restricted access John Dryden
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350 ] John Dryden1 If the prospect of delight be wanting (which alone justifies the perusal of poetry) we may let the reputation of Dryden sleep in the manuals of literature . To those who are genuinely insensible of his genius (and these are probably the majority of living readers of poetry) we can only oppose illustrations of the following proposition: that their insensibility does not merely signify indifference to satire and wit, but lack of perception of qualities not confined to satire and wit and present in the work of other poets whom these persons feel that they understand. To those whose taste in poetry is formed entirely upon the English poetry of the nineteenth century – to the majority – it is difficult to explain or excuse Dryden: the twentieth century is still the nineteenth, although it may in time acquire its own character. The nineteenth century had, like every other, limited tastes and peculiar fashions; and, like every other, it was unaware of its own limitations . Its tastes and fashions had no place for Dryden; yet Dryden is one of the tests of a catholic appreciation of poetry. He is a successor of Jonson, and therefore the descendant of Marlowe; he is the ancestor of nearly all that is best in the poetry of the eighteenth century. Once we have mastered Dryden – and by mastery is meant a full and essential enjoyment, not the enjoyment of a private whimsical fashion – we can extract whatever enjoyment and edification there is in his contemporaries – Oldham, Denham, or the less remunerative Waller; and still morehissuccessors–notonlyPope,butPhillips,Churchill,Gray,Johnson, Cowper, Goldsmith.2 His inspiration is prolonged in Crabbe and Byron; it even extends, as Mr. van Doren cleverly points out, to Poe.3 Even the poets responsible for the revolt were well acquainted with him: Wordsworth knew his work, and Keats invoked his aid.4 We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden; and to enjoy Dryden means to pass beyond the limitations of the nineteenth century into a new freedom. All, all of a piece throughout! Thy Chase had a Beast in View; Thy Wars brought nothing about; Thy Lovers were all untrue. [ 351 John Dryden ’Tis well an Old Age is out, And time to begin a New.5 . . . . The world’s great age begins anew, The golden years return, The earth doth like a snake renew Her winter weeds outworn: Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.6 The first of these passages is by Dryden, the second by Shelley; the second is found in the Oxford Book of English Verse, the first is not; yet we might defy anyone to show that the second is superior on intrinsically poetic merit. It is easy to see why the second should appeal more readily to the nineteenth, and what is left of the nineteenth under the name of the twentieth , century. It is not so easy to see propriety in an image which divests a snake of “winter weeds”; and this is a sort of blemish which would have been noticed more quickly by a contemporary of Dryden than by a contemporary of Shelley.7 These reflections are occasioned by an admirable book on Dryden which has appeared at this very turn of time, when taste is becoming perhaps more fluid and ready for a new mould. It is a book which every practitioner of English verse should study. The consideration is so thorough, the matter so compact, the appreciation so just, temperate, and enthusiastic , and supplied with such copious and well-chosen extracts from the poetry, the suggestion of astutely placed facts leads our thought so far, that there only remain to mention, as defects which do not detract from its value, two omissions: the prose is not dealt with, and the plays are somewhat slighted. What is especially impressive is the exhibition of the very wide range of Dryden’s work, shown by the quotations of every species. Everyone knows MacFlecknoe, and parts of Absalom and Achitophel; in consequence, Dryden has sunk by the persons he has elevated to distinction – Shadwell and Settle, Shaftesbury and Buckingham.8† Dryden was much more than a satirist; to dispose of him as a satirist is to place an obstacle in the way of our understanding. At all events, we must satisfy ourselves of our definition of the term satire; we must not allow our familiarity with...


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