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John Dryden, the celebrated poet, son of Erasmus Dryden, of Tichmersh in Northamptonshire, baronet, was born at Aldwinkle in that county, in 1631. He was educated at Westminster, where he was king's scholar, under the famous Dr. Busby; whence he was elected, in 1650, scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1662, he was chosen fellow of the Royal Society; and on the death of sir William Davenant, in 1668, was made poet-laureat and his: toriographer to Charles II. Soon after the accession of James II. Dryden was converted to popery ; in consequence of which, he was dismissed at the revolution from his office of poet-laureat. His life is so well known that it were needless to add other particulars. He died in 1701.
The prose works of Dryden were collected, in 1800, into four volumes octavo, by Mr. Malone, with notes and illustrations; to which is prefixed an account of the life and writings of the author. This publication contains also a collection of his letters, the greater part of which was never before published. It were superfluous to specify the several particulars in this collection. It is sufficient to observe, that the most valuable of the prose producrions of Dryden, is his “Essay on Dramatic Poesy," from which alone I shall make my selections. This celebrated essay contains the relation of a dialogue, supposed to have taken place between Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, who, on occasion of the engagement between the, English and Dutch fleets, June 3, 1665, about eight leagues to the east of Lowestoff in Suffolk, are represented to have taken a barge, and proceeded down the Thames towards Greenwich, that they may listen more attentively to the low and lollow murmurings, arising from the reports of the distant canon. When the noise had ceased, and they had congratulated each other by anticipation on the
victory of their country, the conversation began with Crites' expressing his apprehension, that they should now be inundated with a deluge of bad verses on that memorable occasion. After some desultory talking, the dispute is limited to dramatic poetry, when Lisideius* defines a play to be :
A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.”
I have room only for his admirable characters of our principal dramatists.
* The characters in this dialogue allude to real personages,who are thus identified by Mr. Malone :
:--" The person hid under the feigned name of Eugenius, as we shall presently find, was Charles, earl of Dorset. Crites and Lisideius, perhaps, were meant to represent Wentworth, earl of Roscommon, (or as he corrects himself in a subsequent note, more probably sir Robert Howard) and John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave, afterwards duke of Bucks and Normandy, under the character of Neander, who, in the latter part of this essay, appears as a strenuous advocate for rhyming tragedies. Our author himself, I conceive, is shadowed."
To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man, who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily: when he describes any thing, you more than see it--you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give bim the greater commendation : he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot
where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid ; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him ; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him; Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem :: and in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him.
Beaumont and Fletcher:
Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom I am next to speak, had, with the advantage of Shakspeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improved by study; Beaumont especially, being so accurate a judge of plays, that Beir.Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censure, and ’tis thought, used his judgment in correcting, if not contriving, 'all bis plots. What value he had for him, appears by the verses he writ to him, and therefore I need speak no farther of it. The first play that brought Fletcher and him ir esteem was their“ Philaster :” for before that they had written two or three very unsuecessfully: as the like is reported of Ben. Jonson, before he writ“Every Man in his Humour." Their plots were generally more regular than Shakspeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death ; and they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better; whose wild debaucheries, and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet before them could paint as they have