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

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 6. Dryden’s Flattery of them

This union of poetry with the court had one evil result. It involved literature in an atmosphere of coxcombry. Social eminence appeared the very inspiration of Apollo. To deserve the bays nothing was necessary save to be a person of honour. All the resources of eloquent flattery were exhausted in the praise of noblemen who condescended to poetry. Criticism was thus poisoned at its source. A poet should be judged by his poetry and by nothing else. The accidents of his life should not be permitted to cloud our judgment. To find a peculiar virtue in a courtier’s verses is no better and no worse than to hail a farmer’s boy as a man of genius merely because he follows the plough. And it is difficult to read the contemporary eulogies of Buckhurst, Mulgrave and the rest with patience. Of course, the utmost latitude may be granted to dedications. No writer is upon oath when he addresses a dedicatory epistle to friend or patron, and if only he content himself with making a panegyric of his patron’s character or person no harm is done, while a pleasant tradition is observed. When, for instance, Sir Francis Fane assures Rochester that, after his charming and most instructive conversation, he “finds himself, not only a better poet, a better philosopher, but, much more than these, a better Christian,” you smile, as, no doubt, Rochester smiled at Sir Francis Fane’s temerity and lack of humour. You cannot smile when Dryden, who should have been a king among them all, stoops to the very servitude of praise, acclaiming in the language of extravagance not their graces, not their gallantry, not their wit flung lightly across the table, but their poetry. In thus honouring Buckhurst and Mulgrave, he dishonours the craft of which he was a faithful follower, and his offence is less against humour than against truth. To confess at the outset, as Dryden confesses, that “the Court is the best and surest judge of writing,” is a mere hyperbole, which may be excused. His praise of Rochester, vague though it be, displays all the vice of a false judgment.

  • “Wit,” he writes, “seems to have lodged itself more nobly in this age, than in any of the former, and the people of my mean condition are only writers because some of the nobility, and your Lordship in the first place, are above the narrow praises which poesy could give you.”
  • The statement is abject in humility, yet still without pretence to criticism. He goes furthest astray when he speaks of Buckhurst. It is Buckhurst the poet, not Buckhurst the courtier, that he extols, and thus, upon every line that he devotes to his friend, he lays the foundation of error. He congratulates himself that he was inspired to foretell Buckhurst to mankind, “as the restorer of poetry, the greatest genius, the truest judge, and the best patron.” Never for a moment does he hesitate to compare him with the greatest. He declares that Buckhurst forgives
  • the many failings of those, who, in their wretched art, cannot arrive to those heights, that he possesses from a happy, abundant, and native genius: which are as inborn to him, as they were to Shakespeare, or for aught I know, to Homer.
  • So he sets him high above all living poets. “Your Lordship,” says he, “excels all others in all the several parts of poetry, which you have undertaken to adorn.” And, again: “the most vain, and the most ambitious of our age have … yielded the first place without dispute.” As his lyric poems are “the delight and wonder of this age,” so they will prove “the envy of the next.” And it is of satire that he is “the most perfect model.” “If I have not written better,” confesses Dryden, “it is because you have not written more.” Finally, in a comparison of ancient and modern, he divides the wreath of glory between Shakespeare and Buckhurst. “This age and the last,” he declares, “especially in England, have excelled the ancients in both these kinds, and I would instance in Shakespeare of the former, in your Lordship of the latter sort.” What boots it, after this eulogy, to call Buckhurst the king of poets? It would have been less mischievous to call him the king of men.

    With the same recklessness of adulation, Dryden praises Mulgrave’s Essay of Poetry. He read it, he says, with much delight, as much instruction and not without some envy. He assures his patron that the anonymity of the work was “not altogether so fair, give me leave to say, as it was politic.” The motive was clear enough.

  • “By concealing your quality,” writes Dryden, “you might clearly understand how your work succeeded, and that the general approbation was given to your merit, not your title. Thus, like Apelles, you stood unseen behind your own Venus, and received the praises of the passing multitude; the work was commended, not the author; and I doubt not, this was one of the most pleasing adventures of your life.”
  • It was not like Mulgrave to remain long in the dark, and the adventure, if pleasing, was soon over. As for Dryden, he could sink lower (or rise higher) even than this in the scale of adulation. A couplet upon Mulgrave remains, his masterpiece of bathos:
  • How will sweet Ovid’s ghost be pleased to hear
  • His fame augmented by an English peer!