Dryden vindicated himself in his 'Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry;' Howard, in his preface to the 'Duke of Lerma,' animadverted on the vindication; and Dryden, in a preface to the 'Indian Emperor,' replied to the animadversions with great asperity, and almost with contumely. The dedication to this play is dated the year in which the 'Annus Mirabilis' was published. Here appears a strange inconsistency; but Langbaine affords some help, by relating that the answer to Howard was not published in the first edition of the play, but was added when it was afterwards reprinted; and as the 'Duke of Lerma' did not appear till 1668, the same year in which the Dialogue was published, there was time enough for enmity to grow up between authors, who, writing both for the theatre, were naturally rivals.
He was now so much distinguished, that in 1668 he succeeded Sir William Davenant as poet-laureate. The salary of the Laureate had been raised in favour of Jonson, by Charles the First, from a hundred marks to one hundred pounds a year and a tierce of wine; a revenue in those days not inadequate to the conveniences of life.
The same year he published his 'Essay on Dramatic Poetry,' an elegant and instructive dialogue, in which we are told by Prior, that the principal character is meant to represent the Duke of Dorset. This work seems to have given Addison a model for his 'Dialogues upon Medals.'
' Secret Love or the Maiden Queen', is a tragi-comedy. In the preface he discusses a curious question, whether a poet can judge well of his own productions: and determines very justly, that of the plan and disposition, and all that can be reduced to principles of science, the author may depend upon his own opinion; but that, in those parts where fancy predominates, self-love may easily deceive. He might have observed, that what is good only because it pleases, cannot be pronounced good till it has been found to please.
'Sir Martin Mar-all' is a comedy, published without preface or dedication, and at first without the name of the author. Langbaine charges it, like most of the rest, with plagiarism; and observes that the song is translated from Voiture, allowing however that both the sense and measure are exactly observed.
The 'Tempest' is an alteration of Shakspeare's play, made by Dryden in conjunction with Davenant,
'whom,' says he, 'I found of so quick a fancy, that nothing was proposed to him in which he could not suddenly produce a thought extremely pleasant and surprising; and those first thoughts of his, contrary to the Latin proverb, were not always the least happy; and as his fancy was quick, so likewise were the products of it remote and new. He borrowed not of any other, and his imaginations were such as could not easily enter into any other man.'
The effect produced by the conjunction of these two powerful minds was, that to Shakspeare's monster Caliban is added a sister-monster Sycorax; and a woman who, in the original play, had never seen a man, is in this brought acquainted with a man that had never seen a woman.
About this time, in 1673, Dryden seems to have had his quiet much disturbed by the success of the ' Empress of Morocco,' a tragedy written in rhyme by Elkanah Settle, which was so much applauded as to make him think his supremacy of reputation in some danger. Settle had not only been prosperous on the stage, but, in the confidence of success, had published his play, with sculptures and a preface of defiance. Here was one offence added to another; and, for the last blast of inflammation, it was acted at Whitehall by the Court ladies.
Dryden could not now repress these emotions, which he called indignation, and others jealousy; but wrote upon the play and the dedication such criticism as malignant impatience could pour out in haste.
Of Settle he gives this character:
'He is an animal of a most deplored understanding, without conversation. His being is in a twilight of sense, and some glimmering of thought, which he can never fashion into wit or English. His style is boisterous and rough hewn, his rhyme incorrigibly lewd, and his numbers perpetually harsh and ill-sounding. The little talent which he has, is fancy. He sometimes labours with a thought; but, with the pudder he makes to bring it into the world, 'tis commonly still-born; so that, for want of learning and elocution, he will never be able to express anything either naturally or justly!'
This is not very decent, yet this is one of the pages in which criticism prevails most over brutal fury. He proceeds:
He has a heavy hand at fools, and a great felicity in writing nonsense for them. Fools they will be in spite of him. His King, his two Empresses, his villain, and his sub-villain, nay his hero, have all a certain natural cast of the father — their folly was born and bred in them, and something of the Elkanah will be visible.'
This is Dryden's general declamation; I will not withhold from the reader a particular remark. Having gone through the first act, he says,
'To conclude this act with the most rumbling piece of nonsense spoken yet, —
"To flattering lightning our feign'd smiles conform,
Which back'd with thunder do but gild a storm."
Conform a smile to lighting, make a smile imitate lightning and flattering lightning: lightning sure is a threatening thing. And this lightning must gild a storm. Now if I must conform my smiles to lightning, then my smiles must gild a storm too: to gild with smiles is a new invention of gilding. And gild a storm by being backed with thunder. Thunder is part of the storm, so one part of the storm must help to gild another part, and help by backing; as if a man would gild a thing the better for being backed, or having a load upon his back. So that here is gilding by conforming, smiling, lightning, backing, and thundering. The whole is as if I should say thus, I will make my counterfeit smiles look like a flattering stone horse, which, being backed with a trooper, does but gild the battle. I am mistaken if nonsense is not here pretty thick sown. Sure the poet writ these two lines aboard some smack in a storm, and, being sea-sick, spewed up a good lump of clotted nonsense at once.'
Here is perhaps a sufficient specimen; but as the pamphlet, though Dryden's, has never been thought worthy of republication, and is not easily to be found, it may gratify curiosity to quote it more largely: —
'Whene'er she bleeds,
He no severer a damnation needs,
That dares pronounce the sentence of her death,
Than the infection that attends that breath.'
'That attends that breath. — The poet is at breath again; breath can never 'scape him; and here he brings in a breath that must be infectious with pronouncing a sentence; and this sentence is not to be pronounced till the condemned party bleeds; that is, she must be executed first, and sentenced after; and the pronouncing of this sentence will be infectious; that is, others will catch the disease of that sentence, and this infecting of others will torment a man's self. The whole is thus; when she bleeds, thou needest no greater hell or torment to thyself, than infecting of others by pronouncing a sentence upon her. What hodge-podge does he make here! Never was Dutch grout such clogging, thick, indigestible stuff. But this is but a taste to stay the stomach; we shall have a more plentiful mess presently.
'Now to dish up the poet's broth, that I promised: —
For when we're dead, and our freed souls enlarged
Of nature's grosser burden we're discharged,
Then gently, as a happy lover's sigh,
Like wandering meteors through the air we'll fly,
And in our airy walk, as subtle guests,
We'll steal into our cruel fathers' breasts,
There read their souls, and track each passion's sphere:
See how Revenge moves there, Ambition here.
And in their orbs view the dark characters
Of sieges, ruins, murders, blood and wars.
We'll blot out all those hideous draughts, and write
Pure and white forms; then with a radiant light
Their breasts encircle, till their passions be
Gentle as nature in its infancy:
Till softened by our charms their furies cease,
And their revenge resolves into a peace.
Thus by our death their quarrel ends,
Whom living we made foes, dead we'll make friends."
If this be not a very liberal mess, I will refer myself to the stomach of any moderate guest. And a rare mess it is, far excelling any Westminster white-broth. It is a kind of giblet porridge, made of the giblets of a couple of young geese, stodged full of meteors, orbs, spheres, track, hideous draughts, dark characters, white forms, and radiant lights, designed not only to please appetite and indulge luxury, but it is also physical, being an approved medicine to purge choler: for it is propounded by Morena, as a receipt to cure their fathers of their choleric humours: and were it written in characters as barbarous as the words, might very well pass for a doctor's bill. To conclude, it is porridge, 'tis a receipt, 'tis a pig with a pudding in the belly, 'tis I know not what: for, certainly, never any one that pretended to write sense had the impudence before to put such stuff as this into the mouths of those that were to speak it before an audience, whom he did not take to be all fools; and after that to print it too, and expose it to the examination of the world. But let us see what we can make of this stuff: —
"For when we're dead, and our freed souls enlarged—"
Here he tells us what it is to be dead; it is to have ourfreed souls set free. Now if to have a soul set free is to be dead, then to have a freed soul set free is to have a dead man die.
"Then gentle, as a happy lover's sigh —"
They two like one sigh, and that one sigh, like two wandering meteors,
— shall fly through the air —"
That is, they shall mount above like falling stars, or else they shall skip like two Jacks-with-lanthorns, or Will-with-a-wisp; and Madge-with-a-candle.
' And in their airy walk steal into their cruel fathers' breasts like subtle guests. So that their fathers' breasts must be in an airy walk, an airy walk of a flier. And there they will read their souls, and track the spheres of their passions. That is these walking fliers, Jack-with-a-lanthorn, etc., will put on his spectacles, and fall a reading souls, and put on his pump and fall a tracking of spheres; so that he will read and run, walk and fly at the same time! Oh! Nimble Jack, Then he will see, how revenge here, how ambition there— The birds will hop about. And then view the dark characters of sieges, ruins, murders, blood, and wars, in their orbs: Track the characters to their forms! Oh! rare sport for Jack. Never was place so full of game as these breasts! You cannot stir but flush a sphere, start a character, or unkennel an orb!'
Settle's is said to have been the first play embellished with sculptures; those ornaments seem to have given poor Dryden great disturbance. He tries however to ease his pain, by venting his malice in a parody: —
'The poet has not only been so impudent to expose all this stuff, but so arrogant to defend it with an epistle; like a saucy booth-keeper, that, when he had put a cheat upon the people, would wrangle and fight with any that would not like it, or would offer to discover it; for which arrogance our poet receives this correction; and to jerk him a little the sharper, I will not transpose his verse, but by the help of his own words trans-nonsense sense, that, by my stuff, people may judge the better what his is: —
"Great Boy, thy tragedy and sculptures done
From press, and plates in fleets do homeward come:
And in ridiculous and humble pride,
Their course in ballad-singers' baskets guide,
Whose greasy twigs do all new beauties take,
From the gay shows thy dainty sculptures make.
Thy lines a mess of rhyming nonsense yield,
A senseless tale, with flattering fustian fill'd.
No grain of sense does in one line appear,
Thy words big bulks of boisterous bombast bear.
With noise they move, and from players' mouths rebound,
When their tongues dance to thy words' empty sound.
By thee inspired the rumbling verses roll,
As if that rhyme and bombast lent a soul:
And with that soul they seem taught duty too,
To huffing words does humble nonsense bow,
As if it would thy worthless worth enhance,
To the lowest rank of fops thy praise advance;
To whom, by instinct, all thy stuff is dear;
Their loud claps echo to the theatre.
From breaths of fools thy commendation spreads,
Fame sings thy praise with mouths of loggerheads.
With noise and laughing each thy fustian greets,
'Tis clapt by quires of empty-headed cits,
Who have their tribute sent, and homage given,
As men in whispers send loud noise to heaven."
'Thus I have daubed him with his own puddle: and now we are come from aboard his dancing, masking, rebounding, breathing fleet; and as if we had landed at Gotham, we meet nothing but fools and nonsense.'
Such was the criticism to which the genius of Dryden could be reduced, between rage and terror; rage with little provocation, and terror with little danger. To see the highest minds thus levelled with the meanest may produce some solace to the consciousness of weakness, and some mortification to the pride of wisdom. But let it be remembered, that minds are not levelled in their powers but when they are first levelled in their desires. Dryden and Settle had both placed their happiness in the claps of multitudes.
The 'Mock Astrologer,' a comedy, is dedicated to the illustrious Duke of Newcastle, whom he courts by adding to his praises those of his lady, not only as a lover but a partner of his studies. It is unpleasing to think how many names, once celebrated, are since forgotten. Of Newcastle's works nothing is now known but his treatise on horsemanship.
The preface seems very elaborately written, and contains many just remarks on the fathers of the English drama. Shakspeare's plots, he says, are in the hundred novels of Cinthio; those of Beaumont and Fletcher in Spanish stories; Jonson only made them for himself. His criticisms upon tragedy, comedy, and farce are judicious and profound. He endeavours to defend the immorality of some of his comedies by the example of former writers; which is only to say, that he was not the first nor perhaps the greatest offender. Against those that accused him of plagiarism, he alleges a favourable expression of the King:
'He only desired that they, who accuse me of thefts, would steal him plays like mine;'
and then relates how much labour he spends in fitting for the English stage what he borrows from others.
'Tyrannic Love, or the Virgin Martyr,' was another tragedy in rhyme, conspicuous for many passages of strength and elegance, and many of empty noise and ridiculous turbulence. The rants of Maximin have been always the sport of criticism; and were at length, if his own confession may be trusted, the shame of the writer.
Of this play he takes care to let the reader know that it was contrived and written in seven weeks. Want of time was often his excuse, or perhaps shortness of time was his private boast in the form of an apology.
It was written before the 'Conquest of Granada,' but published after it. The design is to recommend piety.
'I considered that pleasure was not the only end of poesy, and that even the instructions of morality were not so wholly the business of a poet, as that precepts and examples of piety were to be omitted; for to leave that employment altogether to the clergy, were to forget that religion was first taught in verse, which the laziness or dullness of succeeding priesthood turned afterwards into prose.'
Thus foolishly could Dryden write, rather than not show his malice to the parsons.
The two parts of the 'Conquest of Granada' are written with a seeming determination to glut the public with dramatic wonders; to exhibit in its highest elevation a theatrical meteor of incredible love and impossible valour, and to leave no room for a wilder flight to the extravagance of posterity. All the rays of romantic heat, whether amorous or warlike, glow in Almanzor by a kind of concentration. He is above all laws; he is exempt from all restraints; he ranges the world at will, and governs wherever he appears. He fights without enquiring the cause, and loves in spite of the obligations of justice, of rejection by his mistress, and of prohibition from the dead. Yet the scenes are, for the most part, delightful; they exhibit a kind of illustrious depravity and majestic madness: such as, if it is sometimes despised, is often reverenced, and in which the ridiculous is mingled with the astonishing.
In the Epilogue to the second part of the 'Conquest of Granada,' Dryden indulges his favourite pleasure of discrediting his predecessors; and this Epilogue he has defended by a long postscript. He had promised a second dialogue, in which he should more fully treat of the virtues and faults of the English poets who have written in the dramatic, epic, or lyric way. This promise was never formally performed; but, with respect to the dramatic writers, he has given us in his prefaces, and in this postscript, something equivalent; but his purpose being to exalt himself by the comparison, he shows faults distinctly, and only praises excellence in general terms.
A play thus written, in professed defiance of probability, naturally drew down upon itself the vultures of the theatre. One of the critics that attacked it was Martin Clifford, to whom Sprat addressed the Life of Cowley, with such veneration of his critical powers as might naturally excite great expectations of instruction from his remarks. But let honest credulity beware of receiving characters from contemporary writers. Clifford's remarks, by the favour of Dr. Percy, were at last obtained; and, that no man may ever want them more, I will extract enough to satisfy all reasonable desire.
In the first letter his observation is only general:
'You do live,' says he, 'in as much ignorance and darkness as you did in the womb: your writings are like a Jack-of-all-trades shop; they have a variety, but nothing of value; and if thou art not the dullest plant-animal that ever the earth produced, all that I have conversed with are strangely mistaken in thee.'
In the second, he tells him that Almanzor is not more copied from Achilles than from Ancient Pistol.
'But I am,' says he, 'strangely mistaken if I have not seen this very Almanzor of yours in some disguise about this town, and passing under another name. Prithee tell me true, was not this Huffcap once the Indian Emperor, and at another time did he not call himself Maximin? Was not Lyndaraxa once called Almera? I mean under Montezuma the Indian Emperor. I protest and vow they are either the same, or so alike that I cannot, for my heart, distinguish one from the other. You are therefore a strange unconscionable thief; thou art not content to steal from others, but dost rob thy poor wretched self too.'
Now was Settle's time to take his revenge. He wrote a vindication of his own lines; and, if he is forced to yield anything, makes reprisals upon his enemy. To say that his answer is equal to the censure is no high commendation. To expose Dryden's method of analyzing his expressions, he tries the same experiment upon the description of the ships in the 'Indian Emperor,' of which however he does not deny the excellence; but intends to show that by studied misconstruction everything may be equally represented as ridiculous. After so much of Dryden's elegant animadversions, justice requires that something of Settle's should be exhibited. The following observations are therefore extracted from a quarto pamphlet of ninety-five pages:—
'Fate after him below with pain did move,
And victory could scarce keep pace above.'
'These two lines, if he can show me any sense or thought in, or anything but bombast and noise, he shall make me believe every word in his observations on Morocco sense'
In the 'Empress of Morocco' were these lines: —
'I'll travel then to some remoter sphere,
Till I find out new worlds, and crown you there.'
On which Dryden made this remark:-
'I believe our learned author takes a sphere for a country: the sphere of Morocco, as if Morocco were the globe of earth and water; but a globe is no sphere neither, by his leave,' etc.
'So sphere must not be sense, unless it relate to a circular motion about a globe, in which sense the astronomers use it. I would desire him to expound those lines in "Granada": —
"I'll to the turrets of the palace go,
And add new fire to those that fight below.
Thence, hero-like, with torches by my side,
(Far be the omen tho') my love I'll guide.
No, like his better fortune I'll appear,
With open arms, loose vail and flowing hair,
Just flying forward from my rowling sphere."
'I wonder, if he be so strict, how he dares make so bold with sphere himself, and be so critical in other men's writings. Fortune is fancied standing on a globe, not on a sphere, as he told us in the first act.
'Because Elkanah's similes are the most unlike things to what they are compared in the world, I'll venture to start a simile in his "Annus Mirabilis": he gives this poetical description of the ship called the "London":
The goodly London in her gallant trim,
The Phoenix-daughter of the vanquished old,
Like a rich bride does to the ocean swim,
And on her shadow rides in floating gold.
Her flag aloft spread ruffling in the wind,
And sanguine streamers seemed the flood to fire:
The weaver, charmed with what his loom designed,
Goes on to sea, and knows not to retire.
With roomy decks, her guns of mighty strength,
Whose low-laid mouths each mounting billow laves,
Deep in her draught, and warlike in her length,
She seems a sea-wasp flying on the waves."
What a wonderful pother is here, to make all these poetical beautifications of a ship! that is, a phoenix in the first stanza, and but a wasp in the last: nay, to make his humble comparison of a wasp more ridiculous, he does not say it flies upon the waves as nimbly as a wasp, or the like, but it seemed a wasp. But our author at the writing of this was not in his altitudes, to compare ships to floating palaces; a comparison to the purpose was a perfection he did not arrive to till his "Indian Emperor's" days. But perhaps his similitude has more in it than we imagine; this ship had a great many guns in her, and they, put altogether, made the sting in the wasp's tail: for this is all the reason I can guess why it seemed a wasp. But, because we will allow him all we can to help out, let it be a phoenix sea-wasp, and the rarity of such an animal may do much towards the heightening the fancy.
'It had been much more to his purpose, if he had designed to render the senseless play little, to have searched for some such pedantry as this: —
Two ifs scarce make one possibility.
If justice will take all and nothing give,
Justice, methinks, is not distributive.
To die or kill you, is the alternative,
Rather than take your life, I will not live."
'Observe how prettily our author chops logic in heroic verse. Three such fustian canting words as distributive, alternative, and two ifs, no man but himself would have come within the noise of. But he's a man of general learning, and all comes into his play.
'Twould have done well, too, if he could have met with a rant or two worth the observation, such as,—
"Move swiftly, sun, and fly a lover's pace,
Leave months and weeks behind thee in thy race."
'But surely the sun, whether he flies a lover's or not a lover's pace, leaves weeks and months, nay years too, behind him in his race.
Poor Robin, or any other of the philo-mathematics, would have given him satisfaction in the point.
If I could kill thee now, thy fate's so low,
That I must stoop, ere I can give the blow.
But mine is fixt so far above thy crown,
That all thy men,
Piled on thy back, can never pull it down."
Now where that is, Almanzor's fate is fixt, I cannot guess; but wherever it is, I believe Almanzor, and think that all Abdalla's subjects piled upon one another might not pull down his fate so well as without piling; besides, I think Abdalla so wise a man that if Almanzor had told him piling his men upon his back might do the feat, he would scarce bear such a weight for the pleasure of the exploit; but it is a huff, and let Abdalla do it if he dare.
"The people like a headlong torrent go,
And every dam they break or overflow.
But, unopposed, they either lose their force,
Or wind in volumes to their former course."
A very pretty allusion, contrary to all sense or reason. Torrents, I take it, let them wind never so much, can never return to their former course, unless he can suppose that fountains can go upwards, which is impossible; nay, more, in the foregoing page he tells us so too. A trick of a very unfaithful memory,—
"But can no more than fountains upward flow."
Which of a torrent, which signifies a rapid stream, is much more impossible. Besides, if he goes to quibble, and say that it is possible by art water may be made return, and the same water run twice in one and the same channel, then he quite confutes what he says, for it is by being opposed that it runs into its former course; for all engines that make water so return, do it by compulsion and opposition. Or if he means a headlong torrent for a tide, which would be ridi-culous, yet they do not wind in volumes, but come fore-right back (if their upright lies straight to their former course), and that by opposition of the sea-water, that drives them back again.
'And for fancy, when he lights of anything like it, 'tis a wonder if it be not borrowed. As here, for example of, I find this fanciful thought in his "Annus Mirabilis": —
"Old father Thames raised up his reverend head;
But feared the fate of Simois would return;
Deep in his ooze he sought his sedgy bed;
And shrunk his waters back into his urn."
This is stolen from Cowley's "Davideis," p. 9
"Swift Jordan started, and straight backward fled,
Hiding amongst thick reeds his aged head.
And when the Spaniards their assault begin,
At once beat those without and those within."
'This Almanzor speaks of himself, and sure for one man to conquer an army within the city, and another without the city, at once, is something difficult; but this flight is pardonable to some we meet with in "Granada". Osmin, speaking of Almanzor:-
"Who, like a tempest that outrides the wind,
Made a just battle, ere the bodies joined."
Pray what does this honourable person mean by a tempest that outrides the wind! A tempest that outrides itself. To suppose a tempest without wind is as bad as supposing a man to walk without feet, for if he supposes the tempest to be something distinct from the wind, yet as being the effect of wind only, to come before the cause is a little pre-posterous; so that if he takes it one way, or if he takes it the other, those two ifs will scarce make one possibility.'
Enough of Settle.
'Marriage-à-la-Mode' is a comedy, dedicated to the Earl of Rochester, whom he acknowledges not only as the defender of his poetry, but the promoter of his fortune. Langbaine places this play in 1673. The Earl of Rochester, therefore, was the famous Wilmot, whom yet tradition always represents as an enemy to Dryden, and who is mentioned by him with some disrespect in the preface to Juvenal.
'The Assignation; or, Love in a Nunnery,' a comedy, was driven off the stage, against the opinion, as the author says, of the best judges. It is dedicated, in a very elegant address, to Sir Charles Sedley, in which he finds an opportunity for his usual complaint of hard treatment and unreasonable censure.
'Amboyna' is a tissue of mingled dialogue in verse and prose, and was perhaps written in less time than 'The Virgin Martyr,' though the author thought not fit either ostentatiously or mournfully to tell how little labour it cost him, or at how short a warning he produced it. It was a temporary performance, written in the time of the Dutch war, to inflame the nation against their enemies; to whom he hopes, as he declares in his Epilogue, to make his poetry not less destructive than that by which Tyrtaeus of old animated the Spartans. This play was written in the second Dutch war in 1673.
'Troilus and Cressida' is a play altered from Shakspeare, but so altered that even in Langbaine's opinion 'the last scene in the third act is a masterpiece.' It is introduced by a discourse on 'The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy,' to which I suspect that Rymer's book had given occasion.
The 'Spanish Friar' is a tragi-comedy, eminent for the happy coincidence and coalition of the two plots. As it was written against the Papists, it would naturally at that time have friends and enemies, and partly by the popularity which it obtained at first, and partly by the real power both of the serious and risible part, it continued long a favourite of the public.
It was Dryden's opinion, at least for some time, and he maintains it in the dedication of this play, that the drama required an alternation of comic and tragic scenes, and that it is necessary to mitigate by alleviations of merriment the pressure of ponderous events and the fatigue of toilsome passions.
'Whoever,' says he, 'cannot perform both parts, is but half a writer for the stage.'
The 'Duke of Guise,' a tragedy written in conjunction with Lee, as 'Oedipus' had been before, seems to deserve notice only for the offence which it gave to the remnant of the Covenanters, and in general to the enemies of the Court, who attacked him with great violence, and were answered by him, though at last he seems to withdraw from the conflict, by transferring the greater part of the blame or merit to his partner. It happened that a contract had been made between them, by which they were to join in writing a play, and
'he happened,' says Dryden, 'to claim the promise just upon the finishing of a poem, when I would have been glad of a little respite. Two thirds of it belonged to him, and to me only the first scene of the play, the whole fourth act, and the first half or somewhat more of the fifth.'
This was a play written professedly for the party of the Duke of York, whose succession was then opposed. A parallel is intended between the Leaguers of France and the Covenanters of England, and this intention produced the controversy.
'Albion and Albania' is a musical drama or opera, written, like the 'Duke of Guise,'against the Republicans. With what success it was performed I have not found.
'The State of Innocence and Fall of Man' is termed by him an opera; it is rather a tragedy in heroic rhyme, but of which the personages are such as cannot decently be exhibited on the stage. Some such production was foreseen by Marvel, who writes thus to Milton:—
'Or if a work so infinite be spanned,
Jealous I was that some less skilful hand,
(Such as disquiet always what is well,
And by ill-imitating would excel,)
Might hence presume the whole creation's day,
To change in scenes, and show it in a play.'
It is another of his hasty productions, for the heat of his imagination raised it in a month.
This composition is addressed to the Princess of Modena, then Duchess of York, in a strain of flattery which disgraces genius, and which it was wonderful that any man that knew the meaning of his own words could use without self-detestation. It is an attempt to mingle earth and heaven, by praising human excellence in the language of religion.
The preface contains an apology for heroic verse and poetic licence, by which is meant not any liberty taken in contracting or extending words, but the use of bold fictions and ambitious figures.
The reason which he gives for printing what was never acted cannot be overpassed:
'I was induced to it in my own defence, many hundred copies of it being dispersed abroad without my knowledge or consent, and every one gathering new faults, it became at length a libel against me.'
These copies as they gathered faults were apparently manuscript, and he lived in an age very unlike ours if many hundred copies of fourteen hundred lines were likely to be transcribed. An author has a right to print his own works, and needs not seek an apology in falsehood, but he that could bear to write the dedication felt no pain in writing the preface.
Aureng Zebe (1676) is a tragedy founded on the actions of a great prince then reigning, but over nations not likely to employ their critics upon the transactions of the English stage. If he had known and disliked his own character, our trade was not in those times secure from his resentment. His country is at such a distance that the manners might be safely falsified and the incidents feigned, for remoteness of place is remarked by Racine to afford the same conveniences to a poet as length of time.
This play is written in rhyme, and has the appearance of being the most elaborate of all the dramas. The personages are imperial, but the dialogue is often domestic, and therefore susceptible of sentiments accommodated to familiar incidents. The complaint of life is celebrated, and there are many other passages that may be read with pleasure.
This play is addressed to the Earl of Mulgrave, afterwards Duke of Buckingham, himself, if not a poet, yet a writer of verses and a critic. In this address Dryden gave the first hints of his intention to write an epic poem. He mentions his design in terms so obscure, that he seems afraid lest his plan should be purloined, as, he says, happened to him when he told it more plainly in his preface to Juvenal. 'The design,'says he, 'you know is great, the story English, and neither too near the present times nor too distant from them.'
All for Love, or the World well Lost, (1678) a tragedy founded upon the story of Antony and Cleopatra, he tells us is the only play which he wrote for himself, the rest were given to the people. It is by universal consent accounted the work in which he has admitted the fewest improprieties of style or character, but it has one fault equal to many, though rather moral than critical, that by admitting the romantic omnipotence of love he has recommended as laudable and worthy of imitation that conduct which, through all ages, the good have censured as vicious and the bad despised as foolish.
Of this play the prologue and the epilogue, though written upon the common topics of malicious and ignorant criticism, and without any particular relation to the characters or incidents of the drama, are deservedly celebrated for their elegance and spriteliness.
Limberham, or the Kind Keeper, (1678) is a comedy which, to after the third night, was prohibited as too indecent for the stage. What gave offence, was in the printing, as the author says, altered or omitted. Dryden confesses that its indecency was objected to, but Langbaine, who yet seldom favours him, imputes its expulsion to resentment, because it 'so much exposed the keeping part of the town.'
Oedipus is a tragedy formed by Dryden and Lee, in conjunction, from the works of Sophocles, Seneca, and Corneille. Dryden planned the scenes, and composed the first and third acts.
Don Sebastian is commonly esteemed either the first or second of his dramatic performances. It is too long to be all acted, and has many characters and many incidents, and though it is not without sallies of frantic dignity, and more noise than meaning, yet as it makes approaches to the possibilities of real life, and has some sentiments which leave a strong impression, it continued long to attract attention. Amidst the distresses of princes, and the vicissitudes of empire, are inserted several scenes which the writer intended for comic, but which I suppose that age did not much commend and this would not endure. There are, however, passages of excellence universally acknowledged; the dispute and the reconciliation of Dorax and Sebastian has always been admired.
This play was first acted in 1690, after Dryden had for some years discontinued dramatic poetry.
Amphitryon is a comedy derived from Plautus and Molière. The dedication is dated October 1690. This play seems to have succeeded at its first appearance, and was, I think, long considered as a very diverting entertainment.
Cleomenes (1692) is a tragedy, only remarkable as it occasioned an incident related in the Guardian, and allusively mentioned by Dryden in his preface. As he came out from the representation, he was accosted thus by some airy stripling: 'Had I been left alone with a young beauty, I would not have spent my time like your Spartan.'
'That, Sir,' said Dryden, 'perhaps is true; but give me leave to tell you, that you are no hero.'
King Arthur is another opera. It was the last work that Dryden performed for King Charles, who did not live to see it exhibited, and it does not seem to have been ever brought upon the stage. In the dedication to the Marquis of Halifax, there is a very elegant character of Charles, and a pleasing account of his latter life. When this was first brought upon the stage, news that the Duke of Monmouth had landed was told in the theatre, upon which the company departed, and Arthur was exhibited no more.
His last drama was Love Triumphant, a tragi-comedy. In his dedication to the Earl of Salisbury he mentions 'the lowness of fortune to which he has voluntarily reduced himself, and of which he has no reason to be ashamed.'
This play appeared in 1694. It is said to have been unsuccessful. The catastrophe proceeding merely from a change of mind, is confessed by the author to be defective. Thus he began and ended his dramatic labours with ill success.
From such a number of theatrical pieces it will be supposed by most readers that he must have improved his fortune, at least that such diligence with such abilities must have set penury at defiance. But in Dryden's time the drama was very far from that universal approbation which it has now obtained. The playhouse was abhorred by the Puritans, and avoided by those who desired the character of seriousness or decency. A grave lawyer would have debased his dignity, and a young trader would have impaired his credit, by appearing in those mansions of dissolute licentiousness. The profits of the theatre, when so many classes of the people were deducted from the audience, were not great, and the poet had for a long time but a single night. The first that had two nights was Southerne, and the first that had three was Rowe. There were however, in those days, arts of improving a poet's profit which Dryden forbore to practise, and a play therefore seldom produced him more than a hundred pounds, by the accumulated gain of a third night, the dedication, and the copy.
Almost every piece had a dedication, written with such elegance and luxuriance of praise, as neither haughtiness nor avarice could be imagined able to resist. But he seems to have made flattery too cheap. That praise is worth nothing of which the price is known. To increase the value of his copies, he often accompanied his work with a preface of criticism, a kind of learning then almost new in the English language, and which he, who had considered with great accuracy the principles of writing, was able to distribute copiously as occasions arose. By these dissertations the public judgment must have been much 30 improved, and Swift, who conversed with Dryden, relates that he regretted the success of his own instructions, and found his readers made suddenly too skillful to be easily satisfied.
His prologues had such reputation, that for some time a play was considered as less likely to be well received if some of his verses did not introduce it. The price of a prologue was two guineas, till being asked to write one for Mr. Southerne, he demanded three: 'Not,' said he, 'young man, out of disrespect to you, but the players have had my goods too cheap.'
Though he declares that in his own opinion his genius was not dramatic, he had great confidence in his own fertility; for he is said to have engaged by contract to furnish four plays a-year.
It is certain that in one year, 1678, he published All for Love, Assignation, two parts of the Conquest of Granada, Sir Martin Mar-all, and the State of Innocence, six complete plays; with a celerity of performance which, though all Langbaine's charges of plagiarism should be allowed, shows such facility of composition, such readiness of language, and such copiousness of sentiment, as since the time of Lopez de Vega perhaps no other author has possessed.
He did not enjoy his reputation, however great, nor his profits, however small, without molestation. He had critics to endure, and rivals to oppose. The two most distinguished wits of the nobility, the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Rochester, declared themselves his enemies.
Buckingham characterised him in 1671 by the name of Bayes in the Rehearsal, a farce which he is said to have written with the assistance of Butler the author of Hudibras, Martin Clifford of the Charterhouse, and Dr. Sprat, the friend of Cowley, then his chaplain. Dryden and his friends laughed at the length of time and the number of hands employed upon this performance, in which, though by some artifice of action it yet keeps possession of the stage, it is not possible now to find anything that might not have been written without so long delay, or a confederacy so numerous.
To adjust the minute events of literary history is tedious and troublesome; it requires indeed no great force of understanding, but often depends upon enquiries which there is no opportunity of making, or is to be fetched from books and pamphlets not always at hand.
The Rehearsal was played in 1671, and yet is represented as ridiculing passages in the Conquest of Granada and Assignation, which were not published till 1678, in Marriage-à-la-Mode, published in 1673, and in Tyrannic Love of 1677. These contradictions show how rashly satire is applied.
It is said that this farce was originally intended against Davenant, who in the first draft was characterised by the name of Bilboa. Davenant had been a soldier and an adventurer.
There is one passage in the Rehearsal still remaining, which seems to have related originally to Davenant. Bayes hurts his nose, and comes in with brown paper applied to the bruise; how this affected Dryden does not appear. Davenant's nose had suffered such diminution by mishaps, that a patch upon that part evidently denoted him.
It is said likewise that Sir Robert Howard was once meant. The design was probably to ridicule the reigning poet whoever he might be.
Much of the personal satire, to which it might owe its first reception, is now lost or obscured. Bayes probably imitated the dress and mimicked the manner of Dryden; the cant words which are so often in his mouth may be supposed to have been Dryden's habitual phrases or customary exclamations. Bayes, when he is to write, is blooded and purged; this, as Lamotte relates himself to have heard, was the real practice of the poet.
There were other strokes in the Rehearsal by which malice was gratified; the debate between Love and Honour, which keeps Prince Volscius in a single boot, is said to have alluded to the misconduct of the Duke of Ormond, who, lost Dublin to the rebels while he was toying with a mistress.
The Earl of Rochester, to suppress the reputation of Dryden, took Settle into his protection, and endeavoured to persuade the public that its approbation had been to that time misplaced. Settle was awhile in high reputation: his Empress of Morocco, (1673) having first delighted the town, was carried in triumph to Whitehall, and played by the ladies of the Court. Now was the poetical meteor at the highest; the next moment began its fall. Rochester withdrew his patronage, seeming resolved, says one of his biographers, 'to have a judgment contrary to that of the town.' Perhaps being unable to endure any reputation beyond a certain height, even when he had himself contributed to raise it.
Neither critics nor rivals did Dryden much mischief, unless they gained from his own temper the power of vexing him, which his frequent bursts of resentment give reason to suspect. He is always angry at some past, or afraid of some future censure; but he lessens the smart of his wounds by the balm of his own approbation, and endeavours to repel the shafts of criticism by opposing a shield of adamantine confidence.
The perpetual accusation produced against him was that of plagiarism, against which he never attempted any vigorous defence; for, though he was perhaps sometimes injuriously censured, he would by denying part of the charge have confessed the rest; and as his adversaries had the proof in their own hands, he who knew that wit had little power against facts, wisely left in that perplexity which generality produces, a question which it was his interest to suppress, and which, unless provoked by vindication, few were likely to examine.
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