Dryden's poetry can roughly be classified in three groups, the occasional, comprising the greater odes, the epistles, elegies, and complimentary addresses; the politico-religious; and the translations, though the second group is also in the proper sense occasional. Though he wrote few direct satires (he translated several) a strong vein of satirical comment runs through the body of his verse, and indeed flickers intermittently in his plays. But apart from what he may have been writing about, his verse is always characteristic, moulded partly by what he thought a poet ought to be, and what he should accomplish. As to the former he stated — to quote one of his passages on this theme:
Mere poets and mere muscians are as sottish as mere drunkards are, who live in a continual mist, without seeing or judging anything clearly.
A man should be learned in several sciences, and should have a reasonable, philosophic, and in some measure a mathematical head, to be a complete and excellent poet: and besides this, should have experience in all sorts of humours and manners of men, should be thoroughly skilled in conversation, and should have a great knowledge of mankind in general. (Notes and Observations on The Empress of Morocco.)
In another place he says that he thinks little of a poet who cannot argue well. His poetry, then, deals with what is common experience, not, of course, omitting spiritual experience. There is, then, in his poetry, none of the yearning of the Romantics, the reachings out after the impalpable in the attempt to grasp the inapprehensible: his vivid, actual imagination plays around the actions and passions of men and women as they live out their lives, in soul as well as in body. He does not confront us with profound, searching sentiment making us face the innermost nature of our being: but he has a firm grasp over a wide field, handling at no despicable level the eternal religious issues, and the scientific development of his age.
His diction is in tune with his ideas; he disciplines himself to use the precise word rather than the word with a vague aura of association, endeavouring always, to express as clearly and firmly as possible what he means to say. In a way, moreover, that is pleasantly acceptable. 'Would not Donne's Satires, which abound with so much wit, appear more charming, if he had taken care of his words, and of his numbers?' For the musician in the poet was not to be ignored, as he might have seemed to suggest in the passage quoted above. For:
by the harmony of words we elevate the mind to a sense of devotion as our solemn music, which is inarticulate poesy, does in churches'
Here, of course, is the eternal question of pleasure and profit, of the aesthetic as against the moral.
'Delight', he said in the Defence of the Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668), 'is the chief, if not the only, end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for only instructs as it delights'; though a few pages later he says that poetry must 'resemble natural truth, but it must be ethical'.
He sums up his attitude best in his Discourse on satire (1693):
They who will not grant me, that pleasure is one of the ends of poetry, but that it is only a means of compassing the only end, which is instruction, must yet allow, that, without the means of pleasure, the instruction is but bare and dry philosophy: a crude preparation of morals, which we may have from Aristotle or Epictetus, with more profit than from any poet.
But words, he held, were only the colouring of the poem-picture; what was important was the idea, and the structure, though the colouring was what first struck the eye. So whatever words he uses, his is still the language that might be spoken by men to men. It is never, pejoratively speaking, 'poetic'. That is one of his great triumphs. Even in his most grandiose odes or addresses he keeps his colloquial phrasing: there is no tortuousness, none of the 'exhausting nagging after effect' (as Mr. George Barker has called it) of the Metaphysicals.
It was because he saw his main task as the redeeming of English verse from obfuscation that he insisted so much upon rhyme, since this
'bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that, like an high-ranking spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgement.'
Fancy and judgement — those were the faculties a poet must ever try to balance, so as to bring out the richest thoughts; fancy being what we call imagination, 'moving the sleeping images of things towards the light'. That was a view put forward in 1664 (Dedication of the Rival Ladies), and maintained in 1697 (Dedication of the Æneis):
And whereas poems which are produced by the vigour of the imagination only have a gloss upon them at the first which time wears off, the works of judgment are like the diamond; the more they are polished, the more lustre they receive.
As to 'numbers', namely mellifluous prosody, he considered Denham and Waller to be the fathers of English poetry, with Spenser as a forbear, admiring their 'smoothness' as opposed to the rugosities of Donne. Smoothness of course is not enough; it can be overdone, as critics a generation later were to find, Pope himself saying:
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine:
or, as Coleridge put it; 'the wheels take fire from the mere rapidity of their motion'. What we get from Dryden, then is an invigoration of being, such as tends to release the imagination.
His attack [approach] is always superb; plunging you straight into the sweeping movement of his theme, as, for instance, in the first of his three wide-embracing occasional pieces, Absalom and Achitophel. This, called by him simply 'A Poem', and best described by Dr. Ian Jack as a 'witty heroic poem', was written for the purpose of setting public feeling against Lord Shaftesbury, leader of the Whig faction scheming to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the succession, and perhaps put the King's natural son, the Duke of Monmouth, on the throne. Thus Dryden opens with a deliciously bland excuse for Charles II's virile manifestations:
In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined ...
Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker's image thro' the land.
and then we are led into the story, or, rather, situation. Though the poem is not primarily a satire the satirical element soon appears — in the biting description of the English, the Jews of the story:
God's pampered people, whom, debauched with ease,
No king could govern, nor no God could please;
(Gods they had tried of every shape and size,
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise).
Only a modicum of historical knowledge is needed to enjoy the poem; the drama unrolls itself to culminate in the great temptation scene, where Achitophel (Shaftesbury) lures Absalom (Monmouth) to his doom, pricking him into saying:
Why am I scanted by a niggard birth?
My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth;
And made for empire, whispers me within,
'Desire for greatness is a godlike sin.'
Achitophel's reaction to his triumph is pressed home with deliberate Miltonism:
Him staggering so when hell's dire agent found,
While fainting Virtue scarce maintained her ground
He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies ...
the grip never being relaxed through the more than thousand lines.
Yet Dryden, always in control, orders the rise and fall, eases the tension as he will, partly by pace, but largely by the 'characters', in the main satirically drawn. The most famous is that of Achitophel, though he himself thought that of Zimri (Buckingham) 'worth the whole poem', since it was 'not bloody, but ridiculous enough', in fact more subtle as being raillery rather than bludgeoning. Yet Shaftesbury must always be the favourite, as it contains more poetic power:
For close designs and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit;
Restless, unfixed in principles and place;
In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace:
A fiery soul, which, working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay,
And o'er informed the tenement of clay ...
The pressure continuing for some fifty lines without a hint of monotony, the caesuras [pauses] being brilliantly varied in depth as well as position as stroke follows devastating stroke. Other personages crowd upon the scene, treated bitterly, scornfully, or disdainfully as occasion serves, sometimes with one or two deft shafts of ridicule, as, for instance, Shimei (Bethell) who:
Did wisely from expensive sins refrain,
And never broke the Sabbath, but for gain ...
The religious sects receive due buffeting, as do the petty political intriguers together with the deluded populace. Not for a moment does the poem fail in pungency: and through it pierces Dryden's innate conservatism, summed up in one phrase, 'For innovation is the blow of fate'.
Very different is The Medal, again directed against Shaftesbury, where Dryden achieved sheer Juvenalian satire; MacFlecknoe, on the other hand, is a gloriously comic mock-heroic, the first in the language, in which Dryden lampooned Shadwell, treated with equal contempt in the second part of Absalom and Achitophel. The opening is delusively magniloquent:
All human things are subject to decay,
And when fate summons, monarchs must obey ...
the account of the enthronement of Shadwell as successor to the throne of Nonsense proceeding with a gorgeous pomposity. The piece is variegated by parodied echoes of other poets all the while that the low is exalted, and fantastic absurdities rocketed to dazzling heights. The poem is more poetically sensuous than Tassoni's La Secchia Rapita, more wittily barbed than Boileau's Le Lutrin.
The first great debating poem, Religio Laici, is not difficult to follow, being mostly written in the plainest language, since 'a man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reasoned into truth'. It is an argument for adherence to the national religion; political stability demands a commonly held faith: and what, he asks, is wrong with Anglicanism? No sublimity is demanded, since finite cannot reach infinity (a favourite phrase of his); the stress is again and again on needful faith. As always he is contemptuous of those who 'barter solid quiet to obtain the windy satisfactions of the brain'. After all:
The unlettered Christian, who believes in gross
Plods on to Heaven, and never is at a loss.
Too many men, however, itch to expound:
... crowds unlearned, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buzz and swarm,
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood,
And turn to maggots what was meant for food.
Satire, whetted by Dryden's stubborn dislike of priests, is never long absent, and makes the argument spin along briskly. And though 'unpolished, rugged verse [he] chose, As fittest for discourse and nearest prose', there are passages that sweep along with compelling poetic pulse. Take the exordium:
Dim as the borrowed beam of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wandering travellers,
Is Reason to the soul; and, as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here, so Reason's glimmering ray
Was lent, not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear,
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere;
So pale grows Reason at Religion's sight,
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light ...
Are we, after all, we ask ourselves, to be reasoned into truth?
Wholly to grasp The Hind and the Panther, essentially a plea for toleration, demands rather more background knowledge, both of the political situation, 'when the nation was in a high ferment', and of the claims of the various religions and sects. Early in the poem, in one passage among many in these two poems that establish Dryden as a noteworthy religious poet, we get the statement of Dryden's submission to the Roman communion:
What weight of ancient witness can prevail
If private reason hold the public scale?
But, gracious God, how well dost thou provide
For erring judgments an unerring guide!
Thy throne is darkness in the abyss of light,
A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.
And what had 'the monster breed' of Protestants accomplished ?
Such wars, such waste, such fiery tracks of dearth
Their zeal has left.
Bitter experience had shown that:
Of all the tyrannies on humankind.
The worst is that which persecutes the mind
Every here and there occur memorable phrases, moulded by the driving force of conviction, made aphoristic by great poetic power:
Revenge, the bloody minister of ill,
With all the lean tormentors of the will.
A great deal of nonsense has been talked about the fable form being unsuitable; but if rats can talk about the virtue of dining peaceably, why should not nobler animals discuss religion? At all events, we soon accept the framework of the fabular, which at least gives Dryden a chance of characterizing the religions. The milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged, is, of course, Roman Catholicism; the Panther, fairest creature of the spotted kind, is the Anglican Church; we have the bloody Bear, the Independent beast, the buffoon Ape who stands for the atheists, the Calvinistic Wolf who pricks up his predestinating ears, the Baptist Boar who with fat pollutions fills the sacred place, and so on. The conversation moves vigorously, and has its dramatic moments, as when the Panther threatens the Hind with the gallows: the third part ensconces the two vivid fables within the fable, those of the swallows and of the pigeons, each a beautiful little poem in itself, apart from the political implications. The astonishing thing is that though now and then we encounter some tedious passages of outmoded argumentation, the total impact is poetic rather than philosophical.
The most triumphant of Dryden's other poems were written late in life: the Elegy on Oldham in 1684; that richly baroque picture-frame, the Anne Killigrew Ode in 1686; the Saint Cecilia Ode in 1687; 'Alexander's Feast' in 1697. Though the poems differ enormously, the success of all is due partly to his making words that we do not generally use in great numbers in ordinary speech, sound perfectly natural even when densely packed. Take some of the lines I have quoted. In prose the words would become turgid, but in Dryden's verse thay have wings:
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit.
O sharp convulsive pangs of, agonising pride.
Sometime the commonplace expression jostles the more ceremonius, as in his rendering of Veni Creator Spiritus:
Our frailties help, our vice control,
Submit the senses to the soul;
And when rebellious they are grown,
Then lay thy hand, and hold 'em down.
His words are just as forceful as Donne's, of whom he said that he gave us deep thoughts, in common language.
The ideas were not necessarily startling. The lines on Oldham are composed of clichés, or references one might think outworn, and which in anybody else's hands would be jaded: but the result is an acknowledged gem, expressive of just so much emotion, of personal feeling, as the relationship between the two poets required. An altogether different matter is the second Saint Cecilia Ode, 'Alexander's Feast'. Outrageous, one might think, in conception, flaunting in its prosody, verging on the burlesque in its imagery — it has been called 'immortal ragtime' — his contemporaries acclaimed it as his best poem. Perhaps its most unexpected feat is to bring the rushing, tumultuous movement to the quiet close of:
Let old Timotheus yield the prize,
Or both divide the crown;
He raised a mortal to the skies;
She drew an angel down.
Maybe it was the unexpectedness of the poem, its imaginative originality, that captivated his contemporaries, familiar as they were with the Ode of ten years earlier, far more normally conceived, graceful, sensuous, and conventionally religious in tone.
Of his translations there is little room to speak, though they form the great bulk of his work. His task, he felt, lay in 'the maintaining the character of an author, which distinguishes him from all others'. Yet his own distinctive quality is always there. In a sense, then, these 'paraphrases' become original poems, as is inescapably felt when reading his Lucretius on the fear of death. A few of his versions, some of Horace, a good deal of Virgil, maintain their place as renderings that are still alive and actual: but translations must inevitably be for their own age, couched in the idiom of their day. The fashion changes, and they become outmoded, a fate that has inevitably overtaken Dryden's work in this field. But part of his purpose was to make great European literature familiar to the many, and here he succeeded within the limits he set himself. He may not be at the summit of Parnassus, but he is very near it. He was humble enough about it in all conscience.
'I do not know', he is reported to have said, 'if posterity will think me a great poet; they will not be able to deny that I was a good versifier.'
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