Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 3. Heroick Stanzas on Cromwell

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

I. Dryden

§ 3. Heroick Stanzas on Cromwell

When, in 1657 or 1658, Dryden took up his abode in London, to which, with the exception of occasional visits to Northamptonshire and other easily accessible parts of the country, he remained faithful during the rest of his life, Cromwell’s rule had, for some years, been firmly established, and Sir Gilbert Pickering was in full possession of the great man’s favour. That the young Dryden actually became “clerk” or secretary to his influential kinsman rests only on the late evidence of Shadwell’s lampoon. But no special connection of the kind with the protector’s court or person is needed to account for Dryden’s first public appearance as a writer with A Poem upon the Death of His Late Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published separately early in 1659, and reprinted in the same year, in company with an ode on the same subject by Thomas Sprat (afterwards dean of Westminster and bishop of Rochester) and some lines by Waller Upon the late Storme and Death of the Protector. Sprat’s is a not undignified effort in a style in which he acquitted himself so well as to become known as “Pindaric Sprat,” and contains a daring figure afterwards appropriated by the master of the species, “the incomparable Dr. Cowley.” Waller’s lines, as usual with him, beat out the gold of a single thought into very thin leaf. Dryden, on the contrary, whose poem was again reprinted in 1659, revised, and under the title of Heroick Stanzas consecrated to the Memory, etc., surveyed his theme with not less circumspection than ardour, and chose his topics of eulogy not only, as Scott says, with attention to truth, but, also, with a manifest desire to avoid hyperbole. Even the fine passage

  • Such was our Prince, yet owned a soul above
  • The highest acts it could produce to show
  • cannot be censured as an exaggeration, except by those who deny that Cromwell was a great man and, as such, necessarily greater than his deeds. The poem, though still studded with far-fetched and not always appropriate conceits (e.g. “War, our consumption,” st. XII; “Bolognia’s walls,” st. XVI; the death of Tarpeia, st. XXXIV), shows Dryden already controlling the form chosen by him with a certainty not to be found in his juvenile efforts, and master of an overpowering directness which was to become one of his most notable characteristics. Thus, the Heroick Stanzas, though, necessarily, they attracted little attention at a time when the immediate future absorbed public interest, and though their author, naturally, was willing to allow them to be forgotten, hold a permanent place among his poetical achievements.

    Dryden’s working days in the service of the muses had now begun. With his very modest income, and without any family interest that could be of use to him, he can have looked the world in the face in no very sanguine mood; and, indeed, a certain reserve and lack of satisfaction in life and in the work which he had to do in it is noticeable in his writings, as it seems to have been in his personal bearing. Shadwell’s sneer that Dryden had “turn’d journeyman to a bookseller” probably applies to a rather later period of his career, and may be an ill-natured perversion of an insignificant fact. But, in any case, Dryden, till he had studied his brief and taken up his pen, was devoid of the political, and, still more, of the religious, enthusiasm which might have sufficed to inspire him as a writer; and few poets have ever been less manifestly moved by spontaneous lyric impulse. What he wrote in the earlier part of his literary career was, as it were, automatically suggested by the great changes in contemporary public life, to which his literary powers, growing surer of themselves in each successive trial, responded without any apparent hesitation.