The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject. Whatever can happen to man has happened so often, that little remains for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the public has an interest; and what happens to them of good or evil, the poets have always considered as business for the Muse. But after so many inauguratory gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly favoured by nature, or by fortune who says any thing not said before. Even war and conquest, however splendid, suggests no new images; the triumphal chariot of a victorious monarch can be decked only with those ornaments that have graced his predecessors.
Not only matter but time is wanting. The poem must not be delayed till the occasion is forgotten. The lucky moments of animated imagination cannot be attended; elegances and illustrations cannot be multiplied by gradual accumulation: the composition must be dispatched while conversation is yet busy and admiration fresh; and haste is to be made, lest some other event should lay hold upon mankind.
Occasional compositions may however secure to a writer the praise both of learning and facility, for they cannot be the effect of long study, and must be furnished immediately from the treasures of the mind.
The death of Cromwell was the first public event which called forth Dryden's poetical powers. His heroic stanzas have beauties and defects; the thoughts are vigorous, and though not always proper, show a mind replete with ideas; the numbers are smooth, and the diction if not altogether correct, is elegant and easy.
Davenant was perhaps at this time his favourite author, though 'Gondibert' never appears to have been popular; and from Davenant he learned to please his ear with the stanza of four lines alternately rhymed.
Dryden very early formed his versification: there are in this early production no traces of Donne's or Jonson's ruggedness; but he did not so soon free his mind from the ambition of forced conceits. In his verses on the Restoration, he says of the King's exile: —
He, tossed by fate,
Could taste no sweets of youth's desired age,
But found his life too true a pilgrimage.
And afterwards, to show how virtue and wisdom are increased by adversity, he makes this remark: —
Well well might the ancient poets then confer
On Night the honoured name of counsellor,
Since, struck with rays of prosperous fortune blind,
We light alone in dark afflictions find.
His praise of Monk's dexterity comprises such a cluster of thoughts unallied to one another, as will not elsewhere be easily found: —
"Twas Monk, whom Providence designed to loose
Those real bonds false freedom did impose.
The blessed saints that watched this turning scene
Did from their stars with joyful wonder lean,
To see small clues draw vastest weights along,
Not in their bulk, but in their order strong.
Thus pencils can by one slight touch restore
Smiles to that changed face that wept before.
With ease such fond chimeras we pursue,
As fancy frames for fancy to subdue:
But, when ourselves to action we betake,
It shuns the mint like gold that chemists make.
How hard was then his task, at once to be
What in the body natural we see!
Man's Architect distinctly did ordain
The charge of muscles, nerves, and of the brain,
Through viewless conduits spirits to dispense
The springs of motion from the seat of sense.
'Twas not the hasty product of a day,
But the well-ripened fruit of wise delay.
He, like a patient angler, ere he strook,
Would let them play awhile upon the hook.
Our healthful food the stomach labours thus,
At first embracing what it straight doth crush.
Wise leeches will not vain receipts obtrude,
While growing pains pronounce the humours crude;
Deaf to complaints, they wait upon the ill,
T'ill some safe crisis authorize their skill.
He had not yet learned, indeed he never learned well, to forbear the improper use of mythology. After having rewarded the heathen deities for their care;—
With Alga who the sacred altar strows?
To all the sea-gods Charles an offering owes;
A bull to thee, Portunus, shall be slain;
A ram to you, ye Tempests of the Main.
He tells us in the language of religion,—
Prayer stormed the skies, and ravished Charles from thence,
As heaven itself is took by violence.
And afterwards mentions one of the most awful passages of sacred history.
Other conceits there are, too curious to be quite omitted; as,—
For by example most we sinned before,
And glass-like, clearness mixed with frailty bore.
How far he was yet from thinking it necessary to found his sentiments on nature, appears from the extravagance of his fictions and hyperboles: —
The winds, that never moderation knew,
Afraid to blow too much, too faintly blew;
Or, out of breath with joy, could not enlarge
Their straitened lungs.— It is no longer motion cheats your view;
As you meet it, the land approacheth you;
The land returns, and in the white it wears
The marks of penitence and sorrow bears.
I know not whether this fancy, however little be its value, was not borrowed. A French poet read to Malherbe some verses, in which he represents France as moving out of its place to receive the King. 'Though this, said Malherbe, 'was in my time, I do not remember it.'
His poem on the 'Coronation' has a more even tenor of thought. Some lines deserve to be quoted: —
You have already quenched sedition's brand;
And zeal, that burnt it, only warms the land;
The jealous sects that durst not trust their cause
So far from their own will as to the laws,
Him for their umpire and their synod take,
And their appeal alone to Caesar make.
Here may be found one particle of that old versification, of which, I believe, in all his works, there is not another: —
Nor Nor is it duty, or our hope alone,
Creates that joy, but full fruition.
In the verses to the Lord Chancellor Clarendon, two years afterwards, is a conceit so hopeless at the first view, that few would have attempted it, and so successfully laboured that though at last it gives the reader more perplexity than pleasure, and seems hardly worth the study that it costs, yet it must be valued as a proof of a mind at once subtle and comprehensive: —
In open prospect nothing bounds our eye,
Until the earth seems joined unto the sky:
So in this hemisphere our utmost view
Is only bounded by our king and you:
Our sight is limited where you are joined
And beyond that no farther heaven can find.
So well your virtues do with his agree,
That, though your orbs of different greatness be,
Yet both are for each other's use disposed,
His to enclose, and yours to be enclosed.
Nor could another in your room have been,
Except an emptiness had come between.
The comparison of the Chancellor to the Indies leaves all resemblances too far behind it: —
And as the Indies were not found before Those rich perfumes which from the happy shore
The winds upon their balmy wings conveyed,
Whose guilty sweetness first their world betrayed;
So by your counsels we are brought to view
A new and undiscovered world in you.
There is another comparison, for there is little else in the poem, of which, though perhaps it cannot be explained into plain prosaic meaning, the mind perceives enough to be delighted, and readily forgives its obscurity for its magnificence: —
How strangely active are the arts of peace,
Whose restless motions less than wars do cease:
Peace is not freed from labour, but from noise;
And war more force, but not more pains employs:
Such is the mighty swiftness of your mind,
That, like the earth's, it leaves our sense behind,
While you so smoothly turn and roll our sphere,
That rapid motion does but rest appear.
For as in nature's swiftness, with the throng
Of flying orbs while ours is borne along,
All seems at rest to the deluded eye,
Moved by the soul of the same harmony;
So carried on by our unwearied care,
We rest in peace, and yet in motion share.
To this succeed four lines, which perhaps afford Dryden's first attempt at those penetrating remarks on human nature for which he seems to have been peculiarly formed:
Let envy then those crimes within you see,
From which the happy never must be free;
Envy that does with misery reside,
The joy and the revenge of ruined pride.
Into this poem he seems to have collected all his powers, and after this he did not often bring upon his anvil such stubborn and unmalleable thoughts; but, as a specimen of his abilities to unite the most unsociable matter, he has concluded with lines of which I think not myself obliged to tell the meaning: —
Yet unimpaired with labours, or with time,
Your age but seems to a new youth to climb.
Thus heavenly bodies do our time beget,
And measure change, but share no part of it:
And stilt it shall without a weight increase,
Like this new year, whose motions never cease.
For since the glorious course you have begun
Is led by Charles, as that is by the sun,
It must both weightless and immortal prove,
Because the centre of it is above.
In the 'Annus Mirabilis' he returned to the quatrain, which from that time he totally quitted, perhaps from this experience of its inconvenience, for he complains of its difficulty. This is one of his greatest attempts. He had subjects equal to his abilities, a great naval war and the Fire of London. Battles have always been described in heroic poetry, but a sea-fight and artillery had yet something of novelty. New arts are long in the world before poets describe them, for they borrow everything from their predecessors, and commonly derive very little from nature or from life. Boileau was the first French writer that had ever hazarded in verse the mention of modern war or the effects of gunpowder. We, who are less afraid of novelty, had already possession of those dreadful images: Waller had described a sea-fight. Milton had not yet transferred the invention of firearms to the rebellious angels.
This poem is written with great diligence, yet does not fully answer the expectation raised by such subjects and such a writer. With the stanza of Davenant he has sometimes his vein of parenthesis and incidental disquisition, and stops his narrative for a wise remark.
The general fault is that he affords more sentiment than description, and does not so much impress scenes upon the fancy, as deduce consequences and make comparisons.
The initial stanzas have rather too much resemblance to the first lines of Waller's poem on the war with Spain; perhaps such a beginning is natural, and could not be avoided without affectation. Both Waller and Dryden might take their hint from the poem on the civil war of Rome, ' Orbem jam totum,' etc.
Of the king collecting his navy, he says: —
It seems as every ship their sovereign knows,
His awful summons they so soon obey;
So hear the scaly herds when Proteus blows,
And so to pasture follow through the sea.
It would not be hard to believe that Dryden had written the two first lines seriously, and that some wag had added the two latter in burlesque. Who would expect the lines that immediately follow, which are indeed perhaps indecently hyperbolical, but certainly in a mode totally different? —
To see this fleet upon the ocean move,
Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies;
And heaven, as if there wanted lights above,
For tapers made two glaring comets rise.
The description of the attempt at Bergen will afford a very complete specimen of the descriptions in this poem: —
And now approached their fleet from India, fraught
With all the riches of the rising sun:
And precious sand from southern climates brought,
The fatal regions where the war begun.
Like hunted castors, conscious of their store,
Their waylaid wealth to Norway's coast they bring:
Then first the North's cold bosom spices bare,
And winter brooded on the eastern spring.
By the rich scent we found our perfumed prey,
Which, flanked with rocks, did close in covert lie:
And round about their murdering cannon lay,
At once to threaten and invite the eye.
Fiercer than cannon, and than rocks more hard,
The English undertake the unequal war:
Seven ships alone, by which the port is bared,
Besiege the Indies, and all Denmark dare.
These fight like husbands, but like lovers those:
These fain would keep, and those more fain enjoy:
And to such height their frantic passion grows,
That what both love, both hazard to destroy:
Amidst whole heaps of spices lights a ball,
And now their odours armed against them fly,
Some preciously by shattered porcelain fall,
And some by aromatic splinters die.
And though by tempests of the prize bereft,
In heaven's inclemency some ease we find:
Our foes we vanquished by our valour left,
And only yielded to the seas and wind.
In this manner is the sublime too often mingled with the ridiculous. The Dutch seek a shelter for a wealthy fleet: this surely needed no illustration; yet they must fly, not like all the rest of mankind on the same occasion, but like hunted castors; and they might with strict propriety he hunted, for we winded them by our noses-their perfumes betrayed them. The Husband and the Lover, though of more dignity than the Castor, are images too domestic to mingle properly with the horrors of war. The two quatrains that follow are worthy of the author.
The account of the different sensations with which the two fleets retired, when the night parted them, is one of the fairest flowers of English poetry: —
The night comes on, we eager to pursue
The combat still, and they ashamed to leave:
'Till the last streaks of dying day withdrew,
And doubtful moonlight did our rage deceive.
In the English fleet each ship resounds with joy,
And loud applause of their great leader's fame:
In fiery dreams the Dutch they still destroy,
And slumbering, smile at the imagined flame.
Not so the Holland fleet, who, tired and done,
Stretched on their decks like weary oxen lie;
Faint sweats all down their mighty members run,
(Vast bulks, which little souls but ill supply).
In dreams they fearful precipices tread,
Or, shipwrecked, labour to some distant shore:
Or, in dark churches, walk among the dead;
They wake with horror, and dare sleep no more.
It is a general rule in poetry that all appropriated terms of art should be sunk in general expressions, because poetry is to speak an universal language. This rule is still stronger with regard to arts not liberal, or confined to few, and therefore far removed from common knowledge; and of this kind, certainly, is technical navigation. Yet Dryden was of opinion that a sea-fight ought to be described in the nautical language;
and certainly,' says he, 'as those who in a logical disputation keep to general terms would hide a fallacy, so those who do it in any poetical description would veil their ignorance.
Let us then appeal to experience, for by experience at last we learn as well what will please as what will profit. In the battle his terms seem to have been blown away, but he deals them liberally in the dock:—
So here, some pick out bullets from the side,
Some drive old okum thro' each seam and rift:
Their left-hand does the caulking-iron guide,
The rattling mallet with the right they lift.
With boiling pitch another near at hand
(From friendly Sweden brought) the seams instops:
Which, well laid o'er, the salt-sea waves withstand,
And shake them from the rising beak in drops.
Some the galled ropes with dawby marling bind,
Or sear-cloth masts with strong tarpawling coats:
To try new shrouds one mounts into the wind,
And one below, their ease or stiffness notes.
I suppose here is not one term which every reader does not wish away.
His digression to the original and progress of navigation, with his prospect of the advancement which it shall receive from the Royal Society, then newly instituted, may be considered as an example seldom equalled of seasonable excursion and artful return.
One line, however, leaves me discontented; he says, that by the help of the philosophers,—
Instructed ships shall sail to quick commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied.
Which he is constrained to explain in a note, By a more exact measure of longitude. It had better become Dryden's learning and genius to have laboured science into poetry, and have shown, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.
His description of the Fire is painted by resolute meditation, out of a mind better formed to reason than to feel. The conflagration of a city, with all its tumults of concomitant distress, is one of the most dreadful spectacles which this world can offer to human eyes; yet it seems to raise little to emotion in the breast of the poet; he watches the flame coolly from street to street, with now a reflection and now a simile, till at last he meets the King, for whom he makes a speech, rather tedious in a time so busy, and then follows again the progress of the fire.
There are, however, in this part some passages that deserve attention, as in the beginning:—
The diligence of trades, and noiseful gain,
And luxury, more late, asleep were laid;
A11 was the night's, and in her silent reign
No sound the rest of nature did invade
In this deep quiet—
The expression All was the night's is taken from Seneca, who remarks on Virgil's line,—
Omnia noctis erant placida composta quiete; —
that he might have concluded better,—
Omnia noctis erant.
The following quatrain is vigorous and animated:—
The The ghosts of traitors from the bridge descend
With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice;
About the fire into a dance they bend,
And sing their Sabbath notes with feeble voice.
His prediction of the improvements which shall be made in the new city is elegant and poetical, and, with an event which poets cannot always boast, has been happily verified. The poem concludes with a simile that might have better been omitted.
Dryden, when he wrote this poem, seems not yet fully to have formed his versification, or settled his system of propriety.
From this time he addicted himself almost wholly to the stage, 'to which,'says he, 'my genius never much inclined me,' merely as the most profitable market for poetry. By writing tragedies in rhyme, he continued to improve his diction and his numbers. According to the opinion of Harte, who had studied his works with great attention, he settled his principles of versification in 1676, when he produced the play of 'Aureng Zebe;' and according to his own account of the short time in which he wrote 'Tyrannic Love,' and the 'State of Innocence,' he soon obtained the full effect of diligence, and added facility to exactness.
Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre that we know not its effect upon the passions of an audience; but it has this convenience, that sentences stand more independent on each other, and striking passages are therefore easily selected and retained. Thus the description of night in the 'Indian Emperor,' and the rise and fall of empire in the 'Conquest of Granada,' are more frequently repeated than any lines in 'All for Love' or 'Don Sebastian.'
To search his plays for vigorous sallies and sententious elegances, or to fix the dates of any little pieces which he wrote by chance or by solicitation, were labour too tedious and minute.
His dramatic labours did not so wholly absorb his thoughts but that he promulgated the laws of translation in a preface to the English Epistles of Ovid, one of which he translated himself, and another in conjunction with the Earl of Mulgrave.
'Absalom and Achitophel' is a work so well known that particular criticism is superfluous. If it be considered as a poem political and controversial, it will be found to comprise all the excellences of which the subject is susceptible; acrimony of censure, elegance of praise, artful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy turns of language, and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English composition.
It is not, however, without faults; some lines are inelegant or improper, and too many are irreligiously licentious. The original structure of the poem was defective; allegories drawn to great length will always break; Charles could not run continually parallel with David.
The subject had likewise another inconvenience; it admitted little imagery or description, and a long poem of mere sentiments easily becomes tedious; though all the parts are forcible, and every line kindles new rapture, the reader, if not relieved by the interposition of something that soothes the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.
As an approach to historical truth was necessary, the action and catastrophe were not in the poet's power; there is therefore an unpleasing disproportion between the beginning and the end. We are alarmed by a faction formed out of many sects various in their principles but agreeing in their purpose of mischief, formidable for their numbers and strong by their supports, while the King's friends are few and weak. The chiefs on either part are set forth to view; but when expectation is at the height, the King makes a speech, and—
Henceforth a series of new times began.
Who can forbear to think of an enchanted castle, with a wide moat and lofty battlements, walls of marble and gates of brass, which vanishes at once into air when the destined knight blows his horn before it?
In the second part, written by Tate, there is a long insertion, which, for poignancy of satire, exceeds any part of the former. Personal resentment, though no laudable motive to satire, can add great force to general principles. Self-love is a busy prompter.
The 'Medal,' written upon the same principles with 'Absalom and Achitophel,' but upon a narrower plan, gives less pleasure, though it discovers equal abilities in the writer. The superstructure cannot extend beyond the foundation; a single character or incident cannot furnish as many ideas as a series of events or multiplicity of agents. This poem, therefore, since time has left it to itself, is not much read, nor perhaps generally understood, yet it abounds with touches both of humorous and serious satire. The picture of a man whose propensions to mischief are such, that his best actions are but inability of wickedness, is very skilfully delineated and strongly coloured:—
Power was his aim: but, thrown from that pretence,
The wretch turned loyal in his own defence,
And malice reconciled him to his Prince.
Him, in the anguish of his soul, he served;
Rewarded faster still than he deserved;
Behold him now exalted into trust;
His counsels oft convenient, seldom just;
Even in the most sincere advice he gave,
He had a grudging still to be a knave.
The frauds he learnt in his fanatic years,
Made him uneasy in his lawful gears,
At least as little honest as he could:
And, like white witches, mischievously good.
To this first bias, longingly, he leans;
And rather would be great by wicked means.
The 'Threnodia,' which by a term I am afraid neither authorized nor analogical he calls 'Augustalis,' is not among his happiest productions. Its first and obvious defect is the irregularity of its metre, to which the ears of that age however were accustomed. What is worse, it has neither tenderness nor dignity, it is neither magnificent nor pathetic.
He seems to look round him for images which he cannot find, and what he has he distorts by endeavouring to enlarge them. 'He is,' he says, 'petrified with grief'; but the marble sometimes relents and trickles in a joke:—
The sons of art all medicines tried,
And every noble remedy applied;
With emulation each assayed
His utmost skill; nay, more, they prayed:
Was never losing game with better conduct played.
He had been a little inclined to merriment before upon the prayers of a nation for their dying sovereign, nor was he serious enough to keep heathen fables out of his religion: —
With him the innumerable crowd of armed prayers
Knocked at the gates of heaven, and knocked aloud;
The first well-meaning rude petitioners,
All for his life assailed the throne,
All would have bribed the skies by offering up their own.
So great a throng not heaven itself could bar;
'Twas almost borne by force as in the giants' war.
The prayers, at least, for his reprieve were heard;
His death, like Hezekiah's, was deferred.
There is throughout the composition a desire of splendour without wealth. In the conclusion he seems too much pleased with the prospect of the new reign to have lamented his old master with much sincerity.
He did not miscarry in this attempt for want of skill either in lyric or elegiac poetry. His poem 'On the Death of Mrs. Killigrew' is undoubtedly the noblest ode that our language ever has produced. The first part flows with a torrent of enthusiasm. Fervet immensusque ruit. All the stanzas indeed are not equal. An imperial crown cannot be one continued diamond; the gems must be held together by some less valuable matter.
In his first ode for Cecilia's day, which is lost in the splendour of the second, there are passages which would have dignified any other poet. The first stanza is vigorous and elegant, though the word diapason is too technical, and the rhymes are too remote from one another:—
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise, ye more than dead.
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
The conclusion is likewise striking, but it includes an image so awful in itself, that it can owe little to poetry; and I could wish the antithesis of music untuning had found some other place:—
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise,
To all the blessed above:
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
Of his skill in elegy he has given a specimen in his 'Eleonora,' of which the following lines discover their author: —
Though all these rare endowments of the mind
Were in a narrow space of life confined,
The figure was with full perfection crowned;
Though not so large an orb, as truly round:
As when in glory, through the public place,
The spoils of conquered nations were to pass,
And but one day for triumph was allowed.
The consul was constrained his pomp to crowd;
And so the swift procession hurried on,
That all, though not distinctly, might be shown:
So in the straightened bounds of life confined,
She gave but glimpses of her glorious mind:
And multitudes of virtues passed along,
Each pressing foremost in the mighty throng,
Ambitious to be seen, and then make room
For greater multitudes that were to come.
Yet unemployed no minute slipped away;
Moments were precious in so short a stay.
The haste of heaven to have her was so great
That some were single acts, though each compleat;
And every act stood ready to repeat.
This piece, however, is not without its faults; there is so much likeness in the initial comparison, that there is no illustration. As a king would be lamented, Eleonora was lamented:
As when some great and gracious monarch dies,
Soft whispers, first, and mournful murmurs rise,
Among the sad attendants; then the sound
Soon gathers voice, and spreads the news around,
Through town and country, till the dreadful blast
Is blown to distant colonies at last,
who then, perhaps, were offering vows in vain,
For his long life, and for his happy reign:
So slowly, by degrees, unwilling fame
Did matchless Eleonora's fate proclaim,
Till public as the loss the news became.
This is little better than to say in praise of a shrub, that it is as green as a tree; or of a brook, that it waters a garden as a river waters a country.
Dryden confesses that he did not know the lady whom he celebrates; the praise being therefore inevitably general, fixes no impression upon the reader, nor excites any tendency to love, nor much desire of imitation. Knowledge of the subject is to the poet what durable materials are to the architect.
The 'Religio Laici,' which borrows its title from the 'Religio Medici' of Browne, is almost the only work of Dryden which can be considered as a voluntary effusion; in this, therefore, it might be hoped that the full effulgence of his genius would be found. But unhappily the subject is rather argumentative than poetical: he intended only a specimen of metrical disputation:—
And this unpolished rugged verse I chose,
As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose.
This, however, is a composition of great excellence in its kind, in which the familiar is very properly diversified with the solemn, and the grave with the humorous; in which metre has neither weakened the force, nor clouded the perspicuity of argument; nor will it be easy to find another example equally happy of this middle hind of writing, which though prosaic in some parts, rises to high poetry in others, and neither towers to the shies, nor creeps along the ground.
Of the same kind; or not far distant from it, is the 'Hind and Panther,' the longest of all Dryden's original poems; an allegory intended to comprise and to decide the controversy between the Romanists and Protestants. The scheme of the work is injudicious and incommodious; for what can be more absurd than that one beast should counsel another to rest her faith upon a pope and council? He seems well enough skilled in the usual topics of argument, endeavours to show the necessity of an infallible judge, and reproaches the Reformers with want of unity; but is weak enough to ask, why, since we see without knowing how, we may not have an infallible judge without knowing where.
The Hind at one time is afraid to drink at the common brook, because she may be worried; but walking home with the Panther, talks by the way of the Nicene Fathers, and at last declares herself to be the Catholic Church.
This absurdity was very properly ridiculed in the 'City Mouse and Country Mouse' of Montague and Prior; and in the detection and censure of the incongruity of the fiction chiefly consists the value of their performance, which, whatever reputation it might obtain by the help of temporary passions, seems to readers almost a century distant not very forcible or animated.
Pope, whose judgment was perhaps a little bribed by the subject, used to mention this poem as the most correct specimen of Dryden's versification. It was indeed written when he had completely formed his manner, and may be supposed to exhibit, negligence excepted, his deliberate and ultimate scheme of metre.
We may therefore reasonably infer that he did not approve the perpetual uniformity which confines the sense to couplets, since he has broken his lines in the initial paragraph:—
A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged,
Fed on the lawns, and in the forest ranged;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She feared no danger, for she knew no sin.
Yet she had oft been chased with horns and hounds
And Scythian shafts, and many winged wounds
Aimed at her heart; was often forced to fly,
And doomed to death, though fated not to die.
These lines are lofty, elegant, and musical, notwithstanding the interruption of the pause, of which the effect is rather increase of pleasure by variety than offence by ruggedness.
To the first part it was his intention, he says, to give the majestic turn of heroic poesy; and perhaps he might have executed his design not unsuccessfully, had not an opportunity of satire, which he cannot forbear, fallen sometimes in his way. The character of a Presbyterian, whose emblem is the wolf, is not very heroically majestic:—
More haughty than the rest, the wolfish race,
Appear with belly gaunt and famished face
Never was so deformed a beast of grace.
His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears,
Close clapped for shame; but his rough crest he rears,
And pricks up his predestinating ears.
His general, character of the other sorts of beasts that never go to church, though sprightly and keen, has, however, not much of heroic poesy:—
These are the chief; to number o'er the rest,
And stand, like Adam, naming every beast,
Were weary work; nor will the muse describe
A slimy-born and sun-begotten tribe,
Who, far from steeples and their sacred sound,
In fields their sullen conventicles found,
These gross, half-animated, lumps I leave;
Nor can I think what thoughts they can conceive;
Put, if they think at all, 'tis sure no higher
Than matter, put in motion, may aspire;
Souls that can scarce ferment their mass of clay;
So drossy, so divisible are they,
As would but serve pure bodies for allay:
Such souls as shards produce, such beetle things
As only buzz to heaven with evening wings;
Strike in the dark, offending but by chance;
Such are the blindfold blows of ignorance.
They know not beings, and but hate a name;
To them the Hind and Panther are the same.
One more instance, and that taken from the narrative part, where style was more in his choice, will show how steadily he kept his resolution of heroic dignity:—
For when the herd, sufficed, did late repair
To ferney heaths, and to their forest laire,
She made a mannerly excuse to stay,
Proffering the Hind to wait her half the way:
That, since the sky was clear, an hour of talk
Might help her to beguile the tedious walk.
With much good-will the motion was embraced,
To chat awhile on their adventures past:
Nor had the grateful Hind so soon forgot
Her friend and fellow-sufferer in the plot.
Yet, wondering how of late she grew estranged,
Her forehead cloudy and her countenance changed.
She thought this hour the occasion would present
To learn her secret cause of discontent,
Which well she hoped, might be with ease redressed,
Considering her a well-bred civil beast,
And more a gentlewoman than the rest.
After some common talk what rumours ran,
The lady of the spotted muff began.
The second and third parts he professes to have reduced to diction more familiar and more suitable to dispute and conversation: the difference is not, however, very easily perceived; the first has familiar, and the two others have sonorous lines. The original incongruity runs through the whole; the king is now Caesar, and now the lion; and the name Pan is given to the Supreme Being.
But when this constitutional absurdity is forgiven, the poem must be confessed to be written with great smoothness of metre, a wide extent of knowledge, and an abundant multiplicity of images; the controversy is embellished with pointed sentences, diversified by illustrations, and enlivened by sallies of invective. Some of the facts to which allusions are made are now become obscure, and perhaps there may be many satirical passages little understood.
As it was by its nature a work of defiance, a composition which would naturally be examined with the utmost acrimony of criticism, it was probably laboured with uncommon attention, and there are, indeed, few negligences in the subordinate parts. The original impropriety and the subsequent unpopularity of the subject, added to the ridiculousness of its first elements, has sunk it into neglect; but it may be usefully studied as an example of poetical ratiocination, in which the argument suffers little from the metre.
In the poem on 'The birth of the Prince of Wales' nothing is very remarkable but the exorbitant adulation, and that insensibility of the precipice on which the King was then standing, which the Laureate apparently shared with the rest of the courtiers. A few months cured him of controversy, dismissed him from Court, and made him again a playwright and translator.
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