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Clean. O Father!
Cleom. Why dost thou call me by so kind a name?
Cheerful to give willing himself to want
Whate'er thy needs requite!
Cleon. A little food!
Or give me leave to die as I desir'd;
For without your consent, Heaven knows I dare not."
1'his absence of the power of swaying the feelings of the heart, is a lamentable deficiency; and when taken into consideration, together with the bad taste of the worthless age, and Dryden's dependance for support on public opinion, may account for the ill success which he has had with posterity as a dramatic writer. Nothing but the most perverted ingenuity could defend, or the most morbid state of public taste applaud the system of rhyming plays,—Yet it was precisely those which gained the greatest meed of applause, at the time of their representation, and which Dryden himself has defended, in compositions of unequalled force and brilliancy. We will quote the following passage, from one of his prefaces, as it illustrates the topics we have just alluded to, the taste of the town, and because it displays the felicity with which Dryden could make the worse appear the better cause.
"Whether heroick verse ought to be admitted into serious plays is not now to be disputed, it is already in possession of the stage, and I dare confidently affirm, that very few tragedies, in this age, shall be received without it. All the arguments which ate formed against it, can amount to no more than this, that it is not so near conversation as prose, and therefore not so natural. But it is very clear to all who understand poetry, that serious plays ought not to imitate conversation too nearly. If nothing were to be raided above that level, the foundation of poetry would be destroyed. And if you once admit of a latitude, that thoughts may be exalted, aud that images and actions may be raised above the life, and described in measure without rhyme, that leads you insensibly from your own principles to mine: you are already so far onward of your way, that you have forsaken the imitation of ordinary converse. You are gone beyond it; and to continue where youare, is to lodge in the open fields, betwixt two inns. You have lost that which you call natural, and have not acquired the last perfection of art. But it was only custom which cozened us so loug; we thought, because Sihakespear and Fletcher went no farther, that there the pillars of poetry were to be erected. That, because they excellently described passion without rhyme, therefore rhyme was not capable of describing it. But time has now convinced most men of that error. 'Tis indeed so difficult to write verse, that the adversaries of it have a good plea against many, who undertook that task without being formed by art or nature for it. Yet, even they who have written wors-t in it, would have written worse without it: They have cozened many with their sound, who never took the pains to examine their sense. In fine, they have succeeded; tho' 'tis true they have more dishonored rhyme by thengood success, than they have done by their ill. But I am willing to let fall this argument: 'lis free for every man to write, or not to write, in verse, as he judges it to be or not to be his talent; or as he imagines the audience will receive it."
It is very true that the prevalence of a bad taste in poetry, in the court and among the people at large, might have had a serious tendency to debase the genius of the writers of the age. But this is hardly sufficient to account for the absurdities, of which in general the plays of Drydenare composed. The turgid and inflated stuff, which is put into the mouth of almost every character, can only be attributed to a marvellous want of judgment and right-feeling in Dryden himself; audacious boastings, bold and bragging blasphemies, fire-breathing threats to do impossibilities, abound every where. The art of sinking, or the true and genuine bathos, is sought no where so well, as in the plays of Dryden. That whole speeches should consist of ranting, might be attributed to an attempt at the sublime, by a feeble imagination, and a warm temperament; but when we find a series of beautiful lines terminate in some base image, or in some ridiculous, familiar, or bombastic allusion; we do not accuse the poet of poverty, but of a bad use of riches. Instances of this nature abound; take the following beautiful description of the execution of St. Catharine, and Maximin's answer.
Vol. Your pity comes too late.
Betwixt her guards she seem'd by bride-men led, ..
Just at the stroke
.Jitherial musick did her death prepare,
Like joyful sounds of spousals in the air.
A radiant light did her crown'd temples gild,
And all the place with fragrant scents was fill'd;
The balmy mist came thick'ning to the ground,
And sacred silence cover'd all around.
But when (its work perform'd) the cloud withdrew,
And day restor'd us to each other's view,
I sought her head, to bring it on my spear:
In vain I sought it, for it was not there.
No part remain'd, but from afar our sight
Discover'd in the air, long track? of light;
Of charming notes we heard the last rebounds;
Max. And dost thou think
Go from the other world a better bring.
[Kills him, then sets his foot on him, and speaks mi.
It seems almost impossible that any man should write lines like those we are about to quote, and not be aware of their egregious absurdity.
"Max. What had the gods to do with me or mine?
Did I molest your heav'n?
Why should you then make Maximin your foe,
Who paid you tribute, which he need not do?
Your altars I with smoke of gums did crown:
For which you lean'd your hungry nostrils down,
All daily gaping for my incense there,
More than your sun could draw you in a year.
And you for this these plagues on me have sent;
But by the Gods; (by Maximin, I meant)
Henceforth I, and my world,
Hostility with you and yours declare,
Look to it, gods: for you th' aggressors are,
Keep you your rain and sun-shine in your skies,
And I'll keep back my flame and sacrifice.
Your trade of heav'n shall soon be at a stand,
And all your goods lie dead upon your hand."
Or take the scene immediately following, which will come behind no fustian to be met with in Tom Thumb or elsewhere:
Plac. Thus, tyrant, since the gods th' aggressors are,
[Stabbing him. Thus by this stroke they have begun the war.
[Maximin struggles with him, and gets the dagger from him. Max. Thus I return the strokes which they have given;
[Stabbing Placidius. Thus, traitor, thus, and thus I would to heaven.
[Placidius falls, and the Emperor staggers after him, and sits down upon him, the Guards come to help the Emperor.
Max. Stand off, and let me, ere my strength be gone,
Cent. Arm, arm, the camp is in a mutiny;
Max. Now I am down, the Gods have watch'd their time.
To save your credit, feeble deities 3
[He strives to get up, and being up, staggers.
It wonnot be
My body has not pow'r my mind to bear.
I must return again and conquer here.
[Site down upon the body.
Bring me Porphyrius and my Empress dead,
Plac. Do not regard a dying tyrant's breath,
[To the Soldiers.
Max. Vanquish'd, and dar'st thou yet a rebel be?
[Stabs him again.
Plac. Ob, I am gone! [Dies.
Max. and after thee, I go,
Revenging full, and following ev'n to th' other world
my blow, [Stabs him again.
And shoving back this earth on which I sit,
The following is a much more favorable specimen of Dry den's power, or rather want of power, in making an appeal to the heart; it nevertheless illustrates our observations on this point. A mother is appealing to her daughter:
Hear, oh hear your wretched mother's call.
Think, at your birth, ah think what pains I bore,
And can your eyes behold me suffer more!
Ran and rush'd in
And from the waves my floating pledge did bear,
In the following exquisite passage there is a kind of tender and pathetic playfulness not common in Dryden, but it will be observed, it is not the simple expression of natural feeling, but a certain fanciful dallying with emotion, which though it does not appeal by its truth to nature, gratifies and delights the imagination. Berenice, wedded to a tyrant, thus addresses her former lover, who is endeavouring to persuade her to leave the object of her disgust.—She refuses and says,
My earthly part
Which is my tyrant's right, death will remove,
The beauty of this passage does not consist in the ideas alone; there is a melody of versification, and an aptness in the expression, which hardly any one but Dryden could compass.