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I. DRYDEN'S LIFE AND CHARACTER
JOHN DRYDEN was born August 9, 1631. His father, Erasmus Dryden, was the third son of a baronet of Northamptonshire, who had opposed Charles the First; his mother, Mary Pickering, came from a family of the gentry of northern England, of whom the chief member, Sir Gilbert Pickering, Dryden's mother's cousin, was a stanch Cromwellian. The youth's training was, therefore, puritanical. Of that early period, however, we know little except that he attended school in Westminster, and was sent thence, at the age of nineteen, to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he probably did not remain after April, 1655, but with an income of forty pounds, left him by the death of his father the year before, went to London to do literary work. Certain it is that by the middle of 1657 he was resident in the metropolis. His first production there was his “Heroic Stanzas," commemoratory of the death of Oliver Cromwell, in 1658.
Charles II. was restored to the throne of England in 1660. Dryden immediately became a royalist, and the same year wrote “ Astræa Redux” (justice returned), in honour of the return of the exile. From this time on his literary work began in earnest: between 1663 and 1681 he produced twenty plays, comedies and tragedies; in 1667 he published his well-known “ Annus Mirabilis” (the wonderful year), commemorating the defeat of the Dutch on the sea and the great fire of London of the previous year; and
he further wrote his “Essay on Dramatic Poesy," which appeared in 1668, and was, up to that time, the best discourse on the drama that had been written in England. In 1670 he was appointed poet-laureate and historiographerroyal, at a salary of two hundred pounds a year. His income from all sources is said to have been at this date probably above seven hundred pounds, the equivalent of three times that amount to-day. Altogether he was a successful man, and the foremost author of his time.
In 1681 begins the new period of Dryden's life and literary work. Possibly the beating which he received one night in 1679 at the hands of ruffians, in the employ of his enemy, the Earl of Rochester, may have diverted his interest from the drama to a means of revenging himself upon his various opponents. At all events Dryden for a while left the writing of plays, and in "Absalom and Achitophel," of which the first part was published in November, 1681, began the most famous series of stinging political satires which English literature possesses. Within a year
a he had followed up this poem with “The Medal,” “MacFlecknoe,” and the second part of “ Absalom and Achitophel.” Furthermore, he glorified his Protestant belief in his “ Religio Laici, or A Layman's Faith.” But on the succession, in 1685, of James II., who was a Roman Catholic, Dryden adopted the creed of his new master, and a year later wrote an elaborate poem,
« The Hind and the Panther," in support of Catholicism.
The revolution of 1688, which drove James from England, left Dryden without state support; for he would not change his creed, and he refused to take service under the new government. In his need he turned once more to the drama, and in 1690 brought out what is, on the whole, his masterpiece, “Don Sebastian.” Altogether Dryden produced five plays between 1690 and 1694, at which date he gave up writing for the stage. For some two years back he had been interested in translation, and had taken part in a
version of the satires of Juvenal and Persius. From 1694 to 1697 he devoted himself almost wholly to the translation of Virgil; from this work he gained about twelve hundred pounds, enough to put him in easier circumstances. In 1697, also, he wrote his most famous ode, “ Alexander's Feast.” One year later he began the last work of his life, his “Fables," or adaptations from Chaucer and Boccaccio. The volume, “Fables Ancient and Modern, translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer; with Original Poems," appeared in March, 1700. The poet, who had been for some time suffering from gout, died the first of May, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the Poets' Corner, not far from the grave of Chaucer.
Dryden's personal appearance can be judged from the reproduction, in the front of this volume, of his portrait by Kneller. He was short, stout, and somewhat rubicund in complexion. As regards his character, one is impressed by his broad sympathy and his robust tolerance—the most lovable and the most striking traits of his nature. These characteristics explain Dryden's identification with successive parties and creeds. He was no sycophant, but his impressionable and tolerant mind allowed him to sympathize heartily with the public in its passing opinions and prejudices, and to give them a permanent literary expression. If he assumed the habit of the Restoration in the licentiousness of much of his dramatic work, he as surely, with his great common-sense, raised criticism above the narrow rule-bound level of his time, enable, Englishmen to appreciate the forgotten beauty of Chaucer, and received the maligning of his critics and enemies and, toward the end of his life, the rabid attacks of Jeremy Collier against the English stage, not only without bitterness, but with a due sense of their justice.
Dryden is the great man of letters of the last third of the seventeenth century. Milton died in 1674, almost forgotten; and Pope was only twelve years old at the time of Dryden's death. In literary history, then, Dryden is the great connecting link between Elizabethan literature and Milton on the one hand, and the literature of the Queen Anne period on the other. From this point of view, too, he stands for the institution and development of a readable modern English prose, and for the introduction of a new and more rigidly regulated style of poetry than that of Shakspere and Milton. He was the foremost dramatist of his time, the greatest satiric poet, the critic of the broadest and clearest vision and most catholic taste, the skilful reteller of delightful narrative poems, and the maker of a splendid ode.
II. THE STORY OF PALAMON AND ARCITE
It is with Dryden as a reteller of tales, especially of Chaucer's “ The Knightes Tale," that we have here to do. Dryden's versions were from their first appearance among the most popular of his works: the reading public of England had never before had given it such a variety of excellent translations; and if the tales are to-day comparatively not so well-known as during the eighteenth century, the reason is to be found in the existence of newer translations and, as with Chaucer, of better means of access to the originals. Dryden's work still remains of a very high order. His catholicity of taste enabled him to choose really happy stories, and, once given his material, his skill in retelling a story in vigorous language was unsurpassed.
The volume of Fables contained translations of several such well-known poems from Ovid's “Metamorphoses” as “Pygmalion and his Statue," several tales from Boccaccio, the first book of the “Iliad,” and, scattered among these in no particular order, modernizations of Chaucer—“ Palamon and Arcite” (The Knightes Tale),
“ “ The Cock and the Fox” (The Nonne Preestes Tale), “ The Flower and the Leaf” (Chaucer's poem of the same
title), “The Wife of Bath's Tale," and " The Character of the Good Parson” (from the “Prologue”)—surely a great variety of good stories and sketches. Dryden's endeavour was, he says, “to choose such fables, both ancient and modern, as contain in each of them some instructive moral.” A modern reader, however, is inclined to look at the selections as interesting tales, and not to trouble himself about the obvious morals which they contain. Dryden's method of translating was a very free rendering. He retold these poems for the sake of interesting the public, and he wrote rapidly. Of his method of transcribing Chaucer, a poet for whom he had the greatest admiration, he says: “I have not tied myself to a literal translation, but have often omitted what I judged unnecessary, or not of dignity enough to appear in the company of better thoughts. I have presumed farther in some places; and have added somewhat of my own where I thought my author was deficient and had not given his thoughts their true lustre, for want of words in the beginning of our language.”
“Palamon and Arcite" is the longest of the “Fables," as of Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales," and in both collections it is, in point of order, first. The story was an old one, even before Chaucer took it up: he had got it from the “ Teseide" of the Italian poet, Boccaccio, and from the Latin poet, Statius, from whose “ Thebais” Boccaccio had drawn his plot. Each poet had made additions of his own. Chaucer put the tale into the mouth of the noblest of his pilgrims, his knight, to whom, from his social position, was given the honour of telling the first story for the amusement of the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. This explanation is necessary, since Dryden has kept the knight's point of view and his allusions to the company, but has not,
* One should read Dryden's Preface to see the unusual appreciation which he showed for the older poet. See the selections in APPEN