Page images

sometimes by wit, but more frequently by intrigue, by dis. guises, mistakes of persons, dialogues at cross purposes, hairbreadth escapes, perplexing concealments, and surprising disclosures. He thus succeeded at least in making these pieces very amusing.

In his tragedies he trusted, and not altogether without reason, to his diction and his versification. It was on this account, in all probability, that he so eagerly adopted, and so reluctantly abandoned, the practice of rhyming in his plays. What is unnatural appears less unnatural in that species of verse, than in lines which approach more nearly to common conversation ; and in the management of the heroic couplet, Dryden has never been equalled. It is unnecessary to urge any arguments against a fashion now universally condemned. But it is worthy of observation, that though Dryden was deficient in that talent which blank verse exhibits to the greatest advantage, and was certainly the best writer of heroic rhyme in our language, yet the plays which have, from the time of their first appearance, been considered as his best, are in blank verse. No experiment can be more decisive.

It must be allowed, that the worst even of the rhyming tragedies contains good description and magnificent rhetoric. But, even when we forget that they are plays, and, passing by their dramatic improprieties, consider them with reference to the language, we are perpetually disgusted by passages which it is difficult to conceive how any author could have written, or any audience have tolerated; rants in which the raving violence of the manner forms a strange contrast with the abject tameness of the thought. The author laid the whole fault on the audience, and declared, that when he wrote them, he considered them bad enough to please. This defence is unworthy of a man of genius, and, after all, is no defence. Otway pleased without rant; and so might Dryden have done, if he had possessed the powers of Otway. The fact is, that he had a tendency to bombast, which, though subsequently corrected by time and thought, was never wholly removed, and which showed itself in performances not designed to please the rude mob of the theatre.

Some indulgent critics have represented this failing as an indication of genius, as the profusion of unlimited wealth, the wantonness of exuberant vigor. To us it seems to bear a nearer affinity to the tawdriness of poverty, or the spasms and convulsions of weakness. Dryden surely had not more imagination than Homer, Dante, or Milton, who never fall into this vice. The swelling diction of Æschylus and Isaiah resembles that of Almanzor and Maximin no more than the tumidity of a muscle resembles the tumidity of a boil. The former is symptomatic of health and strength, the latter of debility and disease. If ever Shakspeare rants, it is not when his imagination is hurrying him along, but when he is hurrying his imagination along, — when his mind is for a moment jaded, - when, as was said of Euripides, he resembles a lion, who excites his own fury by lashing himself with his tail. What happened to Shakspeare from the occa

. sional suspension of his powers, happened to Dryden from constant impotence. He, like his confederate Lee, had judgment enough to appreciate the great poets of the preceding age, but not judgment enough to shun competition with them. He felt and admired their wild and daring sublimity. That it belonged to another age than that in which he lived, and required other talents than those which he possessed ; that, in aspiring to emulate it, he was wasting, in a hopeless attempt, powers which might render him preëminent in a different career, was a lesson which he did not learn till late. As those knavish enthusiasts, the French prophets, courted inspiration, by mimicking the writhings,

[ocr errors]

swoonings, and gaspings, which they considered as its symptoms, he attempted, by affected fits of poetical fury, to bring on a real paroxysm ; and, like them, he got nothing but his distortions for his pains.

Horace very happily compares those who, in his time, imitated Pindar, to the youth who attempted to fly to Heaven on waxen wings, and who experienced so fatal and ignominious a fall. His own admirable good sense preserved him from this error, and taught him to cultivate a style in which excellence was within his reach. Dryden had not the same self-knowledge. He saw that the greatest poets were never so successful as when they rushed beyond the ordinary bounds, and that some inexplicable good fortune preserved them from tripping even when they staggered on the brink of nonsense. He did not perceive that they were guided and sustained by a power denied to himself. They wrote from the dictation of the imagination, and they found a response in the imaginations of others. He, on the contrary, sat down to work himself, by reflection and argument, into a deliberate wildness, a rational frenzy.

In looking over the admirable designs which accompany the Faust, we have always been much struck by one which represents the wizard and the tempter riding at full speed. The demon sits on his furious horse as heedlessly as if he were reposing on a chair. That he should keep his saddle in such a posture, would seem impossible to any who did not know that he was secure in the privileges of a superhuman nature. The attitude of Faust, on the contrary, is the perfection of horsemanship. Poets of the first order might safely write as desperately as Mephistopheles rode. But Dryden, though admitted to communion with higher spirits, though armed with a portion of their power, and entrusted with some of their secrets, was of another race.

What they might securely venture to do, it was madness in him to


[ocr errors]

attempt. It was necessary that taste and critical science should supply his deficiencies.

We will give a few examples. Nothing can be finer than the description of Hector at the Grecian wall :


ο δ' άρ' έσθoρε φαίδιμος "Εκτωρ,
Νυκτί θοή ατάλαντος υπώπια λάμπε δε χαλκό
Σμερδαλέω, τον έεστο περί χροί δοιά δε χερσίν
Δούρ' έχεν. ουκ άν τις μιν ερυκάκοι αντιβολήσας,
Νόσφι θεών, ότ' εσάλτο πύλας: πυρί δ' όσσε δεδήει.
Αυτίκα δ' οι μεν τείχος υπέρβασαν, οι δε κατ' αυτάς
Ποιητάς εσέχυντο πύλας. Δαναοί δ' εφόβηθεν
Νήας ανά γλαφυράς: Ομαδος δ' άλίαστος ετύχθη.

What daring expressions! Yet how significant! How picturesque ! Hector seems to rise up in his strength and fury. The gloom of night in his frown, - the fire burning in his eyes, — the javelins and the blazing armor, - the

mighty rush through the gates and down the battlements,the trampling and the infinite roar of the multitude, - everything is with us; everything is real.

Dryden has described a very similar event in Maximin ; and has done his best to be sublime, as follows:

There with a forest of their darts he strove,
And stood like Capaneus defying Jove;
With his broad sword the boldest beating down,
Till Fate grew pale, lest he should win the town,
And turned the iron leaves of its dark book
To make new dooms, or mend what it mistook.'

How exquisite is the imagery of the fairy-songs in the Tempest and the Midsummer Night's Dream ; Ariel riding through the twilight on the bat, or sucking in the bells of flowers with the bee; or the little bower-women of Titania, driving the spiders from the couch of the Queen! Dryden truly said, that

Shakspeare's magic could not copied be;
Within that circle none durst walk but he.'

It would have been well if he had not himself dared to step within the enchanted line, and drawn on himself a fate similar to that which, according to the old superstition, punished such presumptuous interference. The following lines are parts of the song of his fairies :

• Merry, merry, merry, we sail from the East,
Half-tippled at a rainbow feast.
In the bright moonshine, while winds whistle loud,
Tivy, tivy, tivy, we mount and we fly,
All racking along in a downy white cloud ;
And lest our leap from the sky prove too far,
We slide on the back of a new falling star,
And drop from above

In a jelly of love.' These are very favorable instances. Those who wish for a bad one may read the dying speeches of Maximin, and may compare them with the last scenes of Othello and Lear.

If Dryden had died before the expiration of the first of the periods into which we have divided his literary life, he would have left a reputation, at best, little higher than that of Lee or Davenant. He would have been known only to men of letters; and by them he would have been mentioned as a writer who threw away, on subjects which he was incompetent to treat, powers which, judiciously employed, might have raised him to eminence, whose diction and whose numbers had sometimes very high merit, but all whose works were blemished by a false taste, and by errors of gross negligence. A few of his prologues and epilogues might perhaps still have been remembered and quoted. In these little pieces, he early showed all the powers which afterwards rendered him the greatest of modern satirists. But during the latter part of his life, he gradually abandoned


« PreviousContinue »