The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 27. Conversion to the Church of Rome
Before the publication of this poem, in which are to be found many allusions to the doctrines of the church of Rome together with a reference to the “still impending Test,” Dryden had himself become a Roman Catholic. As already hinted, the supposition that this step was, or might have been expected by him to be, to the advantage of his wordly interests is not worth discussing. The intellectual process which led to it, and to the ultimate completion of which Religio Laici points, was neither unprecedented nor unparalleled; moreover, whatever they may have expected (which nobody can tell) neither Dryden nor his wife or eldest son (if, as is supposed but not proved, they had become Roman Catholics before him) gained anything by their conversion. That he should have chosen a time for joining the church of Rome when the prospects of her adherents in England seemed bright was in keeping with his disposition; for he had, as an acute critic says, “a sovereign intellect but a subject will.” But there is no single known fact in his life to support the conclusion that he changed his faith for the sake of gain. Nor can his consistent adherence to the church which had now received him be explained away by the insinuation that another change would not have been of any use to him. It is sometimes forgotten that his political was consistent with his religious loyalty, and that, under the new régime, he declined to take the oaths which might have secured to him the continuance of at least a measure of royal favour.
The effect of Dryden’s conversion upon his spiritual life lies beyond the range of literary criticism. It is, however, certain that, to the aspiration “good life be now my task,” there corresponds, at a time very near that of his change of faith, a confession which, in depth of feeling, and in severity of self-judgment, stands almost alone in his published writings. The spring and force of by far the most beautiful among his longer lyrics, the ode To the Pious Memory of the Accomplisht Young Lady, Mrs. Anne Killigrew (printed in 1686, the year after that of her death), are characteristic of Dryden’s genius; but, in the spirit of the poem, especially of the well known fourth stanza, we recognise that it was composed at a time when his whole nature was moved by unwonted impulses. A fainter recurrence of these may, perhaps, be traceable in some passages of his later writings; on the other hand, it cannot be averred that, in these writings, as a whole, there is any indication, as there is certainly no pretence, of a change which purifies what is intentionally impure, or refines what is intentionally gross.
The new king was not in a position to disdain the aid of any fresh ally; and the services of Dryden’s pen were speedily claimed by the side which he had joined. But the desired version of the Histoire de l’Hérésie (1374 to 1569) by Antoine Varillas, never saw the light—hardly, as Burnet contended, because of his criticisms of the French historian and publicist. Dryden’s assistance was also engaged in defence of a paper written by Anne Hyde, duchess of York, giving reasons for her conversion to the church of Rome, which James II had published with two statements found among his deceased royal brother’s papers, acknowledging the authority of that church. Stillingfleet had commented on the publication as a whole, and now replied in a Vindication on which, in his turn, Dryden, denounced by Stillingfleet as a “grim logician,” commented in an apologia of an altogether novel description.