Images de page
PDF
ePub

translator, pronounces, that the former was not a bigotted Catholic, since he did not hesitate to challenge some of the traditions of the church of Rome. To these traditions, these “ brushwood helps," with which the Catholics endeavoured to fence the doctrines of their church, our author proceeds, and throws them aside as liable to error and corruption. The pretensions of the church of Rome, by her pope and general councils, infallibly to determine the authenticity of church tradition, is the next proposition. To this the poet answers, that if they possess infallibility at all, it ought to go the length of restoring the canon, or correcting the corrupt copies of scripture ; 'a reply which seems to concede to the Romans ; as, without denying the grounds of their claim, it only asserts, that it is not sufficiently extended. Upon the ground, however, that the plea of infallibility, by which the poet is obviously somewhat embarrassed, must be dismissed, as proving too much, the holy scriptures are referred to as the sole rule of faith; admitting such explanations as the church of England has given to the contested doctrines of Christianity. The unlettered Christian, we are told, does well to pursue, in simplicity, his path to heaven; the learned divine is to study well the sacred scriptures, with such assistance as the most early traditions of the church, especially those which are written, may, in doubtful points, afford him. It is in this argument chiefly, that there may be traeed a sort of vacillation and uncertainty in our author's opinion, boding what afterwards took place --his acquiescence in the church authority of Rome. Nevertheless, having vaguely pronounced, that some traditions are to be received, and others rejected, he gives his opinion against the Roman see, which dictated to the laity the explications of doctrine as adopted by the church, and prohibited them to form their own opinion upon the text, or even to peruse the sacred volume which contains it. This Dryden contrasts with the opposite evil, of vulgar enthusiasts debasing scripture by their own absurd commentaries, and dividing into as many sects, as there are wayward opinions formed upon speculative doctrine. He concludes, that both extremes are to be avoided; that saving faith does not depend on nice disquisitions ; yet, if inquisitive minds are hurried into such, the scripture, and the commentary of the fathers, are their only safe guides:

And after hearing what our church can say,
If still our reason runs another way,
That private reason 'tis more just to curb,
Than by disputes the public peace disturb;
For points obscure are of small use to learn

But common quiet is mankind's concern. In considering Dryden's creed thus analyzed, I think it will appear, that the author, though still holding the doctrines of the church of England, had been biassed, in the course of his enquiry, by those of Rome. His wish for the possibility of an infallible guide, * expressed with almost indecent ardour, the difficulty, nay, it would seem, in his estimation, almost the impossibility, of discriminating between corrupted and authentic traditions, while the necessity of the latter to the interpretation of scripture is plainly admitted, appear, upon the whole, to have left the poet's mind in an unpleasing state of doubt, from which he rather escapes than is relieved. He who only acquiesces in the doctrines of his church, because the exercise of his private judge ment may disturb the tranquillity of the state, can hardly be said to be in a state to give a reason for the faith that is in him.

The doctrine of the Religio Laici is admirably adapted to the subject : though treating of the most abstruse doctrines of Christianity, it is as clear and perspicuous as the most humble prose, while it has all the elegance and effect which argument is capable of receiving from poetry. Johnson, usually sufficiently niggard of praise, has allowed, that this “ is a composition of great excellence in its kind, in which the familiar is very properly diversified with the solemn, and the grave with the humorous; in which metre has neither weakened the force, nor clouded the perspicuity of argument; nor will it be easy to find another example, equally happy, of this middle kind of writing, which, though prosaic in some parts, rises to high poetry in others, and neither towers to the skies, nor creeps along the ground.”+ I cannot he remarking, that the style of the Religio Laici has been imitated successfully by the late Mr Cowper in some of his pieces. Yet he has not been always able to maintain the resemblance, but often crawis where Dryden would have walked. The natural dig. nity of our author may be discovered in the lamest lines of the poem, whereas his imitator is often harsh and embarrassed. Both are occasionally prosaic ; but in such passages Dryden's verse resembles good prose, and Cowper's that which is feeble and involved.

The name which Dryden has thought proper to affix to this declaration of his faith, seems to have been rather fashionable about that time. There is a treatise de Religione Laici, attached to the work of Lord Herbert of Cherburg, De Veritate, first published in 1633. But the most famous work, with a similar title, was the Religio Medici of Thomas Browne, which was translated into Latin by Meryweather, and afterwards into French, Italian, Dutch, German, and most of the languages of Europe. In 1683, Charles Blount, of Staffordshire,son to Sir Henry Blount, published a short treatise, entitled, Religio Laici, which he inscribed to his “ much honoured friend, John Dryden, Esq. ;" whom he informed, in the epistle-dedicatory, “I have endeavoured that my discourse should only be a continuance of yours; and that, as you taught men how to believe, so I might instruct them how to live." * • It has been suggested, that the purpose of the Religio Laici of Dryden was to bring the contending factions tu sober and philosophical reflection on their differences in points of faith, and to abate, it possible, the acrimony with which they contended upon the most obscure subjects of polemical divinity. But to attempt, by an abstracted disquisition on the original cause of quarrel, to stop a controversy, in which all the angry passions had been roused, and which indeed was fast verging towards blows, is as vain an attempt, as it would be to turn the course of a river, swoln with a thousand tributary streams, by diaining the original springhead. From the cold reception of this poem, compared to those political and personal satires which preceded it, Dryden might learn the difference of interest, excited by productions which tended to fan party rage, and one which was designed to mitigate its ferocity. "The Religio Laici, which first appeared in November 1682, neither attracted admiration nor censure; it was neither hailed by the acclamations of the one party, nor attacked by the indignant answers of the other. The public were, however, sufficiently interested in it to call for a renewal of the impression in the following year. This second edition, which had escaped even the researches of Mr Malone, is in the collection of

* Such an omniscient church we wish indeed;

'Twere worth both Testaments, cast in the creed. Johnson's Life of Dryden.

my

friend Mr Heber. It might probably have been again reprinted with advantage, but our author's change of faith must necessarily have rendered him unwilling to give a third edition. The same circumstance called the attention of his enemies towards this neglected poem, who, in many libels, upbraided him with the versatility of his religious opinions. The author of a pamphlet, called " The Revolter," was at the pains to print the tenets of the Religio Laici cuncerning the Catholic controversy, in contrast with those wbich our author had adopted and expressed in the “ Hind and Panther.”+ Another turned our author's own title against him,

Malone, Vol. III. p. 310. t" The Revolter, a Tragi-Comedy, acted between the Hind and Panther and Religio Laici. London. 1687."

and published “ Religio Laici, or' a Layman's Faith touching the Supream and Infallible Guide of the Church, by J. R. a Convert of Mr Bayes. In Two Letters to a friend in the Country. Licenced June the ist, 1688.” In both these pamphlets our author is treated with the grossest insolence and brutality. * Excepting these malig

* As will appear from the following extracts :-" While he sat thus in his poetical throne, or rather acting upon the stage of fable and pagan mythology, and transfiguring into beasts almost all mankind, but Turks and infidels, that were out of his road, he never considered what a monster he was himself; a second Gorgon with three heads, for each of which he had a particular employment; with the one, to fawn upon the most infamous of usuipers; with the other, at one time to lick the beneficent hands of his Protestant mother, and, bye and bye, to court the charity of his Catholic mamma; while, with the third, he barked and snarled, not only at his first deserted female parent, but also at all other differing sentiments and opinions, which his sovereign had so graciously and generously indulged.

But 'twas his wrath, because his native church
Left his high expectations in the lurch.
He saw the play-wright lawreate debauched
By the times, vices which he himself reproached ;
And, by his grand reform of stage-pit fools,
Judged his ability to manage souls.
The comedy, to see him preach for aught,
She knew might tragic prove to those he taught;
By ill instructions to their loss beguiled,
Or scorning precepts from a tongue defiled
With stage obscenity
For who could have refrained from sportive mirth,
To hear the nation's poet, Bayes, hold forth?
Or who would ever practice by the rule
Of one they could not chuse but ridicule ?
The scandal was the greater, the more rare,
An ordained play-wright in the house of prayer.
Wbile people only flock to hear him chime
A rampant sermon forth in brilly rhime;
Or else his gaping auditors he feasts
With bold Isaiah's raptures, and Ezekiel's beasts.
All this the church foresaw, nor could endure
Polluted lips should haudle things most pure.

The Revolter, p. 2.

But, to give the devil his due, I must needs own Mr Bayes has a most powerful and luxurious hand at satire, and may challenge all Christendom to match him; for indeed I never, in my slender province, met any that was worthy to compare to hiin, unless that unknown, but supposed worthy author, that writ to him upon his at last turning Roman Catholic; for Bayes, like the Vicar of Bray, in Henry VIII. Edward VI. Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth's times, was resolved to keep his place; (and the quoting an author

nant criticisms, the Religio Laici slept in obscurity after the second edition, and was not again published till after the author's death. Neither has it been since popular, although its pure spirit of Christianity should be acceptable to the religious, its moderation to the philosopher, and the excellence of the composition to all admirers of argumentative poetry.

to the purpose, is the same thing, the learned say, as if it was his own), and that will, i hope, excuse my putting them down here :

“ Thou mercenary renegade, thou slave,
Thou ever changing still to be a knave;
What sect, what error, wilt thou next disgrace?
Thou art so lude, so scandalously base,
That antichristian popery may be
Ashamed of such a proselyte as thee;
Not all thy rancour, or felonious spite,
Which animates thy lumpish soul to write,
Could ha' contrived a satire more severe,
Or more disgrace the cause thou wouldst prefer.
Yet in thy favour, this must be confest,
It suits with thy poetic genius best;
There thou
To truths disused, mayst entertain
Thyself with stories, more fancitul and vain
Than e'er thy poetry could ever fain;
Or sing the lives of thy own fellow saints,
'Tis a large field, and thy assistance wants;
Thence copy out new operas for the stage,
And with their miracles direct the age.
Such is thy faith, if faith thou hast indeed,
For well we may suspect the poet's creed,
Rebel to God, blasphemer o' the king,
Oh tell whence could this strange compliance spring?
So mayest thou prove to thy new gods as true,
As thy old friend, the devil, has been to you.
Yet conscience and religion's your pretence,
But bread and drink the methologick sense.
Ah! how persuasive is the want of bread,
Not reasons from strog box more strongly plead.
A convert, thou ! 'tis past all believing;
'Tis a damned scandal, of thy foes contriving;
A jest of that malicious monstrous fame
The honest layman's faith is still the same.”

Religio Laici, by J. R. a Convert of Mr Bayes. In such coarse invective were Dryden's theological poems censured by persons, who, far from writing decent poetry, or even common sense, could neiiher spell, nor write tolerable gramuar.

« PrécédentContinuer »