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him infinitely higher. From this time forward there could be no doubt at all of his position, with no second at any moderate distance, at the head of living Englishmen of letters. He was now to earn a new title to this position. Almost simultaneously with the second part of Absalom and Achitophel appeared Religio Laici.
Scott has described Religio Laici as one of the most admirable poems in the language, which in some respects it undoubtedly is; but it is also one of the most singular. That a man who had never previously displayed any particular interest in theological questions, and who had reached the age of fifty-one, with a reputation derived, until quite recently, in the main from the composition of loose plays, should appear before his public of pleasureseekers with a serious argument in verse on the credibility of the Christian religion and the merits of the Anglican form of doctrine and church government would nowadays be something more than a nine days' wonder. In Dryden's time it was somewhat less surprising. The spirit of theological controversy was bred in the bone of the seventeenth century. It will always remain an instance of the subordination in Macaulay of the judicial to the advocating faculty, that he who knew the time so well should have adduced the looseness of Dryden's plays as an argument against the sincerity of his conversion. It is quite certain that James the Second was both a man of loose life and of thoroughly sincere religious belief; it is by no means certain that his still more profligate brother's unbelief was not a mere assumption, and generally it may be noted that the biographies of the time never seem to infer any connexion between irregularity of life and unsoundness of religious faith. I have already shown some cause for disbelieving the stories, or rather the assertions, of Dryden's profligacy, though even these would not be conclusive against his sincerity ; but I believe that it would be difficult to trace any very active concern in him for things religious before the Popish Plot. Various circumstances already noticed may then have turned his mind to the subject, and that active and vigorous mind when it once attacked a subject rarely deserted it. Consistency was in no matter Dryden's great characteristic, and the arguments of Religio Laici are not more inconsistent with the arguments of The Hind and the Panther than the handling of the question of rhymed plays in the Essay of dramatic poesy is with the arguments against them in the prefaces and dissertations subsequent to Aurengzebe.
It has sometimes been sought to give Religio Laici a political as well as a religious sense, and to connect it in this way with the series of political satires, with the Duke of Guise and with the subsequent Hind and Panther. The connexion, however, seems to me to be faint. The struggles of the Popish Plot had led to the contests on the Exclusion Bill on the one hand, and they had reopened the controversial question between the Churches of England and Rome on the other. They had thus in different ways given rise to Absalom and Achitophel and to Religio Laici, but the two poems have no community but a community of origin. Indeed, the suspicion of any political design in Religio Laici is not only groundless but contradictory. The views of James on the subject were known to every one, and those of Charles himself are not likely to have been wholly hidden from an assiduous follower of the court, and a friend of the king's greatest intimates, like Dryden. Still less is it necessary to take account of the absurd suggestion that Dryden wrote the poem as a stepping-stone to orders and to ecclesiastical preferment. He has definitely denied that he had at any time thoughts of entering the church, and such thoughts are certainly not likely to have occurred to him at the age of fifty. The poem therefore, as it seems to me, must be regarded as a genuine production, expressing the author's first thoughts on a subject which had just presented itself to him as interesting and important. Such first thoughts in a mind like Dryden's, which was by no means a revolutionary mind, and which was disposed to accept the church as part and parcel of the Tory system of principles, were pretty certain to take the form of an apologetic harmonizing of difficulties and doubts. The author must have been familiar with the usual objections of the persons vaguely called Hobbists, and with the counter-objections of the Romanists. He takes them both and he makes the best of them.
In its form and arrangement Religio Laici certainly deserves the praise which critics have given it. Dryden's overtures are very generally among the happiest parts of his poems, and the opening ten or twelve lines of this poem are among his very best. The bold enjambement of the first two couplets, with the striking novelty of cadence given by the sharply cut cosura of the third line, is one of his best metrical effects, and the actual picture of the cloudy night-sky and the wandering traveller matches the technical beauty of the verse.
The rest of the poem is studiously bare of ornament, and almost exclusively argumentative. There is and could be nothing specially novel or extraordinarily forcible in the arguments ; but they are put with that ease and apparent cogency which have been already remarked upon as characterizing all Dryden's didactic work.
The poem is not without touches of humour, and winds up with a characteristic but not ill-humoured fling at the unhappy Shadwell.
Dryden's next productions of importance were two odes of the so-called Pindaric kind. The example of Cowley had made this style very popular ; but Dryden himself had not practised it. The years 1685-6 gave him occasion to do so. His Threnodia Augustalis or funeral poem on Charles the Second may be taken as the chief official production of his laureateship. The difficulties of such performances are well known, and the reproaches brought against their faults are pretty well stereotyped. Threnodia Augustalis is not exempt from the faults of its kind; but it has merits which for that kind are decidedly unusual. The stanza which so adroitly at once praises and satirizes Charles's patronage of literary men is perhaps the best, and certainly the best known; but the termination is also fine. Of very different merit, however, is the Ode to the Memory of Mrs. Anne Killegrew. This elegy is among the best of many noble funeral poems which Dryden wrote. The few lines on the Marquis of Winchester, the incomparable address to Oldham
Farewell, too little and too lately known ”—and at a later date the translated epitaph on Claverhouse are all remarkable ; but the Killegrew elegy is of far greater importance. It is curious that in these days of selections no one has attempted a collection of the best regular and irregular odes in English. There are not many of them, but a small anthology could be made reaching from Milton to Mr. Swinburne, which would contain some remarkable poetry. Among these the ode to Anne Killegrey would assuredly hold a high place. Johnson pronounced it the noblest in the language, and in his time it certainly was, unless Lycidas be called an ode. Since its time there has been Wordsworth's great immortality ode, and certain beautiful but fragmentary pieces of Shelley which might be so classed; but till our own days nothing else which can match this. The first stanza may be pronounced absolutely faultless and incapable of improvement. As a piece of concerted music in verse it has not a superior, and Warton's depreciation of it is a curious instance of the lack of catholic taste which has so often marred English criticism of poetry :-
Thou youngest virgin-daughter of the skies,
Made in the last promotion of the blessed ;
Rich with immortal green above the rest :
Or, in procession fixed and regular,
Or, called to more superior bliss,
Since Heaven's eternal year is thine.
In no ignoble verse ;
While yet a young probationer,
And candidate of heaven.
These smaller pieces were followed at some interval by the remarkable poem which is Dryden's chief wor bulk and originality of plan are taken into consideration. There is a tradition as to the place of composition of The Hind and the Panther, which in many respects deserves