THE COURT OF CHARLES II.
The antithetic literature which takes its coloring from the great rebellion, was now to give place to new forms not immediately connected with it, but incident to the Restoration. Puritanism was now to be oppressed, and the country was to be governed, under a show of constitutional right, more arbitrarily than ever before. The moral rebound, too, was tremendous; the debaucheries of the cavaliers of Charles I. were as nothing in comparison with the lewdness and filth of the court of Charles II. To say that he brought in French fashions and customs, is to do injustice to the French: there never was a viler court in Europe than his own. It is but in accordance with our historical theory that the literature should partake of and represent the new condition of things; and the most remarkable illustrations of this are to be found in the works of Dryden.
It may indeed with truth be said that we have now reached the most absolute of the literary types of English history. There was no great event, political or social, which is not mirrored in his poems; no sentiment or caprice of the age which does not there find expression; no kingly whim which he did not prostitute his great powers to gratify; no change of creed, political or religious, of which he was not the recorder—few indeed, where royal favor was concerned, to which he was not the convert. To review the life of Dryden himself, is therefore to enter into the chronicle and philosophy of the times in which he lived. With this view, we shall dwell at some length upon his character and works.
EARLY LIFE.—Dryden was born on the 10th of August, 1631, and died on the 1st of May, 1700. He lived, therefore, during the reign of Charles I., the interregnum of Parliament, the protectorate of Cromwell, the restoration and reign of Charles II., and the reign of James II.; he saw and suffered from the accession of William and Mary—a wonderful and varied volume in English history. And of all these Dryden was, more than any other man, the literary type. He was of a good family, and was educated at Westminster and Cambridge, where he gave early proofs of his literary talents.
His father, a zealous Presbyterian, had reared his children in his own tenets; we are not therefore astonished to find that his earliest poetical efforts are in accordance with the political conditions of the day. He settled in London, under the protection of his kinsman, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was afterward one of the king’s judges in 1649, and one of the council of eight who controlled the kingdom after Charles lost his head. As secretary to Sir Gilbert, young Dryden learned to scan the political horizon, and to aspire to preferment.