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THE poetry and authorship of Dryden cover a period of more than half a century. His first poem was written in youth, within a few months after the execution of Charles the First, and his last a few days before death, within not many months of the death of William the Third and the accession of Anne to the throne. Glorious John Dryden,' or 'Glorious John,' as Sir Walter Scott christened him, is the great literary figure of the forty years that follow the Restoration. Dryden was born only fifteen years, and his first poem was written only thirty-three years, after the death of Shakespeare. It is strange to find Dryden deliberately writing in 1672 that the English language had been so changed since Shakespeare wrote, that any one then reading his plays, or Fletcher's, or Jonson's, and comparing them with what had been written since the Restoration, would see the change “almost in every linea.' There are frequent careless statements and hasty generalizations in Dryden's critical dissertations, which were mostly composed rapidly for particular occasions, and there may be exaggeration in this assertion, but it probably contains more truth than exaggeration. Milton, born eight years before Shakespeare's death, was Dryden's senior by twenty-three
a Defence of the Epilogue to the Second Part of Granada.'
The Conquest of years, and 'Paradise Lost' was published in 1669, the year before that in which Dryden received the appointment of poet laureate, succeeding Davenant, the author of 'Gondibert,' and Dryden's co-operator in a versified abridgment and debasement of Paradise Lost.' Milton died in 1674, unhonoured by the multitude, when Dryden was at the height of his dramatic popularity, and is spoken of as the good and famous poet' by the cultivated Evelyn b. A quarter of a century later Dryden had a splendid public funeral. Cowley, who was Dryden's superior in the imaginative faculty, and who, like Dryden after him, had had a fame unjustly superior to Milton's during his life, had died in 1667. The poetry of Cowley had been a favourite reading of Dryden's youth. He speaks of Cowley, in several passages of his prose writings, with the respect due to a master, and says on one occasion that his authority is almost sacred' to him. Before the end of the seventeenth century, the popularity of Cowley had disappeared d, and no traces of the influence of his metaphysical style are to be discovered in any of Dryden's poems later than the 'Annus Mirabilis' of 1666. Denham and Waller, two poets of humbler order, had, while Dryden was young, produced smooth and harmonious poems, and contributed to the improvement of verse; and it remained for Dryden to advance this work, and bring metrical harmony to perfection in his own poems, and, during forty years after the Restoration, of various writing in prose and in verse, to give precision and purity and new wealth and capability to the English language.
b Evelyn's Diary, June 27, 1674.
• Essay on Heroic Plays, prefixed to the First Part of. The Conquest of Granada.'
d In the Preface to the · Fables,' written in 1699, Dryden wrote of Cowley: “Though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer; and for ten impressions which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are scarcely purchased once a twelvemonth; for, as my last Lord Rochester said, though somewhat profanely, “ Not being of God, he could not stand.”.
John Dryden was born on the oth of August, 1631ę, at Aldwincle, a village in Northamptonshire, which was also the birthplace of the Church historian, Thomas Fuller. Both his parents belonged to Northamptonshire families of distinction. His father, Erasmus Dryden, the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Baronet, of Canons Ashby, was a Justice of the Peace for Northamptonshire. The Drydens were all Puritans and Commonwealthmen. Sir Erasmus Dryden, who died in 1632, the year after the birth of his celebrated grandson, was sent to prison, but a few years before his death in old age, for refusing to pay loan-money to Charles the First. To this event Dryden refers in his Epistle to his cousin John Driden of Chesterton, Member for Huntingdonshire, whose public spirit he compares with their common grandfather's :
• Such was your generous grandsire, free to grant
The old man was liberated on the eve of the general election for Charles the First's third Parliament in 1628.. Sir John
o 'The year of Dryden's birth is incorrectly given as 1632 in the inscription on the monument in Westminster Abbey.
i Malone and some other biographers have said much about the spelling of Dryden's name, and represented that he early in life deliberately changed the spelling from Driden to Dryden; and Malone has made a statement, which appears to be totally without authority, that the poet gave offence to his uncle, Sir John, by this change of spelling. The spelling of names was very variable in Dryden's time, and I believe there is nothing more than accident in the variations of spelling of his name: Dryden, Driden, and also Dreyden and Dreydon occur. Dryden's name is spelt Driden on title-pages of his works after the Restoration, and in one instance (* Astræa Redux') as late as 1688. I follow other biographers and editors in preserving the spelling Driden for the name of his cousin John, to whom he addressed the beautiful poetical epistle, on account of convenience of distinction.
Dryden, successor to Sir Erasmus, and Dryden's uncle, inherited the Puritan zeal. Dryden's mother was Mary, daughter of the Reverend Henry Pickering, rector of Aldwincle All Saints from 1597 till his death in 1637. The Pickerings were near neighbours of the Drydens, and the two families were connected by marriage before the union of the poet's parents, a daughter of Sir Erasmus Dryden having married Sir John Pickering, Knight, the elder brother of the rector of Aldwincle. Sir Gilbert Pickering, the son and successor of Sir John, was thus doubly related to Dryden. Sir Gilbert, having been made a baronet by Charles the First, became a Cromwellite, and held high office during the Protectorate; he was Chamberlain to Oliver Cromwell, and High Steward of Westminster, and one of the so-called peers of Cromwell's second Chamber of 1658, and afterwards one of Richard Cromwell's chief advisers.
The marriage of Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering took place on the 21st of October 1630, in the church of Piltun, a village near Aldwincle. The poet was their first child, the eldest of a family of fourteen. A room in the parsonagehouse at Aldwincle All Saints is shown as his birthplace.
This tradition, which has been maintained uninterruptedly from Dryden's time till now, is unsupported by positive evidence, but as it necessitates only the probable supposition that his mother was on a visit to her parents at the time of the birth of her first child, there is no reason for not accepting it.
Of the early life of Dryden very little is known. His father possessed a small property at Blakesley in the neighbourhood of Canons Ashby, the seat of the Drydens, and of Tichmarch the seat of the Pickerings. A monument erected in Tichmarch church to his memory, by his cousin Mrs. Creed, has an inscription which boasts that he was bred and had his first learning here. But the best part of his education was obtained at Westminster, under Dr. Busby. He entered the school as a King's Scholar, but in what year is not known. He retained through life a pleasant remembrance of his Westminster days, and a great respect for Dr.
Busby, to whom in 1693 he dedicated his translation of the Fifth Satire of Persius. He says in the Dedication that he had received from Dr. Busby the first and truest taste of Persius.' Two of his sons were educated at Westminster under the same head-master, Dr. Busby. He remembered to the last, but without resentment, Dr. Busby's floggings. In one of his latest letters, written in 1699 to Charles Montague, Chancellor of the Exchequer, when sending for his inspection some poems before publication, he speaks of having corrected and re-corrected them, and he says, “I am now in fear that I have purged them out of their spirit, as our Master Busby used to whip a boy so long till he made him a confirmed blockhead.' Charles Montagu had been educated at Westminster, but he was thirty years younger than Dryden, and might have been at the school with Dryden's sons.
In 1650 Dryden left Westminster with a scholarship, for Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1649 he had written his first poem, which gave little promise of the smoothness and harmony of versification to which he afterwards attained. Lord Hastings, the subject of it, the eldest son of the Earl of Huntingdon, had been educated at Westminster, and his rare attainments had raised among his friends high hopes of future eminence. When these hopes were destroyed by his untimely death from small pox, when he was just of age, in 1649, the event was lamented in as many as thirty-three elegies by different authors, which were collected and published in 1650 by Richard Brome, with the title of 'Lacrymæ Musarum, the Tears of the Muses; exprest in Elegies written by divers Persons of nobility and worth upon the death of Henry Lord Hastings, only son of the Right Honourable Ferdinando Earl of Huntingdon, heir-general of the high-born Prince George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward the Fourth 8.' Among the contributors to this volume were three who were already known as poets, and whose
& Sir Walter Scott, who had not seen this little volume, erroneously gives ninety-eight as the number of the elegies.