Dryden—The New Poetry
HE life of Dryden may be said to comprehend a history of the
literature of England, and its changes, during nearly half a
century." With these words Sir Walter Scott, himself a great
writer, began his life of
With Milton ended the great romantic school of poetry. He was
indeed as one born out of time, a lonely giant. He died and left
no follower. With Dryden began a new school of poetry, which was
to be the type of English poetry for a hundred and fifty years to
come. This is called the classical school, and the rime which
the classical poets used is called the heroic couplet. It is a
Dryden did not invent the heroic couplet, but it was he who first made it famous. "It was he," says Scott, "who first showed that the English language was capable of uniting smoothness and strength." But when you come to read Dryden's poems you may perhaps feel that in gaining the smoothness of Art they have lost something of the beauty of Nature. The perfect lines with their regular sounding rimes almost weary us at length, and we are glad to turn to the rougher beauty of some earlier poet.
But before speaking more of what Dryden did let me tell you a little of what we know of his life.
John Dryden was the son of a Northamptonshire gentleman who had a
small estate and a large family, for John was the eldest of
fourteen children. The family was a Puritan one, although in
1631, when John was born, the
When John Dryden left school he went, like nearly all the poets,
to Cambridge. Of what he did at college we know very little. He
may have been wild, for more than once he got into trouble, and
once he was "rebuked on the head" for speaking scornfully of some
nobleman. He was seven years at Cambridge, but he looked back on
these years with no joy. He had no love for his University, and
Already at college Dryden had begun to write poetry, but his poem
on the death of Cromwell is perhaps the first that is worth
So wrote Dryden. But after the death of Cromwell came the
Restoration. Dryden had been able to admire Cromwell, but
although he came of a Puritan family he could never have been a
Puritan at heart. What we learn of him in his writings show us
that. He was not of the stern stuff which makes martyrs and
heroes. There was no reason why he should suffer for a cause in
which he did not
So Dryden ran before the wind.
About three years after the Restoration Dryden married an earl's daughter, Lady Elizabeth Howard. We know very little about their life together, but they had three children of whom they were very fond.
With the Restoration came the
Had Dryden written nothing but plays we should not remember him
as one of our great poets. Yet it was
during this time of
In spite of the fine sounding lines you will perhaps never care to read Absalom and Achitophel save as a footnote to history. But Dryden's was the age of satire. Those he wrote called forth others. He was surrounded and followed by many imitators, and it is well to remember Dryden as the greatest of them all. His satires were so powerful, too, that the people against whom they were directed felt them keenly, and no wonder. "There are passages in Dryden's satires in which every couplet has not only the force but the sound of a slap in the face," says a recent writer.
Among the younger writers Dryden took the place Ben Jonson used
hold. He kinged it in the
Besides his plays and satires Dryden wrote a poem in support of the English Church called Religio Laici. Then a few years later, when Charles II died and James II came to the throne, Dryden turned Roman Catholic and wrote a poem called The Hind and the Panther in praise of the Church of Rome.
But the reign of James II was short. The "Glorious Revolution" came, and with a Protestant King and Queen upon the throne, the Catholic Poet Laureate lost his post and pension and all his other appointments. Dryden was now nearly sixty; and although he had made what was then a good deal of money by his plays and other poems he had spent it freely, and always seemed in need. Now he had to face want and poverty. But he faced them bravely. Dryden all his life had been a flatterer; he had always sailed with the wind. Now, whether he could not or would not, he changed no more, he flattered no more. A kind friend, it is said, still continued to pay him the two hundred pounds he had received as Poet Laureate, and he now wrote more plays which brought him money. Then, thus late in life, he began the work which for you at present will have the greatest interest. Dryden was a great poet, but he could create nothing, he had to have given him ideas upon which to work. Now he began translations from Latin poets, and for those who cannot read them in the original they are still a great pleasure and delight.
True, Dryden did not translate literally, that is word for word. He paraphrased rather, and in doing so he Drydenized the originals, often adding whole lines of his own. Among his translations was Virgil's Æneid, which long before, you remember, Surrey had begun in blank verse. But blank verse was not what the age in which Dryden lived desired, and he knew it. So he wrote in rimed couplets. Long before this he had turned Milton's Paradise Lost into rimed couplets, making it into an opera, which he called The State of Innocence. An opera is a play set to music, but this opera was never set to music, and never sung or acted. Dryden, we know, admired Milton's poetry greatly. "This man cuts us all out," he had said. Yet he thought he could make the poem still better, and asked Milton's leave to turn it into rime. "Ay, you may tag my verses if you will," replied the great blind man.
It is interesting to compare the two poems, and when you come to read The State of Innocence you will find that not all the verses are "tagged." So that in places you can compare Milton's blank verse with Dryden's. And although Dryden must have thought he was improving Milton's poem, he says himself: "Truly I should be sorry, for my own sake, that any one should take the pains to compare them (the poems) together, the original being, undoubtedly, one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced."
Dryden begins his poem with the speech of Satan, Lucifer he calls
him, on finding himself cast out from
If you turn back to page 401 you can compare this with Milton's own version.
Besides translating some Latin and a few Greek poems Dryden
translated stories from Boccaccio, Chaucer's old friend, and last
of all he translated Chaucer himself into Drydenese. For in
Dryden's day Chaucer's language had already become so
Again he says: "But there are other judges, who think I ought not to have translated Chaucer into English, out of a quite contrary notion. They suppose there is a certain veneration due to his old language, and that it is little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it. They are further of opinion that somewhat of his good sense will suffer in this transfusion, and much of the beauty of his thoughts will infallibly be lost, which appear with more grace in their old habit." I think all of us who can read Chaucer in his own language must agree with these judges. But Dryden goes on to say he does not write for such, but for those who cannot read Chaucer's English. Are they who can understand Chaucer to deprive the greater part of their countrymen of the same advantage, and hoard him up, as misers do their gold, only to look on it themselves and hinder others from making use of it? he asks.
This is very good reasoning, and all that can be said against it
is that when Dryden has done with Chaucer, although he tells the
same tales, they are no longer Chaucer's but Dryden's. The
spirit is changed. But that you will be able to feel only when
you grow older and are able to read the two and balance them one
against the other. Dryden translated only a few of the
Canterbury Tales, and the one he liked best was the knight's tale
Palamon and Arcite. He published it in a book which he called
Fables, and it is, I think, as a narrative or
You have by this time, I hope, read the story of Palamon and
Arcite at least in Tales from Chaucer, and here I will give you a
few lines first from Dryden and then from Chaucer, so that you
can judge for yourselves of the difference. In them the poets
describe Emelia as she appeared on that May morning when Palamon
first looked forth from his prison and saw her walk in the
That is Dryden's, and this is how Chaucer tells of the same May
In this quotation from Chaucer I have not changed the old spelling into modern as I did in the chapter on Chaucer, so that you may see the difference between the two styles more clearly.
If you can see the difference between these two quotations you can see the difference between the poetry of Dryden's age and all that went before him. It is the difference between art and nature. Chaucer sings like a bird, Dryden like a trained concert singer who knows that people are listening to him. There is room for both in life. We want and need both.
If you can feel the difference between Chaucer and Dryden you will understand in part what I meant by saying that Dryden was the expression of his time. For in Restoration times the taste was for art rather than for natural beauty. The taste was for what was clever, witty, and polished rather than for the simple, stately grandeur of what was real and true. Poetry was utterly changed. It no longer went to the heart but to the brain. Dryden's poetry does not make the tears start to our eye or the blood come to our cheek, but it flatters our ear with its smoothness and elegance; it tickles our fancy with its wit.
You will understand still better what the feeling of the times
was when I tell you that Dryden, with the help of another poet,
As Timotheus sings he stirs at will his hearers' hearts to love, to pity, or to revenge.
But those were heathen times. In Christian times came
Dryden was a great poet, and he dominated his own age and the age
to come. But besides being a poet he was a great
"He [Chaucer] must have been a man of a most wonderful
comprehensive nature, because as it has been truly observed of
him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the
various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole
English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped
him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each
other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very
physiognomies and persons. . . . The matter and manner of their
tales, and of their telling are so suited to their different
educations, humours, and callings, that each of them would be
improper in any other mouth. Even the grave and serious
characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity.
Their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling,
and their breeding; such as are becoming to them and to them
only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous; some
are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are
learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different:
the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook are several men, and
distinguished from each other as much as the mincing
The Fables was the last book Dryden wrote. He was growing to be
an old man, and a few months after it was published he became
very ill. "John Dryden, Esq., the famous poet, lies