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The seventeenth century is commonly regarded as that in which prose writing, both in France and England, first assumed the polish and elegance which have since been the characteristics of the best writers. In France this improvement is deservedly attributed to the genius of Pascal. In England it was begun by Hooker and Milton, but was carried to greater perfection by Sir William Temple and Dryden. To Sir William Temple Johnson gives the praise of having been “the first writer who gave cadence to English prose.” And, though no two critics could well be more different in the general character of their minds than Johnson and Macaulay, the description which the latter gives of Temple's style may be regarded as an expansion of that of the earlier writer : he calls it “
a style singularly lucid and melodious, ....
... which generally flowed along with careless simplicity, but occasionally rose even into Ciceronian magnificence”; while Dryden, whose earliest prose works were written a few years after those of Temple, and while that statesman was at the height of his reputation, may, without derogating from his claim to originality, be fairly supposed to have studied and profited by Temple's example. And Hallam, in the character
which he gives of Dryden's prose, seems in some degree to embody the praise bestowed on the melodious cadence and careless simplicity of Temple. Its “excellence," as he describes it, “ is an ease and apparent negligence of phrase,” a variety and copiousness of idiom," "a change of measure” and “variety of language,” the style, in short, of one whose aim is “to please, in which he seldom fails.” So perfect indeed and complete was his mastery over the language, that Mr. Fox, whose accomplishments as a scholar were of the highest order, when preparing his History of James II.,' laid down as a rule for his own composition that in the entire volume he would use no word which was not to be found in Dryden. The rule was not a very reasonable one, but it shows how especially high was the esteem one só well-acquainted with the works of all our great writers set upon the model whom he thus selected. And Dryden's claim to originality is asserted in the strongest way by Johnson, who calls him “the father of English criticism; the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition."
The superior renown of his poetry has thrown his prose into the shade; but it will surely be allowed that compositions thus extolled by Johnson, Fox, and Hallam deserve to be generally known; and the present volume, though but a selection from his Essays, may, it is hoped, enable the reader to form some idea of the qualities which have earned commendations so high, from men so well qualified to form an opinion upon literary excellence.
1 Hallam's Review of Scott's edition of Dryden's works. Edinburgh Review, Oot. 1808.
Dryden is one of those writers whose personal history is to some extent connected with the history of his time; and therefore it seems desirable to preface any selection from his works with a short sketch of his career.
John Dryden was a member of a family of knightly rank long settled in Northamptonshire ; his grandfather, Sir Erasmus Dryden, having been one of the first baronets created by James I., when that sovereign hit upon the singular method of replenishing his exchequer by inventing a new order of inferior nobility, and putting it up for sale. He was born in 1631, was educated at Westminster School, and Trinity College, Cambridge ; and on the death of his father, in 1654, succeeded to a small estate, which he regarded as sufficient to justify him in adopting literature as his profession, in preference to any other, such as the law, whose profits might be more considerable and more regular. As a boy he had won the praise of the celebrated head-master of his school, Dr. Busby, by the facility and elegance of his translations from the works of some of the classical poets. And it was in poetry that he conceived himself best qualified to excel; the more so since, though
“ The bigots of the iron time
Had deemed his harmless art a crime,” 1 the melodious lyrics of Waller and Cowley were beginning to bring back the nation to a better taste, and poetry and poets seemed likely to become once more fashionable. His first essay, however, showed that he was not vates 2 in both senses of the
1 Introduction to the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel.'
word. Some of his nearest relatives had embraced the tenets and politics of the Puritans; and, even ! after Cromwell was dead, had apparently convinced him that Richard Cromwell's supremacy was as firmly established as that of his father had been ; and Dryden therefore thought to establish himself in the favour of the new Protector by an elegy which he entitled, “ Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector;” which was generally admitted to be the best poem written on the subject, though Waller himself was among his rivals.
But he soon found out that he had been mistaken in his anticipations. Charles II. recovered his throne amid the acclamations of his subjects, and Dryden hastened to efface the recollection of the eulogies of the departed tyrant by an equally elaborate prediction of the glories and blessings which were in store for the land through the restoration of the monarch whom “ Astræa Redux,” or “ Returning Justice” was leading back to it. His prophetic praise of the sovereign who was to betray the interests of his kingdom to Louis XIV., and to sacrifice the lives of scores of subjects, whom he knew to be innocent, to the perjuries of Titus Oates, was not much better founded than his glorification of the usurper who had massacred the inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford in cold blood, and had sold hundreds of Englishmen to work as slaves in the West Indies for no other offence but that of having fought for their king. Such as it was, however, it gave him an opportunity of showing the restored king his wit, a quality which that prince valued far more than patriotism or honesty; for when Charles told him that he had read both his odes, but that, so far