Page images

Now, like some rich and mighty murderer,

Too great for prison which he breaks with gold,
Who fresher for new mischiefs does appear

And dares the world to tax him with the old,

So 'scapes the insulting fire his narrow jail

And makes small outlets into open air ;
There the fierce winds his tender force assail

And beat him downward to his first repair.

The winds, like crafty courtesans, withheld

His flames from burning but to blow them more:
And, every fresh attempt, he is repelled

With faint denials, weaker than before.

And now, no longer letted of his prey

He leaps up at it with enraged desire,
O'erlooks the neighbours with a wide survey

And nods at every house his threatening fire.

The ghosts of traitors from the Bridge descend,

With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice ;
About the fire into a dance they bend

And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice.

The last stanza indeed contains a fine image finely expressed, but I cannot but be glad that Dryden tried no more experiments with the recalcitrant quatrain.

Annus Mirabilis closes the series of early poems, and for fourteen years from the date of its publication Dryden was known, with insignificant exceptions, as a dramatic writer only. But his efforts in poetry proper, though they had not as yet resulted in any masterpiece, had, as I have endeavoured to point out, amply entitled him to the position of a great and original master of the formal part of poetry, if not of a poet who had distinctly found his way. He had carried out a conception of the couplet which was almost entirely new, having been anticipated only by some isolated and ill-sustained efforts. He had manifested an equal originality in the turn of his phrase, an extraordinary command of poetic imagery, and, above all, a faculty of handling by no means promising subjects in an indisputably poetical manner. Circumstances which I shall now proceed to describe called him away from the practice of pure poetry, leaving to him, however, a reputation amply deserved and acknowledged even by his enemies, of possessing unmatched skill in versification. Nor were the studies upon which he now entered wholly alien to his proper function, though they were in some sort a bye-work. They strengthened his command over the language, increased his skill in verse, and above all tended by degrees to reduce and purify what was corrupt in his phraseology and system of ornamentation. Fourteen years of dramatic practice did more than turn out some admirable scenes and some even more admirable criticism. They acted as a filtering reservoir for his poetical powers, so that the stream which, when it ran into them, was the turbid and rubbish-laden current of Annus Mirabilis flowed out as impetuous, as strong, but clear and without base admixture, in the splendid verse of Absalom and Achitophel.



THERE are not many portions of English literature which have been treated with greater severity by critics than the Restoration drama, and of the Restoration dramatists few have met with less favour, in proportion to their general literary eminence, than Dryden. Of his comedies in particular few have been found to say a good word. His sturdiest champion, Scott, dismisses them as “heavy;" Hazlitt, a defender of the Restoration comedy in general, finds little in them but “ribaldry and extravagance;' and I have lately seen them spoken of with a shudder as “horrible.” The tragedies have fared better, but not much better; and thus the remarkable spectacle is presented of a general condemnation, varied only by the faintest praise, of the work to which an admitted master of English devoted, almost exclusively, twenty years of the flower of his manhood. So complete is the oblivion into which these dramas have fallen, that it has buried in its folds the always charming and sometimes exquisite songs which they contain. Except in Congreve's two editions, and in the bulky edition of Scott, Dryden's theatre is unattainable, and thus the majority of readers have but little opportunity of correcting from individual study the unfavourable impressions derived from the verdicts of the critics. For myself, I am very far from considering Dryden's dramatic work as on a level with his purely poetical work. But as nearly always happens, and as happened, by a curious coincidence, in the case of his editor, the fact that he did something else much better has obscured the fact that he did this thing in not a few instances very well. Scott's poems as poems are far inferior to his novels as novels; Dryden's plays are far inferior as plays to his satires and his fables as poems. But both the poems of Scott and the plays of Dryden are a great deal better than the average critic admits.

That dramatic work went somewhat against the grain with Dryden, is frequently asserted on his own authority, and is perhaps true. He began it, however, tolerably early, and had finished at least the scheme of a play (on a subject which ne afterwards resumed) shortly after the Restoration. As soon as that event happened, a double incentive to play-writing began to work upon him. It was much the most fashionable of literary occupations, and also much the most lucrative. Dryden was certainly not indifferent to fame, and, thongh he was by no means a covetous man, he seems to have possessed at all times the perfect readiness to spend whatever could be honestly got which frequently distinguishes men of letters. He set to work accordingly, and produced in 1663 the Wild Gallant. We do not possess this play in the form in which it was first acted and damned. Afterwards Lady Castlemaine gave it her protection; the author added certain attractions according to the taste of the time, and it was both acted and published. It certainly cannot be said to be a great success even as it is. Dryden had, like most of his fellows, attempted the Comedy of Humours, as it was called at the time, and as it continued to be, and to be called, till the more polished comedy of manners, or artificial comedy, succeeded it, owing to the success of Wycherley, and still more of Congreve. The number of comedies of this kind written after 1620 is very large, while the fantastic and poetical comedy of which Shakespeare and Fletcher had almost alone the secret had almost entirely died out. The merit of the Comedy of Humours is the observation of actual life which it requires in order to be done well, and the consequent fidelity with which it holds up the muses' looking glass (to use the title of one of Randolph's plays) to nature. Its defects are its proneness to descend into farce, and the temptation which it gives to the writer to aim rather at mere fragmentary and sketchy delineations than at finished composition. At the Restoration this school of drama was vigorously enough represented by Davenant himself, by Sir Aston Cokain, and by Wilson, a writer of great merit who rather unaccountably abandoned the stage very soon, while in a year or two Shadwell, the actor Lacy and several others were to take it up


It had frequently been combined with the embroiled and complicated plots of the Spanish comedy of intrigue, the adapters usually allowing these plots to conduct themselves much more irregularly than was the case in the originals, while the deficiencies were made up, or supposed to be made up, by a liberal allowance of “humours." The danger of this sort of work was perhaps never better illustrated than by Shadwell, when he boasted in one of his prefaces that “ four of the humours were entirely new,” and appeared to consider this a sufficient claim to respectful reception. Dryden in his first play fell to the fullest extent into the blunder of this combined Spanish

it on.

« PreviousContinue »