Poets: John Dryden

We’re back to the pre-modern past again, with one of England’s most significant playwrights, though unknown to most of us. It was quipped recently that we’d probably be talking about Star Wars in 250 years. However, the fate of John Dryden – who along with Ben Jonson was very popular in his era – would suggest otherwise, as he has faded from view in the 300 years between his time and ours. Thus, it is hard to guess who will survive, though it is easy to guess that it won’t be Lucas. In our case, we should probably look for earlier movie-makers, or makers of movies of a different genre than we suppose. One major reason why Dryden faded from view is that one of his major genres, like Pope, was verse satire, which fell out of style in the 19th century. It may easily prove to be the case that “Space Opera” or “Science Fantasy” or perhaps even “Science Fiction” will, thanks to early 21st century misfires, fall out of fashion such that no one is remembered but Hitchcock. Such was the fate, it seems, of Dryden.

A son of minor noble lineage, Dryden, like most notable poets, gained his prominence by his position near or in the royal court. (Dryden was in fact the first Poet Laureate of England, a post that seems to have been an innovation of Restoration England) And, unlike some of our 20th century notables, he maintained his prominence by moving along with the changes of government. In most eras, this would constitute nothing more than not making personal enemies of kings or too many noblemen; but Dryden lived through the Cromwellian interregnum. His switch of allegiance between what was not unreasonably viewed as two incompatible forms of government was viewed unfavorably by some, but appreciation for his work overshadowed this demerit. Dryden both celebrated Cromwell with heroic stanzas, and wrote a panegyric to the restored crown.

Dryden is not of much interest, typically, to modern readers (by which I mean, those from the 19th century and on) due to what is called “a lack of sensibility” in his poetry. What is meant by this is that Dryden does not typically use his poetry to evoke emotion, something which the Romantics and others went often to extremity to do. It does seem however, that this was in part purposeful; it does seem much of Dryden’s poetry was written in service to his position as Poet Laureate, which was writing poetry to commemorate certain public events. His other prominent poems (which were not translations) were verse satire; and in the case when he was writing verse for plays, where evoking emotion would be appropriate, we find he actually is able to do so:

By a dismal cypress lying,
Damon cried, all pale and dying,
Kind is death that ends my pain,
But cruel she I lov’d in vain.
The mossy fountains
Murmur my trouble,
And hollow mountains
My groans redouble:
Ev’ry nymph mourns me,
Thus while I languish;
She only scorns me,
Who caus’d my anguish.
No love returning me, but all hope denying;
By a dismal cypress lying,
Like a swan, so sung he dying:
Kind is death that ends my pain,
But cruel she I lov’d in vain.

Note that this Song actually comes from a comedy, which probably indicates Dryden had a low opinion of emotive verse, preferring to evoke natural language patterns, made possible in this case through the use of heroic couplets (which we were introduced to in this series by Alexander Pope). Dryden is considered responsible for making the heroic couplet itself “English’s poetic form,” possibly therefore responsible for English’s reputation among those who know poetry in other languages for feeling commonplace & not terribly musical.

This idea of a “middle way” comes up with Dryden a lot, and he seems to have been in many ways what we would call a “moderate,” and even though some of his verse is very sharp-tongued against regicide (consider Absalom and Achitophel for some examples,) in his era monarchy was viewed as the sensible & commonplace form of government, with the populism of democracy being a rancorous form of what we call ‘radicalism’. It seems rather obvious that to Dryden the middle was between excessive force & punishment from the monarch, and between excessive, lax mercy which might give succor to rebellious impulses. Either might lead to a dead king.

This also comes to another point, which might be missed, about artists in general, namely that they tend to fall into two distinct camps: members of intellectual vanguards and apolitical moderates. It should be obvious the terrible state of art in the West today has to do with a double fact: one that the status quo is United Nations Liberalism, and two that the intellectual vanguards have been mainly further to the Left of that. In particular, they have been communist (but in that I repeat myself.) This is one reason why American authors and poets have not been great (sorry, lovers of Hemingway and many of our poets of the 19th century–) the status quo in America has mostly been democracy, and the vanguards almost without exception have been in forms variously less traditional in respect to European civilization, than that.

To this, Robinson Jeffers (whom we reviewed last month) was a notable exception, not that he was not part of an intellectual vanguard (his Inhumanism definitely connects with a number of threads – flowing from men like Teddy Roosevelt and going on towards the modern Environmentalist movement) – but that at that moment there existed an intellectual vanguard that was in many ways to the right of the status quo. (Not surprising that he ended up getting silenced and censored, either.)

While on the Right people complain about the apoliticism of artists and musicians, it’s worth remembering that men like Dryden do not lack principles; they simply don’t have principles that are terribly useful when the whole political system is insane. As Douglas Hofstader, himself a liberal, noted, a moderate might divide the difference between a thief and his victim, leaving justice undone and an innocent person half-defrauded. On the other hand, during times when the system is in balance (as it was to some extent in Restoration England) the moderates provide, as Bowden has noted, a kind of weight to the center– an inertia necessary for stability.

Dryden also translated a number of ancient texts, and his translations are considered the best of our language; among them is Virgil’s Aeneid. When reading Dryden (sans long Latin s’s, natch) one gets the sense of our contemporary English very well, which is not present in Shakespeare. While Shakespeare certainly has contributed our core stories, analogies, images and turns of phrase, it seems to be Dryden who has gave us our style of diction. Thus, the later dislike of Dryden for seeming commonplace is not due to a defect in Dryden, but a testament to his influence; calling him plain is an anachronism; Dryden made himself the default.

That being said, Dryden does not himself seem to venture any startling images, preferring instead images that are clear and for the most part, simple. Some may be lost to us due to our loss of knowledge, but they do not seem to me to have been particularly unusual. Then again — this may be, as I said above, another testament to his influence. Consider this from Astraea Redux:

And welcome now, great monarch, to your own!
Behold the approaching cliffs of Albion
It is no longer motion cheats your view
As you meet it, the land approacheth you,
The land returns, and, in the white it wears
The marks of penitence and sorrow bears.

Of course, the white cliffs (chalk) of Albion are a notable image elsewhere, and white isn’t usually the color of penitence; however, this evokes cleverly the idea of the marriage of the land and the king, which connects to Old Testament imagery of Israel the nation being an unfaithful bride to God. Elsewhere I have joked that people who live on islands have strange perceptions of land; seeing instead of land as static and the sea moving, the sea as static and land moving like a ship.

Although you can find various samplings of Dryden’s works on numerous websites (as well as interesting reviews of his influence and life, too) the complete set of his works is at archive.org here. You can click “play all” to get (most) all volumes, and his historic / political poetry starts at Volume 9 (it contains both his verses on Cromwell and Astraea Redux.) Some volumes are not labeled properly (such as volume 11) and you may need to search for them individually – they sometimes do not show up as ‘Similar Items’.

His work is overall tremendously readable and comprehensible; there are some disputes about his translation style regarding adding/removing detail, but when reading his work you get the sense that he is a craftsman at writing both prose and poetry, whatever may be said about his particular judgments. It’s always interesting to me how all of the major English poets have translated Latin works and been criticized by Latin scholars and later writers for their translations. In the case of Dryden, the criticism he was given was not so much that he didn’t properly understand the Latin, but that he seemingly arbitrarily chose to expand certain parts of the original text while contracting others as he saw fit. The results are good of course, and as I have said multiple times there’s no such thing as a poetry translation, strictly speaking – there is simply a reconstitution of a poem in another language.

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call to-day his own;
He who, secure within can say,
To-morrow do thy worst, for I have lived to-day;
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine;
Not heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

(From Horace’s Odes, 29th ode, VIIIth canticle)

There’s even an “Art of Poetry” poem which was translated from, I believe, Italian, which Dryden assisted in editing, it is in the fifteenth volume of the works linked above and is very astute on many points. It is assumed to reflect Dryden’s opinions on poetry, which contains this section:

Whate’er you write of pleasant or sublime
Always let sense accompany your rhyme.
Falsely they seem each other to oppose;
Rhyme must be made with reason’s laws to close;
And when to conquer her you bend your force
The mind will triumph in the noble course.
To reason’s yoke she quickly will include,
Which, far from hurting, renders her divine;
But if neglected, will as easily stray,
And master reasons, which she should obey,
Love reason then; and let whate’er your write
Borrow from her its beauty, force and light.
Most writers mounted on a resty muse,
Extravagent and senseless objects chuse;
They think they err, if in their verse they fall
On any thought that’s plain or natural.
Fly this excess, and let Italians be
Vain authors of false glittering poetry.
All ought to aim at sense; but most in vain
Strive the hard pass and slippery path to gain;

As I noted above, he was accused of lacking sensibility, but this appears to be incorrect in context. It’s simply the case that Dryden (perhaps like Chesterton) didn’t consider plain sense to be unfitting of rhyme. Eliot accused him of having a “commonplace mind”, which is in fact, if this poem does reflect his sensibilities, not an insult but something which though unseemly to some is actually a praise. Yes! As Chesterton notes when talking about William Morris:

…There is written, with all the authority of a human scripture, the eternal and essential truth that until we love a thing in all its ugliness we cannot make it beautiful. This was the weak point in William Morris as a reformer: that he sought to reform modern life, and that he hated modern life instead of loving it. Modern London is indeed a beast, big enough and black enough to be the beast in Apocalypse, blazing with a million eyes, and roaring with a million voices. But unless the poet can love this fabulous monster as he is, can feel with some generous excitement his massive and mysterious ‘joie-de-vivre,’ the vast scale of his iron anatomy and the beating of his thunderous heart, he cannot and will not change the beast into the fairy prince. Morris’s disadvantage was that he was not honestly a child of the nineteenth century: he could not understand its fascination, and consequently he could not really develop it. An abiding testimony to his tremendous personal influence in the æsthetic world is the vitality and recurrence of the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions, which are steeped in his personality like a chapel in that of a saint. If we look round at the exhibits in one of these æsthetic shows, we shall be struck by the large mass of modern objects that the decorative school leaves untouched. There is a noble instinct for giving the right touch of beauty to common and necessary things, but the things that are so touched are the ancient things, the things that always to some extent commended themselves to the lover of beauty. There are beautiful gates, beautiful fountains, beautiful cups, beautiful chairs, beautiful reading-desks. But there are no modern things made beautiful. There are no beautiful lamp-posts, beautiful letter-boxes, beautiful engines, beautiful bicycles. The spirit of William Morris has not seized hold of the century and made its humblest necessities beautiful. And this was because, with all his healthiness and energy, he had not the supreme courage to face the ugliness of things; Beauty shrank from the Beast and the fairy-tale had a different ending.

The real difficult work of aesthetics is in fact, somehow having such a ‘commonplace mind’; for most of man’s experience consists in common things. What an interesting conundrum! In our era we try to outdo one another we outlandishness, and wonder why our world is ugly.

Dryden is also responsible for the rule in our language that annoys many of us, which is that a preposition should not be hanging at the end of a sentence. This is because in Latin, such a thing is not done, due to declining of the noun (i.e. ‘to where’ would be ‘quo’, thus writing ‘where are you going to’ or worse, ‘where are you going at’ would leave the reader wondering what noun was missing.) He married and had three children; though to our knowledge his children died without issue – three sons! And each carried on to some extent his talents, but did not long outlive him. A similar thing happened with Rembrandt, which also presents a curious challenge for prominent fathers, getting their children out from under their shadow.

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2 Comments

  1. “This also comes to another point, which might be missed, about artists in general, namely that they tend to fall into two distinct camps: members of intellectual vanguards and apolitical moderates. It should be obvious the terrible state of art in the West today has to do with a double fact: one that the status quo is United Nations Liberalism, and two that the intellectual vanguards have been mainly further to the Left of that. In particular, they have been communist (but in that I repeat myself.) This is one reason why American authors and poets have not been great (sorry, lovers of Hemingway and many of our poets of the 19th century–) the status quo in America has mostly been democracy, and the vanguards almost without exception have been in forms variously less traditional in respect to European civilization, than that.”

    I would even go so far as to argue that America is, contrary to popular opinion, notably a-cultural among Western nations, likely because of the distance, in both time and space, from the core of our cultural being in medieval Catholicism. When we do produce a man of particular insight or talent, he is prevented from entering into the higher echelons of national and cultural consciousness in a substantive way (and thus prevented from reaching any level of depth within the broader American psyche), leaving us with a sort of culturally neutral character at the intellectual and artistic level. Even talented American artists like Thomas Cole or Frazetta, talented authors like Lovecraft, Herbert or Poe, thinkers like Yockey, Lindbergh or Robert Bork, are only remembered and analyzed, never are they truly ingratiated into the American character; elsewise America would be far more explicit in its roughness and dim view of human nature than it is.

    The American elite seems impervious to radical expressions of truth, whatever its form, contenting themselves to a sort of grey half-truth in everything from politics, to art and even lifestyle.

  2. “It may easily prove to be the case that “Space Opera” or “Science Fantasy” or perhaps even “Science Fiction” will, thanks to early 21st century misfires, fall out of fashion such that no one is remembered but Hitchcock.”

    I think that is all but certain. We will eventually give up fantasizing about non-existent and impossible technologies.

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