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O f the great poet whose life I am about to delineate, the curiosity which his reputation must excite, will require a display more ample than can now be given. His contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, left his life unwritten ; and nothing therefore can be known beyond what casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied.
JOHN DRYDEN was born August gth, 1631, at Aldwincle near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden of Tichmersh; who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Baronet, of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire; but the original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon.
He is reported by his last biographer, Derrick, to have inherited from his father an estate of two hundred a year, and to have been bred, as was said, an Anabaptist. For either of these particulars no authority is given. Such a fortune ought to have secured him from that poverty which seems always to have opprefled him; or, if he had walted it, to have made him ashamed of publishing his necessities. But though he had many enemies,
who undoubtedly examined his life with a scrutiny sufficiently malicious, I do not remember that he is ever charged with waste of his patrimony, or considered as a deserter from another religion, I am therefore inclined to believe that Derrick was misinformed.
From Westminster School, where he was instructed as one of the king's scholars by Dr. Busby, whom he long after continued to reverence, he was in 1650 elected to one of the Westminster scholarships at Cambridge.
Of his school performances, has appeared only a poem on the death of Lord Hastings, composed with great ambition of such conceits as, notwithstanding the reformation begun by Waller and Denham, the example of Cowley still kept in reputation. Lord Hastings died of the small-pox, and his poet has made of the pustules first rosebuds, and then gems; at last exalts them into stars; and says, No comet need foretell his change drew on, Whose corps might seem a constellation.
At the university he does not appear to have been eager of poetical distinction, or to have lavished his early wit either on fictitious subjects or publick occasions. He probably considered that he who purposed to be an author, ought first to be a student. He obtained, whatever was the reason, no fellowship in the College. Why he was excluded, cannot now be known, and it is vain to guess : had he thought himself injured, he knew how to complain. In the Life of Plutarch he mentions his education in the College with gratitude ; but in a prologue at Oxford, he has these lines;
Oxford to him a dearer name fhall be
It was not till the death of Cromwel, in 1658, that he became a publick candidate for fame, by publishing Heroick Stanzas on the late Lord Protector; which, compared with the verses of Sprat and Waller on the same occasion, were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.
When the king was restored, Dryden, like the other panegyrists of usurpation, changed his opinion, or his profession, and published Astrea Redux, a poem on the happy restoration and return of his most sacred Majesty King Charles the Second.
The reproach of inconstancy was on this occasion, shared with such numbers, that it produced neither hatred nor disgrace ; if he changed, he changed with the nation. It was, however, not totally forgotten when his reputation raised him enemies.
The same year he praised the new king in a second poem on his restoration. In the AsTRÆA was the line,
An horrid stilness first invades the ear,
And in that silence we a tempest fear: for which he was persecuted with perpetual ridicule, perhaps with more than was deserved. Silence is indeed mere privation; and, so considered, cannot invade; but privation likewise certainly is darkness, and probably cold; yet poetry has never been refused the right of ascribing effects or agency to them as to pofitive powers. Noman scruples to say that darkness hinders him from his work; or that cold has killed the plants. Death is also privation, yet who has made any difficulty of assigning to Death a dart and the power of striking ?
In settling the order of his works, there is fome difficulty; for, even when they are important enough to be formally offered to a patron, he does not commonly date his dedication; the time of writing and publishing is not always the same; nor can the first editions be easily found, if even from them could be obtained the necessary information.
The time at which his first play was exhibited is not certainly known, because it was not printed till it was some years afterwards altered and revived; but if the plays are printed in the order in which they were written, from the dates of some, those of others may be inferred; and thus it may be collected that in 1663, in the thirty-second year of his life, he commenced a writer for the stage ; compelled undoubtedly by necessity, for he appears never to have loved that exercise of his genius, or to have much pleased himself with his own dramas.
Of the stage, when he had once invaded it, he kept possession for many years; not indeed without the competition of rivals who fometimes prevailed, or the censure of criticks, which was often poignant and often just; but with such a degree of reputation as made him at least secure of being heard, whatever might be the final determination of the publick.