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EPISTLE THE FIFTEENTH.
TO MY HONOURED KINSMAN
CHESTERTON, IN THE COUNTY OF
THE person to whom this epistle is addressed was Dryden's first cousin; being the second son of Sir John Driden, elder brother of the poet's father Erasmus. He derived from his maternal grandfather, Sir Robert Bevile, the valuable estate of Chesterton, near Stilton, where latterly our author frequently visited him, and where it is said he wrote the first four verses of his Virgil with a diamond on a glass pane. The mansion-house is at this time (spring, 1807,) about to be pulled down, and the materials sold. The life of Mr John Driden, for he retained the ancient spelling of the name, seems to have been that of an opulent and respectable country gentleman, more happy, perhaps, in the quiet enjoyment of a large landed property, than his cousin in possession of his brilliant poetical genius. He represented the county of Huntingdon in parliament, in 1690, and from 1700 till his death in 1707-8.
The panegyric of our author is an instance, among a thousand, how genius can gild what it touches; for the praise of this lofty rhyme, when minutely examined, details the qualities of that very ordinary, though very useful and respectable, character, a wealthy and sensible country squire. "Just, good, and wise," contending neighbours referred their disputes to his decision; in humble prose, he was an active justice of peace. That he was hospitable, and kept a good pack of hounds, was a fox-hunter while young, and
now followed beagles or harriers, that he represented his county, and voted against ministry, sums up his excellencies; for I will not follow my author, by numbering among them his living and dying a bachelor. * Yet these annals, however simple and vulgar, illuminated by the touch of our author's pen, shine like the clouds under the influence of a setting sun. The greatest illustration of our author's genius is, that the praise, though unusually applied, is appropriate, and hardly exaggerated; we lay down the book, and recollect to how little this laboured character amounts; and when we resume it, are again hurried away by the magic of the poet. But in this epistle, besides the compliment to his cousin, Dryden had a further intention in view, which was, to illustrate the character of a good English member of Parliament, whom, in conformity with his own prejudice, he represents as inclining to oppose the ministry. It was coincidence in this sentiment which had done much to reconcile Dryden and his cousin; and thus politics reunited relations, whom political disputes had long parted. At this time we learn from one of our author's letters, that Mr Dryden of Chesterton, although upon different principles, was in as warm opposition as his cousin could have wished him. + Our poet, however, who had felt the hand of power, did not venture on this portrait without such an explanation to Charles Montague, afterwards Lord Halifax, as he thought sufficient to avert any risk of misconstruction. I
There is a report admitted into the "Baronetage," that this gentleman and his three brothers took upon them a vow to die unmarried; and it must be owned, that the praises of our author, on the score of celibacy, argue his cousin to have been a most obstinate and obdurate old bachelor. But Mr Malone produces the evidence of an old lady descended of the family, in disproof of this ungallant anecdote.-See Baronetage, Vol. II. p. 92. MALONE'S Life of Dryden, p. 324.
+" "Tis thought the king will endeavour to keep up a standing army, and make the stir in Scotland his pretence for it: My cousin Dryden, and the country party, will, I suppose, be against it; for when a spirit is raised, 'tis hard conjuring him down again."
$ "In the description which I have made of a Parliament-man, I think I have not only drawn the features of my worthy kinsman, but have also given my own opinion of what an Englishman in Parliament ought to be; and deliver it as a memorial of my own principles to all posterity. I have consulted the judgment of my unbiassed friends, who have some of them the honour to be known to you; and they think there is nothing which can justly give offence in that part of the poem. I say not this, to cast a blind on your judgement, (which I could not do if I endeavoured it,) but to assure you, that nothing relating to the public shall stand without your permission; for it were to want common sense to desire your patronage, and resolve to disoblige you: And as I will not hazard my hopes of your protection, by refusing to obey you in any thing which I can perform with my conscience, or my honour, so I am very confident you will never impose any other terms on me.”—Letter to the Honourable Charles Montague.
There has not been found any early edition of this epistle separate from the volume of Fables; of which therefore it probably made an original part, and was first published with them in 1700. It supplies one instance among many, that the poet's lamp burned clear to the close of life. It is said that his cousin acknowledged the honour done him by the poet, by a handsome gratuity. The amount has been alleged to be five hundred pounds, which is probably exaggerated. Mr Driden of Chesterton bequeathed that sum to Charles Dryden, the poet's son, who did not live to profit by the legacy. As the report of the present to Dryden himself depends only on tradition, it is possible the two circumstances may have been more or less confounded together.
The reader may be pleased to see the epitaph of John Driden of Chesterton, which concludes with some lines from this epistle. It is in the church of the village of Chesterton:
JOHANNIS DRIDEN, Arm.
F. Natu secundi Johannis Driden
de Canons Ashby in agro Northampton Bart.
Roberti Bevile, Bart.
unde sortem maternam
in hac viciniá de Chesterton et Haddon
adeptus, prædia dein latè,
per comitatum Huntington
lubens sæpiusq. Senatorem voluerit :
* In the family of Pigott, descended from John Dryden of Chesterton.
ad valorem 16 Millium plus minus Librarum,
vel in locis ubi res et commercium,
vel inter familiares quibus necessitudo
Nepos et Hæres Viri multum desiderati
JUST, GOOD, AND WISE, CONTENDING NEIGHBOURS COME,
Vide p. 75.
EPISTLE THE FIFTEENTH.
How blessed is he, who leads a country life,
From your award to wait their final doom;