« PreviousContinue »
THE Religio Laici, according to Johnson, is almost the only work of Dryden which can be considered as a voluntary effusion. I do not see much ground for this assertion. Dryden was indeed obliged to write by the necessity of his circumstances; but the choice of the mode in which he was to labour was his own, as well in his Fables and other poems, as in that which follows. Nay, upon examination, the Religio Laici appears, in a great measure, a controversial, and almost a political poem; and, being such, cannot be termed, with propriety, a voluntary effusion, any more than "The Medal," or "Absalom and Achitophel." It is evident, Dryden had his own times in consideration, and the effect which the poem was likely to produce upon them. Religious controversy had mingled deeply with the party politics of the reign of Charles II. Divided, as the nation was, into the three great sects of Churchmen, Papists, and Dissenters, their several. creeds were examined by their antagonists with scrupulous malignity, and every hint extracted from them which could be turned to the disadvantage of those who professed them. To the Catholics, the dissenters objected their cruel intolerance and jesuitical practices; to the church of England, their servile dependence on the crown, and slavish doctrine of non-resistance. The Catholics, on the other hand, charged the reformed church of England with desertion from the original doctrines of Christianity, with denying the infallibility of general councils, and destroying the unity of the church; and against the fanatics, they objected their anti-monarchical tenets, the wild visions of their independent preachers, and their seditious cabals against the church and state. While the church of England was thus assailed by two foes, who did not at the same time spare each other, it probably occurred to Dryden, that he, who could explain her tenets by a plain and philosophical commentary, had a chance, not only
of contributing to fix and regulate the faith of her professors, but of reconciling to her, as the middle course, the Catholics and the fanatics. The Duke of York and the Papists, on the one hand, were urging the King to the most desperate measures; on the other, the popular faction were just not in arms. The King, with the assistance and advice of Halifax, was trimming his course betwixt these outrageous and furious torrents. Whatever, therefore, at this important crisis, might act as a sedative on the inflamed spirits of all parties, and encourage them to abide with patience the events of futurity, was a main point in favour of the crown. A rational and philosophical view of the tenets of the national church, liberally expressed, and decorated with the ornaments of poetry, seemed calculated to produce this effect; and as I have no doubt, as well from the preface, as from passages in the poem, that Dryden had such a purpose in view, I have ventured to place the Religio Laici among his historical and political poems.*
I would not, from what is above stated, be understood to mean, that Dryden wrote this poem merely with a view to politics, and that he was himself sceptical in the matters of which it treats. On the contrary, I have no doubt, that it expresses, without disguise or reservation, what was then the author's serious and firm, though, as it unfortunately proved, not his unalterable religious opinion. The remarkable line in the "Hind and Panther," seems to refer to the state of his mind at this period; and this system of divinity was among the "new sparkles which his pride had struck forth," after he had abandoned the fanatical doctrines in which he was doubtless educated. It is therefore probable, that, having formed for himself, on grounds which seemed to warrant it, a rational exposition of the national creed, he was willing to communicate it to the public at a period, when moderation of religious zeal was so essentially necessary to the repose of the nation.
Considered in this point of view, the Religio Laici is one of the most admirable poems in the language. The argumentative part is conducted with singular skill, upon those topics which occasioned the principal animosity between the religious sects; and the deductions are drawn in favour of the church of England
It was intimated by Dryden's enemies, that he chose this religious and grave subject with a view to smooth the way to his taking orders, and obtaining church preferment-See a quotation from the Religio Laici, by J. R. subjoined to these introductory remarks. But our author, in the preface to the "Fables," declares, that going into the Church was never in his thoughts.
The reader will find this opinion more fully expressed in the observations on Dryden's conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, given in the Life.
with so much apparent impartiality, that those who could not assent, had at least no title to be angry. The opinions of the various classes of free-thinkers are combated by an appeal to those feelings of the human mind, which always acknowledge an offended Deity, and to the various modes in which all ages and na-tions have shewn their sense of the necessity of an atonement by sacrifice and penance. Dryden, however, differs from most philosophers, who suppose this consciousness of guilt to be originally implanted in our bosoms: he, somewhat fantastically, argues, as if it were some remnant of the original faith revealed to Noah, and preserved by the posterity of Shem. The inadequacy of sacrifices and oblations, when compared with the crimes of those by whom they are made, and with the grandeur of the omnipotent Being to whom they are offered, paves the way for the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, the fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion. The fitness of this vicarious sacrifice to accomplish the redemption of man, and vindicate the justice and mercy of God; the obvious impossibility that the writings, or authors, by which it has been conveyed to us, should be less than inspired; the progress of the Christian faith itself, though militating against the corrupt dispositions of humanity, and graced with none of those attractions by which Mahomet, and other false prophets, bribed their followers, are then successively urged as evidences of the Christian religion. The poet then recurs to an objection, at which he had hinted in his preface. If the Christian religion is necessary to salvation, why is it not extended to all nations of the earth? And suppose we grant that the circumstance of the revealed religion having been formerly preached and embraced in great part of the world where it is now unknown, shall be sufficient to subject those regions to be judged by its laws, what is to become of the generations who have lived before the coming of the Messiah? what of the inhabitants of those countries on which the beams of the gospel have never shone? To these doubts, I hope most Christians will think our author returns a liberal, and not a presumptuous answer, in supposing that the heathen will be judged according to the light which it has pleased God to afford them; and that, infinitely less fortunate than us in the extent of their spiritual knowledge, they will only be called upon to answer for their conformity with the dictates of their own conscience. The authority of St Athanasius our author here sets aside, either because, in the ardour of his dispute with Arius, he carried his doctrine too far, or because his creed only has reference to the decision of a doctrinal question in the Christian church; and the anathema annexed applies not to the heathen world, but to those, who, having heard the orthodox faith preached, have wilfully chosen the heresy. Dryden next takes under review the work of Father Simon; and, after an
eulogy on the author and translator, pronounces, that the former was not a bigotted Catholic, since he did not hesitate to challenge some of the traditions of the church of Rome. To these traditions, these " brushwood helps," with which the Catholics endeavoured to fence the doctrines of their church, our author proceeds, and throws them aside as liable to error and corruption. The pretensions of the Church of Rome, by her Pope and general councils, infallibly to determine the authenticity of church tradition, is the next proposition. To this the poet answers, that if they possess infallibility at all, it ought to go the length of restoring the canon, or correcting the corrupt copies of Scripture; a reply which seems to concede to the Romans; as, without denying the grounds of their claim, it only asserts, that it is not sufficiently extended. Upon the ground, however, that the plea of infallibility, by which the poet is obviously somewhat embarrassed, must be dismissed, as proving too much, the Holy Scriptures are referred to as the sole rule of faith; admitting such explanations as the church of England has given to the contested doctrines of Christianity. The unlettered Christian, we are told, does well to pursue, in simplicity, his path to heaven; the learned divine is to study well the Sacred Scriptures, with such assistance as the most early traditions of the Church, especially those which are written, may, in doubtful points, afford him. It is in this argument chiefly, that there may be traced a sort of vacillation and uncertainty in our author's opinion, boding what afterwards took place-his acquiescence in the church authority of Rome. Nevertheless, having vaguely pronounced, that some traditions are to be received, and others rejected, he gives his opinion against the Roman see, which dictated to the laity the explications of doctrine as adopted by the church, and prohibited them to form their own opinion upon the text, or even to peruse the sacred volume which contains it. This Dryden contrasts with the opposite evil, of vulgar euthusiasts debasing Scripture by their own absurd commentaries, and dividing into as many sects, as there are wayward opinions formed upon speculative doctrine. He concludes, that both extremes are to be avoided; that saving faith does not depend on nice disquisitions; yet, if inquisitive minds are hurried into such, the Scripture, and the commentary of the fathers, are their only safe guides:
And after hearing what our Church can say,
In considering Dryden's creed thus analyzed, I think it will appear, that the author, though still holding the doctrines of the
Church of England, had been biassed, in the course of his enquiry, by those of Rome. His wish for the possibility of an infallible guide, expressed with almost indecent ardour, the dif ficulty, nay, it would seem, in his estimation, almost the impossibility, of discriminating between corrupted and authentic traditions, while the necessity of the latter to the interpretation of Scripture is plainly admitted, appear, upon the whole, to have left the poet's mind in an unpleasing state of doubt, from which he rather escapes than is relieved. He who only acquiesces in the doctrines of his church, because the exercise of his private judgment may disturb the tranquillity of the state, can hardly be said to be in a state to give a reason for the faith that is in him.
The doctrine of the Religio Laici is admirably adapted to the subject; though treating of the most abstruse doctrines of Christianity, it is as clear and perspicuous as the most humble prose, while it has all the elegance and effect which argument is capable of receiving from poetry. Johnson, usually sufficiently niggard of praise, has allowed, that this " is a composition of great excellence in its kind, in which the familiar is very properly diversified with the solemn, and the grave with the humorous; in which metre has neither weakened the force, nor clouded the perspicuity of argument; nor will it be easy to find another example, equally happy, of this middle kind of writing, which, though prosaic in some parts, rises to high poetry in others, and neither towers to the skies, nor creeps along the ground." I cannot help remarking, that the style of the Religio Laici has been imitated successfully by the late Mr Cowper in some of his pieces. Yet he has not been always able to maintain the resemblance, but often crawls where Dryden would have walked. The natural dignity of our author may be discovered in the lamest lines of the poem, whereas his imitator is often harsh and embarrassed. Both are occasionally prosaic; but in such passages Dryden's verse resembles good prose, and Cowper's that which is feeble and involved.
The name which Dryden has thought proper to affix to this declaration of his faith, seems to have been rather fashionable about that time. There is a treatise De Religione Laici, attached to the work of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, first published in 1633. But the most famous work, with a similar title, was the Religio Medici of Thomas Browne, which was trans
Such an omniscient church we wish indeed;