Yet what side should a litterateur of real excellence take if not that of the King and the court? who certainly had the best taste, were the most judicious critics as well as the most likely paymasters. Settle and Shadwell might suit the Aldermen and the Exclusionists, who knew no better. And nothing, I imagine, more completely suited Dryden, more exactly met his feelings, and gave freer scope to his talents, than the revolution in literature which the new King and court sought to naturalise in England. To guide the process of that change and to elevate a matter of mere passing court fashion into a permanent reformation of English literature; to dignify a mere slipslop aversion of pedantry by converting it into an appreciation of elegance and propriety of writing—this was his vocation. He devoted himself to it for forty years with infinite zeal and perseverance, laborious study, and patient carefulness. And certainly with some considerable success.
During the whole of the next century I suppose it was considered that our language first was written, so to speak, by him. For models of composition no one was recommended anterior to him. In English poetry he is for them the earliest name. Into Johnson’s collection Cowley and Butler, and one or two others coëval with Dryden are admitted, but not Spenser. So too in prose it is only in our time that people have begun to talk of Jeremy Taylor and Milton as legitimate standards of English prose composition. Dryden was supposed to have commenced in the two kinds of writing what Pope and Addison made perfect. For style Shakspeare was dangerous and Hooker pernicious reading; Ben Jonson’s wit was ponderous and the wisdom of Bacon pedantic; the mirth of Fletcher was rude and vulgar, the elegance of Sidney formal and factitious.
Maxims of this kind prevailed from the days of Dryden to those of Byron and Scott. There are circles where they are still current, and there are possibilities of their again finding a more general acceptation. I incline to believe that there is a great deal of truth in them. Our language before the Restoration certainly was for the most part bookish, academical, and and stiff. You perceive that our writers have first learnt to compose in Latin; and you feel as if they were now doing so in English. Their composition is not an harmonious development of spoken words, but a copy of written words. We are set to study ornate and learned periods; but we are not charmed by finding our ordinary everyday speech rounded into grace and smoothed into polish, chastened to simplicity and brevity without losing its expressiveness; and raised into dignity and force without ceasing to be familiar; saying once for all what we in our rambling talk try over and over in vain to say; and saying it simply and fully, exactly and perfectly.
This scholastic and constrained manner of men who had read more than they talked, and had (of necessity) read more Latin than English; of men who passed from the study to the pulpit, and from the pulpit back to the study—this elevated and elaborated diction of learned and religious men was doomed at the Restoration. Its learning was pedantry, and its elevation pretence. It was no way suited to the wants of the court, nor the wishes of the people. It was not likely that the courtiers would impede the free motions of their limbs with the folds of the cumbrous theological vesture; and the nation in general was rather weary of being preached to. The royalist party, crowding back from French banishment, brought their French tastes and distastes. James I. loved Latin and even Greek, but Charles II. liked French better even than English. In one of Dryden’s plays is a famous scene, in which he ridicules the fashionable jargon of the day, which seems to have been a sort of slipshod English, continually helped out with the newest French phrases.
Dryden then has the merit of converting this corruption and dissolution of our old language into a new birth and renovation. And not only must we thank him for making the best of the inevitable circumstances and tendencies of the time, but also praise him absolutely for definitely improving our language. It is true that he sacrificed a great deal of the old beauty of English writing, but that sacrifice was inevitable; he retained all that it was practicable to save, and he added at the same time all the new excellence of which the time was capable.
You may call it, if you please, a democratic movement in the language. It was easier henceforth both to write and to read. To understand written English, it was not necessary first to understand Latin: and yet written English was little less instructive than it had been, or if it was less elevating, it was on the other hand more refining.
For the first time, you may say, people found themselves reading words easy at once and graceful; fluent, yet dignified; familiar, yet full of meaning. To have organised the dissolving and separating elements of our tongue into a new and living instrument, perfectly adapted to the requirements and more than meeting the desires and aspirations of the age, this is our author’s praise. But it is not fully expressed until you add that this same instrument was found, with no very material modification, sufficient for the wants and purposes of the English people for more than a century. The new diction conquered, which the old one had never done, Scotland and Ireland, and called out American England into articulation. Hume and Robertson learnt it; Allan Ramsay and Burns studied it; Grattan spoke it; Franklin wrote it. You will observe that our most popular works in prose belong to it. So do our greatest orators. A new taste and a new feeling for the classics grew up with it. It translated, to the satisfaction of its time, Homer and Virgil.
Our present tongue, so far as it differs from this, cannot profess to have done nearly so much. Homer and Virgil no longer content us in Pope and Dryden, but we have not been able to get anything to content us. The English diction of the nineteenth century has no Burke or Chatham to boast of, nor any Hume or Johnson.
There may be some superiority in matter. We have had a good deal of new experience, both in study and in action—new books and new events have come before us. But we have not yet in England, I imagine, had any one to give us a manner suitable to our new matter. There has been a kind of dissolution of English, but no one writer has come to re-unite and re-vivify the escaping components. We have something new to say, but do not know how to say it. The language has been popularized, but has not yet vindicated itself from being vulgarized. A democratic revolution is effecting itself in it, without that aristocratic reconstruction which pertains to every good democratic revolution. Everybody can write and nobody writes well. We can all speak and none of us know how. We have forgotten or rejected the old diction of our grandfathers, and shall leave, it seems likely, no new diction for our grandchildren. With some difficulty we make each other understand what we mean, but, unassisted by personal explanations and comment, it is to be feared our mere words will not go far. Our grandfathers read and wrote books: our fathers reviews and we newspapers: will our children and grandchildren read our old newspapers? Have we any one who speaks for our day as justly and appropriately as Dryden did for his? Have we anything that will stand wear and tear, and will be as bright and un-obsolete a hundred and fifty years hence, as ‘Alexander’s Feast’ is to-day?