The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Volume III Part 5

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6. The Vestal Virgin; or the Roman Ladies, a Tragedy, 1665. In his prologue to this play, Sir Robert has the following couplet, meant as an answer to Dryden's animadversions on the Duke of Lerma.

This doth a wretched dearth of wit betray, When things of kind on one another prey.

He has written likewise,

The History of the Reigns of Edward and Richard II. with Reflections and Characters on their chief ministers and favourites. As also a comparison between these princes Edward and Richard II. with Edward I. and Edward III. London printed 1690.

A Letter to Mr. Samuel Johnson, occasioned by a scurrilous pamphlet, ent.i.tled, Animadversions on Mr. Johnson's Answer to Jovian, in three Letters to a country friend, Lond. 1692. At the end of this letter is reprinted the preface before the history of the reigns of Edward and Richard II. before mentioned.

The History of Religion, Lond. 1694.

The 4th book of Virgil translated into English, which contains the loves of Dido and aeneas, 1660.

Likewise P. Papinius Statius, his Achilles, in five books; to each of which he has subjoined Annotations.


This poet lived in the reign of King Charles II. and is more remarkable for having given name to a satire of Mr. Dryden's, than for all his own works. He is said to have been originally a jesuit, and to have had connexions in consequence thereof, with such persons of distinction in London as were of the Roman Catholic persuasion, Langbaine says, his acquaintance with the n.o.bility was more than with the mules, and he had a greater propensity to rhiming, than genius to poetry.

Tho' he wrote several plays, yet he never could obtain the favour to have more than one of them acted.

His dramatic works are:

1. Damoiselles a-la-mode, a Comedy, printed 8vo, Lond. 1667, and addressed to the duke and d.u.c.h.ess of Newcastle. This comedy was designed by the author to have been acted by his Majesty's servants, which they thought proper however to refuse, we know not for what reason,-The poet indeed has a.s.signed one, whether true or false is immaterial; but it may serve to shew his humour.

For the acting this comedy (says he) those who have the government of the stage have their humours, and would be intreated; and I have mine, and won't entreat them; and were all dramatic writers of my mind, they should wear their old plays thread-bare, er'e they should have any new, till they better understood their own interest, and how to distinguish between good and bad.'

This anger of Mr. Flecknoe's at the players for refusing the piece, bears some resemblance to that of Bayes, when the players went to dinner without his leave. 'How! are the players gone to dinner? If they are I will make them know what it is to injure a person who does them the honour to write for them, and all that; a company of proud, conceited, humorous, cross-grain'd persons, and all that; I'll make them the most contemptible, despicable, inconsiderable persons, and all that; &c. &c. &c.

2. Ermina, or the chaste lady; printed in octavo, London 1665.

3. Love's Dominion; a dramatic piece, which the author says, is full of excellent morality; and is written as a pattern of the reformed stage, printed in octavo, London 1654, and dedicated to the lady Elizabeth Claypole. In this epistle the author insinuates the use of plays, and begs her mediation to gain license to act them.

4. Love's Kingdom, a Tragi-Comedy; not as it was acted at the theatre in Lincoln's-Inn; but as it was written and since corrected, printed in octavo, London 1664, and dedicated to his excellency William lord marquis of Newcastle. This is no more than the former play a little alter'd, with a new t.i.tle; and after the king's return, it seems the poet obtained leave to have it acted, but it had the misfortune to be d.a.m.ned by the audience, which Mr. Flecknoe stiles the people, and calls them judges without judgment, for want of its being rightly represented to them; he owns it wants much of the ornaments of the stage, but that, he says, by a lively imagination may be easily supplied. 'To the same purpose he speaks of his Damoiselles a la Mode:

That together with the persons represented, he had set down the comedians he had designed should represent them; that the reader might have half the pleasure of seeing it acted, and a lively imagination might have the pleasure of it all entire.

5. The Marriage of Ocea.n.u.s and Britannia, a Masque.

Our author's other works consist of Epigrams and Enigmas. There is a book of his writing, called the Diarium, or the Journal; divided into twelve jornadas, in burlesque verse.

Dryden, in two lines in his Mac Flecknoe, gives the character of our author's works.

In prose and verse was own'd without dispute, Thro' all the realms of nonsense absolute.

We cannot be certain in what year Mr. Flecknoe died: Dryden's satire had perhaps rendered him so contemptible, that none gave themselves the trouble to record any particulars of his life, or to take any notice of his death.


This ill.u.s.trious Poet was son of Erasmus Dryden, of Tickermish in Northamptonshire, and born at Aldwincle, near Oundle 1631[1], he had his education in grammar learning, at Westminster-school, under the famous Dr. Busby, and was from thence elected in 1650, a scholar of Trinity-College in Cambridge.

We have no account of any extraordinary indications of genius given by this great poet, while in his earlier days; and he is one instance how little regard is to be paid to the figure a boy makes at school: Mr. Dryden was turned of thirty before he introduced any play upon the stage, and his first, called the Wild Gallants, met with a very indifferent reception; so that if he had not been impelled by the force of genius and propension, he had never again attempted the stage: a circ.u.mstance which the lovers of dramatic poetry must ever have regretted, as they would in this case have been deprived of one of the greatest ornaments that ever adorned the profession.

The year before he left the university, he wrote a poem on the death of lord Hastings, a performance, say some of his critics, very unworthy of himself, and of the astonishing genius he afterwards discovered.

That Mr. Dryden had at this time no fixed principles, either in religion or politics, is abundantly evident, from his heroic stanzas on Oliver Cromwel, written after his funeral 1658; and immediately upon the restoration he published Astraea Redux, a poem on the happy restoration of Charles the IId; and the same year, his Panegyric to the king on his coronation: In the former of these pieces, a remarkable distich has expos'd our poet to the ridicule of the wits.

An horrid stillness first invades the ear, And in that silence we the tempest hear.

Which it must be owned is downright nonsense, and a contradiction in terms: Amongst others captain Radcliff has ridiculed this blunder in the following lines of his News from h.e.l.l.

Laureat who was both learn'd and florid, Was d.a.m.n'd long since for silence horrid: Nor had there been such clutter made, But that his silence did invade.

Invade, and so it might, that's clear; But what did it invade? An ear!

In 1662 he addressed a poem to the lord chancellor Hyde, presented on new-year's-day; and the same year published a satire on the Dutch. His next piece, was his Annus Mirabilis, or the Year of Wonders, 1668, an historical poem, which celebrated the duke of York's victory over the Dutch. In the same year Mr. Dryden succeeded Sir William Davenant as Poet Laureat, and was also made historiographer to his majesty; and that year published his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, addressed to Charles earl of Dorset and Middles.e.x. Mr. Dryden tells his patron, that the writing this Essay, served as an amus.e.m.e.nt to him in the country, when he was driven from town by the violence of the plague, which then raged in London; and he diverted himself with thinking on the theatres, as lovers do by ruminating on their absent mistresses: He there justifies the method of writing plays in verse, but confesses that he has quitted the practice, because he found it troublesome and slow[2]. In the preface we are informed that the drift of this discourse was to vindicate the honour of the English writers from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French to them. Langbaine has injuriously treated Mr. Dryden, on account of his dramatic performances, and charges him as a licentious plagiary. The truth is, our author as a dramatist is less eminent than in any other sphere of poetry; but, with all his faults, he is even in that respect the most eminent of his time.

The critics have remarked, that as to tragedy, he seldom touches the pa.s.sions, but deals rather in pompous language, poetical flights, and descriptions; and too frequently makes his characters speak better than they have occasion, or ought to do, when their sphere in the drama is considered: And it is peculiar to Dryden (says Mr. Addison) to make his personages, as wise, witty, elegant and polite as himself. That he could not so intimately affect the tender pa.s.sions, is certain, for we find no play of his, in which we are much disposed to weep; and we are so often inchanted with beautiful descriptions, and n.o.ble flights of fancy, that we forget the business of the play, and are only attentive to the poet, while the characters sleep. Mr. Gildon observes in his laws of poetry, that when it was recommended to Mr. Dryden to turn his thoughts to a translation of Euripides, rather than of Homer, he confessed that he had no relish for that poet, who was a great master of tragic simplicity. Mr. Gildon, further observes, as a confirmation that Dryden's taste for tragedy was not of the genuine sort, that he constantly expressed great contempt for Otway, who is universally allowed to have succeeded very happily in affecting the tender pa.s.sions: Yet Mr. Dryden, in his preface to the translation of M. Du Fresnoy, speaks more favourably of Otway; and after mentioning these instances, Gildon ascribes this taste in Dryden, to his having read many French Romances.-The truth is, if a poet would affect the heart, he must not exceed nature too much, nor colour too high; distressful circ.u.mstances, short speeches, and pathetic observations never fail to move infinitely beyond the highest rant, or long declamations in tragedy: The simplicity of the drama was Otway's peculiar excellence; a living poet observes, that from Otway to our own times,

From bard to bard, the frigid caution crept, And declamation roar'd while pa.s.sion slept.

Mr. Dryden seems to be sensible, that he was not born to write comedy; for, says he, 'I want that gaiety of humour which is required in it; my conversation is slow and dull, my humour saturnine and reserved. In short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company, and make repartees; so that those who decry my comedies, do me no injury, except it be in point of profit: Reputation in them is the last thing to which I shall pretend[3].'

This ingenuous confession of inability, one would imagine were sufficient to silence the clamour of the critics against Mr. Dryden in that particular; but, however true it may be, that Dryden did not succeed to any degree in comedy, I shall endeavour to support my a.s.sertion, that in tragedy, with all his faults, he is still the most excellent of his time. The end of tragedy is to instruct the mind, as well as move the pa.s.sions; and where there are no shining sentiments, the mind may be affected, but not improved; and however prevalent the pa.s.sion of grief may be over the heart of man, it is certain that he may feel distress in the acutest manner, and not be much the wiser for it. The tragedies of Otway, Lee and Southern, are irresistibly moving, but they convey not such grand sentiments, and their language is far from being so poetical as Dryden's; now, if one dramatic poet writes to move, and another to enchant and instruct, as instruction is of greater consequence than being agitated, it follows naturally, that the latter is the most excellent writer, and possesses the greatest genius.

But perhaps our poet would have wrote better in both kinds of the drama, had not the necessity of his circ.u.mstances obliged him to comply with the popular taste. He himself, in his dedication to the Spanish Fryar, insinuates as much. 'I remember, says he, some verses of my own Maximin and Almanzor, which cry vengeance upon me for their extravagance. All that I can say for those pa.s.sages, which are I hope not many, is, that I knew they were bad when I wrote them. But I repent of them amongst my sins, and if any of their fellows intrude by chance, into my present writings, I draw a veil over all these Dalilahs of the theatre, and am resolved, I will settle myself no reputation upon the applause of fools. 'Tis not that I am mortified to all ambition, but I scorn as much to take it from half witted judges, as I should to raise an estate by cheating of bubbles. Neither do I discommend the lofty stile in tragedy, which is naturally pompous and magnificent; but nothing is truely sublime that is not just and proper.' He says in another place, 'that his Spanish Fryar was given to the people, and that he never wrote any thing in the dramatic way, to please himself, but his All for Love.'

In 1671 Mr. Dryden was publicly ridiculed on the stage, in the duke of Buckingham's comedy, culled the Rehearsal, under the character of Bays: This character, we are informed, in the Key to the Rehearsal, was originally intended for Sir Robert Howard, under the name of Bilboa; but the representation being put a stop to, by the breaking out of the plague, in 1665, it was laid by for several years, and not exhibited on the stage till 1671, in which interval, Mr. Dryden being advanced to the Laurel, the n.o.ble author changed the name of his poet, from Bilboa to Bays, and made great alterations in his play, in order to ridicule several dramatic performances, that appeared since the first writing it. Those of Mr. Dryden, which fell under his grace's lash, were the Wild Gallant, Tyrannic Love, the Conquest of Granada, Marriage A la-Mode, and Love in a Nunnery: Whatever was extravagant, or too warmly expressed, or any way unnatural, the author has ridiculed by parody.

Mr. Dryden affected to despise the satire levelled at him in the Rehearsal, as appears from his dedication of the translation of Juvenal and Persius where speaking of the many lampoons, and libels that had, been written against him, he says, 'I answered not to the Rehearsal, because I knew the author sat to himself when he drew the picture, and was the very Bays of his own farce; because also I knew my betters were more concerned than I was in that satire; and lastly, because Mr. Smith and Mr. Johnson, the main pillars of it, were two such languishing gentlemen in their conversation, that I could liken them to nothing but their own relations, those n.o.ble characters of men of wit and pleasure about town.'

In 1679 came out an Essay on Satire, said to be written jointly by Mr. Dryden and the earl of Mulgrave; this piece, which was handed about in ma.n.u.script, containing Reflexions on the d.u.c.h.ess of Portsmouth, and the Earl of Rochester; who suspecting, as Wood says, Mr. Dryden to be the author, hired three ruffians to cudgel him in Wills's coffee-house at eight o'clock at night. This short anecdote, I think, cannot be told without indignation. It proved Rochester was a malicious coward, and, like other cowards, cruel and insolent; his foul was incapable of any thing that approached towards generosity, and when his resentment was heated, he pursued revenge, and retained the most lasting hatred; he had always entertained a prejudice against Dryden, from no other motive than envy, Dryden's plays met with success, and this was enough to fire the resentment of Rochester, who was naturally envious. In order to hurt the character, and shake the interest of this n.o.ble poet, he recommended Crown, an obscure man, to write a Masque for the court, which was Dryden's province, as poet-laureat, to perform. Crown in this succeeded, but soon after, when his play called the Conquest of Jerusalem met with such extravagant applause, Rochester, jealous of his new favourite, not only abandoned him, but commenced from that moment his enemy.

The other person against whom this satire was levelled, was not superior in virtue to the former, and all the nation over, two better subjects for satire could not have been found, than lord Rochester, and the d.u.c.h.ess of Portsmouth. As for Rochester, he had not genius enough to enter the lists with Dryden, so he fell upon another method of revenge; and meanly hired bravoes to a.s.sault him.

In 1680 came out a translation of Ovid's Epistles in English verse, by several hands, two of which were translated by Mr. Dryden, who also wrote the preface. In the year following our author published Absalom and Achitophel. It was first printed without his name, and is a severe satire against the contrivers and abettors of the opposition against King Charles II. In the same year that Absalom and Achitophel was published, the Medal, a Satire, was likewise given to the public. This piece is aimed against sedition, and was occasioned by the striking of a medal, on account of the indictment against the earl of Shaftsbury for high treason being found ignoramus by the grand jury, at the Old Bailey, November 1681: For which the Whig party made great rejoicings by ringing of bells, bonfires, &c. in all parts of London. The poem is introduced with a very satirical epistle to the Whigs, in which the author says, 'I have one favour to desire you at parting, that when you think of answering this poem, you would employ the same pens against it, who have combated with so much success against Absalom and Achitophel, for then you may a.s.sure yourselves of a clear victory without the least reply. Rail at me abundantly, and not break a custom to do it with wit. By this method you will gain a considerable point, which is wholly to wave the answer of my arguments. If G.o.d has not blessed you with the talent of rhiming, make use of my poor stock and welcome; let your verses run upon my feet, and for the utmost refuge of notorious blockheads, reduced to the last extremity of sense, turn my own lines against me, and in utter despair of my own satire, make me satirize myself.' The whole poem is a severe invective against the earl of Shaftsbury; who was uncle to that earl who wrote the Characteristics. Mr. Elkanah Settle wrote an answer to this poem, ent.i.tled the Medal Reversed. However contemptible Settle was as a poet, yet such was the prevalence of parties at that time, that, for some years, he was Dryden's rival on the stage. In 1682 came out his Religio Laici, or a Layman's Faith; this piece is intended as a defence of revealed religion, and the excellency and authority of the scriptures, as the only rule of faith and manners, against Deists, Papists, and Presbyterians. He acquaints us in the preface, that it was written for an ingenious young gentleman, his friend; upon his translation of Father Simons's Critical History of the Old Testament, and that the stile of it was epistolary.

In 1684 he published a translation of M. Maimbourg's. History of the League, in which he was employed by the command of King Charles II. on account of the plain parallel between the troubles of France, and those of Great Britain. Upon the death of Charles II. he wrote his Threnodia Augustalis, a Poem, sacred to the happy memory of that Prince. Soon after the accession of James II. our author turned Roman Catholic, and by this extraordinary step drew upon himself abundance of ridicule from wits of the opposite faction; and in 1689 he wrote a Defence of the Papers, written by the late King of blessed memory, found in his strong box. Mr. Dryden, in the abovementioned piece, takes occasion to vindicate the authority of the Catholic Church, in decreeing matters of faith, upon this principle, that the church is more visible than the scriptures, because the scriptures are seen by the church, and to abuse the reformation in England, which he affirms was erected on the foundation of l.u.s.t, sacrilege, and usurpation. Dr. Stillingfleet hereupon answered Mr. Dryden, and treated him with some severity. Another author affirms, that Mr. Dryden's tract is very light, in some places ridiculous; and observes, that his talent lay towards controversy no more in prose, than, by the Hind and Panther, it appeared to do in verse. This poem of the Hind and Panther is a direct defence of the Romish Church, in a dialogue between a Hind, which represents the Church of Rome, and a Panther, which supports the character of the Church of England. The first part of this poem consists most in general characters and narration, which, says he, 'I have endeavoured to raise, and give it the majestic turn of heroic poetry. The second being matter of dispute, and chiefly concerning church authority, I was obliged to make as plain and perspicuous as possibly I could, yet not wholly neglecting the numbers, though I had not frequent occasion for the magnificence of verse. The third, which has more of the nature of domestic conversation, is, or ought to be, more free and familiar than the two former. There are in it two episodes or fables, which are interwoven with the main design, so that they are properly parts of it, though they are also distinct stories of themselves. In both of these I have made use of the common places of satire, whether true or false, which are urged by the members of the one church against the other.'

Mr. Dryden speaks of his own conversion in the following terms;

But, gracious G.o.d, how well dost thou provide, For erring judgments, an unerring guide.

Thy throne is darkness, in th' abyss of light, A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.

O teach me to believe thee, thus concealed, And search no further than thyself revealed; But her alone for my director take, Whom thou hast promis'd never to forsake!

My thoughtless youth was wing'd with vain desires; My manhood, long misled by wand'ring fires, Follow'd false lights; and when their glimpse was gone, My pride struck out new sparkles of her own.

Such was I, such by nature still I am, Be thine the glory, and be mine the shame, Good life be now my talk, my doubts are done.[4]

This poem was attacked by Mr. Charles Montague, afterwards Earl of Hallifax, and Mr. Matthew Prior, who joined in writing the Hind and Panther, transversed to the Country Mouse, and City Mouse, Lond. 1678, 4to. In the preface to which, the author observes, 'that Mr. Dryden's poem naturally falls into ridicule, and that in this burlesque, nothing is represented monstrous and unnatural, that is not equally so in the original.' They afterwards remark, that they have this comfort under the severity of Mr. Dryden's satire, to see his abilities equally lessened with his opinion of them, and that he could not be a fit champion against the Panther till he had laid aside his judgment.

Mr. Dryden is supposed to have been engaged in translating M. Varillas's History of Heresies, but to have dropped that design. This we learn from a pa.s.sage in Burnet's reflexions on the ninth book of the first volume of M. Varillas's History, being a reply to his answer.

I shall here give the picture the Dr. has drawn of this n.o.ble poet, which is, like a great many of the doctor's other characters, rather exhibited to please himself than according to the true resemblance.

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The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Volume III Part 5 summary

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