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The Poetical Works of John Dryden, Volume 2 With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes   By: (1631-1700)

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With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes,








In our Life of Dryden we promised to say something about the question, how far is a poet, particularly in the moral tendency and taste of his writings, to be tried and either condemned or justified by the character and spirit of his age? To a rapid consideration of this question we now proceed, before examining the constituent elements or the varied fruits of the poet's genius.

And here, unquestionably, there are extremes, which every critic should avoid. Some imagine that a writer of a former century should be tried, either by the standard which prevails in the cultured and civilised nineteenth, or by the exposition of moral principles and practice which is to be found in the Scriptures. Now, it is obviously, so far as taste is concerned, as unjust to judge a book written in the style and manner of one age by the merely arbitrary and conventional rules established in another, as to judge the dress of our ancestors by the fashions of the present day. And in respect of morality, it is as unfair to visit with the same measure of condemnation offences against decorum or decency, committed by writers living before or living after the promulgation of the Christian code, as it would be to class the Satyrs, Priapi, and Bacchantes of an antique sculptor, with their imitations, by inferior and coarser artists, in later times. There must be a certain measure of allowance made for the errors of Genius when it was working as the galley slave of its tradition and period, and when it had not yet received the Divine Light which, shining into the world from above, has supplied men with higher ├Žsthetic as well as spiritual models of principles, and revealed man's body to be the temple of the Holy Ghost. To look for our modern philanthropy in that "Greek Gazette," the Iliad of Homer to expect that reverence for the Supreme Being which the Bible has taught us in the Metamorphoses of Ovid or to seek that refinement of manners and language which has only of late prevailed amongst us, in the plays of Aristophanes and Plautus were very foolish and very vain. In ages not so ancient, and which have revolved since the dawn of Christianity, a certain coarseness of thought and language has been prevalent; and for it still larger allowance should be made, because it has been applied to simplicity rather than to sensuality to rustic barbarism, not to civilised corruption and carries along with it a rough raciness, and a reference to the sturdy aboriginal beast just as acorns in the trough suggest the immemorial forests where they grew, and the rich greenswards on which they fell.

In two cases, it thus appears, should the severest censor be prepared to modify his condemnation of the bad taste or the impurity to be found in writers of genius first, in that of a civilization, perfect in its kind, but destitute of the refining and sublimating element which a revelation only can supply; and, secondly, in that of those ages in which the lights of knowledge and religion are contending with the gloom of barbarian rudeness. Perhaps there are still two other cases capable of palliation that of a mind so constituted as to be nothing, if not a mirror of its age, and faithfully and irresistibly reflecting even its vices and pollutions; or that of a mind morbidly in love with the morbidities and the vile passages of human nature. But suppose the case of a writer, sitting under the full blaze of Gospel truth, professedly a believer in the Gospel, and intimately acquainted with its oracles, living in a late and dissipated, not a rude and simple age possessed of varied and splendid talents, which qualified him to make as well as to mirror, and with a taste naturally sound and manly, who should yet seek to shock the feelings of the pious, to gratify the low tendencies, and fire to frenzy the evil passions of his period he is not to be shielded by the apology that he has only conformed to the bad age on which he was so unfortunate as to fall... Continue reading book >>

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