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This is little better than to say in praise of a shrub, that it is as green as a tree; or of a brook, that it waters a garden, as a river waters a country.
Dryden confesses that he did not know the lady whom he celebrates: the praise being therefore inevitably general, fixes no impression upon the reader, nor excites any tendency to love, nor much desire of imitation. Knowledge of the subject is to the poet what durable materials are to the architect.
The Religio Laid, which borrows its title from the Religio Medici of Browne, is almost the only work of Dryden which can be considered as a voluntary effusion; in this, therefore, it might be hoped, that the full effulgence of his genius would be found. But unhappily the subject is rather argumentative than poetical; he intended only a specimen of metrical disputation:
And this unpolish'd rugged verse I chose,
This, however, 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 prosaick in some parts, rises to high poetry in others, and neither towers to the skies, nor creeps along the ground.
Of the same kind, or not far distant from it, is the Hind and Panther, the longestof all Dryden's origi nal poems; an allegory intended to comprize and to decide the controversy between the Romanists and Protestants. The scheme of the work is injudicious and incommodious; for what can be more absurd than that one beast should counsel another to rest her faith upon a pope and council? He seems well enough skilled in the usual topicks of argument, endeavours to shew the necessity of an infallible judge, and reproaches the Reformers with want of unity; but is weak enough to ask, why, since we see without knowing how, we may not have an infallible judge without knowing where?
The Hind at one time is afraid to drink at the common brook, because she may be worried; but, walking home with the Panther, talks by the way of the Nicene Fathers, and at last declares herself to be the Catholick Church.
This absurdity was very properly ridiculed in the City Mouse and Country Mouse of Montague and Prior; and in the detection and censure of the incongruity of the fiction chiefly consists the value of their performance, which, whatever reputation it might obtain by the help of temporary passions, seems, to readers almost a century distant, not very forcible or animated.
Pope, whose judgment was perhaps a little bribed by the subject, used to mention this poem as the most correct specimen of Dryden's versification. It was indeed written when he had completely formed his manner, and may be supposed to exhibit, negligence excepted, his deliberate and ultimate scheme of metre.
We may therefore reasonably infer, that he did not approve the perpetual uniformity which confines the sense to couplets, since he has broken his lines in the initial paragraph.
A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchangY!,
Fed on the lawns, and in the Forest rang'd:Without unspotted, innocent within, She fear'd no danger, for she knew no sin. Yet had she oft been chac'd with horns and hounds, And Scythian shafts, and many winged wounds Aim'd at her heart; was often forc'd to fly, And doom'd to death, though fated not to die.
These lines are lofty, elegant, and musical, notwithstanding the interruption of the pause, of which the effect is rather increase of pleasure by variety, than offence by ruggedness.
To the first part it was his intention, he says, "to "give the majestick turn of heroick poesy;" and perhaps he might have executed his design not unsuccessfully, had not an opportunity of satire, which he cannot forbear, fallen sometimes in his way. The character of a Presbyterian, whose emblem is the Wolf, is not very heroically majestick:
More haughty than the rest, the wolfish race Appear with belly gaunt and famish'd face: V Never was so deform'd a beast of grace. His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears, Close clapp'd for shame; but his rough crest he rears, And pricks up his predestinating ears. y
His general character of the other sorts of beasts
that never go to church, though spritely and keen, has, however, not much of heroick poesy:
These are the chief; to number o'er the rest,
And stand like Adam naming every beast,
Were weary work; nor will the Muse describe
A slimy-born, and sun-begotten tribe,
Who, far from steeples and their sacred sound,
In fields their sullen conventicles found.
These gross, half-animated lumps I leave;
Nor can I think what thoughts they can conceive;
But, if they think at all, 'tis sure no higher
Than matter, put in motion, may aspire;
Souls that can scarce ferment their mass of clay,
So drossy, so divisible are they,
As would but serve pure bodies for allay:
Such souls as shards produce, such beetle things
As only buz to Heaven with evening wings;
Strike in the dark, offending but by chance;
Such are the blindfold blows of ignorance.
They know no being, and but hate a name;
To them the Hind and Panther are the same.
One more instance, and that taken from the narrative part, where style was more in his choice, will shew how steadily he kept his resolution of heroick dignity.
For when the herd, suffiVd, did late repair
Nor had the grateful Hind so soon forgot
Her friend and fellow-sufferer in the plot.
Yet, wondering how of late she grew estrang'd,
Her forehead cloudy and her count'nance changed,
She thought this hour th1 occasion would present
To learn her secret cause of discontent,
Which well she hop'd might be with ease redress^,
Considering her a well-bred civil beast,
And more a gentlewoman than the rest. J
After some common talk what rumours ran,
The lady of the spotted muff began.
The second and third parts he professes to have reduced to diction more familiar and more suitable to dispute and conversation; the difference is not, however, very easily perceived; the first has familiar, and the two others have sonorous, lines. The original incongruity runs through the whole: the king is now Ccesar, and now the Lion; and the name Pan is given to the Supreme Being.
But when this constitutional absurdity is forgiven, the poem must be confessed to be written with great 'smoothness of metre, a wide extent of knowledge, and an abundant multiplicity of images; the controversy is embellished with pointed sentences, diversified by illustrations, and enlivened by sallies of invective. Some of the facts to which allusions are made are now become obscure, and perhaps there may be many satirical passages little understood.
As it was by its nature a work of defiance, a composition which would naturally be examined with the utmost acrimony of criticism, it was probably laboured with uncommon attention; and there are, indeed, few negligencics in the subordinate parts.