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poem on the death of Lord Hastings, a performance, some of his critics say, 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 happy restoration 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 Laureate, 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 he 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 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 respect the the most eminent of his time.
The critics have remarked, that as to Tragedy, he seldom touches the passions, but deals rather in pompouš language, poetical flights and descriptions; and too frequently makes his characters speak better than they have occasion, 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 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 beauteous descriptions, and noble flights of fan, cy 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 Furipides 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 a great contempt for Oto way, who is universally allowed to have succeeded very happily in eff:eting the tender passions : yet Mr. Dryden, in his preface to the translation of M. du Fresnoy, speaks more favourably of Olway; and after mentioning these insiances, Gildon ascribes this taste in Dryden to his having read meny 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 m:ve infinitely beyond the highest rant, or long declamations in tragedy. 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 slept. Mr. Dryden seems to be sensible that lie 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 humour saturnine " and reserved. In short, I am none of those who “ endeavour to break jesis 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 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 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 Southern, are irresistibly moving, but they convey 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 instruction 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 the drama, had not the necessity of his
† Detence; or the Essay on Dramatic Poetry. Volume I.
circumstances obliged him to comply with the popular tastè. He himself, in his Dedication to the Spanish Fryar, insinuates as much. “ I remember," says he,
some verses of my own Maximin and Almanzor, “ which cry vengeance upon me for their extrava
gance. All that I can say for those passages, which
are I hope not many, is that I knew they were bad " when I wrote them. But I repent of them amongst
my sins, and if any of their fellows intrude by “ chance into my present writings, I draw a veil over " all these Dalilahs of the theatre, and am resolved " I will settle myself no reputation upon the applause so of fools. It is not that I am mortified to all ambi. stion but I scorn as much to take it from half-witted “ judges, as I should to raise an estate by cheating of 6 bubbles. Neither do I discommend the lofty style
in tragedy, which is naturaliy pompous and mag“nificent; but nothing is truly sublime that is not "just and proper.” He says in another place, that his Spanish Fryar was given to the people, and that he never wrote any thing in the dramatic way to please himself but his All for Love.
In 1761 Mr. Dryden was publicly ridiculed on the stage in the Duke of Buckingham's comedy called The Rehearsal, under the character of Bays. This character, we are informed in the Key to the Rehearsal, was originally intended for Sir Robert Howard, under the name of Bilboa; but the representation being