Page images

in the port of London, with unknown emoluments. The only definite sum mentioned is a nominal one of 51. a year as collector of duties on cloth. But it is not likely that cloth was the only subject of Dryden's labours, and in those days the system of fees and perquisites flourished. This Customs appointment was given in 1683.

To the condition of Dryden's sentiments in the last years of Charles' reign Religio Laici must be taken as the surest, and indeed as the only clue. There is no proof that this poem was composed to serve any political purpose, and indeed it could not have served any, neither James nor Charles being likely to be propitiated by a defence, however moderate and rationalizing, of the Church of England. It is not dedicated to any patron, and seems to have been an altogether spontaneous expression of what was passing in the poet's mind. A careful study of the poem, instead of furnishing arguments against the sincerity of his subsequent conduct, furnishes, I think, on the contrary, arguments which are very strongly in its favour. It could have, as has just been said, no purpose of pleasing a lay patron, for there was none to be pleased by it. It is not at all likely to have commended itself to a clerical patron, because of its rationalizing tone, its halting adoption of the Anglican Church as a kind of makeshift, and its heterodox yearnings after infallibility. These last indeed are among the most strongly-marked features of the piece, and point most clearly in the direction which the poet afterwards took.

Such an omniscient church we wish indeed,
"Twere worth both Testaments, cast in the Creed,

is an awkward phrase for a sound divine, or a dutifully


acquiescing layman ; but it is exactly the phrase which might be expected from a man who was on the slope from placid caring for none of these things to a more or less fervent condition of membership of an infallible church. The tenor of the whole poem, as it seems to me, is the

The author, in his character of high Tory and orthodox Englishman, endeavours to stop himself at the point which the Anglican Church marks with a thus far and no farther; but, in a phrase which has no exact English equivalent, nous le voyons venir. It is quite evident that if he continues to feel anything like a lively interest in the problems at stake, he will go further still. He did go further, and has been accordingly railed against for many generations. But I do not hesitate to put the question to the present generation in a very concrete form. Is Dryden's critic nowadays prepared to question the sincerity of Cardinal Newman? If he is I have no objection to his questioning the sincerity of Dryden. But what is sauce for the nineteenth-century goose is surely sauce for the seventeenth-century gander. The post-conversion writings of the Cardinal are not less superficially inconsistent with the Tracts for the Times and the Oxford Sermons, than the Hind and the Panther is with Religio Laici.

A hyperbole has been in some sort necessary in order to rebut the very unjust aspersions which two of the most popular historians of the last thirty years have thrown on Dryden. But I need hardly say, that though the glory of Oxford in the first half of the nineteenth century is a fair argumentative parallel to the glory of Cambridge in the second half of the seventeenth, the comparison is not intended to be forced. I believe Dryden to have been, in the transactions of the years 1685-7, thoroughly sincere as far as conscious sincerity went, but of a certain amount of unconscious insincerity I am by no means disposed to acquit him. If I judge his character aright, no English man of letters was ever more thoroughly susceptible to the spirit and influence of his time. Dryden was essentially a literary man, and was disposed rather to throw himself into the arms of any party than into those of one so hopelessly unliterary as the ultra-Liberal and ultra-Protestant party of the seventeenth century was. He was moreover a professed servant of the public, or as we should put it in these days, he had the journalist spirit. Fortunately, and it is for everybody who has to do with literature the most fortunate sign of the times—it is not now necessary for any

one to do violence to a single opinion, even to a single crotchet of his own, in order to make his living by his pen. It was not so in Dryden's days, and it is fully believable that a sense that he was about to be on the winning side may have assisted his rapid determination from Hobbism or Halifaxism to Romanist orthodoxy. I am the more disposed to this allowance because it seems to me that Dryden's principal decrier was in need of a similar charity. Lord Macaulay is at present a glory of the Whigs. If there had been an equal opening when he was a young man for distinction and profit as a Tory, for early retirement on literary pursuits with a competence, and for all the other things which he most desired, is it quite so certain that he would not have been of the other persuasion ? I have heard persons much more qualified than I am to decide on the characteristics of pure Liberalism energetically repudiate Macaulay's claim to be an apostle thereof. Yet I for my part have not the least idea of challenging his sincerity. It seems to me that he would have been at least wise if he had refrained,

considering the insufficiency of his knowledge, from challenging the sincerity of Dryden.

How insufficient the knowledge was the labours of subsequent investigators have sufficiently shown. Mr. Bell proved that the pension supposed to be conferred by James as a reward for Dryden's apostasy was simply a renewal of the pension granted by Charles years before; that it preceded instead of following the conversion, and that the sole reason of its having to be renewed at all was technical merely. As for the argument about Dryden's being previously indifferent to religion, and having written indecent plays, the arguer has himself demolished his argument in a famous passage about James's own morals, and the conduct of the non-resistance doctors of the Anglican Church. Burnet's exaggerated denunciations of Dryden as a “monster of impurity of all sorts,” &c., are sufficiently traceable to Shadwell's shameless libels and to the Character of the Buzzard. It is true that the allegations of Malone and Scott, to the effect that Lady Elizabeth had been already converted, and Charles Dryden likewise, rest on a very slender foundation ; but these are matters which have very little to do with the question in any

case. The real problem can be very easily stated. Given a man to the general rectitude of whose private conduct all qualified witnesses testify, while it is only questioned by unscrupulous libellers — who gained, as can be proved, not one penny by his conversion, and though he subsequently lost heavily by it maintained it unswervingly–who can be shown, from the most unbiassed of his previous writings, to have been in exactly the state of mind which was likely to result in such a proceeding, and of whose insincerity there is no proof of the smallest value-what reason is there for suspecting him? The literary great

ness of the man has nothing to do with the question. The fact is that he has been convicted, or rather sentenced, on evidence which would not suffice to convict Elkanah Settle or Samuel Pordage.

In particular we have a right to insist upon the absoluto consistency of Dryden's subsequent conduct. Mr. Christie, who, admirably as for the most part he judges Dryden's literary work, was steeled against his personal character by the fact that Dryden attacked his idol Shaftesbury, thinks that a recantation would have done him no good bad he tried it. The opinion is, to say the least, hasty. Had Dryden proffered the oaths to William and Mary, as poet-laureate and historiographer, it is very hard to see what power could have deprived him of his two hundred a year. The extra hundred of pension might have been forfeited, but the revenues of these places, and of that in the Customs must have been safe, unless the new Government chose to incur what it was of all things desirous to prevent, the charge of persecution and intolerance. When the Whigs were so desperately hard up for literary talent that Dorset, in presenting Shadwell for the laureateship, had to pay him the very left-handed compliment of saying, that if he was not the best poet he was at least the honestest-i. e. the most orthodoxly Whiggish-man, when hardly a single distinguished man of letters save Locke, who was nothing of a pamphleteer, was on their side, is it to be supposed for a moment that Dryden would not have been welcome? The argument against him recalls a curious and honourable story which Johnson tells of Smith, the Bohemian author of Phædra and Hippolytus. Addison, who, as all the world knows, was a friend of Smith's, and who was always ready to do his friends good turns, procured for Smith, from some Whig

« PreviousContinue »