Chapter LX: Dryden--The New Poetry
"THE life of Dryden may be said to comprehend a history of the literature of England, and its changes, during nearly half a century." With these words Sir Walter Scott, himself a great writer, began his life of John Dryden. Yet although Dryden stands for so much in the story of our literature, as a man we know little of him. As a writer his influence on the age in which he lived was tremendous. As a man he is more shadowy than almost any other greater writer. We seem to know Chaucer, and Spenser, and Milton, and even Shakespeare a little, but to know Dryden in himself seems impossible. We can only know him through his works, and through his age. And in him we find the expression of his age.
With Milton ended the great romantic school of poetry. He was indeed as one born out of time, a lonely giant. He died and left no follower. With Dryden began a new school of poetry, which was to be the type of English poetry for a hundred and fifty years to come. This is called the classical school, and the rime which the classical poets used is called the heroic couplet. It is a long ten-syllabled line, and rimes in couplets, as, for instance:--
"He sought the storms; but, for a calm unfit,
Would stem too nigh the sands, to boast his wit,
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."*
*Absalom and Achitophel.
Dryden did not invent the heroic couplet, but it was he who first made it famous. "It was he," says Scott, "who first showed that the English language was capable of uniting smoothness and strength." But when you come to read Dryden's poems you may perhaps feel that in gaining the smoothness of Art they have lost something of the beauty of Nature. The perfect lines with their regular sounding rimes almost weary us at length, and we are glad to turn to the rougher beauty of some earlier poet.
But before speaking more of what Dryden did let me tell you a little of what we know of his life.
John Dryden was the son of a Northamptonshire gentleman who had a small estate and a large family, for John was the eldest of fourteen children. The family was a Puritan one, although in
1631, when John was born, the Civil War had not yet begun.
When John Dryden left school he went, like nearly all the poets, to Cambridge. Of what he did at college we know very little. He may have been wild, for more than once he got into trouble, and once he was "rebuked on the head" for speaking scornfully of some nobleman. He was seven years at Cambridge, but he looked back on these years with no joy. He had no love for his University, and even wrote:--
"Oxford to him a dearer name shall be,
Than his own Mother University."
Already at college Dryden had begun to write poetry, but his poem on the death of Cromwell is perhaps the first that is worth remembering:--
"Swift and relentless through the land he past,
Like that bold Greek, who did the East subdue;
And made to battles of such heroic haste
As if on wings of victory he flew.
He fought secure of fortune as of fame,
Till by new maps the island might be shown
Of conquests, which he strewed where'er he came,
This as the galaxy with stars is sown.
Nor was he like those stars which only shine,
When to pale mariners they storms portend,
He had a calmer influence, and his mien
Did love and majesty together blend.
Nor died he when his ebbing fame went less,
But when fresh laurels courted him to live:
He seemed but to prevent some new success,
As if above what triumphs earth could give.
His ashes in a peaceful urn shall rest;
His name a great example stands, to show,
How strangely high endeavours may be blessed,
Where piety and valour jointly go."
So wrote Dryden. But after the death of Cromwell came the Restoration. Dryden had been able to admire Cromwell, but although he came of a Puritan family he could never have been a Puritan at heart. What we learn of him in his writings show us that. He was not of the stern stuff which makes martyrs and heroes. There was no reason why he should suffer for a cause in which he did not whole-heartedly believe. So Dryden turned Royalist, and the very next poem he wrote was On the Happy Restoration and Return of His Majesty Charles the Second.
"How easy 'tis when destiny proves kind,
With full spread sails to run before the wind!"*
So Dryden ran before the wind.
About three years after the Restoration Dryden married an earl's daughter, Lady Elizabeth Howard. We know very little about their life together, but they had three children of whom they were very fond.
With the Restoration came the re-opening of the theaters, and for fourteen years Dryden was known as a dramatic poet. There is little need to tell you anything about his plays, for you would not like to read them. During the reign of Puritanism in England the people had been forbidden even innocent pleasures. The Maypole dances had been banished, games and laughter were frowned upon. Now that these too stern laws had been taken away, people plunged madly into pleasure: laughter became coarse, merriment became riotous. Puritan England had lost the sense of where innocent pleasure ends and wickedness begins. In another way Restoration England did the same. The people of the Restoration saw fun and laughter in plays which seem to us now simply vulgar and coarse as well as dull. The coarseness, too, is not the coarseness of an ignorant people who know no better, but rather of a people who do know better and who yet prefer to be coarse. I do not mean to say that there are no well-drawn characters, no beautiful lines, in Dryden's plays for that would not be true. Many of them are clever, the songs in them are often beautiful, but nearly all are unpleasant to read. The taste of the Restoration times condemned Dryden to write in a way unworthy of himself for money. "Neither money nor honour--that in two words was the position of writers after the Restoration."*
*Beljame, Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres in Angleterre.
"And Dryden, in immortal strain,
Had raised the table-round again
But that a ribald King and Court
Bade him toil on to make them sport,
Demanding for their niggard pay,
Fit for their souls, a loser lay."*
*Walter Scott, Marmion.
Had Dryden written nothing but plays we should not remember him as one of our great poets. Yet it was during this time of play- writing that Dryden was made Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal with the salary of 200 pounds a year and a butt of sack. It was after he became Poet Laureate that Dryden began to write his satires, the poems for which he is most famous. Although a satire is a poem which holds wickedness up to scorn, sometimes it was used, not against the wicked and the foolish, but against those who merely differed from the writer in politics or religion or any other way of life or thought. Such was Dryden's best satire--thought by some people the best in the English language. It is called Absalom and Achitophel. To understand it we must know and understand the history of the times. Here in the guise of the old Bible story Dryden seeks to hold Lord Shaftesbury up to scorn because he tried to have a law passed which would prevent the King's brother James from succeeding to the throne, and which would instead place the Duke of Monmouth there. When the poem was published Shaftesbury was in the Tower awaiting his trial for high treason. The poem had a great effect, but Shaftesbury was nevertheless set free.
In spite of the fine sounding lines you will perhaps never care to read Absalom and Achitophel save as a footnote to history. But Dryden's was the age of satire. Those he wrote called forth others. He was surrounded and followed by many imitators, and it is well to remember Dryden as the greatest of them all. His satires were so powerful, too, that the people against whom they were directed felt them keenly, and no wonder. "There are passages in Dryden's satires in which every couplet has not only the force but the sound of a slap in the face," says a recent writer.*
Among the younger writers Dryden took the place Ben Jonson used hold. He kinged it in the coffee-house, then the fashionable place at which the wits gathered, as Jonson had in the tavern. He was given the most honored seat, in summer by the window, in winter by the fire. And although he was not a great talker like Jonson, the young wits crowded around him, eager for the honor of a word or a pinch from the great man's snuff-box.
Besides his plays and satires Dryden wrote a poem in support of the English Church called Religio Laici. Then a few years later, when Charles II died and James II came to the throne, Dryden turned Roman Catholic and wrote a poem called The Hind and the Panther in praise of the Church of Rome.
But the reign of James II was short. The "Glorious Revolution" came, and with a Protestant King and Queen upon the throne, the Catholic Poet Laureate lost his post and pension and all his other appointments. Dryden was now nearly sixty; and although he had made what was then a good deal of money by his plays and other poems he had spent it freely, and always seemed in need. Now he had to face want and poverty. But he faced them bravely. Dryden all his life had been a flatterer; he had always sailed with the wind. Now, whether he could not or would not, he changed no more, he flattered no more. A kind friend, it is said, still continued to pay him the two hundred pounds he had received as Poet Laureate, and he now wrote more plays which brought him money. Then, thus late in life, he began the work which for you at present will have the greatest interest. Dryden was a great poet, but he could create nothing, he had to have given him ideas upon which to work. Now he began translations from Latin poets, and for those who cannot read them in the original they are still a great pleasure and delight.
True, Dryden did not translate literally, that is word for word. He paraphrased rather, and in doing so he Drydenized the originals, often adding whole lines of his own. Among his translations was Virgil's Aeneid, which long before, you remember, Surrey had begun in blank verse. But blank verse was not what the age in which Dryden lived desired, and he knew it. So he wrote in rimed couplets. Long before this he had turned Milton's Paradise Lost into rimed couplets, making it into an opera, which he called The State of Innocence. An opera is a play set to music, but this opera was never set to music, and never sung or acted. Dryden, we know, admired Milton's poetry greatly. "This man cuts us all out," he had said. Yet he thought he could make the poem still better, and asked Milton's leave to turn it into rime. "Ay, you may tag my verses if you will," replied the great blind man.
It is interesting to compare the two poems, and when you come to read The State of Innocence you will find that not all the verses are "tagged." So that in places you can compare Milton's blank verse with Dryden's. And although Dryden must have thought he was improving Milton's poem, he says himself: "Truly I should be sorry, for my own sake, that any one should take the pains to compare them (the poems) together, the original being, undoubtedly, one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced."
Dryden begins his poem with the speech of Satan, Lucifer he calls him, on finding himself cast out from heaven:--
"Is this the seat our conqueror has given?
And this the climate we must change for heaven?
These regions and this realm my wars have got;
This mournful empire is the loser's lot;
In liquid burnings, or on dry, to dwell,
Is all the sad variety of hell."
If you turn back to page 401 you can compare this with Milton's own version.
Besides translating some Latin and a few Greek poems Dryden translated stories from Boccaccio, Chaucer's old friend, and last of all he translated Chaucer himself into Drydenese. For in Dryden's day Chaucer's language had already become so old- fashioned that few people troubled to read him. "It is so obsolete," says Dryden, "that his sense is scarce to be understood." "I find some people are offended that I have turned these tales into modern English, because they think them unworthy of my pains, and look on Chaucer as a dry, old-fashioned wit not worthy reviving."
Again he says: "But there are other judges, who think I ought not to have translated Chaucer into English, out of a quite contrary notion. They suppose there is a certain veneration due to his old language, and that it is little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it. They are further of opinion that somewhat of his good sense will suffer in this transfusion, and much of the beauty of his thoughts will infallibly be lost, which appear with more grace in their old habit." I think all of us who can read Chaucer in his own language must agree with these judges. But Dryden goes on to say he does not write for such, but for those who cannot read Chaucer's English. Are they who can understand Chaucer to deprive the greater part of their countrymen of the same advantage, and hoard him up, as misers do their gold, only to look on it themselves and hinder others from making use of it? he asks.
This is very good reasoning, and all that can be said against it is that when Dryden has done with Chaucer, although he tells the same tales, they are no longer Chaucer's but Dryden's. The spirit is changed. But that you will be able to feel only when you grow older and are able to read the two and balance them one against the other. Dryden translated only a few of the Canterbury Tales, and the one he liked best was the knight's tale of Palamon and Arcite. He published it in a book which he called Fables, and it is, I think, as a narrative or story-telling poet in these fables, and in his translations, that he keeps most interest for the young people of to-day.
You have by this time, I hope, read the story of Palamon and Arcite at least in Tales from Chaucer, and here I will give you a few lines first from Dryden and then from Chaucer, so that you can judge for yourselves of the difference. In them the poets describe Emelia as she appeared on that May morning when Palamon first looked forth from his prison and saw her walk in the garden:--
"Thus year by year they pass, and day by day,
Till once,--'twas on the morn of cheerful May,--
The young Emila, fairer to be seen
Than the fair lily on the flowery green,
More flesh than May herself in blossoms new,
For with the rosy colour strove her hue,
Waked, as her custom was, before the day,
To do the observance due to sprightly May;
For sprightly May commands our youth to keep
The vigils of her night, and breaks their sluggard sleep;
Each gentle breast with kindly warmth she moves;
Inspires new flames, revives extinguished loves.
In this remembrance, Emily, ere day,
Arose, and dressed herself in rich array;
Fresh as the month, and as the morning fair,
Adown her shoulders fell her length of hair;
A ribbon did the braided tresses bind,
The rest was loose, and wantoned in the wind:
Aurora had but newly chased the night,
And purpled o'er the sky with blushing light,
When to the garden walk she took her way,
To sport and trip along in cool of day,
And offer maiden vows in honour of the May.
At every turn she made a little stand,
That is Dryden's, and this is how Chaucer tells of the same May morning:--
"This passeth yeer by yeer, and day by day,
Till it fel oones in a morwe of May
That Emelie, that farier was to seene
Than is the lilie on his stalke grene,
And fressher than the May with floures newe--
For with the rose colour strof hire hewe,
I not which was the fairer of hem two--
Er it were day, as was hir wone to do,
She was arisen and al redy dight.
For May wol have no sloggardy anight.
The seson priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh him out of his sleep to sterte,
And seith, 'Arise and do thin observance'.
This maked Emelye have remembraunce
To don honour to May, and for to rise.
I-clothed was she fressh for to devise,
Hir yelowe heer was broyded in a tresse,
Behinde hir bak, a yerde long I gesse;
And in the gardyn at the sunne upriste
She walketh up and doun, and as hir liste
She gadereth floures, party white and rede,
To make a subtil garland for hir hede,
And as an angel hevenly she song."
In this quotation from Chaucer I have not changed the old spelling into modern as I did in the chapter on Chaucer, so that you may see the difference between the two styles more clearly.
If you can see the difference between these two quotations you can see the difference between the poetry of Dryden's age and all that went before him. It is the difference between art and nature. Chaucer sings like a bird, Dryden like a trained concert singer who knows that people are listening to him. There is room for both in life. We want and need both.
If you can feel the difference between Chaucer and Dryden you will understand in part what I meant by saying that Dryden was the expression of his time. For in Restoration times the taste was for art rather than for natural beauty. The taste was for what was clever, witty, and polished rather than for the simple, stately grandeur of what was real and true. Poetry was utterly changed. It no longer went to the heart but to the brain. Dryden's poetry does not make the tears start to our eye or the blood come to our cheek, but it flatters our ear with its smoothness and elegance; it tickles our fancy with its wit.
You will understand still better what the feeling of the times was when I tell you that Dryden, with the help of another poet, re-wrote Shakespeare's Tempest and made it to suit the fashion of the day. In doing so they utterly spoiled it. As literature it is worthless; as helping us to understand the history of those times it is useful. But although The Tempest, as re-written by Dryden, is bad, one of the best of his plays is founded upon another of Shakespeare's. This play is called All for Love or the World Well Lost, and is founded upon Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It is not written in Dryden's favorite heroic couplet but in blank verse. "In my style," he says, "I have professed to imitate the divine Shakespeare, which, that I might perform more freely, I have disencumbered myself from rhyme. Not that I condemn my former way, but that this is more proper to my present purpose." And when you come to read this play you will find that, master as Dryden was of the heroic couplet, he could write, too, when he chose, fine blank verse.
Perhaps the best-known of all Dryden's shorter poems is the ode called Alexander's Feast. It was written for a London musical society, which gave a concert each year on St. Cecilia's day, when an original ode was sung in her honor. Dryden in this ode, which was sung in 1697, pictures Timotheus, the famous Greek musician and poet, singing before Alexander, at a great feast which was held after the conquest of Persia. Alexander listens while
"The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming Eastern Bride,
In flower of youth and beauty's pride.
Happy, happy, happy pair!
None but the brave,
None but the brave,
As Timotheus sings he stirs at will his hearers' hearts to love, to pity, or to revenge.
"Timotheus, to his breathing flute
And sounding lyre,
But those were heathen times. In Christian times came St. Cecilia and she
"Enlarged the former narrow bounds,
And added length to solemn sounds,
Let old Timotheus yield the prize.
Or both divide the crown:
He raised a mortal to the skies
She drew an angel down."
Dryden was a great poet, and he dominated his own age and the age to come. But besides being a poet he was a great prose-writer. His prose is clear and fine and almost modern. We do not have to follow him through sentences so long that we lose the sense before we come to the end. "He found English of brick and left it marble," says a late writer, and when we read his prose we almost believe that saying to be true. He was the first of modern critics, that is he was able to judge the works of others surely and well. And many of his criticisms of men were so true that we accept them now even as they were accepted then. Here is what he says of Chaucer in his preface to The Fables:--
"He [Chaucer] must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies persons. . . . The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling are so suited to their different educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity. Their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such as are becoming to them and to them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous; some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different: the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook are several men, and distinguished from each other as much as the mincing Lady- Prioress and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed Wife of Bath. . . . It is sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty. We have our forefathers and great-grand-dames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days. Their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks, and friars, and canons, and lady abbesses, and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature though everything is altered."
The Fables was the last book Dryden wrote. He was growing to be an old man, and a few months after it was published he became very ill. "John Dryden, Esq., the famous poet, lies a-dying," said the newspapers on the 30th April, 1700. One May morning he closed his eyes for ever, just as
"Aurora had but newly chased the night,
And purpled o'er the sky with blushing light."