Dryden the Poet
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[ 265 Dryden the Poet1 Dryden’s position in English literature is unique. Far below Shakespeare, and even below Milton, as we must put him, he yet has, just by reason of his precise degree of inferiority, a kind of importance which neither Shakespeare nor Milton has – the importance of his influence. It is this nice question of influence that I wish to investigate first, in relation to what I may call the “literary dictator,” that is, in our history, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Samuel Johnson and in his way, Coleridge. Are we to say that poets like Shakespeare and Milton were without influence? Certainly not, but “influence ,” in the sense in which we can cope with the term, is something more limited. The disproportion between Shakespeare and his immediate followers , among the dramatists, is so great that the influence of Shakespeare is a trifling thing in comparison with Shakespeare himself; and as for Milton, that was so peculiar a genius that although he had plenty of mimics during the eighteenth century, he can hardly be said to have any followers. For “influence,” as Dryden had influence, a poet must not be so great as to overshadow all followers. Dryden was followed by Pope, and, a century later, by Samuel Johnson; both men of great original genius, who developed the medium left them by Dryden, in ways which cast honour both on them and on him. It should seem then no paradox to say that Dryden was the great influence upon English verse that he was, because he was not too great to have any influence at all. He was neither the consummate poet of earlier times, nor the eccentric poet of later. He was happy both in his predecessors and in his successors. A hundred years is a long time for the stamp of one man to remain upon a literature; poets’ influence and reputation cannot last so long in our days; and that makes Dryden a central, a typical figure in English letters. He is in himself the Malherbe, the Boileau, the Corneille, and almost the Molière (almost, because Congreve refined and surpassed him in comedy) of the seventeenth century in England; and to him, as much as to any individual, we owe our civilisation. As a figure, there is nothing picturesque about the man John Dryden. He came of a small county family like hundreds of others; he had, for a man of his origins, no great worldly advantages; he married a lady of superior rank, who brought him no exceptional advantage either, and apparently Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1931 266 ] little domestic happiness. He was an ordinary seeming, florid countryman, whose manners, according to the next and more refined generation, were not of the most polished. We do not know whether it was by the brilliance of his conversation that he was the great figure of Wills’s Coffee House for all the hours that he passed there every day; but there he was admired by minor men of letters, and courted by bluestocking noblemen.2 If not because of his powers of talk, in an age when men talked and drank for more hours a day than they can afford to do now, and when they wrote, wrote at higher speed than we can, then it was because they all recognised that Dryden could do everything that they would have liked to do, and because what he wrote did not exceed the scope of their comprehension. I cannot imagine Shakespeare cutting such a figure in a tavern or coffeehouse ; that solitary person surely had too much in his head which his tap-room companions could not understand; the predecessor of Dryden in this role is, of course, Ben Jonson. But although of Jonson we have so few personal remains, yet the notes and the anecdotes which we have give us at least the illusion of as definite a character as that of Dr. Samuel Johnson. We remember the story of Ben Jonson, that when he returned to the Anglican fold after his temporary defection to Rome, he showed his enthusiasm by seizing the chalice, at his first communion, and draining it to the last drop.3 We can never see Dryden so clearly; yet his age was in accord that he expressed each man better than any man could express himself. Being so completely representative, Dryden not only formed the mould for the next age, but himself derived very clearly from the last. In his work...