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WHEN Professor Palgrave made up his Golden Treasury and selected from John Dryden's works the two short lyrics which follow, he unconsciously, perhaps, threw into sharp contrast this slight lyric product - 203 lines against the huge bulk of Dryden's literary endeavor. Yet with Professor Palgrave's judgment in selection, no critic would find serious disagreement. The interesting point to note is, the fact that notwithstanding Dryden's reign of forty-two years as a literary leader of England, so small a portion finds place in an anthology such as the Golden Treasury. And all this is explained when we discover that his genius was not essentially lyric. He delighted in satire, he was a master in argumentative verse, he wrote brilliant criticism, he was a skilled translator, and he left behind him almost as many plays as did Shakespeare, but his purely lyric output was meager.
John Dryden, the oldest of fourteen children, was born in August, 1631, the son of Puritan parents. He was educated at Westminster and at Cambridge. His school work showed promise, but his university work was disappointing. Throughout his writings he voices no love for Cambridge, where he remained seven years, but compares her invidiously to Oxford.
Little is known of his life after leaving Cambridge in 1657, until his favorable reception among the wits of London after the Restoration. Notwithstanding Dryden's poetic lament for Cromwell, he wrote a famous ode to Charles II when the monarchy was restored, and he eagerly sought the company of the Royalists at Court. This loyalty was repaid by the laureateship, which he held from 1670 to 1688.
In the meantime Dryden had won favor as a dramatist. Notwithstanding his Puritan training, he acceded to the depraved moral tone of the period and debauched his
dramas with gross vulgarity, justifying Cowper's stricture, "What a sycophant to the public taste was Dryden! Sinning against his feelings, lewd in his writings, though chaste in conversation."
When William and Mary came to the throne, in 1688, Dryden lost his position as Poet-laureate. But he resumed his work as a dramatist and retained his undisputed leadership among the literary men of the time until his death in 1700. He was honored by burial in Westminster Abbey in a grave by the side of Chaucer.
Dryden's influence continued with the next generation, and shows itself most strongly in the writings of Pope. The elder poet had shown the possibilities of the heroic couplet, and a large amount of his verse is in that form. He disclosed particularly its adaptability for satire in such poems as Absalom and Achitophel, and Macflecknoe. Pope in the next generation perfected the form of the heroic couplet and brought it to a more glittering polish. But he could not improve its satiric thrust.
The poets who succeeded Pope began to perceive that mere cleverness in diction cannot make great poetry, and Dryden's influence therefore began to wane. But even his severest critics acknowledge his power, and grant their praise to his Song for St. Cecilia's Day, and his Alexander's Feast. With a greater nobility of character he could have built a nobler verse and a more enduring shrine.
LYRICS BY DRYDEN
SONG FOR ST. CECILIA'S DAY, 1687
FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
The trumpet's loud clangor
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell Within the hollow of that shell
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries "Hark! the foes come; Charge, charge, 't is too late to retreat!
The soft complaining flute
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
But oh! what art can teach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Orpheus could lead the savage race,
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
As from the power of sacred lays
So when the last and dreadful hour