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JOHN DRYDEN was born August 9, 1631, at Aldwinkle, near Oundle, the son of Erasmus Dryden, of Tichmersh, who was the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Bart. of Canons Ashby. All these places are in Northamptonshire, but the original stock of the family was in the county of Huntingdon. He is reported to have inherited from his father an estate of 2001, a year, and to have been bred an anabaptist; but for either of these particulars no authority is given. From Westminster school, where he was instructed as one of the king's scholars by Dr. Busby, whom he long beld in veneration, he was, in 1650, elected to one of the Westminster Scholarships at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his Bachelor's degree in 1653. At the University, he does not appear to have been eager of poetical distinction, or to have lavished his early wit, either on fictitious subjects or public occasions. It was not till the death of Cromwell, in 1658, that he became a public candidate for fame, by publishing Heroic Stanzas on the late Lord Protector, which, compared with the verses of Spratt and Waller on the same occasion, were sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet. When the king was restored, Dryden, like the other panegyrists of usurpation, changed his opinion or his profession, and published Astrea Redux, or, A Poem on the Happy Restoration and Return of his most sacred Majesty King Charles the Second.
The time at which his first play was exhibited is not known, because it was not printed till it was some years after altered and revived; but since the plays are said to be printed in the order in which they were written, from the dates of some, those of others may be inferred. Thus it may be collected, that in 1663, in the thirty-second year of his age, he commenced writer for the stage, compelled undoubtedly by necessity, for he appears never to have loved that exercise of his genius, nor to have much pleased himself with his own dramas. Of the stage, when he had once invaded it, he kept possession for many years; not indeed without the competition of rivals, who sometimes prevailed, or the censure of critics, which was always poignant and often just, but with such a degree of reputation as made him at least secure of being heard, whatever might be the final determination of the public. To the English reader they are too well known to require, in this place, either enumeration or particular notice.
In 1667, he published Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Wonders, which may be esteemed one of his most elaborate works. It is addressed to Sir Robert Howard by a letter, which is not properly a dedication; and, writing to a poet, he has interspersed many critical observations, of which some are common, and some perhaps hazarded without much consideration. It is written in quatrains, or heroic stanzas of four lines, a measure which he had learned from the Gondibert of Davenant, and which he then thought the most majestic that the English language affords. Of this stanza he mentions the incumbrances, increased as they were by the exactness which the age required. It was, throughout his life, very much his custom to recommend his works, by a representation of the difficulties he had encountered, without appearing to have sufficiently considered, that where there is no difficulty there is no praise.
DRYDEN. He was now so much distinguished that, in 1668, he succeeded Sir William Davenant, as poet-laureat. The salary of the laureat had been raised, in favour of Jonson, by Charles I. from an hundred marks to an hundred pounds a year, and a tierce of wine-a revenue, in those days, not inadequate to the conveniencies of life. The same year he published his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, an elegant and instructive dialogue, in which, we are told by Prior, that the principal character is meant to represent the Duke of Dorset. This work seems to have given Addison a model for his Dialogues on Medals. In 1681, Dryden became yet more conspicuous, by uniting politics with poetry, in the memorable satire called Absalom and Achitophel, written against the faction which, by Lord Shaftesbury's incitement, set the Duke of Monmouth at its head. Of this poem, in which personal satire was applied to the support of public principles, and in which, therefore, every mind was interested, the reception was so eager, as to have been afterwards equalled only by the trial of Sacheverell. The reason of this general perusal Addison has attempted to derive from the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of secrets; and thinks that curiosity to decypher the names, procured readers to the poem. There is no reason, however, to inquire why those verses were read, which, to all the attractions of wit, elegance, and harmony, added the co-operation of all the factious passions, and filled every mind with triumph or resentment.
Soon after the accession of King James, when the design of reconciling the nation to the church of Rome became apparent, and the religion of the court gave the only efficacious title to its favours, Dryden declared himself a convert to popery. The priests having strengthened
their cause by so powerful an adherent, were not long before they brought him into action. They engaged him to defend the controversial papers found in the strong box of Charles II, and what was still more difficult, to defend them against Stillingfleet. With the hope of promoting popery, he was employed to translate Maimbourg's History of the League, which he published with a large introduction. His name is likewise prefixed to the English Life of St. Francis Xavier, but he never owned himself the translator. Perhaps the use of his name was a pious fraud, which, however, seems not to have had much effect, for neither of the books were popular. Having probably felt his own inferiority in theological controversy, he was desirous of trying whether, by bringing poetry to aid bis. arguments, he might become a more efficacious defender of his new profession. To reason in verse, was, indeed, one of his powers; but subtilty and harmony united are still feeble when opposed to truth. Actuated, therefore, by zeal for Rome, or hope of fame, he published the Hind and Panther, a poem, in which the church of Rome, figured by the milk-white hind, defends her tenets against the church of England, represented by the panther, a beast beautiful, but spotted. A fable which exhibits two beasts talking theology, appears at once full of absurdity; and it was accordingly ridiculed in the City Mouse and Country Mouse, a parody, written by Montague, afterwards Earl of Halifax, and Prior, who then gave the first specimen of his abilities.
A very few months after, every hope of the catholics was blasted for ever by the Revolution. A papist could now be no longer laureat. The revenue, which he had enjoyed with so much pride and praise, was transferred to Shadwell, an old enemy, whom he had formerly stigma