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and raillery, I will force my genius to obey it, though with more reputation I could write in verse."
Dryden went so far in his efforts “to delight” his age that he produced some comedies whose .license was marked even in that lax time. Yet, while he traded in vice, he kept a touch of the Puritan's conscience. In one of the most beautiful of his poems, he cries out in a rare burst of genuine feeling:
“O gracious God! how far have we
And towards the close of his life, he confesses with manly frankness, “ I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have given by my loose writings; and make what reparation I am able by this public acknowledgment." There is much that is pathetic and even tragic in this late realization that through the best years of his life his mental powers had largely been misspent. Of all his plays, only one, he says, was "written for himself;”. All for Love — "the rest were given to the people.”
One poem, Annus Mirabilis (1667), broke this period of dramatic activity. It deals with two events of the wonderful year 1666, the War with Holland, and the Great Fire of London.
Satires and Other Works. - At fifty, Dryden had made but a slight impression as a poet: his reputation rested almost entirely on his plays. Yet at fifty he entered suddenly upon the most splendid period of his career with the publication of his great political satire, Absalom and Achitophel (1681). Here Dryden takes the biblical story of Absalom's revolt against David the King as an allegory to disclose to the nation the traitorous intent and the evil character of Monmouth and Shaftesbury, who were plotting against King Charles.
After years of apprenticeship, Dryden had come to his own, and we feel at last those distinctive qualities in which he has been seldom approached and never excelled — the impetus of the rapid verse, the keen, discriminating intellect, the epigrammatic brilliancy, and the tireless vigor that animates the whole. Other satiric masterpieces followed, among which Mac Flecknoe (1682) is perhaps the best known. In the Religio Laici, or Religion of a Layman (1682), and in the Hind and the Panther (1687), Dryden showed his extraordinary power of arguing in verse. The first is a declaration of faith in the teachings of the Church of England, the second a lengthy argument in behalf of the doctrines of the Church of Rome, Dryden having changed his religion after the accession of the Roman Catholic King, James II. The "milk-white Hind” represents the Church of Rome, the Panther the Church of England, and the two oddly assorted beasts engage in a lengthy theological argument. But, in spite of the absurdity of its scheme, the poem has great melody, charm, and intellectual power, and shows us Dryden at his best.
Later Years. In 1689, when the Protestant sovereigns, William and Mary, came to the throne, Dryden had many temptations to change his religion again, but this time he stood firm. This single act of constancy stands out in the midst of all the fluctuations of Dryden's career, and at no time of his life is he so worthy of our respect as in the years that followed. He toiled manfully for his support; he wrote plays, translated Vergil and other classic poets, modernized Chaucer, and told some stories from Boccaccio in charming verse. He toiled, — as he tells us a few years before his death,
— "struggling with want, oppressed with sickness," and "curbed” in his genius, yet steady to “his prin
ciples" and not "dispirited with” his afflictions. He died in 1700, and was buried at the feet of Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.
Dryden's Work in Prose and Verse. In his strength and in his weakness Dryden is the representative of his time. His poetry is professional rather than personal, and occasional rather than spontaneous. Much of it, written in imitation of the manner of Vergil or of Horace, seems to be made from books and not from the intensity of his own feeling or from the depth of his experience. His lines do not carry to the heart, as do those of Milton, or Burns, or Wordsworth. He writes, not out of the fullness of profound emotion, as all the greatest poets have done, but in the strength of a clear, fertile, and active intellect. He is the greatest satirist in the range of English poetry. His verse has clearness, ease, and a vigor which at times is almost brutal; he can be smooth and swift, majestic and sonorous. But in reading Dryden we feel the spiritual limitations of his time; everything seems material and earthly, with no redeeming touch of the divine. He shows little love of Nature, little sense of beauty, little real religion: tenderness, pathos, compassion, and a sense of the “mystery of
are almost entirely absent from his works. We admire his orderly mind, its perspicacity and balance; and his work may be called great literature, but hardly great poetry.
Dryden's prose is nearly if not quite as important as his verse.
His great merit as a prose-writer was that he introduced a plainer style of writing, better adapted to the daily needs of our modern world than the more eloquent, poetical, and involved manner of some of his predecessors. Before this time, prose had been written for the learned first, and only incidentally for the people.
Much of it had been heavy with long Latin words, and with lengthy and tortuous periods, but Dryden chose more simple words and wrote shorter and clearer sentences. English prose thus gained something of the freedom of good talk, as Lowell remarked, and was prepared for the needs of the general reader. Dryden was great also as a literary critic. In a number of letters, essays, and prefaces he discussed the rules of poetry, and with a large grasp of critical principles developed a broad and scholarly criticism in an age that was constantly narrowing its intellectual sympathies.
These eminent qualities gave Dryden a supreme place in the contemporary world of letters and, together with his personality, made him the central figure in literary London. Amiable, modest, generous, learned, he attracted to him some of the best minds of the day. Tradition pictures him as sitting in his own great armchair in the sunny bow-window of Will's Coffee House, a red-faced, portly, gray-haired old man—"Glorious John"—the literary law-giver of the young wits and rising authors, who loved to gather around him and listen to his stories of the past. His death marks the end of the century and, in a sense, the end of a literary period, but the tradition of his greatness was handed on to the writers of the next century, and Dryden became to Pope and the men of his day a literary model and authority in subject matter and in form.
Other Writers of the Restoration. — Besides Dryden there were many other writers in the period of the Restoration distinguished for their dramas or for prose works on philosophical or scientific themes. THOMAS OTWAY (1651-1685) and NATHANIEL LEE (1653–1691) wrote several important tragedies; and WILLIAM WYCHERLEY (1640–1715), WILLIAM CONGREVE (1670–1729), JOHN
VANBRUGH (1666–1726), and GEORGE FARQUHAR (1678– 1708) were famous for their witty though frequently immoral comedies. John LOCKE (1632-1704) developed a philosophy in which reason, experience, and observation were considered the surest guides to truth, and which discredited or denied the existence of any innate ideas of God or of morality. And SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642–1727) contributed to the development of science by his profound studies in mathematics and physics.
IMPORTANT DATES CHARLES II, “The Merry Monarch”
1660-1685 John DRYDEN
1631-1700 His literary activity
.about 1659-1700 Absalom and Achitophel, Part I, the first of his satires. 1681 Other dramatists: FARQUHAR, WYCHERLEY, CONGREVE, etc. The Great Plague
1665 The Great Fire of London
1666 Milton's Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes
1667-1671 John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
1678 JAMES II
1685-1689 Revolution of 1688; Declaration of Rights
1689 Reign of WILLIAM AND MARY (House of Orange) . 1689–1702 John Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding
1690 Abolition of the Censorship of the Press
1695 JEREMY COLLIER's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the Stage
CONTEMPORARY WRITERS IN FRANCE
La Fontaine, Fables ...