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We have no account of any extraordinary indications of genius given by this great poet while in his earlier days; and he is one in• stance 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 firft, cailed The Wild Gallants, 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 dramatic poetry must ever have regretted, as they would, in this case, have been deprived of one of the greatest ornaments that ever adorned the profeffion. The year
before he left the university, he 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 Hom his heroic stanzas on Oliver Cromwell, written after his funeral in 1658; and immediately upon the restoration he published Aftræa Redux, a poem on the happy restoration of Charles the Second ; and the same year, his Panegyric to the king on his coronation. In the former of these pieces, à remarkable distich has exposed our poet to the ridicule of the wits.
An horrid stillness first invades the ear,
Which, it must be owned, is downright nonsenso, and a contradiction in terms. Amongst others, captain Radcliff has ridiculed this blunder in the following lines of his News From Hell.
Laureat, who was both learn'd and florid,
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, 1663; an historical
poem, whick 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 majefty; and that year published his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, ad. dressed to Charles earl of Dorset and Middle sex.
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 had quitted the practice, because he found it troublesome and flow*.
In the preface we are informed, that the drift of this discourse was to vindicate the honour of the English writers from the centure of those who unjustly prefer the French to them. Langbaine has injuriously treated Mr. Dryden on account of his dramatic performances, and charges 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 refpect, the most eminent of his time.
The critics have remarked, that, as to tra. gedy, he seldom touches the paffions, but deals rather in pompous language, poetical flights, and descriptions; and too frequently makes his characters speak better than they have occafion, or ought to do, when their 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 lo intimately affect the passions, is certain ; for we find no play of his in which we are much disposed to weep;
He might have added, 'twas unnatural,
and we are so inchanted with beautiful descriptions, and noble fights of fancy, that we forget the business of the play, and are only ata tentive 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 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 fimplicity. Mr. Gildon further obferves, as a confirmation that Dryden's taste for tragedy was not of the genuine fort, that he conltantly expressed great contempt for Otway, who is universally allowed to have fuceeeded very happily in affecting the tender paflions. Yet Mr. Dryden, in his preface to the translation of M. Du Fresnoy, fpeaks 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 tragedy. The fimplicity of the drama was Osway's peculiar excellence. A living poet obferves, that, from Otway to our own times,
From bard to bard, the frigid caution crept,
Mr. Dryden seems to be fensible 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 flow and dull, my humour faturnine and reserved. In short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jefts 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 confeffion of inability, one would imagine were sufficient to filence 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 alsertion, that, in tragedy, with all his faults, 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 no shining sentiments, the mind may be afa fected, but not improved ; and, however prevatent the paflion of grief may be over the heart of man, it is cerrain that he may feeli
* Defence, or the Effay on Dramatic Poetry,