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MR Malone has given a full account of the lady in whose honour this poem was written : “ Eleonora, eldest daughter, and at length sole heir, of Sir Henry Lee, of Ditchley, in the county of Oxford, Baronet, by Anne, daughter of Sir John Danvers, and sister and heir to Henry Danvers, Esq., who was nephew and heir to Henry, Earl of Danby: She was the wife of James Bertie, first Earl of Abingdon, and died May 31, 1891. Her lord, in 1698. married a second wife, Catharine, daughter of Sir Thomas Chamberlaine, Bart."
Her death was unexpectedly sudden, and took place in a ballroom in her own house ; a circumstance which our author has hardly glanced at, although capable of striking illustration ; and although one might have thought he would have grasped at whatever could assist him in executing the difficult task, of an elegy written by desire of a nobleman whom he did not know, in memory of a lady whom he had never seen.
It is to be presumed, that the task imposed was handsomely recompensed ; for we can hardly conceive one in itself more unpleasant or unprofitable. Notwithstanding Dryden's professions, that he " with the tide” while composing this piece, and that the variety and multitude of his similies were owing to the divine afflatus and the influence of his subject, we may be fairly permitted to doubt, whether they did not rather originate in an attempt to supply the lack of real sympathy, by the indulgence of a luxuriant imagination. The commencement has been rather severely censured by Dr Johnson ; the comparison, he says, contains no illustration. As a king would be lamented, Eleonora was lamented : “ This,” observes he, “is little better than to say 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.” But, I presume, the point on which Dryden meant the comparison to depend, was, the extent of the lamentation occasioned by Eleonora's death ; in which particular the simile conveyed an illustration as ample, as if Dryden had said of a myrtle, it was as tall as an oak, or of a brook, it was as deep as the Thames.
The poem is certainly totally deficient in interest ; for the character has no peculiarity of features : But, considered as an abstract example of female perfection, we may admire the ideal Eleonora, as we do the fancy-piece of a celebrated painter, though with an internal consciousness that the original never existed.
“ Eleonora" first appeared in quarto, in 1692, probably about the end of autumn; as Dryden alludes to the intervention of some months between Lord Abingdon's commands and his own performance.
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
THE EARL OF AB NGDON, &c.*
MY LORD, The commands, with which you honoured mesome months ago, arenow performed: they had been sooner, but betwixt ill health, some business, and many troubles, I was forced to defer them till this time. Ovid, going to his banishment, and writing from on shipboard to his friends, excused the faults of his poetry by his misfortunes ; and told them, that good verses never flow, but from a serene and composed spirit. Wit, which is a kind of Mercury, with wings fastened to his head and heels, can fly but slowly in a damp air. I therefore chose rather to obey you late than ill : if at least I am capable of writing any thing, at any time, which is worthy your perusal and your patronage. I cannot say that I have escaped from a shipwreck; but have only gained a rock by hard swimming, where I may pant awhile and gather breath; for the docters give me a sad assurance, that my diseaset never took its leave of any man, but with a purpose to return. However, my lord, I have laid hold on the interval, and managed the small stock, which age has left me, to the best advantage, in performing this inconsiderable service to my lady's memory. We, who are priests of Apollo, have not the inspiration when we please ; but must wait till the God comes rushing on us, and invades us with a fury which we are not able to resist; which gives us double strength while the fit continues, and leaves us languishing and spent, at its departure. Let me not seem to boast, my lord, for I have really felt it on this occasion, and prophesied beyond my natural power. Let me add, and hope to be believed, that the excellency of the subject contributed much to the happiness of the execution ; and that the weight of thirty years was taken off me while I was writing. I swam with the tide, and the water under me was buoyant. The reader will easily observe, that I was transported by the mul. titude and variety of my similitudes; which are generally the product of a luxuriant fancy, and the wantonness of wit. Had I called in my judgment to my assistance, I had certainly retrenched many of them. But I defend them not; let them pass for beautiful faults amongst the better sort of cri. tics ; for the whole poem, though written in that which they call heroic verse, is of the pindaric na. ture, as well in the thought as the expression ; and, as such, requires the same grains of allowance for it. It was intended, as your lordship sees in the title, not for an elegy, but a panegyric: a kind of apotheosis, indeed, if a heathen word may be applied to a Christian use. And on all occasions of praise, if we take the ancients for our patterns, we are bound by prescription to employ the magnificence of words, and the force of figures, to adorn
* James Bertie, Lord Norris of Rycote, created Earl of Abingdon in 1682. There is in the Luttrell Collection an Elegy on his death.
+ The gout.