A Survey Of Dryden's Works
From The Life Of Dryden by Samuel Johnson

IN a general survey of Dryden's labours, he appears to have a mind very comprehensive by nature, and much enriched with acquired knowledge. His compositions are the effects of a vigorous genius operating upon large materials.

The power that predominated in his intellectual operations was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were presented he studied rather than felt, and produced sentiments not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple and elemental passions, as they spring separate in the mind, he seems not much acquainted; and seldom describes them but as they are complicated by the various relations of society and confused in the tumults and agitations of life.

What he says of love may contribute to the explanation of his character:—

'Love various minds does variously inspire;
It stirs in gentle bosoms gentle fire,
Like that of incense on the altar laid;
But raging flames tempestuous souls invade;
A fire which every windy passion blows,
With pride it mounts, or with revenge it glows.'

Dryden's was not one of the gentle bosoms: love, as it subsists in itself, with no tendency but to the person loved, and wishing only for correspondent kindness; such love as shuts out all other interest; the love of the golden age, was too soft and subtle to put his faculties in motion. He hardly conceived it but in its turbulent effervescence with some other desires; when it was inflamed by rivalry, or obstructed by difficulties; when it invigorated ambition, or exasperated revenge.

He is therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often pathetic; and had so little sensibility of the power of effusions purely natural, that he did not esteem them in others. Simplicity gave him no pleasure; and for the first part of his life he looked on Otway with contempt, though at last, indeed very late, he confessed that in his play there was nature, which is the chief beauty.

We do not always know our own motives. I am not certain whether it was not rather the difficulty which he found in exhibiting the genuine operations of the heart, than a servile submission to an injudicious audience that filled his plays with false magnificence. It was necessary to fix attention; and the mind can be captivated only by recollection, or by curiosity; by reviving natural sentiments, or impressing new appearances of things; sentences were readier at his call than images; he could more easily fill the ear with some splendid novelty, than awaken those ideas that slumber in the heart.

The favourite exercise of his mind was ratiocination; and, that argument might not be too soon at an end, he delighted to talk of liberty and necessity, destiny and contingence; these he discusses in the language of the school with so much profundity, that the terms which he uses are not always understood. It is indeed learning, but learning out of place.

When once he had engaged himself in disputation, thoughts flowed in on either side: he was now no longer at a loss; he had always objections and solutions at command: verbaque provisam rem — give him matter for his verse, and he finds without difficulty verse for his matter.

In comedy, for which he professes himself not naturally qualified, the mirth which he excites will perhaps not be found so much to arise from any original humour, or peculiarity of character nicely distinguished and diligently pursued, as from incidents and circumstances, artifices and surprises; from jests of action rather than of sentiment. What he had of humorous or passionate he seems to have had not from nature but from other poets; if not always as a plagiary, at least as an imitator.

Next to argument, his delight was in wild and daring sallies of sentiment, in the irregular and eccentric violence of wit. He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy. This inclination sometimes produced nonsense, which he knew; as,

'Move swiftly, sun, and fly a lover's pace,
Leave weeks and months behind thee in thy race.
Amariel flies
To guard thee from the demons of the air;
My flaming sword above them to display,
All keen, and ground upon the edge of day.'

And sometimes it issued in absurdities, of which perhaps he was not conscious:—

'Then we upon our orb's last verge shall go,
And see the ocean leaning on the sky;
From thence our rolling neighbours we shall know,
And on the lunar world securely pry.'

These lines have no meaning; but may we not say, in imitation of Cowley on another book,—

"Tis so like sense 'twill serve the turn as well?'

This endeavour after the grand and the new produced many sentiments either great or bulky, and many images either just or splendid:—

'I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
—'Tis but because the Living death ne'er knew,
They fear to prove it as a thing that's new:
Let me th' experiment before you try,
I'll shew you first how easy 'tis to die.

—There with a forest of their darts he strove,
And stood like Capaneus defying Jove;
With his broad sword the boldest beating down,
While Fate grew pale lest he should win the town,
And turned the iron leaves of his dark book
To make new dooms, or mend what it mistook.

—I beg no pity for this mouldering clay;
For if you give it burial, there it takes
Possession of your earth;
If burnt, and scattered in the air, the winds
That strew my dust diffuse my royalty,
And spread me o'er your clime; for where one atom
Of mine shall light, know there Sebastian reigns.'

Of these quotations the two first may be allowed to be great, the two latter only tumid.

Of such selection there is no end. I will add only a few more passages, of which the first, though it may perhaps not be quite clear in prose, is not too obscure for poetry, as the meaning that it has is noble:—

'No, there is a necessity in fate,
Why still the brave bold man is fortunate;
He keeps his object ever full in sight,
And that assurance holds him firm and right;
True, 'tis a narrow way that leads to bliss,
But right before there is no precipice;
Fear makes men look aside, and so their footing miss.'

Of the images which the two following citations afford, the first is elegant, the second magnificent; whether either be just, let the reader judge:—

'What precious drops are these,
Which silently each other's track pursue,
Bright as young diamonds in their infant dew?'

—Resign your castle—
—Enter, brave Sir; for when you speak the word,
The gates shall open of their own accord;
The genius of the place its Lord shall meet,
And bow its towery forehead at your feet.'

These bursts of extravagance Dryden calls the Dalilahs of the theatre, and owns that many noisy lines of 'Maxamin and Almanzor' call out for vengeance upon him; 'but I knew,' says he, 'that they were bad enough to please, even when I wrote them.' There is surely reason to suspect that he pleased himself as well as his audience, and that these, like the harlots of other men, had his love, though not his approbation.

He had sometimes faults of a less generous and splendid kind. He makes, like almost all other poets, very frequent use of mythology, and sometimes connects religion and fable too closely without distinction.

He descends to display his knowledge with pedantic ostentation; as when, in translating Virgil, he says, tack to the larboard, and veer starboard; and talks in another work of virtue spooming before the wind. His vanity now and then betrays his ignorance:—

'They Nature's king through Nature's optics viewed;
Reversed they viewed Him lessen? to their eyes.'

He had heard of reversing a telescope, and unluckily reverses the object.

He is sometimes unexpectedly mean. When he describes the Supreme Being as moved by prayer to stop the Fire of London, what is his expression?—

'A hollow crystal pyramid He takes,
In firmamental waters dipped above,
Of this a broad extinguisher He makes,
And hoods the flames that to their quarry strove.'

When he describes the Last Day, and the decisive tribunal, he intermingles this image:—

'When rattling bones together fly,
From the four quarters of the sky.'

It was indeed never in his power to resist the temptation of a jest. In his Elegy on Cromwell:—

'No sooner was the Frenchman's cause embraced,
Than the light Monsieur the grave Don outweighed;
His fortune turned the scale—.'

He had a vanity, unworthy of his abilities, to show, as may be suspected, the rank of the company with whom he lived, by the use of French words which had then crept into conversation; such as fraîcheur for coolness, fougue for turbulence, and a few more, none of which the language has incorporated or retained. They continue only where they stood first, perpetual warnings to future innovators.

These are his faults of affectation; his faults of negligence are beyond recital. Such is the unevenness of his compositions, that ten lines are seldom found together without something of which the reader is ashamed. Dryden was no rigid judge of his own pages; he seldom struggled after supreme excellence, but snatched in haste what was within his reach; and when he could content others, was himself contented. He did not keep present to his mind an idea of pure perfection, nor compare his works, such as they were, with what they might be made. He knew to whom he should be opposed. He had more music than Waller, more vigour than Denham, and more nature than Cowley, and from his contemporaries he was in no danger. Standing therefore in the highest place, he had no care to rise by contending with himself, but while there was no name above his own, was willing to enjoy fame on the easiest terms.

He was no lover of labour. What he thought sufficient he did not stop to make better, and allowed himself to leave many parts unfinished, in confidence that the good lines would overbalance the bad. What he had once written he dismissed from his thoughts, and I believe there is no example to be found of any correction or improvement made by him after publication.

The hastiness of his productions might be the effect of necessity, but his subsequent neglect could hardly have any other cause than impatience of study.

What can be said of his versification will be little more than a dilatation of the praise given it by Pope:—

'Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full-resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.'

Some improvements had been already made in English numbers, but the full force of our language was not yet felt; the verse that was smooth was commonly feeble. If Cowley had sometimes a finished line, he had it by chance. Dryden knew how to choose the flowing and the sonorous words; to vary the pauses, and adjust the accents; to diversify the cadence, and yet preserve the smoothness of his metre.

Of triplets and Alexandrines, though he did not introduce the use, he established it. The triplet has long subsisted among us. Dryden seems not to have traced it higher than to Chapman's 'Homer,' but it is to be found in Phaer's 'Virgil,' written in the reign of Mary, and in Hall's 'Satires,' published five years before the death of Elizabeth.

The Alexandrine was, I believe, first used by Spenser for the sake of closing his stanza with a fuller sound. We had a longer measure of fourteen syllables, into which the 'Aeneid,' was translated by Phaer, and other works of the ancients by other writers, of which Chapman's 'Iliad' was, I believe, the last.

The two first lines of Phaer's third 'Aeneid,' will exemplify this measure:—

'When Asia's state was overthrown, and Priam's kingdom stout,
All guiltless, by the power of gods above was rooted out.'

As these lines had their break, or caesura, always at the eighth syllable, it was thought in time commodious to divide them; and quatrains of lines, alternately consisting of eight and six syllables, make the most soft and pleasing of our lyric measures; as,—

'Relentless time, destroying power,
Which stone and brass obey,
Who giv'st to every flying hour
To work some new decay.'

In the Alexandrine, when its power was once felt, some poems, as Drayton's ' Polyolbion ,' were wholly written; and sometimes the measures of twelve and fourteen syllables were interchanged with one another. Cowley was the first that inserted the Alexandrine at pleasure among the heroic lines of ten syllables, and from him Dryden professes to have adopted it.

The triplet and Alexandrine are not universally, approved. Swift always censured them, and wrote some lines to ridicule them. In examining their propriety it is to be considered that the essence of verse is regularity, and its ornament is variety. To write verse is to dispose syllables and sounds harmonically by some known and settled rule; a rule, however, lax enough to substitute similitude for identity, to admit change without breach of order, and to relieve the ear without disappointing it. Thus a Latin hexameter is formed from dactyls and spondees differently combined; the English heroic admits of acute or grave syllables variously disposed. The Latin never deviates into seven feet, or exceeds the number of seventeen syllables; but the English Alexandrine breaks the lawful bounds, and surprises the reader with two syllables more than he expected.

The effect of the triplet is the same: the ear has been accustomed to expect a new rhyme in every couplet, but is on a sudden surprised with three rhymes together, to which the reader could not accommodate his voice, did he not obtain notice of the change from the braces in the margins. Surely there is something unskillful in the necessity of such mechanical direction.

Considering the metrical art simply as a science, and consequently excluding all casualty, we must allow that triplets and Alexandrines, inserted by caprice, are interruptions of that constancy to which science aspires. And though the variety which they produce may very justly be desired, yet to make our poetry exact there ought to be some stated mode of admitting them.

But till some such regulation can be formed, I wish them still to be retained in their present state. They are sometimes grateful to the reader, and sometimes convenient to the poet. Fenton was of opinion that Dryden was too liberal and Pope too sparing in their use.

The rhymes of Dryden are commonly just, and he valued himself for his readiness in finding them; but he is sometimes open to objection.

It is the common practice of our poets to end the second line with a weak or grave syllable:—

'Together o'er the Alps methinks we fly, Filled with ideas of fair Italy. —Pope: 'Epistle to Jervas.'

Dryden sometimes puts the weak rhyme in the first:—

Laugh Laugh all the powers that favour tyranny, And all the standing army of the sky.'

Sometimes he concludes a period or a paragraph with the first line of a couplet, which, though the French seem to do to it without irregularity, always displeases in English poetry. The Alexandrine, though much his favourite, is not always very diligently fabricated by him. It invariably requires a break at the sixth syllable, a rule which the modern French poets never violate, but which Dryden sometimes neglected:—

'And with paternal thunder vindicates his throne.'

Of Dryden's works it was said by Pope, that

'he could select from them better specimens of every mode of poetry than any other English writer could supply.'

Perhaps no nation ever produced a writer that enriched his language with such variety of models. To him we owe the improvement, perhaps the completion of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we were taught sapere et fari; to think naturally and express forcibly. Though Davis has reasoned in rhyme before him, it may be perhaps maintained that he was the first who joined argument with poetry. He showed us the true bounds of a translator's liberty. What was said of Rome, adorned by Augustus, may be applied by an easy metaphor to English poetry embellished by Dryden, lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit; 'He found it brick, and he left it marble.'

« NEXT » « Life of Dryden » « Johnson's Works » « Library » « Home »