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A Collection of Letters and Poems, amorous and gallant, was published in the volumes called Dryden's Miscellany, and some other occasional pieces.
To his Poems and Letters is prefixed a very judicious preface upon Epistolary Composition and Amorous Poetry.
In his Golden Age restored, there was something of humour, while the facts were recent; but it now strikes no longer. In his imitation of Horace, the first stanzas are happily turned; and in all his writings there are pleasing passages. He has, however, more elegance than vigour, and seldom rises higher than to be pretty.
Of the great poet whose life I am about to delineate, the curiosity which his reputation must excite will require a display more ample than can now be given. His contemporaries, however they reverenced his genius, left his life unwritten; and nothing therefore can be known beyond what casual mention and uncertain tradition have supplied.
John Dryden was born August 9, 1631 f, at Aldwinkle near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden of Tichmersh; who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, baronet, of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire; but the original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon.^
He is reported by his last biographer, Derrick, to have inherited from his father an estate of two hundred a year, and to have been bred, as was said, an Anabaptist. For either of these particulars no au* The Life of Dryden, though in point of composition it is one of the most admirable of Johnson's productions, is in many particulars incorrect. Mr. Malone, in the Biography prefixed to his " Prose Works," has collected a much more ample and accurate account; and from that valuable work several dates and other particulars have been set right.
t Mr. Malone has lately proved that there is no satisfactory evidence for this date. The inscription on Dryden's monument says only natus 1632. See Malone's Life of Dryden, prefixed to his "Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works." p. 5. note. C.
1 Of Cumberland. Ibid. p. 10. C.
thority is given.* Such a fortune ought to have secured him from that poverty which seems always to have oppressed him; or, if he had wasted it, to have made him ashamed of publishing his necessities. But though he had many enemies, who undoubtedly examined his life with a scrutiny sufficiently malicious, I do not remember that he is ever charged with waste of his patrimony. He was indeed sometimes reproached for his first religion. I am therefore inclined to believe that Derrick's intelligence was partly true, and parly erroneous, f
From AVestminster School, where he was instructed as one of the King's scholars by Dr. Busby, whom he long after continued to reverence, he was in 1650 elected to one of the Westminster scholarships at Cambridge. J:
Of his school performances has appeared only a poem on the death of Lord Hastings, composed with great ambition of such conceits as, notwithstanding the reformation begun by Waller and Denham, the example of Cowley still kept in reputation. Lord Hastings died of the small-pox; and his poet has made of the pustules first rosebuds, and then gems; at last exalts them into stars; and says,
* Mr. Malone has furnished us with a detailed account of our poet's circumstances, from which it appears, that although he was possessed of a sufficient income in the early part of his life, he was considerably embarrassed at its close.
See Malone's Life, p. 440. Mr. Derrick's Life of Dryden was prefixed to a very beautiful and correct edition of Dryden's Miscellanies, published by the Tonsons in 1760, 4 vols. 8vo. Derrick's part, however, was poorly executed, and the edition never became popular. C.
J He went off to Trinity College, and was admitted to a Bachelor's Degree in Jan. 1653-4, and in 1657 was made M.A.
No comet need foretell his change drew on,
At the university he does not appear to have been eager of poetical distinction, or to have lavished his early wit either on fictitious subjects, or publick occasions. He probably considered, that he who proposed to be an author, ought first to be a student. He obtained, whatever was the reason, no fellowship in the College. Why he was excluded cannot now be known, and it is vain to guess; had he thought himself injured, he knew how to complain. In the Life of Plutarch he mentions his education in the College with gratitude; but, in a prologue at Oxford, lie has these lines:
Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
Than his own mother-university:
Thebes did his rude, unknowing youth engage;
He chooses Athens in his riper age.
It was not till the death of Cromwell, in 1658, that he became a publick candidate for fame, by publishing Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector*; which, compared with the verses of Sprat and Waller on the same occasion, were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.
When the King was restored, Dryden, like the other panegyrists of usurpation, changed his opinion, or his profession, and published " Astrea Redux; a poem on the happy Restoration and Return of his most sacred Majesty King Charles the Second."
The reproach of inconstancy was, on this occasion, shared with such numbers, that it produced neither hatred nor disgrace! if he changed, he changed with the nation. It was, however, not totally forgotten when his reputation raised him enemies.
* This is a mistake; his poem on the death of Lord Hastings appeared in a volume entitled "Tears of the Muses on the Death of Henry Lord Hastings." 8vo. 1649! M.
The same year he praised the new Kingin a second poem on his restoration. In the Astrea was the line, An horrid stillness first invades the ear, And in that silence we a tempest fear— for which he was persecuted with perpetual ridicule, perhaps with more than was deserved. Silence is indeed mere privation; and, so considered, cannot invade; but privation likewise certainly is darkness, and probably cold; yet poetry has never been refused the right of ascribing effects or agency to them as to positive powers. No man scruples to say that darkness hinders him from his work; or that cold has killed the plants. Death is also privation; yet who has made any difficulty of assigning to Death a dart and the power of striking?
In settling the order of his works there is some difficulty; for, even when they are important enough to be formally offered to a patron, he does not commonly date his dedication; the time of writing and publishing is not always the same; nor can the first editions be easily found, if even from them could be obtained the necessary information.*
The time at which his first play was exhibited is not certainly known, because it was not printed till it was, some years afterwards, altered and revived; but since the plays are said to be printed in the order in
* The order of his plays has been accurately ascertained by Mr. Malone. C.