The essential difference between poetry and prose--"that other beauty of prose"--in the words of the motto he has chosen from Dryden, the first master of the sort of prose he prefers:--that is Mr.
Elizabethan prose, all too chaotic in the beauty and force which overflowed into it from Elizabethan poetry, and incorrect with an incorrectness which leaves it scarcely legitimate prose at all: then, in reaction against that, the correctness of Dryden, and his followers through the eighteenth century, determining the standard of a prose in the proper sense, not inferior to the prose of the Augustan age in Latin, or of the "great age in France": and, again in reaction against this, the wild mixture of poetry and prose, in our wild nineteenth century, under the influence of such writers as Dickens and Carlyle: such are the three periods into which the story of our prose literature divides itself.
Saintsbury admits, such lines being frequent in his favourite Dryden; yet, on the other hand, it might be maintained, and would be maintained by its French critics, that our English poetry has been too apt to dispense with those prose qualities, which, though not the indispensable qualities of poetry, go, nevertheless, to the making of all first-rate poetry--the qualities, namely, of orderly structure, and such qualities generally as depend upon second thoughts.
That powerful poetry was twin-brother to a prose, of more varied, but certainly of wilder and more irregular power than the admirable, the typical, prose of Dryden. In Dryden, and his followers through the eighteenth century, we see the reaction against the exuberance and irregularity of that prose, no longer justified by power, but cognizable rather as bad taste.
"I may say with Dryden," added the gallant old gentleman:
"Dryden never said that," he remarked, "I'll answer for it."
"Do you know Dryden, Sir, better than I do?" he asked.
"I am speaking," echoed Sir Patrick, "of John Dryden the Poet.
Among other volumes of verse on the top shelf of the bookcase, of which I used to look at the outside without penetrating deeply within, were Pope's translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Dryden
's Virgil, pretty little tomes in tree-calf, published by James Crissy in Philadelphia, and illustrated with small copper-plates, which somehow seemed to put the matter hopelessly beyond me.
As another poet has said of him, "Ben as a rule--a rule which is proved by the exception--was one of the singers who could not sing; though, like Dryden
, he could intone most admirably."*