Page images

of one share and a quarter out of twelve shares and three quarters, into which the theatrical stock was divided. Of the plays written upon the above contract, a small proportion have kept their place on the stage, or in the closet. On the death of Sir W. Davenant, in 1668, Dryden obtained the post of poet-laureat, to which was added the sinecure place of historiographer royal; the joint salaries of which amounted to 2001.

The tragedies composed by Dryden were written in his earlier periods, in rhyme, which circumstance probably contributed. to the poetical rant by which they were too much characterised. For the correction of this fault, Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in conjunction with other wits, wrote the celebrated burlesque drama, entitled "The Rehearsal," of which Dryden, under the name of Bayes, was made the hero; and, in order to point the ridicule, his dress, phraseology, and mode of recitation, were exactly imitated by the actor. It does not, however, appear that his solid reputation as a poet was injured by this attack. He had the candour to acknowledge that several of the strokes were just, and he wisely refrained from making any direct reply.

In 1681, and, as it is asserted, at the king's express desire, he wrote his famous political poem, entitled "Absolom and Achitophel;" in which the incidents in the life of David were adapted to those of Charles II. in relation to the Duke of Monmouth and the Earl of Shaftesbury. Its poetry and its severity caused it to be read with great

eagerness; and as it raised the author to high favour with the court party, so it involved him in irreconciliable enmity with its opponents. These feelings were rendered more acute by his "Medal, a Satire on Sedition," written in the same year, on occasion of a medal struck by the whigs, when a grand jury returned Ignoramus to an indictment preferred against Lord Shaftesbury, for high treason. The rancour of this piece is not easily to be paralleled among party poems. In 1682, he published "Mac-Flecknoe," a short piece, throwing ridicule upon his very unequal rival, Shadwell. In the same year, one of his most serious poems, the " Religio Laici," made its appearance. Its purpose was to give a compendious view of the arguments for revealed religion, and to ascertain in what the authority of revelation essentially consists. Soon after this time he ceased to write for the stage. His dramatic vein was probably exhausted, and his circumstances were distressed. To this period Mr. Malone refers a letter written by him to Hyde, Earl of Rochester, in which, with modest dignity, he pleads merit enough not to deserve to starve, and requests some small employment in the customs or excise, or, at least, the payment of half a year's pension for the supply of his present necessities. He never obtained any of the requested places, and was doomed to find the booksellers his best patrons.

Charles II. died in 1685, and was succeeded by his brother James II., who openly declared his attachment to the religion of Rome. It was not long

before Dryden conformed to the same religion. This step has been the cause of much obloquy on one side, and has found much excuse on the other; but if it be considered, from a view of his past life, that, in changing his religious profession, he could have had little difficulty to encounter, it will appear no breach of candour to suppose that his immediate motive was nothing more than personal interest. The reward he obtained from his compliance was an addition to his pension of 100 1. per annum. Some time after he was engaged in a work which was the longest single piece he ever composed. This was his elaborate controversial poem of "The Hind and Panther." When completed, notwithstanding its unpromising subject, and signal absurdity of plan, such was the power of Dryden's verse, that it was read with avidity, and bore every mark of occupying the public attention. The birth of a prince called forth a congratulatory poem from Dryden, entitled "Britannia Rediviva," in which he ventured to use a poet's privilege of prophesy, foretelling a commencing era of prosperity to the nation and the church from this auspicious event; but in vain! for the revolution took place within a few months, and the hopes of the party were blasted for


Dryden was a severe sufferer from the change: his posts and pensions were taken away, and the poetical laurel was conferred upon his insignificant rival, Shadwell. He was now, in advanced life, to depend upon his own exertions for a security from absolute indigence. His faculties were equal to the emergency; and it will surprise some theorists


to be told, that the ten concluding years of his life, in which he wrote for bread, and composed at a certain rate per line, were those of many of the pieces which have most contributed to immortalise his They were those of his translation of Juvenal and Persius; of that of Virgil entire, a work which enriches the English language, and has greatly promoted the author's fame; of his celebrated Alexander's Feast; and of his Fables, containing some of the richest and most truly poetical pieces which he ever composed. Of these, several will appear in the subsequent collection of his works. Nor ought his prose writings to be neglected, which, chiefly consisting of the critical essays prefixed to his poems, are performances of extraordinary vigour and comprehension of mind, and afford, perhaps, the best specimens of genuine English.

Dryden died of a spreading inflammation in one of his toes, on the first of May, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to the tomb of Chaucer. No monument marked his grave, till a plain one, with his bust, was erected, at the expence of Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. He left behind him three sons, all brought up to letters. His own character was cold and reserved, backward in personal advances to the great, and rather heavy in conversation. In fact, he was too much engaged in literature to devote much of his time to society. Few writers of his time delighted so much to approach the verge of prophaneness; whence it may be inferred, that though religion was an interesting topic of discussion to him, he had very little of its spirit in his heart.





thriving arts long time had Holland grown, Crouching at home and cruel when abroad: Scarce leaving us the means to claim our own; Our king they courted, and our merchants aw'd. Trade, which like blood should circularly flow, Stopp'd in their channels, found its freedom lost: Thither the wealth of all the world did go,

And seem'd but shipwreck'd on so base a coast.

For them alone the Heavens had kindly heat;
In eastern quarries ripening precious dew:
For them the Idumæan balm did sweat,

And in hot Ceilon spicy forests grew.

The Sun but seem'd the labourer of the year;
Each waxing Moon supply'd her watery store,
To swell those tides which from the line did bear
Their brim-full vessels to the Belgian shore.

Thus, mighty in her ships, stood Carthage long,
And swept the riches of the world from far;
Yet stoop'd to Rome, less wealthy, but more strong:
And this may prove our second Punic war.

What peace can be, where both to one pretend?
(But they more diligent, and we more strong)
Or if a peace, it soon must have an end;

For they would grow too powerful were it long,

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »