« PrécédentContinuer »
with more success, than when clothed in nervous verse, and delivered with all the advantages of elocution to an audience, whose numbers rendered the impression of poetry and eloquence more contagious.
It is not surprising that Dryden soon obtained a complete and absolute superiority in this style of composition over all who pretended to compete with him. While the harmony of his verse gave that advantage to the speaker, which was wanting in the harsh, coarse, broken measure of his contemporaries, his powers of reasoning and of satire left them as far behind in sense as in sound. This superiority, and the great influence which he had in the
management of the theatre, made it usual to invoke his assistance in the case of new plays; many of which he accordingly furnished either with prologues or epilogues. The players also had recourse to him upon any remarkable occasion; as, when a new house was opened; when the theatre was honoured by a visit from the king or duke; when they played at Oxford, during the public acts; or, in short, in all cases when an occasional prologue was thought necessary to grace their performance.
The collection of these pieces, which follows, is far from being the least valuable part of our author's labours. The variety and richness of fancy which they indicate, is one of Dryden's most remarkable poetical attributes. Whether the theme be, the youth and inexperience, or the age and past services, of the author; the plainness or magnificence of a new theatre; the superiority of ancient authors, or the exaltation of the moderns; the censure of political faction, or of fashionable follies; the praise of the munarch, or the ridicule of the administration; the poet never fails to treat it with the liveliness appropriate to verses intended to be spoken, and spoken before a numerous assembly, The manner which Dryden assuraes, varies also with the nature of his audience. The prologues and epilogues, intended for the London stage, are written in a tone of superiority, as if the poet, conscious of the justice of his own laws of criticism, rather imposed them upon the public as absolute and undeniable, than as standing in need of their ratification. And if he sometimes condescends to solicit, in a more humble style, the approbation of the audience, and to state circumstances of apology, and pleas of favour, it is only in the case of other poets ; for, in the prologues of his own plays, he always rather demands than begs their applause ; and if he acknowledges any defects in the piece, he takes care to intimate, that they are introduced in compliance with the evil taste of the age ; and that the audience must take the blame to themselves, instead of throwing it upon the writer. This bold style of address, although it occasionally drew upon our author
the charge of presumption, was, nevertheless, so well supportea by his perception of what was just in criticism, and his powers defending even what was actually wrong, that a miscellaneous audience was, in general, fain to submit to a domination, as successfully supported as boldly claimed. In the Oxford prologues, on the other hand, the audience furnished by that seat of the Muses, as of more competent judgment, are addressed with more respectful deference by the poet. He seems, in these, to lay down his , rules of criticism, as it were under correction of superior judges; and intermingles them with such compliments to the taste and learning of the members of the university, as he disdains to bestow upon the moiley audience of the metropolis. In one style, the author seems dictating to scholars, whose conceit and presumption must be lowered by censure, to make them sensible of their own deficiencies, and induce them to receive the offered instruction; in the other, he seems to deliver his opinions before men, whom he acknowledges as his equals, if not his superiors, in the arts of which he is treating. And although Brown has very grossly charged Dryden with having affected, for the university, an esteem and respect, which he was far from really feeling; and with having exposed its members, in their turn, to the ridicule of the London audience, whom he had stigmatized in his Oxford prologues as void of taste and judgment; it is but fair to state, that nothing can be produced in proof of such an accusation.t In another
* Our author's several modes of coaxing or bullying the auilience in the prologues, are ridiculed in the “ Rehearsal;" where Bayes says, “ You must know there is in nature but two ways of making very good prologues ;-the one is, by civility, by insinuation, good language, and all that to in a manner steal your plaudit from the courtesy of the auditors: the other, by making use of some certain personal things, which may keep a bank upon such censuring persons as cannot otherwise, egad, in nature, be hindered from being too free with their tongues.”.
+ The following is the statement of the accusation in Tom's peculiar style, being a sort of cant jargon, not void of low humour:
“ Bayes. Now, there being but three remarkable places in the whole island; that is, the two universities, and the great metropolitan city ; I shall, consequently, confine my discourse only to them : But, first of all, I must tell you, that I am altogether of my Lord Plausible's opinion in the “ Plain Dealer;" if I chance to commend any place, or order of men, out of pure friendship, I choose to do it before their faces; and if I have occasion to speak ill of any person or place, out of a principle of respect and good manners, I do it behind their backs. You cannot imagine, Mr Crites, when I visit either of the two universities, in my own person, or by my commissioners of the playhouse, how much I am taken with a college life : Oh, there's nothing like a cheese cut out into farthings! and my Lord Mayor, amidst all his brutal city luxury, does not dine bạlf so well as a student upon a single chop of rotten,
respect, the reader may remark a pleasing difference between the London prologues and epilogues, and those spoken at Oxford. The licence of the times permitted, and even exacted from an author, in these compositions, the indulgence of an indelicate vein of hu
Toasted mutton; nay, I can scarce prevail with myself, for a month or two after, to eat my meat on a plate, so great a respect have I for a university trencher; and then their conversation is so learned, and withal so innocent, that I could sit a whole day together at a coffee-house to hear them dispute about actus perspicui, and forma misti. From this beginning. I naturally fall a railing at London, with as much zeal as a Buckingham-shire grazier, who had his pocket picked at a Smithfield entertainment; or a country lady, whose ebsequious knight has spent his estate among misses, vintners, and linen-dra. pers; and then I tell my audience, that a man may walk farther in the city to meet a true judge of poetry, than ride his horse on Salisbury Plain to find a house.
London likes grossly, but this nicer pit
You see here, Mr Crites, that scholars won't take Alderman Duncomb's leads en halfpence for Irish half-crowns, while dull Londoner swallows every thing; and takes it with as little consideration, as a true Romanist takes a spiritual dose of relicts, that are sealed up with the council of Trent's coat-of-arms.
Eugen. How was that, Mr Bayes, about the council of Trent ? Pray, let Rs hear it again.
Bayes. Gad forgive me for't !-it dropt from me ere I was aware ; but I shall in time wear off this hitching in my gait, and walk in Catholic trammels as well as the best of them; nature, I must confess, is not overcome on the sudden-But let me see, gentlemen, whether I have any more lines to our Last purpose ; oh, here they are !
Poetry, which is in Oxford made
You are sensible, without question, how little beholden the city is to me, when I am upon my progress elsewhere. But 'tis a comfort that this peremptory humour does not continue long upon me; for, as I have the grace to disown my mother-university, with a jug in one hand, and a link in the other, when I am at Oxford,
Thebes did his green unknowing years engage;
So, when I am got amongst my honest acquaintance here in Covent-Garden, I disown both the sisters, and make myself as merry as a grig, with their greasy trenchers, rusty salt-sellers, and no napkins, with their everlasting drinking, and no intervals of fornication to relieve it. In fine, I make a great scruple
mour; which, however humiliating, is, in general, successful in a vulgar or mixed audience, as turning upon subjects adapted to the meanest capacity. This continued even down to our times; for, till very lately, it was expected by the mobbish part of the audience, that they should be indemnified for the patience with which they had listened to the moral lessons of a tragedy, by the indecency of the epilogue. In Dryden's time, this coarse raillery was carried to great excess; but our author, however culpable in other compositions, is, generally speaking, more correct than his contemporaries in his prologues and epilogues. In the Oxford pieces, particularly, where the decorum of manners, suited to that mother of learning, required him to abstain from all licentious allusiun, Dryden has given some excellent specimens of how little he needed to rely upon this obvious and vulgar aid, for the amusement of his audience. Upon the whole, it will be difficult to find pieces of this occasional nature so interesting and unexceptionable as those spoken at Oxford. They are, as they ought to be, by far the most laboured and correct which our author gave to the stage. It may not be improper to add, that the players were only permitted to visit Oxford during the Public Acts, which were frequently celebrated on occasions of public rejoicing. They acted, it would appear, in a Tennis-court, fitted up as an occasional theatre; and the prologues and epilogues of Dryden tended doubtless greatly to conciliate the favour of an audience, consisting of all that was learned in the generation then mature, and all that was hopeful in that which was rising to succeed it.
The more miscellaneous prologues and epilogues of Dryden are not without interest. In ridiculing the vices or follies of the age, they often touch upon circumstances illustrative of manners; and certainly, though the modern theatres of the metropolis are so ill regulated, as nearly to exclude modest females from all the house, except the private boxes, their decorum is superior to that of their predecessors. If we conceive the boxes filled with women, whose masks levelled all distinction between the woman of fashion and the courtezan; the galleries crowded with a
of it, whether it be possible for a man to write sound heroics, and make an accomplished thorough-paced wit, unless he comes to refine and cultivate himself at London; unless he knows how many stories high the houses are in Cheapside and Fleet-street; is acquainted with all the gaming ordinaries about town, and the rates of porters and hackney-coachmen; has shot the bridge; seen the tombs at Westminster; heard the Wooden-head speak; can tell you where the insuring-office is kept; and which of the twelve companies has the honour of precedence."
The Reasons for Mr Bayes changing his Religion, p, 10.
rabble, more ferocious and ignošant than its present inmates; the pit occupied by drunken bullies, whose quarrels perpetually interrupted the performers, and often ended in bloodshed, and even murder, upon the spot ; we shall have occasion to congratulate ourselves upon being at least in the way of reformation. These enormities of his time, Dryden has pointed out, and censured in his strong and nervous satire. It is to be regretted, that his painting is often coarse, and sometimes intentionally licentious; although, as has been already observed, more seldom so than that of most of his contemporaries. The historical antiquary may also glean some observations on the state of parties, from those pieces which turn upon the politics of the day; and there occur numerous hints, which may be useful to an historian of the drama. Thús the Prologues and Epilogues form no improper supplement to Dryden's historical poetry.
remains to say, that all these prologues and epilogues were, according to the custom of that time, printed on single leaves, or broadsides, as they are called, and sold by the hawkers at the door of the theatres. Some of these, but very few, have been preserved by Mr Luttrell, in the collection belonging to Mr Bindley. If a set of them existed, I think it probable they would be found to contain many variations from those editions, which the more mature reflection of the author gave to the world in the Miscellanies. But the loss is the less to be lamented, as, in general, the original editions which I have seen are not only more inaccurate, but coarser and more licentious, than those which Dryden finally adopted. In the original prologue of Circe, which is printed in this edition, for example, the reader will find, that, in place of the well-known apology for an author's first production, by an appeal to those of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson, his youth is only made the subject of some commonplace raillery. Indeed, so little value did Dryden himself set upon these occasional effusions before they were collected, and so little did he consider them as entitled to live in the recollection of the public, that, on one occasion at least, but probably upon several, he actually transferred the same prologue from one new play to another. Thus he reclaimed, from his adversary Shadwell's play of “ The True Widow," the prologue which he had furnished, and affixed it to the “ Widow Ranter” of Mrs Behr. Sometimes also he laid under contribution former publications of his own, which he supposed to be forgotten, in order to furnish out one of these theatrical prefaces. Thus the satire against the Dutch furnishes the principal part of the prologue and epilogue to“ Amboyna."
Inaccurate as they seem to have been, the original editions might have proved useful in arranging the prologues and epilogues