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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

§ 28. The Hind and the Panther

The Hind and the Panther was published in 1687, and is said to have been written at Rushton in Northamptonshire, a sylvan neighbourhood. If Dryden’s conversion does not present any psychological difficulties, it also seems natural that he should have speedily proceeded to explain to the world a position not new to it, but strange and, therefore, in a sense, new, to himself. That The Hind and the Panther cannot be harmonised with Religio Laici is, of course, part of the situation, although the two poems are not inconsistent with each other as stages of a mental evolution. To suggest that the later work was written to ensure the favour of James II (from whom it does not appear what Dryden had to expect beyond punctuality), is to ignore a very plain historical consideration. In April, 1687,—a fortnight before the publication of the poem,—James II put forth the declaration for liberty of conscience, which extended to nonconformists in general, and was, in fact, the catholic king’s bid for the support of the protestant dissenters in his struggle with the establishment. On the other hand, the convert Dryden’s personal confession of faith was, at the same time, an eirenicon to the church of England from the catholic side, and a summons to her to join hands with the church of Rome against the protestant nonconformists. Inasmuch as a similar royal declaration had been issued in Scotland two months earlier, and the dispensing power had received a solemn judicial affirmation in the previous year, Dryden could not have been taken by surprise by the king’s recent action. He could, therefore, hardly have put forth a “libel of policy” less likely to commend itself to the king and those who advised him in accordance with his wishes, or have given a more palpable proof either of obtuseness—a quality not characteristic of him—or of candour.

The poem is far the longest of Dryden’s original productions in verse; but it is carried on with unmistakable vigour to its somewhat abrupt close, and, in its concluding, as well as in its opening, part, displays the reverse of a falling off in power of either invention or expression. Criticism has chiefly directed itself against the plan of the work, which Johnson, for instance, terms injudicious and incommodious, rather than to the conduct of the arguments, which cannot be described as inadequate or uneven.

The Hind and the Panther (as would be obvious, even were it not made additionally clear by the first lines of part III) does not pretend to be more than a fable, a product of an artificial stage of poetry, which confines its attention to human nature and introduces animals merely in a parabolical way: so animals would have spoken or acted, had they been men. All references, however interesting, to the beast-epos, an independent literary cycle, into which satirical meanings and types were not introduced till a comparatively late date, are, therefore, more or less out of place in this connection. Still less can there be any question here of the transfer of a whole world of human sentiment and character into the outward conditions of animal life—as in Edmond Rostand’s Chantecler—not for purposes of analogy, but in order to read a poetical significance into the whole system of animated nature. The Hind and the Panther is allegorical only in its mise-en-scène and distribution of characters; as a fable, its fault is that it falls short of the moderate amount of imaginary verisimilitude required by this literary species. On the face of it, therefore, Prior and Charles Montague, the authors of The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse (1687), were justified in ridiculing in the preface to their squib the incongruity of animals indulging in theological controversy and Biblical criticism, as was Johnson in repeating the same cavil in different words. But Dryden had often, in regard both to the drama and to other branches of literature, defended the cause of “English freedom”; and, in his free use of the machinery of the fable for satirical and didactic purposes, he was following the examples of Chaucer and Spenser. Still, poetry and theological controversy are ill-matched associates, and Dryden was at little pains to mitigate the harshness of the union, dropping the fabulous vestment which he had cast round his disputants so soon as he chose, in order to resume it at his convenience.

Of the two justly celebrated “fables” proper included in part III of this poem, the earlier—that of the swallows—attests the independence of Dryden’s attitude towards the court, where the censure of father Petre (the Martin), though supposed to be delivered by an adversary, cannot have been welcome. In the story of “the Pigeon’s and the Buzzard’s love,” the character of Burnet (the Buzzard) ranks with the most powerful of the poet’s satirical efforts. Unlike Stillingfleet, who is dealt with earlier in the same part of the poem, Burnet, though he is called “invulnerable in his impudence,” lay broadly open to attack, and, according to his wont, had voluntarily descended into the arena with his Reasons against Repealing the Test.

The Hind and the Panther, for reasons which have been made apparent, could not bring the poet into favour with any party; and critics like Martin Clifford and “Tom” Brown could fall upon him as they pleased. When, in contravention of the hopes uttered in Britannia Rediviva, the change of régime ensued, and William and Mary held sway in her father’s stead, Dryden’s places and pensions were taken from him, and Shadwell wore the laurel. It seems to have been about this time that Dryden became indebted to Dorset for substantial support; but he manifestly continued to add to his income by literary labours. That the vitality and freshness of his powers still remained undiminished is shown by the variety of his productions in these years. Not long before the end of James II’s reign, he had written the playful Letter to Sir George Etherege, which alone among his complimentary epistles and addresses (extending over many years of his life) is in Hudibrastic metre. In 1690, as has been seen, he successfully resumed work for the stage. There does not seem to have been any indisposition on the part of the new court to show goodwill to him as a playwright; but, in commanding The Spanish Fryar to be performed on one of her first appearances in public, queen Mary chose more fortunately for him than for herself. Meanwhile, the connection between the publisher Jacob Tonson and Dryden was productive of much literary work, though, when there was a pecuniary pressure upon Dryden, the relations between them frequently tried his patience and, at times, roused him to wrath. Besides the translations from classical poets already mentioned as included in the earliest volumes of the Miscellany, Dryden, with the assistance of his two elder sons, brought out, in 1693, a complete translation of Juvenal and Persius, prefaced by one of the most delightful of his essays. In its earlier portions, A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire may, after the manner of such prolegomena, have been put together so as to suit the amount of information to the appetite of the reader; but the comparison between the three Roman satirists contains some admirable criticism, and the easy and graceful style is enjoyable from beginning to end. The essay prefixed to Dryden’s translation (1695) of Du Fresnoy’s Parallel of Poetry and Painting (the French prose version printed by the author with his original Latin poem De Arte Graphica) is, perhaps, more obviously written to order. It contains an elaboration of the theory that the true imitation of nature consists of the pursuit of the ideal in art—a view on which Dryden had insisted in his early disquisitions on dramatic poetry, but which, though it might have commended itself to Goethe, has until recently been regarded as out of date.