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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

I. Dryden

§ 25. Didactic Poetry: Religio Laici

Religio Laici, which, for reasons easily guessed, was not reprinted by Dryden in his lifetime after the third edition (1683), is classed (by Scott) among his political and historical poems; but its primary interest is personal, as must have been his primary motive in composing it. He wished to know where, in the matter of religion, he stood. Now, for Dryden, there was but one way of realising any position which he held or any line of conduct on which he had determined. This was to place it before himself with the aid of his pen, at whose bidding, if the expression may be allowed, his thoughts at once fell into lucid order, ready for argumentative battle. Though Johnson’s wish may, in some degree, be father to the thought, when he declares Religio Laici to be almost the only poem by Dryden which may be regarded as a voluntary effusion, Saintsbury has rightly insisted on the spontaneous character of the poem. This spontaneity is, indeed, all but essential to the conception of the work; nor was there any possible motive or reason for simulating it.

The title, of course, was anything but original. Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s treatise De Religione Laici had been published in 1633, Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici ten years later. With Dryden, though not with Browne, the emphasis rests on the second noun of the title. Amidst the disputations and controversies of learned theologians, a plain word seems not uncalled for from one who can contribute nothing but common-sense and goodwill, unalloyed by self-opinionatedness. Thus, the layman’s religion is expounded with the requisite brevity, and with notable directness and force, lighted up by a few of the satirical flashes which had become second nature to the writer, but not by any outburst of uncontrollable fervour. He takes his stand on revelation, but is careful to summarise the natural proofs of the truth of Christianity. The old objection to supernatural religion, that it has not been revealed to all men, he is content to answer by a pious hope, expressed in words both forcible and beautiful. He puts aside the difficulty of the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian creed by conjecturing a very human explanation of their origin, and, after citing a liberal French priest in support of the contention that the authority of the Bible is weakened by mistakes of transcribers and commentators, approaches the crucial question, what authority, then, is to decide? An infallible authority it must be, and the only church which makes such a claim fails to satisfy the tests of infallibility or omniscience. Better, therefore, accept authority where it is ancient, universal and unsuspected, and leave aside matters which cannot be thus settled—

  • For points obscure are of small use to learn,
  • But common quiet is the world’s concern.
  • Religio Laici, it is needless to demonstrate at length, represents merely a halfway house on the road which Dryden was following. Reverence for authority was an instinct implanted in his nature; his observation of the conflicts of public life had disgusted him with the contrary principle of resistance, and, at the same time, had impressed upon him the necessity of waiving minor difficulties for the sake of the things that really mattered. If the layman’s simple creed should fail, in the long run, to satisfy the layman himself, it could easily be relinquished; for, as the designedly pedestrian conclusion of the poem avers, it was meant merely for what it was—a plain personal utterance.

    And, thus, the reader of Dryden’s writings in their sequence is not startled on reaching the passage in his biography which has given rise to much angry comment and anxious apology, without, in truth, calling for anything of either. In February, 1685, Charles II died. Dryden’s literary services had materially contributed to carry safely through some of the most dangerous stages of the conflict the cause of the legitimate succession, on which Charles had gone near to staking the stability of his throne. The poet’s efforts against the party which he had again and again denounced as revolutionary had estranged from him old literary associates—some of them more pliable than himself—and had left him, more than ever, a reserved and, probably, a more or less lonely man. But, whatever the king’s personal interest in Dryden’s literary activity, the royal bounty flowed but very intermittently, and neither the three hundred a year due to the poet laureate nor an additional pension of one hundred (granted some time before 1679) was paid with any approach to regularity. Not until 1684, after he had addressed a letter of complaint to Rochester (Laurence Hyde) at the treasury, was a portion of the arrears paid, while he was appointed to a collectorship of the customs, with a minute salary but (probably) a more substantial amount of fees. In these circumstances, Dryden, whose play-writing had usually been a labour of necessity, and for whom, as a political satirist, there was no opening in the period of reaction following the esclandre of the Rye House plot, had to do such taskwork as came to his hand—prefaces, like that to a new translation of Plutarch; prose translations of his own, like that of Maimbourg’s History already mentioned; and verse translation, from Ovid, Vergil, Horace and Theocritus, inserted in the first volume of Miscellany Poems printed in 1684 and 1685 (the latter under the title Sylvae). The hope long cherished by Dryden of writing an epic poem, for which he had already been in search of subjects, receded more and more into the background; and, of the muses whom he was constrained to serve, we may well believe that—

  • little was their Hire, and light their Gain.