« ZurückWeiter »
man," the Duke of Newcastle, for the signal success of his warlike achievements. To the latter he writes thus:
"As you came into the world with all the advantages of a noble birth and education, so you have rendered both yet more conspicuous by your virtue. Fortune, indeed, has perpetually crowned your undertakings with success, but she has only waited on your valour, not conducted it. She has ministered to your glory like a slave, and has been led in triumph by it; or at most, while honour led you by the hand to greatness, fortune only followed to keep you from sliding back in the ascent. That which Plutarch accounted her favour to Cimon and Lucullus, was but her justice to your Grace; and never to have been overcome where you led in person, as it was more than Hannibal could boast, so it was all that Providence could do for that party which it had resolved to ruin. Thus, my lord, the last smiles of victory were on your arms; and every where else declaring for the rebels, she seemed to suspend herself, and to doubt, before she took her flight, whether she were able wholly to abandon that cause for which you fought.
"Thus, my lord, the morning of your life was clear and calm; and though it was afterwards overcast, yet, in that general storm, you were never without a shelter. And now you are happily arrived to the evening of a day as serene as the dawn of it was glorious; but such an evening as, I hope, and almost prophecy, is far from night; it is the evening of a summer's sun, which keeps the daylight long within the skies."
In his dedication of the Conquest of Grenada, he gives his highness the Duke to understand, that he is the prototype of his heroes, the pattern of his imitation, and that in dedicating to him the faint representations of his own worth and value, "he only restores to him those ideas, which, in the more perfect part of his character, he has taken from him. Your whole life, (he continues,)
"Has been a continued series of heroick actions, which you began so early, that you were no sooner named in the world, but it was with praise and admiration. Even the first blossoms of your youth paid us all that could be expected from a ripening manhood. While you practised but the rudiments of war, you outwent all other captains; and have since found none to surpass but yourself alone. The opening of your glory was like that of light; you shone to us from afar, and disclosed your first beams on distant nations; yet so, that the lustre of them was spread abroad, and reflected brightly on your native country. You were then an honour to it, when it was a reproach to itself; and when the fortunate usurper sent his arms to Flanders, many of the adverse party were vanquished by your fame, ere they tried your valour. The report of it drew over to your ensigns whole troops and companies of converted rebels; and made
them forsake successful wickedness, to follow an oppressed and exiled virtue."
The Lord Treasurer Clifford is to be adored at a distance, and worshipped. The effects of his virtue are to be comprehended only by admiration; and the greatest note of admiration is silence.
"It is that noble passion to which poets raise their audience in highest subjects, and they have then gained over them the greatest victory, when they are ravished into a pleasure which is not to be expressed by words. To this pitch, my lord, the sense of my gratitude had almost raised me;-to receive your favours, as the Jews of old received their law, with a mute wonder,-to think, that the loudness of acclamation was only the praise of men to men, and that the secret homage of the soul was a greater mark of reverence than an outward ceremonious joy, which might be counterfeit, and must be irreverent in its tumult. Neither, my lord, have I a particular right to pay you my acknowledgments; you have been a good so universal, that almost every man in three nations may think me injurious to his propriety, that I invade your praises in undertaking to celebrate them alone; and that I have assumed to myself a patron, who was no more to be circumscribed than the sun and elements, which are of public benefit to human kind."
But it is when he addresses the beautiful and illustrious of the other sex, that he rises into the highest heavens of flattery, and becomes transcendentally celestial.
"But with whatsoever vanity this new honour of being your poet has filled my mind, I confess myself too weak for the inspiration; the priest was always unequal to the oracle; the god within him was too mighty for his breast. He laboured with the sacred revelation, and there was more of the mystery left behind, than divinity itself could enable him to express. I can but discover a part of your excellencies to the world; and that too according to the measure of my own weakness. Like those who have surveyed the moon by glasses, I can only tell of a new and shining world above us, but not relate the riches and glories of the place; it is therefore that I have already waved the subject of your greatness, to resign myself to the contemplation of what is more peculiarly your's. Greatness is indeed communicated to some few of both sexes; but beauty is confined to a more narrow compass it is only in your sex; it is not shared by many, and its supreme perfection is in you alone.
"You are never seen but you are blest; and I am sure you bless all those who see you. We think not the day is long enough when we behold you; and you are so much the business of our souls, that while you are in sight, we can neither look nor think on any else. There are no eyes for other beauties; you only are present, and the rest of your sex are but the unregarded parts that fill your triumph,
Our sight is so intent on the object of its admiration, that our tongues have not leisure even to praise you; for language seems too low a thing to express your excellence, and our souls are speaking so much within, that they despise all foreign conversation. Every man, even the dullest, is thinking more than the most eloquent can teach him how to utter. Thus, madam, in the midst of crowds, you reign in solitude; and are adored with the deepest veneration, that of silence. It is true, you are above all mortal wishes; no man desires impossibilities, because they are beyond the reach of nature. To hope to be a god, is folly exalted into madness; but by the laws of our creation, we are obliged to adore him, and are permitted to love him at human distance. It is the nature of perfection to be attractive, but the excellency of the object refines the nature of the love. It strikes an impression of awful reverence; it is indeed that love which is more properly a zeal than passion. It is the rapture which anchorites find in prayer, when a beam of the Divinity shines upon them; that which makes them despise all worldly objects; and yet it is all but contemplation. They are seldom visited from above; but a single vision so transports them, that it makes up the happiness of their lives. Mortality cannot bear it often: it finds them in the eagerness and height of their devotion; they are speechless for the time that it continues, and prostrate and dead when it departs. That ecstacy had needs be strong, which, without any end but that of admiration, has power enough to destroy all other passions. You render mankind insensible to other beauties, and have destroyed the empire of love in a court which was the seat of his dominion."
Such was the incense which the genius of Dryden offered up to the high-born dames of the court of Charles; and, although brighter beauties than Mary of Este may have existed, and had their praises sung by the poets of their day, yet they were never, we believe, addressed in so rich a strain of adulation. Dr. Johnson, who has manifested but little indulgence to this style of writing in general, is particularly angry with this dedication: he terms it, an attempt to mingle earth with heaven, by praising human excellence in the language of religion. We are not disposed to regard it with such severity. Poets have always been indulged with the license of addressing beauty in terms of hyperbolical adulation; and Dryden only offends, in having offered up his incense in prose instead of verse. In the luxuriance of his fancy and the fertility of his invention, we think it possible to find an excuse for the language of his dedications in general, and are inclined to attribute it a good deal more to them, than to any spirit of peculiar servility. He seems, indeed, in the fervor of composition, to lose sight altogether of the silly women and profligate courtiers he is addressing, and to draw from some phantom of his own brain, which he endows with every species of intellectual and moral excellence. On these, he has imposed the names of certain of the great, but
other resemblance they have none; and he has not been at the trouble of finding or inventing a single point, in which they may be said to have the remotest likeness. If we are to suppose, that whilst he drew these elaborate pictures of virtue and honour, he retained the least remembrance of the persons, who were nominally sitting for their portraits, we cannot but wonder at the want of discrimination which led him to attribute to them the particular qualities, in which they were most signally defective. The best excuse, after all, is that which Mr. Burke offered, when he observed, that such extravagant panegyrics were the vice of the time, and not of the man; that the dedications of almost every other writer of that period were equally loaded with flattery, and that no disgrace was annexed to such an exercise of men's talents, the contest being who should go farthest in the most graceful way, and with the best turns of expression.
We turn, with pleasure, from compositions of such a doubtful character, to the consideration of his prefaces, where there is nothing to censure on the score of morality, at least― where we are often instructed, and always delighted-where we are sure to be charmed with the beauties of his language, though we have reason to question the soundness of his critical judgment. They altogether contain a richer fund of dramatic criticism than is, perhaps, to be found in our language; and, though the purer metal of the mine be mixed up with a good deal that is more plausible than true, and some that is absolutely false, yet, when we take into consideration the prevailing bad taste of the age in which he lived, we shall rather be disposed to wonder, that his judgment did not oftener go astray, than that it was occasionally misled by public opinion, to which he was ever remarkably obsequious. Under this fatal influence, he was labouring the greater part of his life; and it was not till nearly the close of his career, that he succeeded in emancipating himself from its fetters. The clouds which had obscured his vision were then withdrawn, and the divinity of Shakspeare shone as brightly upon him, as it does, at this day, upon us. But the criticisms which he has bequeathed us on the works of the dramatic writers who preceded him, were written nearer to the time when he was in the habit of placing the plays of Jonson on a level with the noblest productions of Shakspeare; and the reformation of his taste is testified only by the change in his own practice. It may be worth while to recall to the recollection of our readers the style in which Shakspeare and his contemporaries were criticised in the age of Charles II., and to contrast it with the way in which they are severally appreciated at the present moment.
"To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comick wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
"Shakspeare, who many times has written better than any poet in any language, is yet so far from writing wit always, or expressing that wit according to the dignity of the subject, that he writes in many places below the dullest writers of ours or of any precedent age. Never did any author precipitate himself from such heights of thought to so low expressions, as he often does. He is the very Janus of poets; he wears almost every where two faces; and you have scarce begun to admire the one, ere you despise the other.
"To speak justly of this whole matter, it is neither height of thought that is discommended, nor pathetick vehemence, nor any nobleness of expression in its proper place; but it is a false measure of all these, something which is like them and is not them: it is the Bristol stone, which appears like a diamond; it is an extravagant thought, instead of a sublime one; it is roaring madness, instead of vehemence; and a sound of words, instead of sense. If Shakspeare were stripped of all the bombast in his passions, and dressed in the most vulgar words, we should find the beauties of his thoughts remaining; if his embroideries were burnt down, there would still be silver at the bottom of the melting-pot: but I fear (at least, let me fear it for myself), that we who ape his sounding words have nothing of his thought, but are all outside; there is not so much as a dwarf within our giant's clothes. Therefore, let not Shakspeare suffer for our sakes; it is our fault, who succeed him in an age which is more refined, if we imitate him so ill, that we copy his failings only, and make a virtue of that in our writings, which in his was an imperfection."
Of Beaumont and Fletcher, the latter of whom he calls a true Englishman, who, when he did well, never knew when to give over, he observes:
"Their plots were generally more regular than Shakspeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they