Poet Squab

Claude Rawson

  • John Dryden and His World by James Anderson Winn
    Yale, 651 pp, £19.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 300 02994 2
  • John Dryden edited by Keith Walker
    Oxford, 967 pp, £22.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 19 254192 7

There is an anonymous portrait of Dryden, ‘dated 1657 but probably 1662’, which shows a full-fed figure with plump alert eyes, comfortable and predatory. He seems poised between repletion and dyspepsia, like a bewigged Nigel Lawson, arrested for all time at the moment of incipient eructation. James Winn says: ‘His short, squat figure later led his enemies to call him “Poet Squab”, and the plump birdlike face in this picture justifies the nickname.’ When Rochester, about 1675 or 1676, called him by that name, perhaps for the first time, in his ‘Allusion to Horace’, the idea was that Dryden couldn’t manage gentlemanly smuttiness, the ‘mannerly obscene’, though he tried:

  Dryden in vain tried this nice way of wit,
For he to be a tearing blade thought fit.
But when he would be sharp, he still was blunt:
To finish his frolic fancy, he’d cry. ‘Cunt!’
Would give the ladies a dry bawdy bob,
And thus he got the name of Poet Squab.

The suggestion is that Dryden is a beginner, indeed a non-starter, whether as wit or gentleman, for ‘squab’ also means an inexperienced person, young pigeon or unfledged bird. Birds came in handy, you might say, in lordly imputations of sexual inadequacy, as when Fielding called Lord Hervey Lord Didapper.

The Earl was giving Dryden the ‘scribbling author’ the sort of lofty treatment which commoners like Dryden himself, as well as Swift and Pope after him, liked to hand down to still lower scribblers. The case is paradoxical not only because of the lordly pretensions of unlordly wits, familiar at all levels of the Augustan literary scene; nor even because Dryden eventually retaliated, in the Preface to All for Love (1678), with a lordly tu quoque, variously intimating that real poets are better at poetry than their lordly betters (not an impression Dryden is normally anxious to give in his dedications to nobles), and pretending on a contrary tack to mistake the author of the ‘Allusion’ for a low scribbler and true ‘Son of Sternhold’ – an insult implying, in Dryden’s demonology, both puritan affiliation and inter-changeability with poetaster Tom Shadwell.

The complexity of the Rochester-Dryden relationship harboured further piquancies. Marriage à la Mode (1671), a play dedicated to Rochester at the time of their friendship, did in fact contain examples of the ‘mannerly obscene’ as gracefully executed and as hard-edged as any libertine verses of any of the court wits, including the song ‘Whilst Alexis lay pressed’, wittiest of all puns on sexual dying. The play was, as Dryden’s dedication says, corrected by Rochester, who commended it to the King, and some of its polished repartee, as Winn and others have said, may owe something to Rochester. But the song, though as good as Rochester, isn’t like Rochester. If Rochester in the ‘Allusion’, and Shadwell in The Medal of John Bayes (1682), accused Dryden of clumsy attempts to ape the rakish idiom, some of the written specimens weren’t in the least clumsy. This couldn’t be said of the play’s dedication to Rochester, however – a document of such laboured oiliness and such particularised self-abasement that even the most hardened connoisseurs of Drydenian toadying might be expected to find it unusual: Dryden himself called it an ‘ill Dedication’, but only in a further sycophantic admission of unworthiness.

Shadwell, who had called Dryden Drybob before Rochester did, as Rochester seems to have called him Squab before Shadwell, played a full part in these uppish reciprocities. In the year that Dryden mythologised him in ‘Mac Flecknoe’ (written in 1676) as the type of the Grub Street dunce, Rochester’s ‘Allusion’, in between smacks at Dryden, ascribed to him an improbable patrician nonchalance at ‘Showing great mastery, with little care’. Shadwell went on to demonstrate this newfound sprezzatura by making heavy weather of Dryden’s heavy weather with the ‘mannerly obscene’, adding for the ornithological record that Poet Squab’s plumage was borrowed. Not only the name, but the charge of borrowing, were presumably themselves borrowed from Rochester’s ‘Allusion’, which had already announced that

                          Dryden’s rhymes
Were stol’n, unequal, nay dull many times’.

Dryden ‘stole’ no more than some of his accusers, or than came naturally in a culture whose poetry flourished on ‘allusion’, ‘poetical imitation’ and various mutations of heroic and mock-heroic, and whose theatre at its best and worst relied heavily on more or less creative adaptations of foreign or older English plays. Dryden was profoundly conformist. His genius required the commonplace, took reassurance from it and gave it authority in return. He took what was going and made it his own, not merely in the general sense in which all writers do, but in the special fervour he derives from (or gives to) the truism. This is especially evident in his criticism, one of his areas of pre-eminent achievement.

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