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Battles have always been described in heroick poetry; but a sea-fight and artillery had yet something of novelty. New arts are long in the world before poets describe them; for they borrow every thing from their predecessors, and commonly derive very little from nature or from life. Boileau was the first French writer that had ever hazarded in verse the mention of modern war, or the effects of gunpowder. We, who are less afraid of novelty, had already possession of those dreadful images. Waller had described a sea-fight. Milton had not yet transferred the invention of fire-arms to the rebellicus angels.
This poem is written with great diligence, yet does not fully answer the expectation raised by such subjects and such a writer. With the stanza of Davenant he has sometimes his vein of parenthesis, and incidental disquisition, and stops his narrative for a wise remark,
The general fault is, that he affords more sentiment than description, and does not so much impress scenes upon the fancy, as deduce consequences and make comparisons. . .
The initial stanzas have rather too much resemblance to the first lines of Waller's poem on the war with Spain; perhaps such a beginning is natural, and could not be avoided without affectation. Both Waller and Dryden might take their hint from the poem on the civil war of Rome, “ Orbem jam to" tum," &c. ' Of the king collecting his navy, he says,
It seems as every ship their sovereign knows,
His awful summons they so soon obey;
and so to pasture follow through the sea. It would not be hard to believe that Dryden had written the two first lines seriously, and that soine wag had added the two latter in burlesque. Who would expect the lines that immediately follow, which are indeed perhaps indecently byperbolical, but certainly in a mode totally different ?
To see this fleet upon the ocean move,
Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies ;
For tapers made tv!o glaring comes rise. The description of the attempt at Bergen will afford a very compleat specimen of the descriptions in this poem :
And now approach'd their fleet from India, fraught
With all the riches of the rising sun :
The fatal regions where the war begun.
Their way-laid wealth to Norway's coast they bring;
And winter brooded on the eastern spring.
By the rich scent we found our perfum'd prey,
Which, flank'd with rocks, did close in covert lie;
At once to threaten and invite the eye.
The English undertake th' unequal war:
Besiege the Indies, and all Denmark dare.
These fain would keep, and those more fain enjoy :
That what both love, both hazard to destroy: -
And now their odours arm'd against them fly:
And some by aromatic splinters die:
In heaven's inclemency some ease we find :
And only yielded to the seas and wind. 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 propriery be hunted; for we winded them by our noses-Their perfumes betiayed them. The Husband and the Lover, though of more dignity than the Castor, are images tog 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 feets retired, when the night parted them, is one of the fairest flowers of English poetry,
The night comes on, we eager to pursue
The combat still, and they asham'd to leave; '
And doubtful moon-light did our'rage deceive.
And loud applause of their great leader's fame :
And, slumbering, smile at the imagin'd flame.
Stretch'd on their decks like weary oxen lie;
(Vast bulks, which little souls, but ill supply.)
In dreams they fearful precipices tread,
Or, shipwreck’d, labour lo some distant shore:
They wake with horror, and dare sleep no more. 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 disputarion 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 :
The rattling mallct with the right they lift.
(From friendly Sweden brought) the seams instops ;
And shake them from the rising beak in drops.
Or sear-cloth masts with strong inrpawling coats :
And one below, their ease or stiffness notes.
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 seqm sorable 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 shewn, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.
His description of the Fire is painted by resolute meditation, 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 èmorion in the breast of the poet; he watches the fame 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 !
No sound the rest of Nature did invade
In this deep 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 ghosts of traytors from the bridge descend
With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice;
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 inuch 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 Zeb; 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 exactness.
Rhyme has been so long banished from the theatre, that we know not its effect upon the passions of an audience ; but it has this convenience, that sentences stand more independent on each other, and striking passages are therefore casily 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 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, elegance of praise, areful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy turns of langnage, 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 paralled with David. ..
The subject had likewise another inconvenience: it admitted little imagery or description, and a long poem of mere sentiments casily, 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 sooths the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.
As an approach to 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 out of many sects various in their principles, but agreeing in their purpose of misa chief, 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 tbink 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 bis horn before it?
In the second part, written by Tale, there is a long insertion, which, for its poignancy of satire, exceeds any part of the former. Personal resentment, though no laudable motive to satire, can add great forge to general principles. Self-love is a busy prompter. .
The Medal, written upon the same principles with Absalom and Achitophel. but upon a narrower plan, gives less pleasure, though it discovers equal abilicies in the waiter. The superstructure cannot extend beyond the foundation ;