Aromatic Splinters

John Bayley

  • The Poems of John Dryden: Vol. I, 1649-1681; Vol. II, 1682-1685 edited by Paul Hammond
    Longman, 551 pp, £75.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 582 49213 0

Poetry, it must be said, has become very finicky in our time. Housman thought it impossible to do, except that very occasionally it turned out to be there. Emily Dickinson would not have agreed with that at all. She threw herself into it, as if into a clear river on a hot day. The impression of relief and ecstasy in her first lines and couplets is remarkable, but she rarely keeps things up. She is in good company: Shakespeare when writing a sonnet also takes a perfect swallow dive, and scrambles out somehow in the final couplet as if its awkwardness amused him after the thoughtless pleasure of that first leap.

Dryden is also a jumper in, a superb starter. What about the opening of The Hind and the Panther?

A Milk white Hind, immortal and unchang’d,
Fed on the lawns and in the forest rang’d.

Or of Absalom and Achitophel?

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;
When nature prompted, and no law denied
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
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 through the land.

Thus the Longman text: The Hind and the Panther quotation is from the Oxford text, which retains the original typography and spelling. To bring them up to date is no doubt the general editorial policy pursued in the Longman Annotated English Poets series, for which these are the first two volumes of a projected four-volume Dryden; and this seems right on the whole, although the italic and capitals of the original give it the zest and insinuation of a speaking voice, which is important to Dryden’s always dramatic stance and style. ‘Israel’s Monarch’ seems slyly to emphasise that it is not, in fact, Jewish David with whom the poem will deal; and ‘Before Polygamy was made a Sin’ conveys just the right accentuation on polysyllabic gloating, and terse shocked monosyllable. There is on balance no very good reason to retain First Folio spelling for ordinary Shakespeare readers, but Dryden’s original text doesn’t bother or distract the beginner’s eye, while pointing up vocal emphases and giving the poem a greater acoustic life.

This is a small point, however; and any loss is more than made up for by Paul Hammond’s splendid notes, easy to read at the foot of the same page, and full of the most fascinating matter. Absalom and Achitophel is a storehouse of social and political history; and this text enables us to learn or to recall it without effort, to enjoy simultaneously the vigorous couplets of the satiric allegory and a clear exposition of the events behind it. Together with Purcell’s music Dryden’s poetry once formed an admirable trinity in art with the Scripture which was then so widely read and commented on. Political partisanship made a stimulating fourth, for Dryden’s position was itself almost as hazardous as those of the characters in the poem, although King Charles, whose favourite poem was Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, loved nothing more than a pungent pro-Establishment satire, and Dryden was well aware that

– colleges on bounteous kings depend,
And never rebel was to arts a friend.

The friend whose patronage probably led to an attack on Dryden in Rose Alley by hired thugs of Buckingham, the Zimri of the poem, was John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, a moderate royalist who did rather well out of the whole imbroglio. He was the author of An Essay upon Satire and An Essay upon Poetry, in the first of which Dryden almost certainly had a hand. Together with his own essays and prefaces they make up the critical background to the first flowering of the Augustan renaissance that Drydenic verse supremely represents.

Mulgrave himself received a handsome if itself slightly patronising mention as Adriel in the poem.

Sharp-judging Adriel the Muses’ friend,
Himself a Muse; in Sanhedrin’s debate
True to his prince, but not a slave of state;
Whom David’s love with honours did adorn
That from his disobedient son were torn.

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