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In this manner is the sublime too often mingled with the ridiculous. The Dutch seek a shelter for a wealthy fleet: this surely needed no illustration; yet they must fly, not like all the rest of mankind on the same occasion, but “like hunted castors;” and they might with strict propriety be hunted; for we winded them by our noses—their perfumes betrayed them. The husband and the lover, though of more dignity than the castor, are images too domestick to mingle properly with the horrors of war. The two quatrains that follow are worthy of the author. The account of the different sensations with which the two fleets retired, when the night parted them, is one of the fairest flowers of English poetry:
The night comes on, we eager to pursue
Till the last streaks of dying day withdrew,
In th’ English fleet each ship resounds with joy,
In fiery dreams the Dutch they still destroy,
Not so the Holland fleet, who, tir’d and done,
Faint sweats all down their mighty members run, ,
In dreams they fearful precipices tread,
It is a general rule in poetry, that all appropriated terms of art should be sunk in general expressions, because poetry is to speak an universal language. This rule is still stronger with regard to arts not liberal, or confined to few, and therefore far removed from common knowledge; and of this kind, certainly, is technical navigation. Yet Dryden was of opinion,
that a sea-fight ought to be described in the nautical language; “and certainly,” says he, “as those, who in a logical disputation keep to general terms, would hide a fallacy, so those who do it in poetical description would veil their ignorance.” Let us then appeal to experience; for by experience at last we learn as well what will please as what will profit. In the battle his terms seem to have been blown away; but he deals them liberally in the dock : So here some pick out bullets from the side, Some drive old okum thro’ each seam and rift:
Their left hand does the calking iron guide,
With boiling pitch another near at hand
Which well laid o'er, the salt-sea waves withstand,
Some the gall’d ropes with dauby marling bind, Or sear-cloth masts with strong tarpawling coats: To try new shrouds one mounts into the wind, And one below their ease or stiffness notes. I suppose there is not one term which every reader does not wish away. His digression to the original and progress of navigation, with his prospect of the advancement which it shall receive from the Royal Society, then newly instituted, may be considered as an example seldom equalled of seasonable excursion and artful return, One line, however, leaves me discontented ; he says, that, by the help of the philosophers, Instructed ships shall sail to quick commerce, By which remotest regions are allied. Which he is constrained to explain in a note “by a more exact measure of longitude.” It had better become Dryden's learning and genius to have laboured science into poetry, and have shown, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy,
His description of the fire is painted by resolute me. ditation, out of a mind better formed to reason than to feel. The conflagration of a city, with all its tumults of concomitant distress, is one of the most dreadful spectacles which this world can offer to human eyes; yet it seems to raise little emotion in the breast of the poet; he watches the flame coolly from street to street, with now a reflection and now a simile, till at last he meets the king, for whom he makes a speech, rather tedious in a time so busy; and then follows again the progress of the fire. There are, however, in this part some passages that deserve attention : as in the beginning: The diligence of trades and noiseful gain, And luxury more late, asleep were laid! All was the Night's, and in her silent reign No sound the rest of nature did invade Jn this decp quiet. The expression “All was the Night's,” is taken from Seneca, who remarks on Virgil's line,
Omnia noctis erant, placida composta quiete, that he might have concluded better,
Omnia noctis erant.
The following quatrain is vigorous and animated : The ghosts of traitors from the bridge descend, With bold fanatick spectres to rejoice: About the fire into a dance they bend, And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice. His prediction of the improvements which shall be made in the new city is elegant and poetical, and with an event which poets cannot always boast, has been happily verified. The poem concludes with a simile that might have better been omitted. Dryden, when he wrote this poem, seems not yet fully to have formed his versification, or settled his system of propriety.
From this time he addicted himself almost wholly to the stage, “to which,” says he, “my genius never much inclined me,” merely as the most profitable market for poetry. By writing tragedies in rhyme, he continued to improve his diction and his numbers. According to the opinion of Harte, who had studied his works with great attention, he settled his principles of versification in 1676, when he produced the play of Aureng Zebe; and according to his own account of the short time in which he wrote Tyrannick Love, and The State of Innocence, he soon obtained the full effect of diligence, and added facility to ex2CtneSS. Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre, that we know not its effects upon the passions of an audience : but it has this convenience, that sentences stand more independent on each other, and striking passages are therefore easily selected and retained. Thus the description of Night in The Indian Emperor, and the rise and fall of empire in The Conquest of Granada, are more frequently repeated than any lines in All for Love, or Don Sebastian. To search his plays for vigorous sallies and sententious elegances, or to fix the dates of any little pieces which he wrote by chance, or by solicitation, were labour too tedious and minute. His dramatick labours did not so wholly absorb his thoughts, but that he promulgated the laws of translation in a preface to the English Epistles of Ovid ; one of which he translated himself, and another in conjunction with the earl of Mulgrave. Absalom and Achitophel, is a work so well known, that a particular criticism is superfluous. If it be considered as a poem political and controversial, it will be found to comprise all the excellences of which
the subject is susceptible; acrimony of censure, cleWOL. IX. R *
gance of praise, artful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy turns of language, and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English composition.
It is not, however, without faults; some lines are inelegant or improper, and too many are irreligiously licentious. The original structure of the poem was defective; allegories drawn to great length will always break; Charles could not run continually parallel with David.
The subject had likewise another inconvenience : it admitted little imagery or description; and a long poem of mere sentiments easily becomes tedious ; though all the parts are forcible, and every line kindles new rapture, the reader, if not relieved by the interposition of something that soothes the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.
As an approach to the historical truth was necessary, the action and catastrophe were not in the poet’s power; there is therefore an unpleasing disproportion between the beginning and the end. We are alarmed by a faction formed of many sects, various in their principles, but agreeing in their purpose of mischief; formidable for their numbers, and strong by their supports; while the king’s friends are few and weak. The chiefs on either part are set forth to view ; but, when expectation is at the height, the king makes a speech, and
Henceforth a series of new times began.
Who can forbear to think of an enchanted castle, with a wide moat and lofty battlements, walls of marble and gates of brass, which vanishes at once
into air, when the destined knight blows his lorn before it :