John Dryden: A Critical Biography

John Dryden: A Critical Biography

John Dryden: A Critical Biography

John Dryden: A Critical Biography

Excerpt

Writing a life of John Dryden is like trying to carve in solid rock with a tablespoon. The difficulty is not accidental; Dryden himself wished it to be so. He said: "Anything, though never so little, which a man speaks of himself, in my opinion is still too much". Aubrey intended Dryden to write an autobiographical sketch for him, leaving a blank space for it in his MSS with the note "He will write it for me himself". It was blank still at Aubrey's death.

Of course, Dryden does reveal his opinions, particularly his literary opinions, not merely by his choice of theme and treatment, but also directly in asides and personal remarks in his prose prefaces and discourses. In two poems, Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther, he goes further still, relaxing his rule to allow direct autobiographical statements about his mind and--it is no exaggeration--his soul. It is incidentally strange that his remark in his address to the reader at the beginning of The Hind and the Panther--"What I desire the reader should know concerning me, he will find in the body of the poem"-- has had so little weight attached to it by those who have written about him: the passages he refers to, after all, contain considered statements by the poet about his own deepest nature--a nature no less deep than that of Wordsworth, statements no less considered than those made in The Prelude to which so much dogged attention has been paid, and upon which, naturally, our whole view of Wordsworth is based. So I have tried to give full weight to what Dryden allows us to know of himself.

Apart from that, no writer of Dryden's eminence can hope to keep his private life private; it is natural and proper that those who admire his works should want to know about the man who wrote them, and should delve into the past to find out about him. Yet in fact Dryden has had his desire for privacy largely granted, for in spite of all the painstaking, if not altogether scientific, inquires in the in the eighteenth century by such men as Samuel Derrick and Edward Malone, surprisingly little of first-rate personal data has turned up. The bare events of his life, from at least 1668 when be became Poet Laureate and a public figure, were already well enough known; but where is the revealing anecdote, the family recollection, the diary, or the personal reminiscence by friends and acquaintances of the man who met almost every notable person of his time? Stray remarks, stray references, a delightful tribute by Congreve--these can be found, but they tell us really very little. The eighteenth century concluded, not unreason-

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