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THE LIFE OF
JOHN DRYDEN, Efq.
This illustrious Poet was son of Erasmus Dryden of Tichmersh in Northamptonshire, third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden of Canons-Ashby, in the same county, Baronet ; and born at Aldwincle, near Oun. dle, 1631*: he had his Education in grammar-learn. ing at Westminster-schoot, under the famous Dr. Busby, and was from thence elected, in 1650, a scholar of Trinity College in Cambridge. We have no account of
extraordinary indications of genius given by this great Poet while in his earlier days; and he is one instance how little regard is to be paid to the figure a boy makes at school. Mr. Dryden was turned of thirty before he introduced any play upon the stage, and his first, called The Wild Gallaots, met with a very indifferent reception; so that if he had not been impelled by the force of genius and propension, he had never again attempted the stage; a circumstance which the lovers of drama. iic poetry must ever have regretted, as they would in this case have been deprived of one of the greatest ornaments that ever adorned the profession.
The year before he left the Univerityhe wrote a
poem on the Death of Lord Hastings, a performance , say some of his critics, very unworthy of himself, and of the astonishing genius he afterwards discovered.
That Mr. Dryden had at this time no fixed principles, either in religion or politics, is abundantly evident from his Heroic Stanzas on Oliver Cromwell, written after his funeral 1658; and immediately upon the Restoration he published Astræa Redux, a poem on the happyrestoration of Charles II.; and the same year his Panegyric to the King on his Coronation.
In 1662 he addressed a poem to the Lord Chancellor Hyde, presented on New-year's-day, and the same year published a Satire on the Dutch. His next piece was his Annus Mirabilis; or, The Year of Wonders, 1668, an historical poem, which celebrated the Duke of York's victory over the Dutch. In the same year Mr. Dryden succeeded Sir William Davenant as Poet Laureat, and was also made Historiographer to his Majesty: and that year published his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, addressed to Charles Earl of Dorset and Middlesex. Mr. Dryden tells his patron, that the writing this Essay served as an amusement to him in the country, when he was driven from Town by the violence of the plague which then raged in London; and he diverted himself with thinking on the theatres, as lovers do by ruminating on their absent mistresses. He there justifies the method of writing plays in verse, but confesses that he has quitted
the practice, because he found it troublesome and slow*. In the preface we are informed that the drift of this discourse was to vindicate the honour of the English writers from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French to them. Langbaine has injuriously treated Mr. Dryden on account of his dramatic performances, and charged him as a licentious plagiary. The truth is, our Author, as a dramatist, is less eminent than in any other sphere of poetry; but, with all his faults, he is even in that respect the most eminent of his time.
The critics have remarked, that as to Tragedy he seldom touches the passions, but deals rather in pompous language, poetical flights and descriptions; and too frequently makes his characters speak better than they bave occasion, or ought to do, whentheir sphere in the drama is considered. And it is peculiar to Dryden (says Mr. Addison) to make his personages as wise, witty, elegant, and polite, as himself. That he could not so intimately affect the tender passions is certain, for we find no play of his in which we are much disposed to weep; and we are so often enchanted with beautiful descriptions, and noble flights of fancy, that we forget the business of the play, and are only attentive to the Poet, while the characters sleep, Mr. Gildon observes, in his Laws of Poetry, that when it was recommended to Mr. Dryden to turn his
* He might have added, it was unnatural.
thoughts to a translation of Euripides, rather than of Homer, he confessed that he had no relish for that poet, who was a great master of tragic simplicity. Mr. Gildon further observes, as a confirmation that Dryden's taste for tragedy was not of the genuine sort, that he constantly expressed great contempt for Olway, who is universally allowed to have succeeded very happily in affecting the tender passions; yet Mr. Dryden, in his preface to the translation of M. Du Fresnoy, speaks more favourably of Otway; and after mentioning these instances, Gildon ascribes this taste in Dryden to his having read many French Romances. -The truth is, if a poet would affect the heart, he must not exceed Nature too much, nor colour too high; distressful circumstances, short speeches, and pathetic observations, never fail to move infinitely beyond the highest rant, or long declamations in tra. gec The simplicity of the drama was Otway's peculiar excellence; a living poet observes, that from Otway to our own times,
« From bard to bard the frigid caution crept,
" And Declamation roar'd while Passion slepc." Mr. Dryden seems to be sensible that he was not born to write Comedy ; “ For,” says he, “ I want " that gaiety of humour which is required in it; my “ conversation is slow and dull, my humoursaturnine " and reserved. In short, I am none of those who “ endeavour to break jests in company, and make
« repartees; so that those who decry my Comedies « do me no injury, except it be in point of profit: “ reputation in them is the last thing to which I shall “ pretend*."
This ingenuous confession of inability, one would imagine, were sufficient to silence the clamour of the critics against Mr. Dryden in that particular; but, however true it may be that Dryden did not succeed to any degree in comedy, I shall endeavour to support my assertion, that in tragedy, with all his faulus, he is still the most excellent of his time. The end of tragedy is to instruct the mind as well as move the passions ; and where there are oo shining sentiments, the mind may be affected, but not improved ; and however prevalent the passion of grief may be over the heart of man, it is certain that he may feel distress in the acutest manner, and not be much the wiser for it. The tragedies of Otway, Lee, and Southerit, are irresistibly moving, but theyconvey not such grand sentiments, and their language is far from being so poetical, as Dryden's: now, if one dramatic poet writes to move, and another to enchant and instruct, as in. struction is of greater consequence than being agitated, it follows naturally that the latter is the most excellent writer, and possesses the greatest genius.
But perhaps, our Poet, would have wrote better in both kinds of drama, had not the necessity of his
* Defence ; or, The Essay on Dramatic Poetry.