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The Progress of the Nation page 6


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What makes a church a den of thieves? –
A dean, a chapter, and white sleeves.
What makes all points of doctrine clear? –
About two hundred pounds a year.
And that which was proved true before,
Prove false again? - Two hundred more -

though the sting was intended for the puritans, the puritans laid hold on it, and quoted it against the church; and these and like blows rebounded, no doubt, on the poet's head.

Though time has removed the great interest of "Hudibras," and rendered many things in it obscure, yet its wit will always occasion it to be read and enjoy«!, though, perhaps', no great poet was ever so destitute of those occasional touches of pathos and of natural beauty which other satirists have displayed, like breaks of sunlight in a storm, and of which so many of extraordinary fascination are interspersed in the otherwise objectionable pages of "Don Juan."

The most illustrious name of this period next to Milton is that of Dryden. He wrote almost every kind of poetry - satires, odes, plays, romantic stories, and translated Juvenal, Persius, the epistles of Ovid, and finally Virgil. It was unfortunate for the genius of Dryden that lie was generally struggling with poverty, and by marrying an aristocratic and uncongenial wife, the sister of Sir Robert Howard, he was all the more compelled to exert his powers to live in the style which their circumstances demanded. Hence he produced an immense mass of writings, which added nothing to his fame. Foremost amongst these are his plays, which amount to nearly thirty in number, which were for the most part unsuccessful, and which abound with such gross indecencies, that, had they even high merit otherwise, would be found to be unperusable without cutting away their very vitals. He had the presumption to new- model Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night's Dream", and the "Tempest" - two of the most poetical compositions in existence - and blurred them with the foul leprosy of obscenity. He treated the "Paradise Lost" of Milton the same; nor did his necessities lead him only to these enormities; but there is little doubt they drove him to apostatise from his religion, and from his original political faith. His first poem of any note was a most eulogistic elegy on the death of Cromwell, in which, amongst many other such things, he said -
Heav'n in his portrait showed a workman's hand,
And drew it perfect, yet without a shade.

His very next poem, and that of some length, was "Astrea Redux; a Poem on the Happy Restoration and Return of his Sacred Majesty Charles II.," immediately followed by "A Panegyric on his Coronation," in which he heaps still more glowing praises on the young royal libertine, and flings dust as liberally at his late idol: -

While our cross stars denied us Charles's 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;
Experienced age in deep despair was lost,
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal crossed.

The accomplished sycophant received as his reward the office of poet laureate, with three hundred pounds a year; and he paid officiously more than his peppercorn of praise in the "Annus Mirabilis, or Year of Wonders, 1666," in which the sea fights with the Dutch and the fire of London were commemorated in elegiacal stanzas, and the most fulsome and almost impious adulation was poured in showers on both the king and his heir apparent, the duke of York - not forgetting an especial poetical address to the duchess on her husband's victories over the Hollanders. Who could recognise the reckless and libidinous Charles H. in lines like these, in which he is also complimented on forgiving his enemies whilst his throne stood deep in the blood of regicides and of persecuted covenanters: -

This I foretell from your auspicious care,
Who great in search of God and nature grow,
Who best your wise Creator's praise declare,
Since best to praise his works is best to know.
O truly royal! who behold the law
And rule of beings in your Maker's mind,
And thence, like limbecks, rich ideas draw
To fit the levellest use of human kind!

When this pious, God-studying, rich-idea drawing monarch died, the ready laureate wrote a most blasphemous ode on his death, taking care to pay due homage to the rising sun.

Our Atlas fell indeed, but Hercules was near.

His death was described to be like that of u the pious Hezekiah;" "God's image, God's anointed," lay amongst all sorts of miracles: -

Now miracles approached th' ethereal throne,
Such as his wondrous life had oft and lately shown.
The very fishes of the sea rose up amazed, and those who saw the prodigy exclaimed -
A king must fall, or kingdoms change their sway.
This pattern of all the virtues and all the wisdoms must die, but
That king who lived to God's own heart
Less serenely died than he.
But nature itself was illumined by his parting beams : -
Oh, truly good and truly great!
For glorious as he rose, benignly so he set.

The force of blasphemy could no further go, except to extend itself to the new monarch, James of blessed memory: -

His pious brother - sure the best
Who ever bore that name.

No doubt Dryden made himself sure that his laureate salary was safe, but he was mistaken. James, though "the best who ever bore the name," could forget benefits, and even flatteries; but he never forgot an ill turn, or anything that endangered his great design of restoring popery; and Dryden, to please the church and the late king, whom he did not know was at heart a papist, had written his "Religio Laici," in which he had pulled the catholic church all to pieces, and lauded superlatively the Anglican hierarchy. James first took away his butt of sack, and then his salary; whereupon Dryden directly turned catholic, and wrote "The Hind and Panther," to beslaver popery, kick down protestantism, and reconcile the public to James's invidious scheme of abolishing the test act for his own purposes. This succeeded, and Dryden continued to receive his pay and do his dirty work during James's reign. It was expected that he would wheel round again on William and Mary's success; but this was too much even for the impudence of "glorious John;" he lived and died catholic.

With all respect for the genius of Dryden, it is thus impossible for a truthful historian to take any but a melancholy view of his personal character, and of the mass of his writings. They are, in fact, mostly on subjects that do not fall within the legitimate province of true poetry; they would have been more in place as prose political essays, and now-a-days would have figured as "Quarterly" articles. The "Absalom and Achitophel" - written to ridicule Monmouth and Shaftesbury, with their accomplice, Buckingham, under the name of "Zimri," and to damage the whig party generally - is transcendently clever; but even the highest satirical and political verse is not poetry - it is only cleverness in. verse; and this is the grand characteristic of Dryden's poetry - it is masterly verse. There is no creative faculty in it; it is a matter of style rather than of soul and sentiment; and in style he is a great master. This made Milton say that Dryden was a good rhymster but no poet; and assuredly, in Milton's conception of poetry, and in that which has taught us to venerate, Homer, Shakspeare, Milton, Herbert, Wordsworth, Shelley, &c., he was no poet, or a very third- rate one. A modern critic has given him great credit for "creative power and genius" in Ms adaptations of some of Chaucer's tales; but this is a mistake. The creative genius is Chaucer's; Dryden has only remodelled them in modern language; the ideas, the invention, are all Chaucer's; Dryden's part in them consists of his wonderful, elastic, musical diction, in which he undoubtedly excels every English author in the heroic measure. Pope's is more artificial, but is far behind in musical rhythm and elastic vigour. His heroic verse is music itself, and music full of its highest dements. In it the trumpet sings, the drum beats, the organ blows in solemn thunder, foe flute and fife shrill forth eloquence, and all mingled Instruments seem to chorus in a combination of blissful sounds and feelings. In the latter part of his life Dryden, standing independent of all government drudgery, shows more worthily both in life and verse. His translation of Virgil yet remains to be in our language. He had done with his contemptible squabbles with Elkanah Settle and Shadwell, who won from him the honours and profits of the theatre; and his "Sables," as he called them - tales from Chaucer - seemed to inspire him, with, a more realty poetic feeling. In them he seemed to grow purer, and to open his soul to the influences of classical and natural beauty, to the charms of nature, and of old romance. These tales will always remain the truest monuments of Dryden's fame. His odes, much as they have been praised, are rather feats of art than outpourings of poetic inspiration. His 1' Alexander's Feast" is but a description of the effects of music on a drunken conqueror and a courtesan. Who now would dream of placing it by the side of Coleridge's "Ode to France," or Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality drawn from Childhood." But any one turning to "Palamon and Arcite" will find himself in a real fairy-land of poetry, and perceive how much Keats, Leigh Hunt, and other modern poets have formed themselves on his style, and have even adopted his triplets. Compare the opening of "Rimini" with the opening of "Palamon and Arcite," when Theseus enters Athens with his Amazonian queen: -

With honour to his house let Theseus ride,
With love to friend, and fortune for his guide,
And his victorious army at his side.
I pass their warlike pomp, their proud array,
Their shoute, their songs, their welcome on the way;
But, were it not too long, I would recite
The feats of Amazons, the fatal fight
Betwixt the hardy queen and hero-knight;
The town besieged, and how much blood it cost
The female army and th' Athenian host;
The spousals of Hippolita the queen,
What tilts and tourneys at the feast were seen;
The storm at their return, the ladies' fear;
But those, and other things I must forbear.
The field is, spacious I design to sow,
With oxen far unfit to draw the plough.

Or take as a specimen of delicious maiden beauty, Emilia, the queen's sister, going out a-Maying: -

In this remembrance Emily, ere day,
Arose, and dressed herself in rich array;
Fresh as the morn, and as the morning fair,
Adown her shoulders fell her length of hair;
A riband did her braided tresses bind,
The rest was loose, and wantoned in the wind-
Aurora had but newly chased the night,
And purpled o'er the sky with blushing light,
When to the garden walk she took her way,
To sport and trip along in cool of day,
And offer maiden vows in honour of the May.
At ev'ry turn she made a little stand.
And thrust among the thorns her lily hand,
To draw the rose; and ev'ry rose she drew,
She shook the stalk, and brush'd away the dew;
Then party-colour'd flowers of white and red
She wove, to make a garland for her head;
This done, she sung and carolled out so clear.
That men and angels might rejoice to hear;
E'eh wond'ring Philomel forgot to sing,
And learn'd from her to venerate the spring:

We have given so much space to these the greatest poets of this period, that we have little for the rest. We have noticed Andrew Marvel's satires and his beautiful ballad, "The Emigrants," and Wither's poems, in our previous review. Sir John Denham's descriptive poem, "Cooper's Hill," had great popularity, and is a good specimen of that class of verse. Waller was a reigning favourite for his lyrics, which are elegant, but destitute of any. high principle or emotion, as the man was, who wrote a panegyric on Cromwell and another on Charles H.; and when Charles told him plainly he thought that oft Cromwell the best, replied, "Sir, we poets never excel so well in writing truth as in writing fiction." Amongst the courtiers of Charles, Buckingham and Rochester were poets. Buckingham's comedy, "The Rehearsal," which was written to ridicule the heroic drama copied by Dryden from the French, stall finds admirers; and the genius of Rochester was unquestionable, but still inferior to his obscenity. Sir Charles Sedley, another courtier, wrote comedies and songs almost equally famous for their dissoluteness. Charles Cotton, the author of "Virgil Travestied, was a writer of much wit, but nearly equal grossness, though he was the intimate friend of Izaak Walton, who was also no mean poet. The earls of Roscommon and Dorset were popular, the first for his "Essay on Translated Verse," written in verse, and the other for his splendid ballad written at sea, commencing "To all you ladies now at land." Pomfret, a clergyman, wrote a didactic poem called "The Choice," which Dr. Johnson declared to be more frequently read than almost any poem in the language, and which Southey believed to be the most popular poem in the language. It is, in reality, one of the commonplaces gone by. Sir William Davenant, a reputed son of Shakspeare, wrote "Gondibert," an heroic poem in elegiac stanzas, which has good parts, but, as a whole, is intolerably dull. Sir Robert Fanshawe was celebrated as a translator, especially of Guarini's "Pastor Fido." Another translator from Greek and Spanish was Thomas Stanley, the learned editor of AEschylus, and the author of "The History of Philosophy." Besides these may be mentioned Bulteel, a popular song writer; Philip Ayres, a lyrical poet; Dr. Henry More, author of a poem, "The Life of the Soul," in Spenserian stanzas; Flatman, an imitator of Cowley; and some others.

The dramatic writing of the period was rather voluminous than first-rate. Davenant wrote above twenty plays, masks, &c.; but the most eminent dramatists were the unfortunate Otway, Nathaniel Lee, Sir George Etherege, Wycherley, Crowne, Southerne, and Jasper Mayne. Otway's "Orphan" and "Venice Preserved" still maintain their fame; he wrote altogether ten plays. Nathaniel Lee wrote ten tragedies, a great mixture of talent and bombast. The most celebrated of them are his "Theodosius" and his "Rival Queens." Crowne wrote seventeen plays, in which the selections made by Charles Lamb in his "Dramatic Specimens," show that there exists perhaps the most pre-eminent dramatic genius of the age. Etherege is the author of three comedies of great polish and brilliancy, and set the pattern for Wycherley, and for Congreve, Farquhar, and Vanbrugh in the next period. Wycherley wrote four comedies equally remarkable for vigour and indecency. In fact, it is scarcely necessary to repeat that the whole of the dramatic literature of this period is perfectly measled and gangrened with the coarsest and most revolting sensuality and obscenity. Southerne belongs properly to the next era, as he produced only two of his plays during this period - his tragedy of "The Loyal Brother," and his comedy of "The Disappointment." Shadwell and Settle inundated the stage with worthless plays; and Mrs Aphra Ben, a courtesan as well as writer, is the author of a whole host of comedies, novels, and poems. Of Jasper Mayne's two comedies - who, by-the-by, was a clergyman - "The City Match" is the best. Perhaps we ought not to close this review of the poets without a mention of the most successful poetaster of the age, Nahum Tate, who was in such estimation as to be allowed to supply our churches with his most wretched version of the Psalms, and to be employed by Dryden to continue his satire of "Absalom and Achitophel."

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 6

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