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TO THE MEMORY OF THE LATE
COUNTESS OF ABINGDON.
Superas evadere per auras, Hoc opus, hic labor est. Pauci quos æquus amavit Jupiter, aut ardens edixit ad æthera virtus, Diis geniti potuere,
VIRGIL. Æneid. lib. vi.
MR MALONE has given a full account of the lady in whose honour this poem was written : “ Eleonora, eldest daughter, and at length sole heir, of Sir Henry Lee, of Ditchley, in the county of Oxford, Baronet, by Anne, daughter of Sir John Danvers, and sister and heir to Henry Danvers, Esq., who was nephew and heir to Henry, Earl of Danby : She was the wife of James Bertie, first Earl of Abingdon, and died May 31, 1691. Her lord, in 1698, married a second wife, Catharine, daughter of Sir Thomas Chamberlaine, Bart."
Her death was unexpectedly sudden, and took place in a ballroom in her own house; a circumstance which our author has hardly glanced at, although capable of striking illustration; and although one might have thought he would have grasped at whatever could assist him in executing the difficult task, of an elegy written by desire of a nobleman whom he did not know, in memory of a lady whom he had never seen.
It is to be presumed, that the task imposed was handsomely recompensed ; for we can hardly conceive one in itself more unpleasant or unprofitable. Notwithstanding Dryden's professions, that he “swam with the tide” while composing this piece, and that the variety and multitude of his similies were owing to the divine afflatus and the influence of his subject, we may be fairly permitted to doubt, whether they did not rather originate in an attempt to supply the lack of real sympathy, by the indulgence of a luxuriant imagination. The commencement has been rather severely censured by Dr Johnson; the comparison, he says, contains no illustration. As a king would be lamented, Eleonora was lamented : “ This,” observes he, “ is little better than to say of a shrub, that it is as green as a tree; or of a brook, that it waters a garden, as a river waters a country.” But, I presume, the point on which Dryden meant the comparison to depend, was, the extent of the lamentation occasioned by Eleanora's death ; in which particular the simile conveyed an illustration as ample, as if Dryden had said of a myrtle, it was as tall as an oak, or of a brook, it was as deep as the Thames.
The poem is certainly totally deficient in interest; for the character has no peculiarity of features : But, considered as an abstract example of female perfection, we may admire the ideal Eleanora, as we do the fancy-piece of a celebrated painter, though with an internal consciousness that the original never existed.
“ Eleonora” first appeared in quarto, in 1692, probably about the end of autumn; as Dryden alludes to the intervention of some months between Lord Abingdon's commands and his own performance,