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Of the Genius and Poetical Works of John Dryden.
In our Life of Dryden we promised to say something about the question, how far is a poet, particularly in the moral tendency and taste of his writings, to be tried--and either condemned or justified--by the character and spirit of his age? To a rapid consideration of this question we now proceed, before examining the constituent elements or the varied fruits of the poet's genius.
And here, unquestionably, there are extremes, which every critic should avoid. Some imagine that a writer of a former century should be tried, either by the standard which prevails in the cultured and civilised nineteenth, or by the exposition of moral principles and practice which is to be found in the Scriptures. Now, it is obviously, so far as taste is concerned, as unjust to judge a book written in the style and manner of one age by the merely arbitrary and conventional rules established in another, as to judge the dress of our ancestors by the fashions of the present day. And in respect of morality, it is as unfair to visit with the same measure of condemnation offences against decorum or decency, committed by writers living before or living after the promulgation of the Christian code, as it would be to class the Satyrs, Priapi, and Bacchantes of an antique sculptor, with their imitations, by inferior and coarser artists, in later times. There must be a certain measure of allowance made for the errors of Genius when it was working as the galley-slave of its tradition and period, and when it had not yet received the Divine Light which, shining into the world from above, has supplied men with higher æsthetic as well as spiritual models of principles, and revealed man's body to be the temple of the Holy Ghost. To look for our modern philanthropy in that "Greek Gazette," the Iliad of Homer--to expect that reverence for the Supreme Being which the Bible has taught us in the Metamorphoses of Ovid--or to seek that refinement of manners and language which has only of late prevailed amongst us, in the plays of Aristophanes and Plautus--were very foolish and very vain. In ages not so ancient, and which have revolved since the dawn of Christianity, a certain coarseness of thought and language has been prevalent; and for it still larger allowance should be made, because it has been applied to simplicity rather than to sensuality--to rustic barbarism, not to civilised corruption--and carries along with it a rough raciness, and a reference to the sturdy aboriginal beast--just as acorns in the trough suggest the immemorial forests where they grew, and the rich greenswards on which they fell.
In two cases, it thus appears, should the severest censor be prepared to modify his condemnation of the bad taste or the impurity to be found in writers of genius--first, in that of a civilization, perfect in its kind, but destitute of the refining and sublimating element which a revelation only can supply; and, secondly, in that of those ages in which the lights of knowledge and religion are contending with the gloom of barbarian rudeness. Perhaps there are still two other cases capable of palliation--that of a mind so constituted as to be nothing, if not a mirror of its age, and faithfully and irresistibly reflecting even its vices and pollutions; or that of a mind morbidly in love with the morbidities and the vile passages of human nature. But suppose the case of a writer, sitting under the full blaze of Gospel truth, professedly a believer in the Gospel, and intimately acquainted with its oracles, living in a late and dissipated, not a rude and simple age--possessed of varied and splendid talents, which qualified him to make as well as to mirror, and with a taste naturally sound and manly, who should yet seek to shock the feelings of the pious, to gratify the low tendencies, and fire to frenzy the evil passions of his period--he is not to be shielded by the apology that he has only conformed to the bad age on which he was so unfortunate as to fall. Prejudice may, indeed, put in such a plea in his defence; but the inevitable eye of common sense, distinguishing between necessity and choice, between coarseness and corruption, between a man's passively yielding to and actively inviting and encouraging the currents of false taste and immorality which he must encounter, will find that plea nugatory, and bring in against the author a verdict of guilty.
Now this, we fear, is exactly the case of Dryden. He was neither a "barbarian" nor a "Scythian." He was a conscious artist, not a high though helpless reflector of his age. He had not, we think, like his relative, Swift, originally any diseased delight in filth for its own sake; was not--shall we say?--a natural, but an artificial _Yahoo_. He wielded a power over the public mind, approaching the absolute, and which he could have turned to virtuous, instead of vicious account--at first, it might have been amidst considerable resistance and obloquy, but ultimately with triumphant success. This, however, he never attempted, and must therefore be classed, in this respect, with such writers as Byron, whose powers gilded their pollutions, less than their pollutions degraded and defiled their powers; nay, perhaps he should be ranked even lower than the noble bard, whose obscenities are not so gross, and who had, besides, to account for them the double palliations of passion and of despair.
In these remarks we refer principally to Dryden's plays; for his poems, as we remarked in the Life, are (with the exception of a few of the Prologues, which we print under protest) in a great measure free from impurity. We pass gladly to consider him in his genius and his poetical works. The most obvious, and among the most remarkable characteristics of his poetic style, are its wondrous elasticity and ease of movement. There is never for an instant any real or apparent effort, any straining for effect, any of that "double, double, toil and trouble," by which many even of the weird cauldrons in which Genius forms her creations are disturbed and bedimmed. That power of doing everything with perfect and _conscious_ ease, which Dugald Stewart has ascribed to Barrow and to Horsley in prose, distinguished Dryden in poetry. Whether he discusses the deep questions of fate and foreknowledge in "Religio Laici," or lashes Shaftesbury in the "Medal," or pours a torrent of contempt on Shadwell in "MacFlecknoe," or describes the fire of London in the "Annus Mirabilis," or soars into lyric enthusiasm in his "Ode on the Death of Mrs Killigrew," and "Alexander's Feast," or paints a tournament in "Palamon and Arcite," or a fairy dance in the "Flower and the Leaf,"--he is always at home, and always aware that he is. His consciousness of his own powers amounts to exultation. He is like the steed who glories in that tremendous gallop which affects the spectator with fear. Indeed, we never can separate our conception of Dryden's vigorous and vaulting style from the image of a noble horse, devouring the dust of the field, clearing obstacles at a bound, taking up long leagues as a little thing, and the very strength and speed of whose motion give it at a distance the appearance of smoothness. Pope speaks of his
"Long resounding march, and energy divine."
Perhaps "_ease_ divine" had been words more characteristic of that almost superhuman power of language by which he makes the most obstinate materials pliant, melts down difficulties as if by the touch of magic, and, to resume the former figure, comes into the goal without a hair turned on his mane, or a single sweat-drop confessing effort or extraordinary exertion. We know no poet since Homer who can be compared to Dryden in this respect, except Scott, who occasionally, in "Marmion," and the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," exhibits the same impetuous ease and fiery fluent movement. Scott does not, however, in general, carry the same weight as the other; and the species of verse he uses, in comparison to the heroic rhyme of Dryden, gives you often the impression of a hard trot, rather than of a "long-resounding" and magnificent gallop. Scott exhibits in his poetry the soul of a warrior; but it is of a warrior of the Border--somewhat savage and coarse. Dryden can, for the nonce at least, assume the appearance, and display the spirit, of a knight of ancient chivalry--gallant, accomplished, elegant, and gay.
Next to this poet's astonishing ease, spirit, and elastic vigour, may be ranked his clear, sharp intellect. He may be called more a logician than a poet. He reasons often, and always acutely, and his rhyme, instead of shackling, strengthens the movement of his argumentation. Parts of his "Religio Laici" and the "Hind and Panther" resemble portions of Duns Scotus or Aquinas set on fire. Indeed, keen, strong intellect, inflamed with passion, and inspirited by that "ardour and impetuosity of mind" which Wordsworth is compelled to allow to him, rather than creative or original genius, is the differentia of Dryden. We have compared him to a courser, but he was not one of those coursers of Achilles, who fed on no earthly food, but on the golden barley of heaven, having sprung from the gods--
[Greek: Xanthon kai Balion, to ama pnoiaesi, petesthaen. Tous eteke Zephuro anemo Arpua Podargae.]Dryden resembled rather the mortal steed which was yoked with these immortal twain, the brood of Zephyr and the Harpy Podarga; only we can hardly say of the poet what Homer says of Pedasus--
[Greek: Os kai thnaetos eon, epeth ippois athanatoisi.]
He was _not_, although a mortal, able to keep up with the immortal coursers. His path was on the plains or table-lands of earth--never or seldom in "cloudland, gorgeous land," or through the aerial altitudes which stretch away and above the clouds to the gates of heaven. He can hardly be said to have possessed the power of sublimity, in the high sense of that term, as the power of sympathising with the feeling of the Infinite. Often he gives us the impression of the picturesque, of the beautiful, of the heroic, of the nobly disdainful--but never (when writing, at least, entirely from his own mind) of that infinite and nameless grandeur which the imaginative soul feels shed on it from the multitudinous waves of ocean--from the cataract leaping from his rock, as if to consummate an act of prayer to God--from the hum of great assemblies of men--from the sight of far-extended wastes and wildernesses--and from the awful silence, and the still more mysterious sparkle of the midnight stars. This sense of the presence of the _shadow_ of immensity--immensity itself cannot be felt any more than measured--this sight like that vouchsafed to Moses of the "backparts" of the Divine--the Divine itself cannot be seen--has been the inspiration of all the highest poetry of the world--of the "Paradise Lost," of the "Divina Commedia," of the "Night Thoughts," of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of "Festus," and, highest far, of the Hebrew Prophets, as they cry, "Whither can we go from Thy presence? whither can we flee from Thy Spirit?" Such poets have resembled a blind man, who feels, although he cannot see, that a stranger of commanding air is in the room beside him; so they stand awe-struck in the "wind of the going" of a majestic and unseen Being. This feeling differs from mysticism, inasmuch as it is connected with a reality, while the mystic dreams a vague and unsupported dream, and the poetry it produces is simply the irresistible cry springing from the perception of this wondrous Some One who is actually near them. The feeling is connected, in general, with a lofty moral and religious nature; and yet not always, since, while wanting in Dryden, we find it intensely discovered, although in an imperfect and perverted shape, in Byron and Rousseau.
In Dryden certainly it exists not. We do not--and in this we have Jeffrey's opinion to back us--remember a single line in his poetry that can be called sublime, or, which is the same thing, that gives us a thrilling shudder, as if a god or a ghost were passing by. Pleasure, high excitement,--rapture even, he often produces; but such a feeling as is created by that line of Milton,
"To bellow through the vast and boundless deep,"
never. Compare, in proof of this, the description of the tournament in "Palamon and Arcite"--amazingly spirited as it is--to the description of the war-horse in Job; or, if that appear too high a test, to the contest of Achilles with the rivers in Homer; to the war of the Angels, and the interrupted preparations for contest between Gabriel and Satan in Milton; to the contest between Apollyon and Christian in the "Pilgrim's Progress;" to some of the combats in Spenser; and to that wonderful one of the Princess and the Magician in midair in the "Arabian Nights," in order to understand the distinction between the most animated literal pictures of battle and those into which the element of imagination is strongly injected by the poet, who can, to the inevitable shiver of human nature at the sight of struggle and carnage, add the far more profound and terrible shiver, only created by a vision of the concomitants, the consequences--the UNSEEN BORDERS of the bloody scene. Take these lines, for instance:--
"They look anew: the beauteous form of fight Is changed, and war appears a grisly sight; Two troops in fair array one moment showed-- The next, a field with fallen bodies strowed; Not half the number in their seats are found, But men and steeds lie grovelling on the ground. The points of spears are stuck within the shield, The steeds without their riders scour the field; The knights, unhorsed, on foot renew the fight-- The glittering faulchions cast a gleaming light; Hauberks and helms are hew'd with many a wound, Out-spins the streaming blood, and dyes the ground."This is vigorous and vivid, but is not imaginative or suggestive. It does not carry away the mind from the field to bring back thoughts and images, which shall, so to speak, brood over, and aggravate the general horror. It is, in a word, plain, good painting, but it is not poetry. There is not a metaphor, such as "he _laugheth_ at the shaking of a spear," in it all.
In connexion with this defect in imagination is the lack of natural imagery in Dryden's poetry. Wordsworth, indeed, greatly overcharges the case, when he says (in a letter to Scott), "that there is not a single image from nature in the whole body of his poetry." We have this minute taken up the "Hind and the Panther," and find two images from nature in one page:--
"As where in fields the fairy rounds are seen, A rank sour herbage rises on the green; So," &c.And a few lines down:--
"As where the lightning runs along the ground, No husbandry can heal the blasting wound."And some pages farther on occurs a description of Spring, not unworthy of Wordsworth himself; beginning--
"New blossoms flourish and new flowers arise, As _God had been abroad_, and walking there, Had left his footsteps, and reform'd the year."Still it is true, that, taking his writings as a whole, they are thin in natural images; and even those which occur, are often rather the echoes of his reading, than the results of his observation. And what Wordsworth adds is, we fear, true; in his translation of Virgil, where Virgil can be fairly said to have his eye upon his object, Dryden always spoils the passage. The reason of this, apart from his want of high imaginative sympathy, may be found in his long residence in London; and his lack of that intimate daily familiarity with natural scenes, which can alone supply thorough knowledge, or enkindle thorough love. Nature is not like the majority of other mistresses. Her charms deepen the longer she is known; and he that loves her most warmly, has watched her with the narrowest inspection. She can bear the keenest glances of the microscope, and to see all her glory would exhaust an antediluvian life. The appetite, in her case, "grows with what it feeds on;" but such an appetite was not Dryden's.
Another of his great defects is, in true tenderness of feeling. He has very few passages which can be called pathetic. His Elegies and funeral Odes, such as those on "Mrs Killigrew" and "Eleonora," are eloquent; but they move you to admiration, not to tears. Dryden's long immersion in the pollutions of the playhouses, had combined, with his long course of domestic infelicity, and his employments as a hack author, a party scribe, and a satirist, to harden his heart, to brush away whatever fine bloom of feeling there had been originally on his mind, and to render him incapable of even simulating the softer emotions of the soul. But for the discovered fact, that he was in early life a lover of his relative, Honor Driden, you would have judged him from his works incapable of a pure passion. "Lust hard by Hate," being his twin idols, how could he represent human, far less ethereal love; and how could he touch those springs of holy tears, which lie deep in man's heart, and which are connected with all that is dignified, and all that is divine in man's nature? What could the author of "Limberham" know of love, or the author of "MacFlecknoe" of pity?
Wordsworth, in that admirable letter to which we have repeatedly referred, says, "Whenever his language is poetically impassioned, it is mostly upon unpleasing subjects, such as the follies, vices, and crimes of classes of men, or individuals." This is unquestionable. He never so nearly reaches the sublime, as when he is expressing contempt. He never rises so high, as in the act of trampling. He is a "good hater," and expresses his hatred with a mixture of _animus_ and ease, of fierceness and of trenchant rapidity, which makes it very formidable. He only, as it were, waves off his adversaries disdainfully, but the very wave of his hand cuts like a sabre. His satire is not savage and furious, like Juvenal's; not cool, collected, and infernal, like that of Junius; not rabid and reckless, like that of Swift; and never darkens into the unearthly grandeur of Byron's: but it is strong, swift, dashing, and decisive. Nor does it want deep and subtle touches. His pictures of Shaftesbury and Buckingham are as delicately finished, as they are powerfully conceived. He flies best at the highest game; but even in dealing with Settles and Shadwells, he can be as felicitous as he is fierce. No satire in the world contains lines more exquisitely inverted, more ingeniously burlesqued, more artfully turned out of their apparently proper course, like rays at once refracted and cooled, than those which thus ominously panegyrise Shadwell:--
"His brows thick fogs, instead of glories grace, And _lambent dulness_ play'd about his face. As Hannibal did to the altar come, Sworn by his sire, a mortal foe to Rome; So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain, That he till death true dulness would maintain."Better still the following picture, in imitation of the Homeric or Miltonic manner:--
"The Sire then shook the honours of his head, And from his brows damps of oblivion shed Full on the _filial dulness_--long he stood Repelling from his breast the _raging_ God."What inimitable irony in this epithet! The God of dulness _raging_! A stagnant pool in a passion; a canal insane; a _mouton enragé_, as the French says; or a snail in a tumultuous state of excitement, were but types of the satirical ideas implied in these words. What a description of labouring nonsense--of the Pythonic genius of absurdity, panting and heaving on his solemnly ridiculous tripod!
The language and versification of Dryden have been praised, and justly. His style is worthy of a still more powerful and original vein of genius than his own. It is a masculine, clear, elastic, and varied diction, fitted to express all feelings, save the deepest; all fancies, save the subtlest; all passions, save the loftiest; all moods of mind, save the most disinterested and rapt; to represent incidents, however strange; characters, however contradictory to each other; shades of meaning, however evasive: and to do all this, as if it were doing nothing, in point of ease, and as if it were doing everything in point of felt and rejoicing energy. No poetic style since can, in such respects, be compared to Dryden's. Pope's to his is feeble--and Byron's forced. He can say the strongest things in the swiftest way, and the most felicitous expressions seem to fall unconsciously from his lips. Had his matter, you say, but been equal to his manner, his thought in originality and imaginative power but commensurate with the boundless quantity, and no less admirable quality, of his words! His versification deserves a commendation scarcely inferior. It is "all ear," if we may so apply an expression of Shakspeare's. No studied rules,--no elaborate complication of harmonies,--it is the mere sinking and swelling of the wave of his thought as it moves onward to the shore of his purpose. And, as in the sea, there are no furrows absolutely isolated from each other, but each leans on, or melts into each, and the subsidence of the one is the rise of the other--so with the versification of his better poetry. The beginning of the "Hind and Panther," we need not quote; but it will be remembered, as a good specimen of that peculiar style of running the lines into one another, and thereby producing a certain free and noble effect, which the uniform tinkle of Pope and his school is altogether unable to reach; a style which has since been copied by some of our poets--by Churchill, by Cowper, and by Shelley. The lines of the artificial school, on the other hand, may be compared to _rollers_, each distinct from each other,--each being in itself a whole,--but altogether forming none. Pope, says Hazlitt, has turned Pegasus into a rocking-horse.
We are, perhaps, nearly right when we call Dryden the most _eloquent_ and _rhetorical_ of English poets. He bears in this respect an analogy to Lucretius among the Romans, who, inferior in polish to Virgil, was incomparably more animated and energetic in style; who exhibited, besides, traits of lofty imagination rarely met with in Virgil, and never in Dryden; and who equalled the English poet in the power of reasoning in verse, and setting the severe abstractions of metaphysical thought to music. With the Shakspeares, Chaucers, Spensers, Miltons, Byrons, Wordsworths, and Coleridges, the _Dii majorum gentium_ of the Poetic Pantheon of Britain, Dryden ranks not, although towering far above the Moores, Goldsmiths, Gays, and Priors. He may be classed with a middle, but still high order, in which we find the names of Scott, as a _poet_, Johnson, Pope, Cowper, Southey, Crabbe, and two or three others, who, while all excelling Dryden in some qualities, are all excelled by him in others, and bulk on the whole about as largely as he on the public eye.
We come to make a few remarks, in addition to some we have already incidentally made, on Dryden's separate works. And first of his Lyrics. His songs, properly so called, are lively, buoyant, and elastic; yet, compared to those of Shakspeare, they are of "the earth, earthy." They are the down of the thistle, carried on a light breeze upwards. Shakspeare's resemble aerial notes--snatches of superhuman melody--descending from above. Compared to the warm-gushing songs of Burns, Dryden's are cold. Better than his songs are his Odes. That on the death of Mrs Killigrew has much divided the opinion of critics--Dr Johnson calling it magnificent, and Warton denying it any merit. We incline to a mediate view. It has bold passages; the first and the last stanzas are very powerful, and the whole is full of that rushing torrent-movement characteristic of the poet. But the sinkings are as deep as the swellings, and the inequality disturbs the general effect. This is still more true of "Threnodia Augustalis," the ode on the death of Charles II. Not only is its spirit fulsome, and its statement of facts grossly partial, but many of its lines are feeble, and the whole is wire-spun. Yet what can be nobler in thought and language than the following, descriptive of the joy at the king's partial recovery!--
"Men met each other with erected look, The steps were higher that they took; Each to congratulate his friend made haste, And long inveterate foes saluted as they pass'd."How admirably this last line describes that sudden solution of the hostile elements in human nature-that swift sense of unity in society, produced by some glad tidings or great public enthusiasm, when for an hour the Millennium is anticipated, and the poet's wish, that
"Man wi' man, the warld o'er, Shall brithers be, for a' that,"is fulfilled!
The two odes on St Cecilia's Day are both admirable in different ways. "Alexander's Feast," like Burns's "Tam o' Shanter," seems to come out at once "as from a mould." It is pure inspiration, but of the second order--rather that of the Greek Pythoness than of the Hebrew prophet. Coleridge or Wordsworth makes the objection to it, that the Bacchus it describes is the mere vulgar deity of drink--
"Flush'd with a purple grace, He shows his honest face"--not the ideal Bacchus, clad in vine-leaves, returning from the conquest of India, and attended by a procession of the lions and tigers he had tamed. But this, although a more imaginative representation of the god of wine, had not been so suitably sung at an entertainment presided over by an Alexander and a Thais, a drunk conqueror and a courtezan. Dryden himself, we have seen, thought this the best ode that ever was or would be written in the English language. In a certain sense he was right. For vivacity, freedom of movement, and eloquence, it has never been equalled. But there are some odes--such as Coleridge's "Ode to France" and Wordsworth's "Power of Sound"--which as certainly excel it in strength of imagination, grandeur of conception, and unity of execution and effect.
Of Dryden's Satires we have already spoken in a general way. "Absalom and Achitophel" is of course the masterpiece, and cannot be too highly praised as a gallery of portraits, and for the daring force and felicity of its style. Why enlarge on a poem, almost every line of which has become a proverb? "The Medal" is inferior only in condensation--in spirit and energy it is quite equal. In "MacFlecknoe," the mock-heroic is sustained with unparalleled vigour from the first line to the last. Shadwell is a favourite of Dryden's ire. He _fancies_ him, and loves to empty out on his head all the riches of his wrath. What can be more terrible than the words occurring in the second part of "Absalom and Achitophel"--
"When wine hath given him courage to blaspheme, He curses God--but _God before curst him_!"He has written two pieces, which may be called didactic or controversial poems--"Religio Laici" and "The Hind and Panther." The chief power of the former is in its admirable combination of two things, often dissociated--reason and rhyme; and its chief interest lies in the light it casts upon Dryden's uncertainty of religious view. The thought has little originality, the versification less varied music than is his wont, and no passage of transcendent power occurs. Far more faulty in plan, and far more unequal, is "The Hind and Panther;" but it has, on the other hand, many passages of amazing eloquence--some satirical pictures equal to anything in "Absalom and Achitophel"--some vivid natural descriptions; and even the absurdities of the fable, and the sophistries of the argument add to its character as the most exquisitely perverted piece of ingenuity in the language. Nothing but high genius, very vigorously exerted, could reconcile us to a story so monstrous, and to reasoning so palpably one-sided and weak.
His Epistles are of divers merit, but all discover Dryden's usual sense, sarcastic observation, and sweeping force of style. The best are that to Sir Godfrey Kneller--remarkable for its knowledge of, and graceful tribute to, the "serene and silent art" of painting; and the very noble epistle addressed to Congreve, which reminds you of one giant hand of genius held out to welcome and embrace another. Gross flatterer as Dryden often was, there is something in this epistle that rings true, and the emotion in it you feel even all his powers could never have enabled him to counterfeit. Such generous patronage of rising, by acknowledged merit, was as rare then as it is still. The envy of the literary man too often crowns his gray hairs with a chaplet of nightshade, and pours its dark poison into the latest cup of existence.
His "Annus Mirabilis" is another instance of perverted power, and ingenuity astray. Written in that bad style he found prevalent in his early days--the style of the metaphysical poets, Cowley, Donne, and Drayton--the author ever and anon soars out of his trammels into strong and simple poetry, fervid description, and in one passage--that about the future fortunes of London--into eloquent prophecy. The fire of London is vigorously pictured, but its breath of flame should have burned up petty conceit and tawdry ornament. He should have sternly daguerreotyped the spectacle of the capital of the civilised world burning--a spectacle awful, not only in the sight of men, but, as Hall says of the French Revolution, in that of superior beings. We need not dwell on the far-famed absurdities which the poem contains--about God turning a "crystal pyramid into a broad extinguisher" to put out the fire--of the ship compared to a sea-wasp floating on the waves--and of men in the fight killed by "aromatic splinters" from the Spice Islands! Criticism has long ago said its best and its worst about these early escapades of a writer whose taste, to the last, was never commensurate with his genius.
His Translations we have not included in this edition, as we reserve them, along with other masterpieces of translated verse, for a separate issue afterwards. That of the "Art of Poetry," sometimes included in editions of his works, was not his, but only revised by him. We may say here, in general, however, that although there are more learned and more correct translators than Dryden, there are few who have produced versions so vigorous, so full of exuberant life, and, in those parts of the authors suitable to the peculiarities of the translator's own genius, so faithful to their spirit and soul, if not to their letter and their body, as he. Parts of Virgil he does not translate well; he has no sympathy with Maro's elegance, _concinnitas_, chaste grandeur, and minute knowledge of nature; but wherever Virgil begins to glow and gallop, Dryden glows and gallops with him; and wherever Virgil is nearest Homer, Dryden is nearest him.
We have reserved to the close his Fables, as, on the whole, forming the culmination of Dryden the artist, if not, perhaps, of Dryden the poet. In preparing his poems for publication, how refreshing we found it to pass from a needful although cursory perusal of his plays, and a revision of his prologues, to these comparatively pure, right-manly, and eloquent compositions--the fables of Dryden! We do not, because it would be hardly fair, with Wordsworth, seek to compare them with the Chaucerian originals--a comparison under which they would be infallibly crushed. We prefer looking at them as bearing only the relation to Chaucer which Macpherson's, did to the original, Ossian. And regarding them in this light, as adaptations, where the original author furnishes only the ground-work, they are surely masterpieces and models of composition, if not exemplars of creative power and genius. How free and majestic their numbers! How bold and buoyant their language! How interesting the stories they tell! How perfect the preservation, and artful the presentment, of the various characters! What a fine chivalrous spirit breathes in "Palamon and Arcite!" What a soft yet purple, pure yet gorgeous, light of love hovers over the "Flower and the Leaf!"--the only poem of Dryden's in which--thanks perhaps to his master, Chaucer--the poet discovers the slightest perception of that
"Love which spirits feel In climes where all is equable and pure."What gay and gallant badinage, exquisite irony, and interesting narrative, in the story of "The Cock and Fox!" And what knowledge of human nature and skilful construction in "The Wife of Bath's Tale!" We are half inclined, with George Ellis, to call these fables the "noblest specimen of versification to be found in any modern language." We gather, too, from them a notion about Dryden's capabilities, which we may state. It is, that had Dryden lived in a novel and romance-writing age, and turned his great powers in that direction, he might have easily become the best fictionist--next to Cervantes and Scott--that ever lived, possessing, as he did, most of the qualities of a good novelist--vigorous and facile diction; dramatic skill; an eye for character; the power of graphic description, and rapid changeful narrative; the command of the grave and the gay, the severe and the lively; and a sympathy both with the bustling activities and the wild romance of human life, if not with its more solemn aspects, its transcendental references, and its aerial heights and giddy abysses of imagination and poetry.
[We have followed the judicious example of Warton and Mitford in excluding several Prologues which appear in some editions, but which reflect no honour on their author.
Dryden's Translations will be published in the separate series of "Translations," which it is the intention of the Publisher to issue, independent of the "Poetical Works" of the various authors.]
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