The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 32. Odes, Songs and Hymns
The last period of Dryden’s literary labours had also witnessed his final endeavours in lyrical verse—a species of poetry in which he achieved a more varied excellence than is always placed to his credit. The Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, designed for performance on that festival in 1687 by a recently founded musical society in London, must have been written within a year after the beautiful ode To the Pious Memory of Mrs. Anne Killigrew already mentioned. Though, of course, devoid of any personal note, and so short as to be of the nature of a chorale rather than a cantata, it solves its technical problem with notable skill, and the commanding power of the opening, upon which the close solemnly returns, is irresistible. Yet neither in this ode nor in its more famous successor, Alexander’s Feast; or, The Power of Musique, written for the same festival in 1697, has Dryden escaped the danger inseparable from arbitrary variety of length of line and choice of rhythm. In a lyric on a solemn, and, to all intents, religious, theme—for music was drawn down from heaven by the inspired saint—any approach to an ignoble or lilting movement jars upon ear and sentiment; and this is not wholly avoided in Alexander’s Feast, while, in the earlier ode, it occurs, so to speak, at the height of the argument. The example which both these odes attempted to set, of making “sound an echo to the sense,” was not one to be easily followed; nor can they be themselves regarded as more than brilliant efforts to satisfy the ill-defined conditions of an artificial form of lyrical verse.
Dryden’s lyrical endowment shows itself without ostentation in the songs scattered through his plays. These products of an age distinguished by a very strong and carefully cultivated sense of music often possess considerable charm, even when divorced from their natural complement, and seem, as it were, to demand to be sung. But, for the most part, they are wanton in thought, and, at times, gross in expression, and there were probably few of his productions for which their author would have been more ready to cry peccavi.
His contributions to a directly opposite class of lyrics—hymnody—were long supposed to have been extremely few; and the question whether their number admits of being very much enlarged may be said to be still awaiting final judgment. The only hymn known to have been published by Dryden himself or in his lifetime is the well known “paraphrase,” as it calls itself, of the Veni Creator Spiritus, and is a composition of simple, and even severe, dignity. Together with this hymn, Scott, on evidence which, so far as it is known, cannot be held conclusive, admitted into his edition of Dryden two others—one, a translation of Te Deum, the other (erroneously called by Scott St. John’s Eve) a translation, in an unusual metre, of the hymn at evensong on St. John’s day, which forms part of a sequence. It has now been discovered that these three pieces are included in a collection of 120 hymns printed in a book of Catholic devotions dated 1706; and internal evidence of metre and diction, coupled with the (late) tradition that Dryden wrote a number of hymns by way of absolving a penance imposed on him, has been held to warrant the conclusion that he was the author of all. Saintsbury can hardly be mistaken in the view that, if St. John’s Eve be Dryden’s, other hymns with which this is connected are, likewise, by his hand; and a number of these hymns reprinted by Orby Shipley certainly exhibit, together with many Drydenisms of manner and diction, the freedom which Dryden always exercised as a translator, together with an abundance of movement, though relatively little soaring. If they be Dryden’s, they offer a further proof of the versatility of his lyric gifts; but they do not suffice to give him a place among great English writers of hymns.