« AnteriorContinuar »
a fall. His own admirable good sense preserved him from this error, and taught him to cultivate a style in which excellence was within his reach. Dryden had not the same self-knowledge. He saw that the greatest poets were never so successful as when they rushed beyond the ordinary bounds, and that some inexplicable good fortune preserved them from tripping even when they staggered on the brink of nonsense. He did not perceive that they were guided and sustained by a power denied to himself. They wrote from the dictation of the imagination, and they found a response in the imaginations of others. He, on the contrary, sat down to work himself, by reflection and argument, into a deliberate wildness, a rational frenzy.
In looking over the admirable designs which accompany the Faust, we have always been much struck by one which represents the wizard and the tempter riding at full speed. The demon sits on his furious horse as heedlessly as if he were reposing on a chair. That he should keep his saddle in such a posture, would seem impossible to any who did not know that he was secure in the privileges of a superhuman nature. The attitude of Faust, on the contrary, is the perfection of horsemanship. Poets of the first order might safely write as desperately as Mephistopheles rode. But Dryden, though admitted to communion with higher spirits, though armed with a portion of their power, and intrusted with some of their secrets, was of another race. What they might securely venture to do, it was madness in him to attempt. It was necessary that taste and critical science should supply its deficiencies.
We will give a few examples. Nothing can be finer than the description of Hector at the Grecian wall.
ο δ' αρ' έσθορε φαίδιμος Εκτωρ,
What daring expressions! Yet how signifieant! How picturesque! Hector seems to rise up in his strength and fury. The gloom of night in his frown-the fire burning in his eyes-the javelins and the blazing armourthe mighty rush through the gates and down the battleinents-the trampling and the infinite roar of the multitude-every thing is with us; every thing is real.
Dryden has described a very similar event in Maximin; and has done his best to be sublime, as follows:
"There with a forest of their darts he strove, And stood like Capaneus defying Jove; With his broad sword the boldest beating down, Till Fate grew pale, lest he should win the town, And turned the iron leaves of its dark book To make new dooins, or mend what it mistook." How exquisite is the imagery of the fairysongs in the Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream; Ariel riding through the twilight on the bat, or sucking in the bells of
flowers with the bee; or the little bower-women of Titania, driving the spiders from the couch of the Queen! Dryden truly said, that
"Shakspeare's magic could not copied be;
It would have been well if he had not himself dared to step within the enchanted line, and drawn on himself a fate similar to that which, according to the old superstition, punished such presumptuous interferences. The follow◄ ing lines are parts of the song of his fairies: "Merry, merry, merry, we sail from the East,
Half-tippled at a rainbow feast.
In the bright moonshine, while winds whistle loud,
These are very favourable instances. Those who wish for a bad one may read the dying speeches of Maximin, and may compare them with the last scenes of Othello and Lear.
If Dryden had died before the expiration of the first of the periods into which we have divided his literary life, he would have left a reputation, at best, little higher than that of Lee or Davenant. He would have been known only to men of letters; and by them he would have been mentioned as a writer who threw away, on subjects which he was incompetent to treat, powers which, judiciously employed, might have raised him to eminence; whose diction and whose numbers had sometimes very high merit, but all whose works were blemished by a false taste and by errors of gross negligence. A few of his prologues and epilogues might perhaps still have been remembered and quoted. In these little pieces, he early showed all the powers which afterwards rendered him the greatest of modern satirists. But during the latter part of his life, he gradually abandoned the drama. His plays appeared at longer intervals. He renounced rhyme in tragedy. His language became less turgid, his characters less exaggerated. He did not indeed produce correct representations of human nature; but he ceased to daub such monstrous chimeras as those which abound in his earlier pieces. Here and there passages occur worthy of the best ages of the British stage. The style which the drama requires changes with every change of character and situation. He who can vary his manner to suit the variation is the great dramatist; but he who excels in one manner only, will, when that manner happens to be appro priate, appear to be a great dramatist; as the hands of a watch, which does not go, point right once in the twelve hours. Sometimes there is a scene of solemn debate. This a mere rhetorician may write as well as the greatest tragedian that ever lived. We confess that to us the speech of Sempronius in Cato seems very nearly as good as Shakspeare could have made it. But when the senate breaks up, and we find that the lovers and their mistresses, the hero, the villain, and the deputy villain, all continue to harangue in the same style, we perceive the difference between a man who can write a play and a man who can
write a speech. In the same manner, wit, a fell into natural and pleasing verse. In this talent for description, or a talent for narration, department, he succeeded as completely as his may, for a time, pass for dramatic genius. contemporary Gibbons succeeded in the similar Dryden was an incomparable reasoner in verse. enterprise of carving the most delicate flowers He was conscious of his power; he was proud from heart of oak. The toughest and most of it; and the authors of the Rehearsal justly knotty parts of language became ductile at his charged him with abusing it. His warriors and touch. His versification in the same manner, princesses are fond of discussing points of while it gave the first model of that neatness amorous casuistry, such as would have de- and precision which the following generation lighted a Parliament of Love. They frequently esteemed so highly, exhibited, at the same go still deeper, and speculate on philosophical time, the last examples of nobleness, freedom, necessity and the origin of evil. variety of pause and cadence. His tragedies in rhyme, however worthless in themselves, had at least served the purpose of nonsenseverses: they had taught him all the arts of melody which the heroic couplet admits. For bombast, his prevailing vice, his new subjects gave little opportunity; his better taste gra dually discarded it.
There were, however, some occasions which absolutely required this peculiar talent. Then Dryden was indeed at home. All his best scenes are of this description. They are all between men; for the heroes of Dryden, like many other gentlemen, can never talk sense when ladies are in company. They are all intended to exhibit the empire of reason over violent passion. We have two interlocutors, the one eager and impassioned, the other high, cool, and judicious. The composed and rational character gradually acquires the ascendency. His fierce companion is first inflamed to rage by his reproaches, then overawed by his equanimity, convinced by his arguments, and soothed by his persuasions. This is the case in the scene between Hector and Troilus, in that between Antony and Ventidius, and in that between Sebastian and Dorax. Nothing of the same kind in Shakspeare is equal to them, except the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, which is worth them all three.
Some years before his death, Dryden altogether ceased to write for the stage. He had turned his powers in a new direction, with success the most splendid and decisive. His taste had gradually awakened his creative faculties. The first rank in poetry was beyond his reach, but he challenged and secured the most honourable place in the second. His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar. When he attempted the highest flights, he became ridiculous; but while he remained in a lower region, he outstripped all competitors.
He possessed, as we have said, in a preeminent degree, the power of reasoning in verse; and this power was now peculiarly useful to him. His logic is by no means uniformly sound. On points of criticism, he always reasons ingeniously; and, when he is disposed to be honest, correctly. But the theological and political questions, which he undertook to treat in verse, were precisely those which he understood least. His arguments, therefore, are often worthless. But the manner in which they are stated is beyond all praise. The style is transparent. The topics follow each other in the happiest order. The objections are drawn up in such a manner, that the whole fire of the reply may be brought to bear on them. The circumlocutions which are substituted for technical phrases, are clear, neat, and exact. The illustrations at once adorn and elucidate the reasoning. The sparkling epigrams of Cowley, and the simple garrulity of the burlesque poets of Italy, are alternately employed, in the happiest manner, to give effect to what is obvious; or clearness to what is obscure.
His literary creed was catholic, even to latitudinarianism; not from any want of acuteness, but from a disposition to be easily satisAll his natural and all his acquired powers fied. He was quick to discern the smallest fitted him to found a good critical school of glimpse of merit; he was indulgent even to poetry. Indeed, he carried his reforms too far gross improprieties, when accompanied by any for his age. After his death, our literature re-redeeming talent. When he said a severe trograded; and a century was necessary to bring it back to the point at which he left it. The general soundness and healthfulness of his mental constitution; his information, of vast superficies, though of small volume; his wit, scarcely inferior to that of the most distinguished followers of Donne; his eloquence, grave, deliberate, and commanding, could not save him from disgraceful failure as a rival of Shakspeare, but raised him far above the level af Boileau. His command of language was immense. With him died the secret of the old poetical diction of England-the art of producing rich effects by familiar words. In the following century, it was as completely lost as ne Gothic method of painting glass, and was but poorly supplied by the laborious and tesseated imitations of Mason and Gray. On the other hand, he was the first writer under whose skilful management the scientific vocabulary
thing, it was to serve a temporary purpose,to support an argument, or to tease a rival. Never was so able a critic so free from fastidiousness. He loved the old poets, especially Shakspeare. He admired the ingenuity which Donne and Cowley had so wildly abused. He did justice, amidst the general silence, to the memory of Milton. He praised to the skies the schoolboy lines of Addison. Always looking on the fair side of every object, he admired extravagance on account of the invention which he supposed it to indicate; he excused affectation in favour of wit; he tolerated even tameness for the sake of the correctness which was its concomitant.
It was probably to this turn of mind, rather than to the more disgraceful causes which Johnson has assigned, that we are to attribute the exaggeration which disfigures the pane gyrics of Dryden. No writer, it must b
his writings exhibit the sluggish magnifcence of a Russian noble, all vermin and diamonds, dirty linen and inestimable sables. Those faults which spring from affectation, 1 me and thought in a great measure removed from his poems. But his carelessness he retained to the last. If towards the close of his life h less frequently went wrong from negligence, it was only because long habits of composition rendered it more easy to go right. In his best re-pieces, we find false rhymes-triplets, in which the third line appears to be a mere intruder, and, while it breaks the music, adds nothing to the meaning-gigantic Alexandrines of fourteen and sixteen syllables, and truncated verses for which he never troubled himself to find a termination or a partner.
owned, has carried the fiattery of dedication to a greater length. But this was not, we suspect, merely interested servility; it was the overflowing of a mind singularly disposed to admiration,-of a mind which diminished vices, and magnified virtues and obligations. The most adulatory of his addresses is that in which he dedicates the State of Innocence to Mary of Modena. Johnson thinks it strange that any man should use such language without self-detestation. But he has not marked that to the very same work is prefixed an eulogium on Milton, which certainly could not have been acceptable at the court of Charles the Second. Many years later, when Whig principles were in a great measure triumphant, Sprat refused to admit a monument of John Philips into Westminster Abbey, because, in the epitaph, the name of Milton incidentally occurred. The walls of his church, he declared, should not be polluted by the name of a republican! Dryden was attached, both by principle and interest to the court. But nothing could deaden his sensibility to excellence. We are unwilling to accuse him severely, because the same disposition, which prompted him to pay so generous a tribute to the memory of a poet whom his patrons detested, hurried him into extravagance when he described a princess, distinguished by the splendour of her beauty, and the graciousness of her manners.
Such are the beauties and the faults which may be found in profusion throughout the later works of Dryden. A more just and complete estimate of his natural and acquired powers, of the merits of his style and of its blemishes, may be formed from the Hind and Panther, than from any of his other writings. As a didactic poem, it is far superior to the Religio Laici. The satirical parts, particularly the character of Burnet, are scarcely inferior to the best passages in Absalom and Achitophel There are, moreover, occasional touches of a tenderness which affects us more, because it is decent, rational, and manly, and reminds us of the best scenes in his tragedies. His versification sinks and swells in happy unison with the subject; and his wealth of language seems to be unlimited. Yet the carelessness with which he has constructed his plot, and the innumerable inconsistencies into which he is every moment falling, detract much from the pleasure which such varied excellence affords. In Absalom and Achitophel he hit upon a new and rich vein, which he worked with signal success. The ancient satirists were the subjects of a despotic government. They were compelled to abstain from political topics, and to confine their attention to the frailties of private life. They might, indeed, sometimes venture to take liberties with public men,
This is an amiable temper; but it is not the temper of great men. Where there is elevation of character, there will be fastidiousness. It is only in novels, and on tombstones, that we meet with people who are indulgent to the faults of others, and unmerciful to their own; and Dryden, at all events, was not one of these paragons. His charity was extended most liberally to others, but it certainly began at home. In taste he was by no means deficient. His critical works are, beyond all comparison, superior to any which had, till then, appeared in England. They were generally intended as apologies for his own poems, rather than as expositions of general principles; he, therefore, often attempts to deceive the "Quorum Flaminia tegitur cinis atque Latina." reader by sophistry, which could scarcely have deceived himself. His dicta are the dicta, not Thus Juvenal immortalized the obsequious of a judge, but of an advocate; often of an senators, who met to decide the fate of the advocate in an unsound cause. Yet, in the memorable turbot. His fourth satire frequently very act of misrepresenting the laws of com- reminds us of the great political poem of Dryposition, he shows how well he understands den; but it was not written till Domitian had them. But he was perpetually acting against fallen, and it wants something of the peculiar his better knowledge. His sins were sins against flavour which belongs to contemporary invec light. He trusted, that what was bad would tive alone. His anger has stood so long, that, be pardoned for the sake of what was good. though the body is not impaired, the efferves What was gool, he took no pains to make bet-cence, the first cream, is gone. Boileau lay He was not, like most persons who rise under similar restraints; and, if he had been to eminence, dissatisfied even with his best free from all restraint, would have been no productions. He had set up no unattainable match for our countryman. standard of perfection, the contemplation of which might at once improve and mortify him. His path was not attended by an unapproachable mirage of excellence, forever receding and forever pursued. He was not disgusted by the negligence of others, and he extended the same toleration to himself. His mind was of a slovenly character-fond of splendour, but indiferent to neatness. Hence most of VOLL 7
The advantages which Dryden derived from the nature of his subject he improved to the very utmost. His manner is almost perfect. The style of Horace and Boileau is fit only for light subjects. The Frenchman did indeed attempt to turn the theological reasonings of the Provincial Letters into verse, but with very indifferent success. The glitter of Pope. is cold. The ardour of Persius is withou
brilliancy. Magnificent versification and in- | parterres and the rectangular walks. genious combinations rarely harmonize with rather resembled our Kents and Browns, the expression of deep feeling. In Juvenal and who, imitating the great features of landDryden alone we have the sparkle and the heat scape without emulating them, consulting the together. Those great satirists succeeded in genius of the place, assisting nature and carecommunicating the fervour of their feelings fully disguising their art, produced, not a to materials the most incombustible, and kin- Chamouni nor a Niagara, but a Stowe or a dled the whole mass into a blaze at once Hagley. dazzling and destructive. We cannot, indeed, think, without regret, of the part which so eminent a writer as Dryden took in the disputes of that period. There was, no doubt, madness and wickedness on both sides. But there was liberty on the one, and despotism on the other. On this point, however, we will not dwell. At Talavera the English and French troops for a moment suspended their conflict, to drink of a stream which flowed between them. The shells were passed across from enemy to enemy without apprehension or molestation. We, in the same manner, would rather assist our political adversaries to drink with us of that fountain of intellectual pleasure which should be the common refreshment of both parties, than disturb and pollute it with the havoc of unseasonable hostilities.
Macflecnoe is inferior to Absalom and Achitophel, only in the subject. In the execution it is even superior. But the greatest work of Dryden was the last, the Ode on Saint Cecilia's day. It is the masterpiece of the second class of poetry, and ranks but just below the great models of the first. It reminds us of the Pedasus of Achilles,
We are, on the whole, inclined to regret that Dryden did not accomplish his purpose of writing an epic poem. It certainly would not have been a work of the highest rank. It would not have rivalled the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Paradise Lost; but it would have been superior to the productions of Apollonius, Lucan, or Statius, and not inferior to the Jerasalem Delivered. It would probably have been a vigorous narrative, animated with something of the spirit of the old romances, enriched with much splendid description, and interspersed with fine declamations and disquisitions. The danger of Dryden would have been from aiming too high; from dwelling too much, for example, on his angels of kingdoms, and attempting a competition with that great writer, who in his own time had so incomparably succeeded in representing to us the sights and sounds of another world. To Milton, and to Milton alone, belonged the secrets of the great deep, the beach of sulphur, the ocean of fire; the palaces of the fallen dominations, glimmering through the everlasting shade, the silent wilderness of verdure and fragrance where armed angels kept watch over the sleep of the first lovers, the portico of diamond, the sea of ος, και θνητος εων, επεθ' ιπποις αθανάτοισι. jasper, the sapphire pavement empurpled with By comparing it with the impotent ravings celestial roses, and the infinite ranks of the of the heroic tragedies, we may measure the Cherubim, blazing with adamant and gold. progress which the mind of Dryden had made. The council, the tournament, the procession, He had learned to avoid a too audacious com- the crowded cathedral, the camp, the guardpetition with higher natures, to keep at a dis-room, the chase, were the proper sceues for tance from the verge of bombast or nonsense, Dryden. to venture on no expression which did not But we have not space to pass in review all convey a distinct idea to his own mind. the works which Dryden wrote. We, thereThere is none of that "darkness visible" of fore, will not speculate longer on those which style which he had formerly affected, and in he might possibly have written. He may, on which the greatest poets only can succeed. the whole, be pronounced to have been a man Every thing is definite, significant, and pic-possessed of splendid talents, which he often turesque. His early writings resembled the gigantic works of those Chinese gardeners who attempt to rival nature herself, to form cataracts of terrific height and sound, to raise precipitous ridges of mountains, and to imitate in artificial plantations the vastness and the gloom of some primeval forest. This manner he abandoned; nor did he ever adopt the Dutch taste which Pope affected, the trim
abused, and of a sound judgment, the admonitions of which he often neglected; a man who succeeded only in an inferior department of his art, but who, in that department, succeeded pre-eminently; and who, with a mor independent spirit, a more anxious desire of excel lence, and more respect for himself, v ovld, in his own walk, have attained to so, te per fection
[EDINBURGH REVIEW, 1828.]
To write history respectably-that is, to ab- | talent for description and dialogue, and the breviate despatches, and make extracts from speeches, to intersperse in due proportion epithets of praise and abhorrence, to draw up antithetical characters of great men, setting forth how many contradictory virtues and vices they united, and abounding in withs and withouts; all this is very easy. But to be a really great historian is perhaps the rarest of intellectual distinctions. Many Scientific works are, in their kind, absolutely perfect. There are Poems which we should be inclined to designate as faultless, or as disfigured only by blemishes which pass unnoticed in the general blaze of excellence. There are Speeches, some speeches of Demosthenes particularly, in which it would be impossible to alter a word, without altering it for the worse. But we are acquainted with no History which approaches to our notion of what a history ought to be; with no history which does not widely depart, either on the right hand or on the left, from the exact line.
The cause may easily be assigned. This province of literature is a debatable land. It lies on the confines of two distinct territories. It is under the jurisdiction of two hostile powers; and, like other districts similarly situated, it is ill defined, ill cultivated, and ill regulated. Instead of being equally shared between its two rulers, the Reason and the Imagination, it falls alternately under the sole and absolute dominion of each. It is sometimes fiction. It is sometimes theory.
History, it has been said, is philosophy teaching by examples. Unhappily what the philosophy gains in soundness and depth, the examples generally lose in vividness. A perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque. Yet he must control it so absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of his own. He must be a profound and ingenious reasoner. Yet he must possess sufficient selfcommand to abstain from casting his facts in the mould of his hypothesis. Those who can justly estimate these almost insuperable difficulties will not think it strange that every writer should have failed, either in the narrative or in the speculative department of history.
It may be laid down as a general rule, though subject to considerab'e qualifications and exceptions, that history begins in Novel and ends in Essay. Of the romantic historians Herodotus is the earliest and the best. His animation, his simple-hearted tenderness, his wonderful
pure sweet flow of his language, place him at the head of narrators. He reminds us of a delightful child. There is a grace beyond the reach of affectation in his awkwardness, a malice in his innocence, an intelligence in his nonsense, an insinuating eloquence in his lisp. We know of no writer who makes such interest for himself and his book in the heart of the reader. At the distance of three-and-twenty centuries, we feel for him the same sort of pitying fondness which Fontaine and Gay are said to have inspired in society. He has written an incomparable book. He has written something better perhaps than the best history; but he has not written a good history; he is, from the first to the last chapter, an inventor. We do not here refer merely to those gross fictions with which he has been reproached by the critics of later times. We speak of that colouring which is equally diffused over his whole narrative, and which perpetually leaves the most sagacious reader in doubt what to reject and what to receive. The most authentic parts of his work bear the same relation to his wildest legends, which Henry the Fifth bears to the Tempest. There was an expedition undertaken by Xerxes against Greece; and there was an invasion of France. There was a battle at Platea; and there was a battle at Agincourt. Cambridge and Exeter, the Constable and the Dauphin, were persons as real as Demaratus and Pausanias. The harangue of the Archbishop on the Salic Law and the Book of Numbers differs much less from the orations which have in all ages proceeded from the Right Reverend bench, than the speeches of Mardonius and Artabanus, from those which were delivered at the Council-board of Susa. Shakspeare gives us enumerations of armies, and returns of killed and wounded, which are not, we suspect, much less accurate than those of Herodotus. There are passages in Herodotus nearly as long as acts of Shakspeare, in which every thing is told dramatically, and in which the narrative serves only the purpose of stage-directions. It is possible, no doubt, that the substance of some real conversations may have been reported to the historian. But events which, if they ever happened, happened in ages and nations so remote that the particulars could never have been known to him, are related with the greatest minuteness of detail. We have all that Candaules said to Gyges, and all that passed between Astyages and Harpagus. We are, therefore, unable to judge whether, in the account which he gives of transactions, respecting which he might possibly have been well informed, we can trust to any thing be yond the naked outline; whether, for example, the answer of Gelon to the ambassadors of the