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as he was a judge, he liked that on Cromwell best, Dryden replied that nothing could be more natural, since poets always succeeded better in fiction than in truth. However, his poetry and his wit combined not only gained him the favour of the Merry Monarch, but led also to his being selected as one of the original Fellows of the new Royal Society, which Sir W. Scott fairly points to as a proof of the estimation in which his talents were already held ; though his learning and scholarship, such as they were, were by no means of a scientific character. It was as a literary and not as a scientific man that he proposed to win a name for himself. And, as his critical judgement made him feel that there was great room for a reform in our poetry, which was too often composed without any effort at harmony, authors seeming to consider it sufficient if the lines ended with something like a rhyme, he set himself to work to polish English verse into a greater regularity and smoothness, and at the same time to purify it of the false metaphysical wit which had latterly been in fashion, and was still allowed by Cowley to perplex his readers.
He was by nature a courtier as well as a critic; and his next attempt at anything higher than a song or a prologue was called forth by the exploits of Prince Rupert and the Duke of Albemarle in the naval campaign of 1665, which he celebrated in a long ode written in the four-line stanza, to which he gave the title of “ Annus Mirabilis, or the year
of Wonders,” and which contains passages of great spirit, though often disfigured by others which show that he had not yet completely emancipated himself from the metaphysical fashion of the day, But odes of this kind, though useful to him as gaining for him the favour of persons of influence, brought but little profit. The age of Charles II. was not a reading age; but it was eminently a playgoing one; and, as the author of a successful play was entitled to considerable payments from the managers of the theatres where they were performed, he began to apply himself with great industry to dramatic composition ; pouring forth tragedies and comedies with unexampled rapidity. He composed them in rhyme, in compliance with the fancy of the king, whose taste during his exile on the Continent had been formed on the French model. But, though greatly admired in their day, they are now but little read; nor, though there are fine passages in his tragedies (since indeed it was impossible for him to write tamely), do they deserve more attention, for his genius was essentially undramatic, while his comedies are sadly tainted with the licentiousness of the age. So prolific, however, was his talent, that in the course of a dozen years he wrote a greater number of plays than any previous dramatist; and it was probably in some degree because he at last found his dramatic vein exhausted, that he began to apply himself to other kinds of poetry; to satire, to which of all kinds of poetry he seems to have been most partial; and to translations from the classics, which the London publishers preferred to more original efforts. And it was to this change in his views that the Essays are owing which are contained in the present volume.
The last years of the reign of Charles II. were agitated by a series of violent party struggles. The infamous perjuries of Oates, even after their falsehood was exposed, had still left behind them a deep suspicion of the designs of the Roman Catholics ; and Lord Shaftesbury, who had been one of the most subtle and zealous supporters of the accusations brought against them, availed himself of the general dislike with which the Duke of York was regarded to weave a fresh plot, the object of which was to exclude the Duke from the succession to the throne, in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, whom, of all his illegitimate children, Charles was understood to regard with the greatest favour. Dryden had recently succeeded Sir W. Davenant in the office of Poet Laureate, and thought that his appointment gave the government a claim to his services to aid it in discrediting and defeating so unworthy an intrigue; and under this impression he, in 1681, produced the satire of Absalom and Ahitophel’; Monmouth being Absalom, Shaftesbury the false councillor Ahitophel; while he took the opportunity, in the portrait of Zimri, of revenging himself on the Duke of Buckingham, who, some years before, had ridiculed his tragedies in a burlesque play, entitled The Rehearsal. No previous work of the kind had then, it may probably be said even now that none has, ever displayed a more brilliant combination of wit, invective, and argument; qualities so conspicuous throughout the whole performance, that some critics had not hesitated to pronounce it the finest production of his genius. But we can hardly think that any satire deserves such praise. Of the highest class of poetry, a cheerful, genial spirit seems to be among the most essential qualities; while the principal ingredients in all satire are bitterness and ill-nature. However, at the time, the more extreme its severity the more certain was it to win the approval of all with whose political views it coincided. Its success led him to fresh exertions in the same line; and in rapid succession he put forth two more satires; one, entitled “The Medal,' in which he renewed his attack on Shaftesbury with unabated vigour and efficiency; the other, to which he gave the name of 'MacFlecknoe,' from Flecno, an obscure poet of the day, being dictated by his own personal and weak jealousy of a crowd of inferior poets, whom some of his enemies had set up as his rivals, but whom it would have been more consistent with his own dignity, as well as with their deserts, to regard as beneath his notice. These were his only satires; but during the remainder of his life he continued to pour forth
poems of all kinds with unexampled profusion. Two were on the subject of religion; the first of which, styled
Religio Laici,' Sir Walter Scott regards as warranting a favourable opinion of his sincerity in afterwards embracing the Roman Catholic religion ; while the second, “The Hind and Panther,' is a justification of his conversion : the plot is singular, and in the highest degree absurd, but it contains passages of as rich imagery and fancy as, perhaps, any other of his works. But the chief employment of his latter years, as has been already intimated, was translation ; and in 1685 he published a volume of translations from a variety of the classical poets, Theocritus, Ovid, Lucretius, and others, to which he prefixed that “ Preface on Translation which forms the second of the essays here published. A subsequent volume of translations from Juvenal and Persius gave occasion to the elaborate“ Essay on Satire,” which is prefixed to them, and which occupies the first place in the present volume. And the favour with which these translations were received led to his undertaking of a still greater work, the translation of the entire works of Virgil. It was completed in 1697, and has been extolled with perhaps as great unanimity as any translation in any language. Pope afterwards pronounced it the “most noble and spirited translation " that had ever been made. Johnson described it as a work that “had satisfied his friends and silenced his enemies." And succeeding generations have not disturbed the verdict. Yet it may be doubted whether the very greatest and most vigorous genius can produce a satisfactory translation of any long poem. Bentley, as is well known, told Pope his translation of the · Iliad' was a pretty poem, but must not be called Homer. And we confess a feeling that that judgement is equally applicable to every translation of every poem on a large scale, even to translations from one modern language into another, to translations of the Orlando,' or the “Gerusalemme Liberata,' as much as to translations of the Iliad' or 'Æneid. Many of our poets, and Dryden himself among them, have had distinguished success in the version of short lyrics. A single instance may be sufficient to show this; his translation of Horace's