CHAPTER XXI. DRYDEN, AND THE RESTORED STUARTS.
The Court of Charles II. Dryden's Early Life. The Death of Cromwell.
The Restoration. Dryden's Tribute. Annus Mirabilis. Absalom and
Achitophel. The Death of Charles. Dryden's Conversion. Dryden's Fall.
THE COURT OF CHARLES II.
The antithetic literature which takes its coloring from the great rebellion, was now to give place to new forms not immediately connected with it, but incident to the Restoration. Puritanism was now to be oppressed, and the country was to be governed, under a show of constitutional right, more arbitrarily than ever before. The moral rebound, too, was tremendous; the debaucheries of the cavaliers of Charles I. were as nothing in comparison with the lewdness and filth of the court of Charles II. To say that he brought in French fashions and customs, is to do injustice to the French: there never was a viler court in Europe than his own. It is but in accordance with our historical theory that the literature should partake of and represent the new condition of things; and the most remarkable illustrations of this are to be found in the works of Dryden.
It may indeed with truth be said that we have now reached the most absolute of the literary types of English history. There was no great event, political or social, which is not mirrored in his poems; no sentiment or caprice of the age which does not there find expression; no kingly whim which he did not prostitute his great powers to gratify; no change of creed, political or religious, of which he was not the recorder—few indeed, where royal favor was concerned, to which he was not the convert. To review the life of Dryden himself, is therefore to enter into the chronicle and philosophy of the times in which he lived. With this view, we shall dwell at some length upon his character and works.
EARLY LIFE.—Dryden was born on the 10th of August, 1631, and died on the 1st of May, 1700. He lived, therefore, during the reign of Charles I., the interregnum of Parliament, the protectorate of Cromwell, the restoration and reign of Charles II., and the reign of James II.; he saw and suffered from the accession of William and Mary—a wonderful and varied volume in English history. And of all these Dryden was, more than any other man, the literary type. He was of a good family, and was educated at Westminster and Cambridge, where he gave early proofs of his literary talents.
His father, a zealous Presbyterian, had reared his children in his own tenets; we are not therefore astonished to find that his earliest poetical efforts are in accordance with the political conditions of the day. He settled in London, under the protection of his kinsman, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was afterward one of the king's judges in 1649, and one of the council of eight who controlled the kingdom after Charles lost his head. As secretary to Sir Gilbert, young Dryden learned to scan the political horizon, and to aspire to preferment.
CROMWELL'S DEATH, AND DRYDEN'S MONODY.—But those who had depended upon Cromwell, forgot that he was not England, and that his breath was in his nostrils. The time of his departure was at hand. He had been offered the crown (April 9, 1656,) by a subservient parliament, and wanted it; but his friends and family opposed his taking it; and the officers of the army, influenced by Pride, sent such a petition against it, that he felt obliged to refuse it. After months of mental anxiety and nervous torture—fearing assassination, keeping arms under his pillow, never sleeping above three nights together in the same chamber, disappointed that even after all his achievements, and with all his cunning efforts, he had been unable to put on the crown, and to be numbered among the English sovereigns—Cromwell died in 1658, leaving his title as Lord Protector to his son Richard, a weak and indolent man, who, after seven months' rule, fled the kingdom at the Restoration, to return after a generation had passed away, a very old man, to die in his native land. The people of Hertfordshire knew Richard Cromwell as the excellent and benevolent Mr. Clarke.
Very soon after the death of Oliver Cromwell, Dryden, not yet foreseeing the Restoration, presented his tribute to the Commonwealth, in the shape of “Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Oliver Cromwell; written after his funeral.” A few stanzas will show his political principles, and are in strange contrast with what was soon to follow:
How shall I then begin, or where conclude,
To draw a fame so truly circular?
For, in a round, what order can be showed,
Where all the parts so equal perfect are?
He made us freemen of the continent,
Whom nature did like captives treat before;
To nobler preys the English lion sent,
And taught him first in Belgian walks to roar.
His ashes in a peaceful urn shall rest;
His name a great example stands, to show
How strangely high endeavors may be blest,
Where piety and valor jointly go.
THE RESTORATION.—Cromwell died in September: early in the next year these stanzas were written. One year later was the witness of a great event, which stirred England to its very depths, because it gave vent to sentiments for some time past cherished but concealed. The Long Parliament was dissolved on the 10th of March, 1660. The new parliament meets April 25th; it is almost entirely of Royalist opinions; it receives Sir John Granville, the king's messenger, with loud acclamations; the old lords come forth once more in velvet, ermine, and lawn. It is proclaimed that General Monk, the representative of the army, soon to be Duke of Albemarle, has gone from St. Albans to Dover,
To welcome home again discarded faith.
The strong are as tow, and the maker as a spark. From the house of every citizen, lately vocal with the praises of the Protector, issues a subject ready to welcome his king with the most enthusiastic loyalty.
Royal proclamations follow each other in rapid succession: at length the eventful day has come—the 29th of May, 1660. All the bells of London are ringing their merriest chimes; the streets are thronged with citizens in holiday attire; the guilds of work and trade are out in their uniforms; the army, late the organ of Cromwell, is drawn up on Black Heath, and is cracking its myriad throat with cheers. In the words of Master Roger Wildrake, “There were bonfires flaming, music playing, rumps roasting, healths drinking; London in a blaze of light from the Strand to Rotherhithe.” At length the sound of herald trumpets is heard; the king is coming; a cry bursts forth which the London echoes have almost forgotten: “God save the king! The king enjoys his own again!”
It seems to the dispassionate reader almost incredible that the English people, who shed his father's blood, who rallied round the Parliament, and were fulsome in their praises of the Protector, should thus suddenly change; but, allowing for “the madness of the people,” we look for strength and consistency to the men of learning and letters. We feel sure that he who sang his eulogy of Cromwell dead, can have now no lyric burst for the returning Stuart. We are disappointed.
DRYDEN'S TRIBUTE.—The first poetic garland thrown at the feet of the restored king was Dryden's Astraea Redux, a poem on The happy restoration of his sacred majesty Charles II. To give it classic force, he quotes from the Pollio as a text.
Jam redit et virgo, redeunt saturnia regna;
thus hailing the saturnian times of James I. and Charles I. A few lines of the poem complete the curious contrast:
While our cross stars deny us Charles his bed,
Whom our first flames and virgin love did wed,
For his long absence church and state did groan;
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne.
* * * * *
How great were then our Charles his woes, who thus
Was forced to suffer for himself and us.
* * * * *
Oh happy prince whom Heaven hath taught the way,
By paying vows to have more vows to pay:
Oh happy age! oh, times like those alone
By Fate reserved for great Augustus' throne,
When the joint growth of arts and arms foreshow
The world a monarch, and that monarch you!
The contrast assumes a clearer significance, if we remember that the real time which elapsed between the publications of these two poems was less than two years.
This is greatly to Dryden's shame, as it is to Waller's, who did the same thing; but it must be clearly pointed out that in this the poets were really a type of all England, for whose suffrages they wrote thus. From this time the career of Dryden was intimately associated with that of the restored king. He wrote an ode for the coronation in 1661, and a poetical tribute to Clarendon, the Lord High Chancellor, the king's better self.
To Dryden, as a writer of plays, we shall recur in a later chapter, when the other dramatists of the age will be considered.
A concurrence of unusual events in 1665, brought forth the next year the “Annus Mirabilis,” or Wonderful Year, in which these events are recorded with the minuteness of a chronicle. This is indeed its chief value; for, praised as it was at the time, it does not so well bear the analysis of modern criticism.
ANNUS MIRABILIS.—It describes the great naval battle with the Dutch; the fire of London; and the ravages of the plague. The detail with which these are described, and the frequent felicity of expression, are the chief charm of the poem. In the refreshingly simple diary of Pepy's, we find this jotting under date of 3d February, 1666-7: “Annus Mirabilis. I am very well pleased this night with reading a poem I brought home with me last night from Westminster Hall, of Dryden's, upon the present war: a very good poem.”
Dryden's subserviency, aided by the power of his pen, gained its reward. In 1668, on the death of Sir William Davenant, he was appointed Laureate, and historiographer to the king, with an annual salary of L200. He soon became the most famous literary man in England. Milton, the Puritan, was producing his wonderful visions in darkened retirement, while at court, or in the seat of honor on the stage, or in his sacred chair at Will's Coffee-house in Covent Garden (near the fire-place in winter, and carried into the balcony in summer), “Glorious John” was the observed of all observers. Of Will's Coffee-house, Congreve says, in Love for Love, “Oh, confound that Will's Coffee-house; it has ruined more young men than the Royal Oak Lottery:” this speaks at once of the fashion and social license of the time.
Charles II. was happy to have so fluent a pen, to lampoon or satirize his enemies, or to make indecent comedies for his amusement; while Dryden's aim seems to have been scarcely higher than preferment at court and honored contemporary notoriety for his genius. But if the great majority lauded and flattered him, he was not without his share in those quarrels of authors, which were carried on at that day not only with goose-quills, but with swords and bludgeons. It is recorded that he was once waylaid by the hired ruffians of the Earl of Rochester, and beaten almost to death: these broils generally had a political as well as a social significance. In his quarrels with the literary men, he used the shafts of satire. His contest with Thomas Shadwell has been preserved in his satire called McFlecknoe. Flecknoe was an Irish priest who wrote dull plays; and in this poem Dryden proposes Shadwell as his successor on the throne of dulness. It was the model or suggester of Pope's Dunciad; but the model is by no means equal to the copy.
ABSALOM AND ACHITOPHEL.—Nothing which he had yet written is so true an index to the political history as his “Absalom and Achitophel,” which he published in 1681. The history may be given in few words. Charles II. had a natural son by an obscure woman named Lucy Walters. This boy had been created Duke of Monmouth. He was put forward by the designing Earl of Shaftesbury as the head of a faction, and as a rival to the Duke of York. To ruin the Duke was their first object; and this they attempted by inflaming the people against his religion, which was Roman Catholic. If they could thus have him and his heirs put out of the succession to the throne, Monmouth might be named heir apparent; and Shaftesbury hoped to be the power behind the throne.
Monmouth was weak, handsome, and vain, and was in truth a puppet in wicked hands; he was engaged in the Rye-house plot, and schemed not only against his uncle, but against the person of his father himself. To satirize and expose these plots and plotters, Dryden (at the instance of the king, it is said,) wrote Absalom and Achitophel, in which are introduced, under Scripture names, many of the principal political characters of the day, from the king down to Titus Oates. The number of the names is 61. Charles is, of course, David, and Monmouth, the wayward son, is Absalom. Shaftesbury is Achitophel, and Dr. Oates figures as Corah. The Ethnic plot is the popish plot, and Gath is that land of exile where Charles so long resided. Strong in his praise of David, the poet is discreet and delicate in his handling of Absalom; his instinct is as acute as that of Falstaff: “Beware! instinct, the lion will not touch a true prince,” or touch him so gently that the lion at least will not suffer. Thus, Monmouth is represented as
Half loath, and half consenting to the ill,
For royal blood within him struggled still;
He thus replied: “And what pretence have I
To take up arms for public liberty?
My father governs with unquestioned right,
The faith's defender and mankind's delight;
Good, gracious, just, observant of the laws,
And heaven by wonders has espoused his cause.”
But he may, and does, roundly rate Achitophel, who tempts with satanic seductions, and proves to the youth, from the Bible, his right to the succession, peaceably or forcibly obtained. Among those who conspired with Monmouth were honest hearts seeking for the welfare of the realm. Chief of these were Lord Russel and Sidney, of whom the latter was in favor of a commonwealth; and the former, only sought the exclusion of the Roman Catholic Duke of York, and the redress of grievances, but not the assassination or deposition of the king. Both fell on the scaffold; but they have both been considered martyrs in the cause of civil liberty.
And here we must pause to say that in the literary structure, language, and rhythm of the poem, Dryden had made a great step toward that mastery of the rhymed pentameter couplet, which is one of his greatest claims to distinction.
DEATH OF CHARLES.—At length, in 1685, Charles II., after a sudden and short illness, was gathered to his fathers. His life had been such that England could not mourn: he had prostituted female honor, and almost destroyed political virtue; sold English territory and influence to France for beautiful strumpets; and at the last had been received, on his death-bed, into, the Roman Catholic Church, while nominally the supreme head of the Anglican communion. England cannot mourn, but Dryden tortures language into crocodile tears in his Threnodia Augustalis, sacred to the happy memory of King Charles II. A few lines will exhibit at once the false statements and the absolute want of a spark of sorrow—dead, inanimate words, words, words!
Thus long my grief has kept me drunk:
Sure there 's a lethargy in mighty woe;
Tears stand congealed, and cannot flow.
Tears for a stroke foreseen, afford relief;
But unprovided for a sudden blow,
Like Niobe, we marble grow,
And petrify with grief!
DRYDEN'S CONVERSION.—The Duke of York succeeded as James II.: he was an open and bigoted Roman Catholic, who at once blazoned forth the death-bed conversion of his brother; and who from the first only limited his hopes to the complete restoration of the realm to popery. Dryden's course was at once taken; but his instinct was at fault, as but three short years were to show. He gave in his adhesion to the new king's creed; he who had been Puritan with the commonwealth, and churchman with the Restoration, became Roman Catholic with the accession of a popish king. He had written the Religio Laicito defend the tenets of the Church of England against the attacks of papists and dissenters; and he now, to leave the world in no doubt as to his reasons and his honesty, published a poem entitled the Hind and Panther, which might in his earlier phraseology have been justly styled “The Christian experience of pious John Dryden.” It seems a shameless act, but it is one exponent of the loyalty of that day. There are some critics who believe him to have been sincere, and who insist that such a man “is not to be sullied by suspicion that rests on what after all might prove a fortuitous coincidence.” But such frequent changes with the government—with a reward for each change—tax too far even that charity which “thinketh no evil.” Dryden's pen was eagerly welcomed by the Roman Catholics. He began to write at once in their interest, and thus to further his own. Dr. Johnson says: “That conversion will always be suspected which apparently concerns with interest. He that never finds his error till it hinders his progress toward wealth or honor, will not be thought to love truth only for herself.”
In this long poem of 2,000 lines, we have the arguments which conducted the poet to this change. The different beasts represent the different churches and sects. The Church of Rome is thus represented:
A milk-white hind, immortal and unchanged,
Fed on the lawns, and in the forest ranged;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She feared no danger, for she knew no sin.
The other beasts were united to destroy her; but she could “venture to drink with them at the common watering-place under the protection of her friend the kingly lion.”
The Panther is the Church of England:
The Panther, sure the noblest, next the hind,
And fairest creature of the spotted kind;
Oh, could her inborn stains be washed away,
She were too good to be a beast of prey!
Then he Introduces.—
The Bloody Bear, an Independent beast; the Quaking Hare, for the
Quakers; the Bristled Baptist Boar.
In this fable, quite in the style of AEsop, we find the Dame, i.e., the Hind, entering into the subtle points of theology, and trying to prove her position. The poem, as might be supposed; was well received, and perhaps converted a few to the monarch's faith; for who were able yet to foresee that the monarch would so abuse his power, as to be driven away from his throne amid the execrations of his subjects.
The harmony of Dryden and the power of James could control progressive England no longer. Like one man, the nation rose and uttered a mighty cry to William of Orange. James, trembling, flies hither and thither, and at length, fearing the fate of his father, he deserts his throne; the commons call this desertion abdication, and they give the throne to his nephew William and his daughter Mary. Such was the end of the restored Stuarts; and we can have no regret that it is: whatever sympathy we may have had with the sufferings of Charles I.,—and the English nation shared it, as is proved by the restoration of his son,—we can have none with his successors: they threw away their chances; they dissipated the most enthusiastic loyalty; they squandered opportunities; and had no enemies, even the bitterest, who were more fatal than themselves. And now it was manifest that Dryden's day was over. Nor does he shrink from his fate. He neither sings a Godspeeding ode to the runaway king, nor a salutatory to the new comers.
DRYDEN'S FALL.—Stripped of his laureate-wreath and all his emoluments, he does not sit down to fold his hands and repine. Sixty years of age, he girds up his loins to work manfully for his living. He translates from the classics; he renders Chaucer into modern English: in 1690 he produced a play entitled Don Sebastian, which has been considered his dramatic master-piece, and, as if to inform the world that age had not dimmed the fire of his genius, he takes as his caption,—
... nec tarda senectus
Debilitat vires animi, mutat que vigorem.
This latter part of his life claims a true sympathy, because he is every inch a man.
It must not be forgotten that Dryden presented Chaucer to England anew, after centuries of neglect, almost oblivion; for which the world owes him a debt of gratitude. This he did by modernizing several of the Canterbury Tales, and thus leading English scholars to seek the beauties and instructions of the original. The versions themselves are by no means well executed, it must be said. He has lost the musical words and fresh diction of the original, as a single comparison between the two will clearly show. Perhaps there is no finer description of morning than is contained in these lines of Chaucer:
The besy lark, the messager of day,
Saleweth in hir song the morwe gray;
And firy Phebus riseth up so bright
That all the orient laugheth of the sight.
How expressive the words: the busy lark; the sun rising like a strong man; all the orient laughing. The following version by Dryden, loses at once the freshness of idea and the felicity of phrase:
The morning lark, the messenger of day,
Saluted in her song the morning gray;
And soon the sun arose with beams so bright
That all the horizon laughed to see the joyous sight.
The student will find this only one of many illustrations of the manner in which Dryden has belittled Chaucer in his versions.
ODES.—Dryden has been regarded as the first who used the heroic couplet with entire mastery. In his hands it is bold and sometimes rugged, but always powerful and handled with great ease: he fashioned it for Pope to polish. Of this, his larger poems are full of proof. But there is another verse, of irregular rhythm, in which he was even more successful,—lyric poetry as found in the irregular ode, varying from the short line to the “Alexandrine dragging its slow length along;” the staccato of a harp ending in a lengthened flow of melody.
Thus long ago,
Ere heaving billows learned to blow,
While organs yet were mute;
Timotheus to his breathing flute
And sounding lyre
Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire.
When he became a Roman Catholic, St. Cecilia, “inventress of the vocal frame,” became his chief devotion; and the Song on St. Cecilia's Day and An Ode to St. Cecilia, are the principal illustrations of this new power.
Gray, who was remarkable for his own lyric power, told Dr. Beattie that if there were any excellence in his own numbers, he had learned it wholly from Dryden.
The Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, also entitled “Alexander's Feast,” in which he portrays the power of music in inspiring that famous monarch to love, pity, and war, has to the scholar the perfect excellence of the best Greek lyric. It ends with a tribute to St. Cecilia.
At last divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the vocal frame:
Now let Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown.
He raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down,
Dryden's prose, principally in the form of prefaces and dedications, has been admired by all critics; and one of the greatest has said, that if he had turned his attention entirely in that direction, he would have been facile princeps among the prose writers of his day. He has, in general terms, the merit of being the greatest refiner of the English language, and of having given system and strength to English poetry above any writer up to his day; but more than all, his works are a transcript of English history—political, religious, and social—as valuable as those of any professed historian. Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of an earl, who, it is said, was not a congenial companion, and who afterwards became insane. He died from a gangrene in the foot. He declared that he died in the profession of the Roman Catholic faith; which raises a new doubt as to his sincerity in the change. Near the monument of old father Chaucer, in Westminster, is one erected, by the Duke of Buckingham, to Dryden. It merely bears name and date, as his life and works were supposed to need no eulogy.