« PreviousContinue »
your cousin Montague, have both seen the two poems, to the Duchess of Ormond and my worthy cousin Driden; and are of opinion, that I never writt better. My other friends are divided in their judgments, which to preferr ; but the greater part are for those to my dear kinsman ; which I have corrected with so much care, that they will now be worthy of his sight, and do neither of us any dishonour after our death.
There is this day to be acted a new tragedy, made by Mr. Hopkins, and, as I believe, in rhime. He has formerly written a play in verse, called Boadicea, which you fair ladyes lik’d; and is a poet who writes good verses, without knowing how or why ; I mean, he writes naturally well, without art, or learning, or good sence. Congreve is ill of the gout at Barnet Wells. I have had the honour of a visite from the Earl of Dorsett, and din'd with him. Matters in Scotland are in a high ferment, and next door to a breach betwixt the two nations; but they say from court, that France and we are hand and glove. 'Tis thought the king will endeavour to keep up a standing army, and make the stirr in Scotland his pretence for it; my cousin Driden, and the country party, I suppose, will be against it; for when a spirit is raised, 'tis hard conjuring him down again. You see I am dull by my writeing news; but it may be my cousin Creed may be glad to hear what I believe is true, though not very pleasing. I hope he recovers health in the country, by his staying so long in it. My service to my cousin Stuart, and all at Oundle.
DRYDEN's life lasted but a very short time after the publication of the Fables. He was, if not a very old man, close upon
his seventieth year. He had worked hard, and had probably lived no more carefully than most of the men of his time. Gout, gravel, and other disorders tormented him sorely. The Fables were published in No. vember, 1699, and during the winter he was more or less ill. As has been mentioned, many letters of his exist in reference to this time, more in proportion than for any other period of his life. Besides those to Mrs. Steward, there are some addressed to Mrs. Thomas, a young and pretty literary lady, who afterwards fell among the Philistines, and who made use of her brief intimacy with the Dryden family to romance freely about it, when in her later days she was indigent, in prison, and what was worse, in the employ of Curll. One of these letters contains the frankest and most graceful of Dryden's many apologies for the looseness of his writings, accompanied by a caution to “Corinna" against following the example of the illustrious Aphra Behn, a caution which was a good deal needed, though unfortunately fruitless. In the early spring of 1700, or, according to the calendar of the day, in the last months of 1699, some of Dryden's admirers got up a
benefit performance for him at the Duke's Theatre. Fletcher's Pilgrim was selected for the occasion, revised by Vanbrugh, and with the addition of a lyrical scene by Dryden himself. He also wrote for the occasion a secular masque to celebrate the opening of the new century: the controversy on the point whether 1700 belonged to the seventeenth century or the eighteenth not having, it seems, arisen. The performance took place, but the date of it is uncertain, and it has been thought that it was not till after Dryden's death. This happened in the following wise. During the months of March and April Dryden was very ill with gout. One toe became much inflamed, and not being properly attended to, it mortified. Hobbs, the surgeon, was then called in, and advised amputation, but Dryden refused on the score of his age, and the inutility of prolonging a maimed existence. The mortification spreading further, it was a case for amputation of the entire leg, with probably dubious results, or else for certain death. On the 30th of April the Postboy announced that “ John Dryden, Esq., the famous poet, lies a-dying,” and at three o'clock the next morning he died very quietly and peacefully.
His funeral was sufficiently splendid. Halifax is said to have at first offered to discharge the whole cost himself, but other friends were anxious to share it, among whom Dorset and Lord Jeffreys, the Chancellor's son, are specially mentioned. The body was embalmed, and lay in state at the College of Physicians for some days. On the 13th of May the actual funeral took place at Westminster Abbey, with a great procession, preceded at the College by a Latin oration from Garth the President, and by the singing of E.cegi Monumentum to music. Years afterwards “Corinna” forged for Curll a wild account of the matter, of which it is sufficient to say that it lacks the slightest corroboration, and is intrinsically improbable, if not impossible. It may be found in most of the biographies, and Malone has devoted his usual patient industry to its demolition. Sometime passed before any monument was erected to Dryden in Poet's Corner, where he had been buried by Chaucer and Cowley. Pepys tells us that Dorset and Montague were goiug to do it. But they did not. Sometime later Congreve complimented the Duke of Newcastle on having given order for a monument, a compliment which his Grace obtained at a remarkably cheap rate, for the order, if given, was never executed. Finally, twenty years after his death, the Duke of Buckinghamshire, better known under his former title of Lord Mulgrave, came to the rescue, it is said, owing to a reflection of Pope's on Dryden's “ rude and nameless stone." The monument was not magnificent, but at any rate it saves the poet from such dishonour as there may be in a nameless grave. The hymn sung at his funeral probably puts that matter most sensibly.
Dryden's wife lived until 1714, and died a very old woman and insane. Her children, like her husband, had died before her. Charles, the eldest, was drowned in the Thames near Datchet in 1704 ; John, the second, hardly outlived his father a year, and died at Rome in 1701 ; the third, Erasmus Henry, succeeded in 1710 to the family honours, but died in the same year. The house of Canons Ashby is still held by descendants of the family, but in the female line; though the name has been unbroken, and the title has been continued.
Something has already been said about the character of Lady Elizabeth Dryden. It has to be added here that the stories about her temper and relations with her husband and his friends, bear investigation as little as those about her maidenly conduct. Most of them are mere hearsays, and some not even that. Dryden, it is said, must have lived unhappily with his wife, for he is always sneering at matrimony. It is sufficient to say that much the same might be said of every writer (at least for the stage) between the Restoration and the accession of Anne. Even the famous line in Absalom and Achitophel, which has caused such scandal, is a commonplace as old at least as Jean de Meung and the Roman de la Rose. When Malone, on the authority of a Lady Dryden who lived a hundred years later, but without a tittle of documentary evidence, tells us that Lady Elizabeth was a shrew, we really must ask what is the value of such testimony? There is one circumstantial legend which has been much relied on. Dryden, it is said, was at work one day in his study, when his wife came in, and could not make him listen to something she had to say. Thereupon said she in a pet, “I wish I were a book, and then perhaps you would some attention.” “ Then, my dear,” replied this graceless bard, “pray be an almanac, that I may change you at the end of the year." The joke cannot be said to be brilliant, but, taking it as a true story, the notion of founding a charge of conjugal unhappiness thereon is sufficiently absurd. Mrs. Thomas's romancings are worthy of no credit, and even if they were worthy of any, do not bear much upon the question. All that can be said is, that the few allusions to Lady Elizabeth in the poet's letters are made in all propriety, and tell no tale of disunion. Of his children it is allowed that he was excessively fond, and his personal amiability is testified to with one consent by all his friends who have left testimonies on the subject. Congreve and “Granville the Polite” both mention his