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SATIRICAL AND DIDACTIC POEMS.
In the year 1680 a remarkable change came over the character of Dryden's work. Had he died in this year (and he had already reached an age at which many men's work is done) he would not at the present time rank very high even among the second class of English poets. In pure poetry he had published nothing of the slightest consequence for fourteen years, and though there was much admirable work in his dramas, they could as wholes only be praised by allowance. Of late years, too, he had given up the style-rhymed heroic drama-which he had specially made his own. He had been for some time casting about for an opportunity of again taking up strictly poetical work ; and as usually happens with the favourites of fortune, a better opportunity than any he could have elaborated for himself was soon presented to him. The epic poem which, as he tells us, he intended to write, would doubtless have contained many fine passages and much splendid versification ; but it almost certainly would not have been the best thing in its kind even in its own language. The series of satirical and didactic poems which, in the space of less than seven years he was now to pro. duce, occupies the position which the epic would almost to a certainty have failed to attain. Not only is there
nothing better of their own kind in English, but it may almost be said that there is nothing better in any other literary language. Satire, argument, and exposition may possibly be half-spurious kinds of poetry—that is a question which need not be argued here. But among satirical and didactic poems Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Macflecknoe, Religio Laici, The Hind and the Panther, hold the first place in company with very few rivals. In a certain kind of satire to be defined presently they have no rival at all; and in a certain kind of argumentative exposition they have no rival except in Lucretius.
It is probable that, until he was far advanced in middle life, Dryden had paid but little attention to political and religious controversies, though he was well enough versed in their terms, and had a logical and almost scholastic mind. I have already endeavoured to show the unlikeliness of his ever having been a very fervent Roundhead, and I do not think that there is much more probability of his having been a very fervent Royalist. His literary work, his few friendships, and the tavern-coffeehouse life which took up so much of the time of the men of that day, probably occupied him sufficiently in the days of his earlier manhood. He was loyal enough, no doubt, not merely in lip-loyalty, and was perfectly ready to furnish an Amboyna or anything else that was wanted ; but for the first eighteen years of Charles the Second's reign, the nation at large felt little interest, of the active kind, in political questions. Dryden almost always reflected the sympathies of the nation at large. The Popish Plot, however, and the dangerous excitement which the misgovernment of Charles on the one hand and the machinations of Shaftesbury on the other produced, found him at an age when serious subjects are at any rate by courtesy supposed to possess
greater attractions than they exert in youth. Tradition has it that he was more or less directly encouraged by Charles to write one, if not two, of the poems which in a few months made him the first satirist in Europe. It is possible, for Charles had a real if not a very lively interest in literature, was a sound enough critic in his way, and had ample shrewdness to perceive the advantage to his own cause which he might gain by enlisting Dryden. However this may be, Absalom and Achitophel was published about the middle of November, 1681, a week or so before the grand jury threw out the bill against Shaftesbury on a charge of high treason. At no time before, and hardly at any time since, did party-spirit run higher, and though the immediate object of the poem was defeated by the fidelity of the brisk boys of the city to their leader, there is no question that the poem worked powerfully among the influences which after the most desperate struggle, short of open warfare, in which any English sovereign has ever been engaged, finally won for Charles the victory over the Exclusionists, by means at least ostensibly constitutional and legitimate. It is, however, with the literary rather than with the political aspect of the matter that we are here concerned.
The story of Absalom and Achitophel has obvious capa cities for political adaptation, and it had been more than once so used in the course of the century, indeed (it would appear), in the course of the actual political struggle in which Dryden now engaged. Like many other of the greatest writers, Dryden was wont to carry out Molière's principle to the fullest, and to care very little for technical originality of plan or main idea. The form which his poem took was also in many ways suggested by the prevailing literary tastes of the day. Both in France and in
England the character or portrait, a set description of a given person in prose or verse, had for some time been fashionable. Clarendon in the one country, Saint Evremond in the other, had in particular composed prose portraits which have never been surpassed. Dryden accordingly made his poem little more than a string of such portraits, connected together by the very slenderest thread of narrative, and interspersed with occasional speeches in which the arguments of his own side were put in a light as favourable, and those of the other in a light as unfavourable as possible. He was always very careless of anything like a regular plot for his poems- a carelessness rather surprising in a practised writer for the stage. But he was probably right in neglecting this point. The subjects with which he dealt were of too vital an interest to his readers to allow them to stay and ask the question, whether the poems had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sharp personal satire and biting political denunciation needed no such setting as this, a setting which to all appearance Dryden was as unable as he was unwilling to give. He could, however, and did give other things of much greater importance. The wonderful command over the couplet of which he had displayed the beginnings in his early poems, and which had in twenty years of play-writing been exercised and developed, till its owner was in as thorough training as a professional athlete, was the first of these. The second was a faculty of satire, properly so called, which was entirely novel. The third was a faculty of specious argument in verse which, as has been said, no one save Lucretius has ever equalled, and which, if it falls short of the great Roman's in logical exactitude, hardly falls short of it in poetical ornament, and excels it in a sort of triumphant vivacity which hurries the reader along, whether he will or no. All these three gifts are almost indifferently exemplified in the series of poems now under discussion, and each of them may deserve a little consideration before we proceed to give account of the poems themselves.
The versification of English satire before Dryden had been almost without exception harsh and rugged. There are whole passages of Marston and of Donne, as well as more rarely of Hall, which can only be recognized for verse by the rattle of the rhymes and by a diligent scansion with the finger. Something the same, allowing for the influence of Waller and his school, may be said of Marvell and even of Oldham. Meanwhile the octosyllabic satire of Cleveland, Butler and others, though less violently uncouth than the decasyllables, was purposely grotesque. There is some difference of opinion as to how far the heroic satirists themselves were intentionally rugged. Donne, when he chose, could write with perfect sweetness, and Marston could be smooth enough in blank verse. It has been thought that some mistaken classical tradition made the early satirists adopt their jaw-breaking style, and there may be something to be said for this. But I think that regard must, in fairness, also be had to the very imperfect command of the couplet which they possessed. The languid cadence of its then ordinary form was unsuited for satire, and the satirists had not the art of quickening and varying it. Hence the only resource was to make it as like prose as possible. But Dryden was in no such case. His native gifts and his enormous practice in play-writing had made the couplet as natural a vehicle to him for any form of discourse as blank verse or as plain prose. The form of it too, which he had most affected, was specially suited for satire. In the first place this form had, as has already