WE are giving here a picture of a London street, which is now rapidly vanishing before the advance of the spirit of clearance and ventilation; and if it should be actually gone before our readers can see these pages, some of them, doubtless, will call to mind that this was as nearly as possible the spectacle which presented itself at an opening looking into King Street, Covent Garden, at the end of the first week in the present October.
The formal epitaph of this street now lies in the mason’s yard adjoining in the form of a tablet detached from one of the houses and which bears the superscription, “This is Red Rose Street, 1623.”
Low gambling houses, floors let out to numerous families, with fearful broods of children, sundry variations of the magisterial permission “ to be drunk on the premises,” strange chaotic trades to which no one skilled contribution imparted a distinctive character; and, by way of a moral drawn from the far-off pure air of open fields and farm yards, a London dairy, professing to be constantly supplied with fresh butter, cream, and new milk from the country:—were some of the special features of the Rose Street of our time.
If this were all, Rose Street might go down into dust without a word of epitaph. But there are circumstances connected with it which will render it immortal in our annals, when its very site shall have become a matter of doubt, hundreds of years hence.
It was here in this murky purlieu of Covent Garden, that Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, died in 1680 of a complication of ailments and miseries, the most urgent of which was want.
Thyrsis has gained preferment for a song,
While Hudibras does starve among the throng.
In the first blush of his fame, no man ever had a fairer prospect of achieving honour and independence; but the sequel shows, as his epitaph warns us,
How little faith is due to courts and kings.
The King used to go about with Hudibras in his pocket; he was eternally quoting it; he thought it the wittiest, the funniest, and the wisest book in the world. His Majesty even went so far as to send for Butler, that he might have the royal satisfaction of looking at him; “but,” says a contemporary, “Butler was starved at the very time the King had his book in his pocket.”
Panegyrics descended upon him from the highest quarters in showers, containing, however, no golden drops; the Lord Chancellor hung up his portrait in his state dining-room, and Lord Dorset sought, through a friend, a private meeting with him over a bottle in a tavern. Hudibras was in everybody’s hand. No book ever obtained so wide and immediate a reputation. Its most striking couplets acquired at once the weight and familiarity of proverbs. They furnished the staple of the town talk for months; and the wits of the day traded on their subtle and trenchant humours. The palace and the playhouse, the chocolate house and the taverns, rang with the echoes of his verse. Yet, says Oldham, who survived him only three years,
Of all his gains by verse he could not save
Enough to buy him flannel and a grave;
Reduced to want, he in due time fell sick,
Was fain to die, and be interr’d on tick.
The intimate friend of Hobbes, he who has been described as “a whole species of poet in one,” whose vast and multifarious learning excited the astonishment of Doctor Johnson, and whose fate is denounced by Dryden as the disgrace of the age, expired of sheer distress in this miserable, crowded, suffocating Rose Street, and was buried, at the cost of a friend, in the neighbouring churchyard of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, close under the north wall of the church at the east end.
The ashes of its houses may be blown to the four winds, and far reaching improvements, noble thoroughfares, and grand edifices, may obliterate all traces of its whereabouts; but as long as our language lasts, pilgrims will come to seek the spot where Butler died, as Colley Cibber says, “with the highest esteem of the Court, in a garret.”
It was under the same reign, and very close upon the same time, that Rose Street was the scene of another incident, no less memorable in our literary annals, although not quite so tragical. In this narrow gorge, which, remembering how scantily even the Strand was lighted with paper lanterns at that period, must have been pitch dark, Dryden, the poet, was set upon at night by three hired assassins, and beaten, to use the expressive phrase, “within an inch of his life.”
His biographers tell us that when this ferocious assault was made upon him, he was going home to his house in Gerard Street, from Will’s Coffee-house, which he was in the habit of frequenting nightly, and which stood at the south-western corner of Bow Street, looking into Russell Street. This statement has given occasion to much controversy and debate.
Concerning the main fact of this beating, there is no question; but proof is wanting that Dryden had been at Will’s that night, and, wherever he was going, he certainly could not have been going to Gerard Street, if it be true, as it is alleged, that Gerard Street was not built for two years afterwards.
Quiet, intelligent people who read books for their amusement, and, in a general way, for their instruction, have no notion, happily for themselves, of the voluntary drudgery a literary antiquary undergoes in the pursuit of small, and, apparently, trivial details. A date, which does not seem of much value when it is got, may cost weeks of research; and the tiniest scraps and fragments of rectified information, which occupy hardly a line in the relation, and which are utterly insignificant in comparison with the large masses of well-known particulars in which they are set, may be the result of patient inquiry, never lost sight of through the miscellaneous studies of half a life.
Don’t disparage the antiquary. Let him work on in his own way, and fall out with his fellow-labourers, and abuse everybody after the bent of his temper, and believe that nobody knows anything except himself. If he be conscientious, the world will gain something by his labours; and if he be not, he will assuredly “come to grief.” As for accuracy in small facts, it is a quality not to be lightly estimated.
He who is indifferent to accuracy in small facts, is not very likely to appreciate the full importance of accuracy in large ones. The bum total is made up of items. Hours are composed of minutes, if you do not set your watch accurately to the minutes, it will be wrong in the hour, although the error may be slight. Besides, in literature there is this additional motive for observing a vigilant precision, that it keeps us always on the right track for fresh suggestions and further discoveries.
It must be confessed, however, in spite of our respect for the antiquaries, that they have not rendered us much help towards the solution of the problem as to where Dryden was going on the night of the assault. Perhaps we have no right to inquire; but as the question has been raised, we are bound to see exactly how it stands.
Not very long after the new theatre, called the “Duke’s House,” was opened in Dorset Gardens, under the management of Lady Davenant, on the site of the old playhouse that stood in Salisbury Court before the civil wars, Dryden went to live in Fleet Street, on the verge of Salisbury Court, close to the theatre. He had no immediate interest in the house; for, although he had been intimate with Sir William Davenant, who died some four or five years before, and had helped him to metamorphose the “Tempest” into an opera, and had succeeded him in the office of Laureate, he was too closely allied by politics and literary engagements with the King’s company, whose house in Drury Lane had been lately burned down, and who were just then playing in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to take any direct concern in Lady Davenant’s establishment.
He did concern himself in it afterwards, no doubt; and was complained against to the Lord Chamberlain by Killigrew’s people for violating his contract with them, by writing for the rival establishment. But that has nothing to do with our present business. Dryden is stated on the authority of the rate books of the parish, to have lived in Fleet Street from 1673 to 1682, when he removed to a house in Long Acre, exactly facing the dismal embouchure of Rose Street. Here he lived till 1686, when he went farther west to the house, 43, Gerard Street, where he died on the 1st of May, 1700.
Now, as the assault took place on the night of the 18th of December, 1679, there would be no great difficulty in determining where Dryden was living at the time — if these dates be correct. And here it is that our friends, the antiquaries, darken counsel; for we find that while the rate books of St. Bride’s are quoted to show that in 1679 he was living in Fleet Street — the rate books of St. Martin’s are relied upon, with equal confidence, to prove that he was living at the same time in Long Acre.
The biographers who have escaped the dilemma by sending him on to Gerard Street at once, may, therefore, turn out to be right after all. Fleet Street at all events is put out of court. We know from the contemporary account of the circumstance that he was going from Covent Garden; and, if he were going home, as must be inferred from the lateness of the hour, he could not have been going to Fleet Street, which would take him in the opposite direction, while the way both to Gerard Street and Long Acre lay direct through this unsavoury Rose avenue. To one or other of these residences he must have been going. Perhaps most readers will be of opinion that it is not very material which.
That he had just left Will’s Coffee-house, may be taken for granted. The newspaper of the next morning, describing the occurrence, says, that “last night Mr. Dryden, the famous poet, going from a coffee-house in Covent Garden, was set upon by three persons unknown to him, and so rudely by them handled, that, as it is said, his life is in no small danger.” The reporter adds that the attack was supposed to have been made out of a private grudge, and not for the purpose of robbery. The only coffee-house in or near Covent Garden that Dryden could have been coming from, was Will’s. He was the oracle of Will’s, where, seated in a chair expressly reserved for him, he gave out the law to a hushed crowd of disciples. He was to Will’s what Ben Jonson had been before him to the Apollo Club in the old Devil Tavern, at Temple Bar.
The newspaper was right. It was not for the purpose of robbery that Mr. Dryden, the famous poet, was waylaid on his way home from Will’s, but to revenge the imaginary wrongs of some “persons of quality” who suspected that he had lampooned them, and who, without waiting to obtain proof of the fact, hired three ruffians to beat, or, as it might be, murder him.
Outrages of this kind were not uncommon. Buckingham employed the notorious Colonel Blood to assassinate the Duke of Ormond; Mr. Thynne was killed in Pall Mall by the bravos of Count Konigsmark; and Sir John Coventry escaped with his life at the cost of a slit nose. In all such cases, however, there was undeniable provocation, while in Dryden’s case there was none of which a scintilla of evidence could be produced. The plot of this little drama is a microcosm of the age.
Louise de Querouaille, at the age of nineteen, rather more than ten years before the attack upon Dryden, was appointed maid of honour to the Duchess of Orleans, the sister of Charles II. She was descended from a decayed Breton family, and was considered a great beauty, with a child-like expression of sweetness in her face, rich clustering hair, and a voluptuous form.
The king saw her, for the first time, in the train of the duchess at Dover in 1670, and immediately afterwards, when the unfortunate duchess was taken off by poison, Louise was invited into England, received with a prodigality of attention that looked like what it meant, and appointed maid of honour to the queen. She at once acquired an ascendancy over the king, which she preserved up to the end of his life against all comers.
In two years she was created by letters patent, baroness of one place, countess of another, and Duchess of Portsmouth, besides being made a duchess and peeress of France, with considerable revenues, by Louis XIV., who thus secured her influence as a secret agent at the English court. The splendour of her appointments far transcended the modest state of the queen. Her apartments at Whitehall were miracles of luxury and costliness.
She was the sovereign power in the palace. In vain other mistresses intrigued against her, or, for a time, succeeded in ensnaring her Squire of Dames; he was sure to return to her, and to become more enthralled than ever. All the courtiers and men of gallantry were at her feet; and prominent amongst them was Rochester. His reputation, probably, recommended him to her special confidence, which he is said to have enjoyed.
But incessant vigilance was necessary to the maintenance of her ascendancy. There was always a rival in the field, and-it required consummate tact to manage a situation in which the end was almost certain to be sacrificed by the slightest betrayal of the means. The only way to keep the king was to humour his inconstancy.
A little wayward, pretty jealousy, dashed with a few skilful tears, flattered the vanity of the monarch; while jealousy in earnest would have interfered with his pleasures and risked his favour. The least indiscretion would have been fatal. Few women could have steered successfully through such rocks and quicksands for twelve or fourteen years. The genius of Louise de Querouaille was exactly adapted to the position. The aim of her life was the acquisition of wealth and influence; and she was not encumbered with a heart that threw any obstacles in her path.
About the time of which we are speaking, Nell Gwynne, the orange-girl and actress, who was also lodged at Whitehall, as a lady of the Privy Chamber, divided the king’s attentions with the Duchess of Portsmouth. They were his bright and his dark spirits. The one, gay, hearty, and unselfish; the other, subtle and patient, with airs of melancholy and fits of pouting, made different approaches to his weak and easy nature, and from opposite points of attraction kept him vibrating between them. These circumstances were notorious at court, and furnished scandal for many a flippant jest on the back-stairs.
It was some time in 1679 that a copy of verses, entitled “An Essay on Satire,” got about in MS., and fell into the hands of the Duchess of Portsmouth. In this piece, after the fashion of the day, several notorieties were assailed, including Danby the lord high treasurer, Aylesbury, Shaftesbury, Essex, who afterwards committed suicide in the Tower, Sir Thomas Armstrong, subsequently executed for his participation in the Rye-House Plot, and Rochester, described as a wit at second hand, whose entire life was licentious and insincere.
These portraits would probably have excited no further notice than a running fire of squibs and pasquinades, and some rough joking in the taverns, if the author had not also flown at higher game. Not content with satirising the poets and politicians, he ascended to the king’s mistresses, and in plain language, which one would rather not transplant into a modern page, depicted their contrasted characters, and the different ways in which they held his Majesty in thraldom: the one affecting smiles, the other tears; the one jilting, the other selling him (which latter was true enough, so far as Portsmouth was concerned, although, if Colley Cibber may be believed, the former was not true in reference to Nelly), and both betraying his honour; the whole winding up with a couplet which was more likely to wound the self-love of a pampered woman than all the rest:
Was ever prince by two at once misled,
False, foolish, old, ill-natured, and ill-bred?
We are not informed what part of this satire chiefly excited the ire of the duchess; but we suspect it must have been the last line. She might have submitted to the other articles of defamation from prudential motives; but to be told at nine and-twenty, in the full bloom of her influence and her beauty, that she was foolish, old, and ill-bred, was past endurance. Could any ordinary woman forgive this? As for Nelly, she did not care a straw for such attacks, and took her revenge in shouts of laughter. The revenge of the duchess was not quite so merry. She held counsel with Rochester about the authorship. He was a judge of styles, and he fixed the responsibility on Dryden.
It was not his critical instinct alone that led him to this conclusion. He had a “grudge ” against the Laureate, as the newspaper hinted, and here was an opportunity to gratify it. The whole story of Rochester’s baseness in this matter would carry us far beyond our immediate subject, so we must come to the issue at once.
Rochester had formerly been Dryden’s “patron.” In those days men of letters had patrons, and wore them on their title pages as dogs wear collars. Whatever obligations lay between them in that relation, Dryden had closed a few years before by a handsome dedication, in which he likened Rochester to the gods. Being thus fairly off with the old love, he considered himself at liberty to be on with a new one, and so transferred his attachment to the Earl of Mulgrave.
This was the mortal offence. Between Rochester and Mulgrave there raged a feud. They had had a quarrel, and Mulgrave had posted Rochester as a coward, because he refused to fight him. No doubt Mulgrave was right; for, although Rochester began life bravely enough, there never was a greater coward at heart. He was so perpetually haunted by the fear of seeing the ghost of his friend Montague, who was killed in the Dutch war, that he is said to have given himself up to dissipation to escape the horrors of solitude.
He appears to have been thoroughly conscious of his infirmity; and the resentment he felt at its exposure was bitter in proportion. A man who has had his unmanly qualities laid bare, is apt to imagine personalities where none is intended; and when Dryden took up with Mulgrave for his patron, it seemed to Rochester as if he espoused his quarrel. This was not to be forgiven; and Rochester, who once extolled Dryden’s genius to the skies, now set the meanest of the herd of playwrights above him. He stopped at nothing to drag down his reputation.
Ill-will begets ill-will. Dryden speaks unfavourably of Rochester; the whisper goes round, and Rochester, in correspondence with a private friend, announces his determination, should Dryden attack him with his pen, to “leave the repartee to Black Will, with a cudgel.” Soon after this out creeps the “Essay on Satire,” in which everybody is abused except Mulgrave, upon whom the author bestows a masked panegyric The exception is suspicious; and Rochester, putting all these circumstances together, believes he has detected the cloven foot. “The author is apparent, Mr_,” he writes to his friend, “his patron, Lord__ , having a panegyric in the midst.” He communicates his conviction to the duchess; a counsel of war is held; and it is decided that Dryden shall be handed over to “Black Will with a cudgel.”
Had Dryden written the satire, the “repartee” might, or might not, be justifiable; but, in any case, the Duchess of Portsmouth and Lord Rochester were the last persons who should have taken the law into their own hands. They must have had treacherous memories when they sat in judgment upon Dryden. They must have forgotten what flattering lines Dryden wrote upon Louise de Querouaille when she came to England — he who, to the last drop of his pen, knew how to write so emotionally on “the power of beauty;” and, above all, they must have forgotten the scurrilous and profligate verses written by Rochester to the same lady. They must have agreed to a wide act of oblivion, very wonderful to think of in relation to the unutterable obscenity of Rochester, before they could have joined in a conspiracy against the Laureate. But such combinations are always unfathomable.
But what if Dryden were not the author of what is now known in our literature as the Rose Alley Satire? Can it be possible that the Rose Alley Ambuscade, as the dastardly attack is called in some lines falsely ascribed to Prior, A crab-tree cudgel in a narrow street,was plotted against an innocent man, and fell upon the wrong shoulders? The evidence is entirely circumstantial. Let us glance at it.
In less than three years after the assault, Lord Mulgrave published, anonymously, an Essay upon Poetry, containing the following reference to the transaction:
The laureate here may justly claim our praise,
Crowned by Mac Fleckno with immortal bays;
Though praised and punish’d for another’s rhymes,
His own deserve that glorious fate sometimes.
The allusion is fully explained by a note to this passage in a subsequent edition, informing us that what is meant by “another’s rhymes,” is ” a copy of verses called the Essay on Satire, for which Mr. Dryden was both applauded and beaten, though not only innocent, but ignorant of the whole matter.” It would seem from this statement, under the hand of Mulgrave, that, whoever was the author, Dryden was not. Who, then, was the author? It would be as good as the detection of the concealed mischief-maker in a comedy to be able to answer offhand — Mulgrave himself. But we cannot exactly do that, although we can go very near it, as the remaining shreds of evidence will show.
In the note just quoted, we have Mulgrave’s testimony that Dryden did not write the Satire; and in the first collected edition of Mulgrave’s own works, published two years after his death, we have his widow’s testimony that he wrote it himself in 1675. The testimony, to be sure, is not worth much. We have no means of determining whether it comes from the widow direct, or from the unknown editor to whom she delegated the getting-up of the edition, in the lavish gorgeousness of which she was much more interested than in its literary trustworthiness. Worth much or little, however, here is a fact which cannot be left out of the case, that the poem was claimed for Mulgrave in the first edition of his works, and that the claim was repeated unchallenged in a second edition three years afterwards. The presence in the poem of a panegyric on Mulgrave himself is not at all inconsistent with this claim. It is a mere blind to divert suspicion.
On the other hand, the Satire was published in the State Poems with Dryden’s name as the author; this, too, while Dryden and Mulgrave were both alive. But it is proper that the reader, who sees many mysterious allusions to these State Poems, thickly sown amongst the critical notices of the literature of the Protectorate and the Restoration, should be apprised that the work is a vagrant miscellany of verses picked up from all manner of sources; very curious as a refugium for satirical lampoons that must, otherwise, have been lost, but of no value whatever as an authority. What amount of credit is due to its ascription of the Satire to Dryden, may be inferred from the somewhat startling fact, that in a subsequent edition it ascribes the same poem to the Earl of Mulgrave.
Another witness, of undoubted personal respectability, is quoted from memory, after a long lapse of years, as having asserted positively that Dryden was the sole author of the poem; but his evidence must be rejected on the ground that he states a circumstance in connection with the authorship which we know to be untrue.
Nearly half a century after Dryden’s death, his poems were collected, and the Essay on Satire was inserted amongst them as the joint production of Dryden and Mulgrave. Anything for a quiet life! Our national tendency to settle differences, avoid conflicts, and reconcile antagonisms by an easy compromise, is constantly carried into our literature: and here is a notable instance.
The circumstantial evidence being loose and imperfect, and the internal evidence by no means satisfactory either way, it has been generally agreed from that time to the present to divide the responsibility by giving Mulgrave the crude first thoughts, and Dryden the shaping, and strengthening, and polishing, together with some of the touches on Shaftesbury, which closely resemble parts of his own portrait of him in Absalom and Achitophel, and the whole of the encomium on Mulgrave. This, of course, is mere surmise, over which every reader is entitled to exercise his own judgment. But it is the opinion of many excellent critics, that whatever revision, if any, Dryden may have bestowed on the poem, Mulgrave was its sole author.
The result is a strong probability that Dryden really was, as Mulgrave tells us, “punished for another’s rhymes.” Whether it was a part of the compact between poets and their patrons that the one should bear the odium and its consequences of the literary misdemeanours of the other, has not transpired; but in this affair it was evidently Dryden’s relations with Mulgrave that drew upon him the vengeance of the duchess and her friend; and to that account, therefore, must be set down the damage he incurred. Such is the moral of the transaction; and it is a moral which unlocks much of the obscure literary life of the seventeenth century.
Black Will and his confederates were never discovered, although all the usual machinery of the civil power was put in motion, and a reward of 50 l. was offered for the discovery of the offenders. A proclamation in the London Gazette set forth, that “Whereas John Dryden, Esq., was on Thursday, the 8th inst., at night, barbarously assaulted and wounded in Rose Street, in Covent Garden, by divers men unknown;” adding, that any person who should make discovery “shall not only receive 50 l., which is deposited in the hands of Mr. Blanchard, goldsmith, next door to Temple Bar, for the said purpose, but if he be a principal or an accessory in the said fact, his Majesty is graciously pleased to promise him his pardon for the same.” But the duchess and Rochester bribed higher than the king, and the criminals escaped justice.
The alley being dark and narrow, the hour late, few people abroad, and the attack sudden, Dryden was hurt before he could see his assailants, or offer any defence. He was then in the prime of life, approaching fifty, and in full possession of his physical powers. But he was not a man of active habits, and could at no time have made an effectual resistance against so ferocious an assault.
He was seriously wounded, and might have lost his life, had he not cried out, “Murder!” so lustily, that the villains fled in alarm. At that moment poor Butler was lying on his death-bed in his garret, which looked out on the scene of the outrage; and Dryden’s cry of “Murder!” must have reached his ears. Similar cries were, perhaps, too frequent in the purlieus of the Strand and Drury Lane to excite much attention; but we may easily imagine how the voice calling for help at that hour of the night would have affected Butler had he known whose it was!
Robert Bell. Published in 1859