Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Scott's Life of Dryden

Walter Scott in 1808 (Engraving by John Horsburgh after the portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn)

I've spent the past few evenings reading Sir Walter Scott's "Life of Dryden", which I found in the complete Scott that I purchased on Kindle. If you are a fan of both authors, as I am, this is certainly worth reading, but I can't say anything much more enthusiastic than that.

It first appeared at the head of Scott's 1808 edition of The Works of John Dryden, in eighteen volumes. They are nearly all available online on Project Gutenberg, though some of the volumes have misleading titles. As far as I can tell the only missing volume is 17. 

Volume 1 Scott's Life of Dryden
Volume 2 The Wild Gallant, The Rival Ladies, The Indian Queen, The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, Secret Love or The Maiden Queen
Volume 3 Sir Martin Mar-All, The Tempest, An Evening's Love, Tyrannic Love
Volume 4 The Conquest of Granada, Marriage-a-la-Mode, The Assignation or Love in a Nunnery
Volume 5 Amboyna, The State of Innocence, Aureng-Zebe, All For Love
Volume 6 Limberham or The Kind Keeper, Oedipus, Troilus and Cressida, The Spanish Friar
Volume 7 The Duke of Guise, Albion and Albanius, Don Sebastian
Volume 8 Amphitryon, King Arthur, Cleomenes, Love Triumphant, The Secular Masque
Volume 9 Early Poems incl. Annus Mirabilis. Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal
Volume 10 Religio Laici, Hind and the Panther, Prologues and Epilogues, Mack-Flecknoe etc
Volume 11 Epistles, Elegies and Epitaphs, Odes etc. Fables: Tales from Chaucer, Translations from Boccace. 
Volume 12 Translations: Chaucer, Ovid, Theocritus, Lucretius, Horace, Homer
Volume 13 Translations: Juvenal, Persius, Virgil's Pastorals
Volume 14 Translations: Virgil's Georgics, Aeneis I - VII
Volume 15 Translations: Virgil's Aeneis VIII - XII. Prose including the Essay of Dramatic Poesy
Volume 16 The Life of St Francis Xavier
Volume 17 (Not available online. I suppose it must contain the Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry, which can be read here.)
Volume 18 Prose: Dialogue concerning Women, St Evremont, Polybius, Lucian, Letters

Apart from the Life that I've just been reading, Scott contributed substantial headnotes to the individual works. 

Some aspects of the Life made more sense in its original context. For example, it allots more space to quoting Dryden's contemporaries (often, his enemies) than to quoting Dryden himself; the original readers were about to get more than enough of Dryden! 

The Life contains, in fact, rather little biography. Dryden was one of the least self-revelatory of authors, and Scott evidently didn't know much about his personal life. So the Life is mostly concerned with the interaction between Dryden's writing career and the history of his age. A disappointing aspect is that Scott sticks so closely to the critical estimates transmitted in Samuel Johnson's (far more famous) Life of Dryden. Scott's language is more enthusiastic and romantic than Johnson's, but I miss the dissent that evinces a really fresh reading. 


The most detailed readings, in the Life itself, are parts of Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther.

Scott is discussing Dryden's conversion to Catholicism and defending it against the accusation of being merely cynical time-serving (it was just after James II's coronation). His persuasive argument is that Dryden's trajectory was from a flippant Deism and that, once he began to think about religion more deeply, his logic led inexorably to Catholicism. Religio Laici represented a brief stop in that journey. In it Dryden plumps for Anglicanism, but you can't really call it an Anglican poem, the poet had no true enthusiasm for what he already felt as a half-way house. 

Scott noted that "alternate conversion" between High Churchmen and Catholics was fairly common among the pro-Stuarts, and that many contemporaries of "rank and talent" had embraced Catholicism; they included Dryden's wife. 

It was a topic of personal relevance to Scott. His wife Charlotte had been brought up a Catholic before being inducted into the Established Church. In his writings Scott's attitudes to Catholicism are nuanced, if not conflicted: robustly critical, yet underlyingly gentle. It proved a fertile irresolution; e.g. in Waverley or The Abbot.


Here are some other bits and pieces that struck me. 

Scott begins with a review of the state of English Literature before Dryden came on the scene. This includes some comments on drama. He admires Shakespeare of course. Among others he singles out 

Massinger, who approached to Shakespeare in dignity; Beaumont and Fletcher, who surpassed him in drawing female characters, and those of polite and courtly life; and Jonson, who attempted to supply, by depth of learning, and laboured accuracy of character, the want of that flow of imagination, which nature had denied to him.

Thereafter, "Massinger, Fletcher and Shakespeare" becomes a shorthand for the best aspects of the drama before the civil War.

I'd love to know how Scott came to pay this remarkable tribute to Massinger.  The historically high estimate of Beaumont and Fletcher is less of a surprise. I'd have expected Scott to be a bit more enthusiastic about Jonson.

Scott takes a highly negative view of the metaphysical style, those purveyors of "false wit" that he traces back to Lyly's influence. He means the school of Cowley, mentioning Donne and Cleveland. He shows no distinct awareness of Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan or Traherne. He concedes that the metaphysical poets were serious in temper and necessarily learned, but this doesn't trouble his belief that their poetry was bad poetry, an altogether wrong direction. 

Milton "stood aloof and alone". For Scott, Shakespeare is our greatest author and Milton clearly the second, and Dryden as clearly the third. 

Scott mentions a smoother school of poetry before the Restoration, but he doesn't use the expression "Cavalier poets". He mainly means Denham, Waller, and Suckling. He doesn't mention Carew, Lovelace or Herrick. 

With the Restoration, the taste changed to a "lighter and more pleasing style of poetry than the harsh and scholastic productions of Donne and Cowley". He attributes the change of taste to Charles II's own character, and to his elegant courtiers. But he asserts this, too:

[T]he ladies, whose influence in the court of James and Charles I was hardly felt, and who were then obliged to to be contented with such pedantic worship as is contained in the "Mistress" of Cowley and the "Epithalamion" of Donne, began now, when their voices were listened to, and their taste consulted, to determine that their poetical lovers should address them in strains more musical, if not more intelligible. What is most acceptable to the fair sex will always sway the mode of a gay court ...

I wonder if there might not be a grain of truth in this. At any rate, I have a distinct sense that the metaphysical style attracted few woman writers, in comparison to either the Elizabethan style or the Restoration style. Was this knotty, learned poetry intrinsically a masculine performance for other men? 


At the same time that Scott was working on his Dryden edition, he was becoming one of the most famous poets of his time, but in a mode that seems very remote from Dryden. 

Yet what Scott singled out for admiration was Dryden's return to natural expression (compared with the Cowley school) and also his fiery energy and mastery of big effects (compared with the limiting perfectionism of Pope). In both these respects Dryden could act as an inspiration to him.

Dryden was an enthusiast for science but also a believer in astrology. Of the latter, Scott says:

However this shade of credulity may injure Dryden's character as a philosopher, we cannot regret its influence on his poetry. ... [I]f the mind of a man of acute powers, and of warm fancy, becomes slightly imbued with the visionary feelings excited by such studies, their obscure and undefined influence is ever found to aid the sublimity of his ideas, and to give that sombre and serious effect, which he can never produce, who does not himself feel the awe which it is his object to excite.

That's surely talking as much about Scott's own art as Dryden's. 

Scott considers Dryden's best play to be Don Sebastian, followed by All For Love

Dryden's Essays, he writes, are "the most delightful prose in the English language".

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