The Poems of John Dryden: Vol. I, 1649-1681; Vol. II, 1682-1685 
edited by Paul Hammond.
Longman, 551 pp., £75, February 1995, 0 582 49213 0
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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.

Monmouth/Absalom, the disobedient son, was indeed his father’s favourite: the Biblical parallel was too apt to have escaped notice. A capable and at times even brilliant commander, he fought the Dutch at sea, commanding the English troops fighting in alliance with France in 1672, and with the Dutch against the French in 1678, when the alliance was reversed. The next year he defeated the Scottish rebels at Bothwell Bridge. Personally brave and a good sort, though with the giddiness endemic to the times, he was kind to Dryden, who was clearly fascinated by him. Together with the Dukes of Albemarle and Somerset he killed a beadle who ventured to oppose the young men in a brothel, and some of the King’s Horse Guards, of whom he was captain, slit the nose of Sir John Coventry. (This might have been construed as loyalty to his father on the part of Monmouth, for when a tax on playhouses was objected to in the House of Commons on the grounds that ‘the players were the King’s servants and a part of his pleasure,’ Coventry had enquired sarcastically whether the King’s chief pleasure ‘lay among the men or women players’.)

In the poem these goings-on are disposed of in a few sharply amiable couplets.

What faults he had (for who from faults is free?)
His father could not, or he would not see.
Some warm excesses which the law forbore
Were construed youth that purged by boiling o’er;
And Amnon’s murther by a specious name
Was called a just revenge for injured fame.
Thus praised and loved the noble youth remained.
While David undisturbed in Sion reigned.

Dryden merely ‘shows his white teeth’, as a critic has remarked, as if amused by his own facility in striking the crisp but tactful tone. Attacked or attacking he had the faculty of always seeming good-natured and unbothered: in this, his verses are very unlike those of the sometimes hysterical and all too vulnerable Pope. It was a gift that must have infuriated rivals and enemies; and he retained it even when he really set about them, as he did with Doeg and Og – Settle and Shadwell – in the Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel. Settle’s capacity for malice is dismissed in what seems an easygoing couplet, more effective in the old Oxford typography:

Spightfull he is not, though he wrote a Satyr,
For still there goes some thinking to ill-Nature;

while Og/Shadwell becomes positively heroical in his absurdity:

Round as a globe, and Liquor’d every chink,
Goodly and Great he Sayls behind his Link;
With all his Bulk there’s nothing lost in Og,
For ev’ry inch that is not Fool is Rogue.

‘The charming Annabel’, Anne, Countess of Buccleuch, who married Monmouth three years after the Restoration, also became Dryden’s friend and patron; and in his scurrilous attack on Dryden, The Medal of John Bayes, Shadwell sneered that it was her favour which had brought Dryden into court, making him Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal, while all he had done for her in return was to traduce her husband in his poetry.

Density of barbed local allusion, and the contrast it makes with the suave and spare Augustan elegance of tone, is an essential of this style at its best; and nothing could be more effective than the way in which Paul Hammond’s notes merge the two painlessly together and compress the turbulent history of the times into the smooth flow of the poem. Absalom and Achitophel is of course highly prophetic, but unlike the tale in the Old Testament, the poem has no way of making a proper dramatic climax for itself. Monmouth was certainly in trouble with his father and a focus of opposition at court, but at the time Dryden wrote he was still on the make. After being compelled to banish him temporarily and strip him of his posts and pensions, Charles went so far in 1680, a year before Dryden’s poem came out, as to issue a proclamation that he had never been married to Lucy Walter, Monmouth’s mother, as the rumours circulated by Monmouth and Achitophel/Shaftesbury were suggesting. Monmouth voted that year for the Bill to exclude Charles’s brother James from the throne, with obvious hopes of becoming king himself. He protested that his reason for so voting was that his father’s life was in danger, causing the king to remark: ‘The kiss of Judas!’ Dedicating his play Tyrannic Love to Monmouth, Dryden flattered him by saying that ‘Heaven has already taken care to form you for a Heroe.’

Yet there was no way this Absalom could be the hero of Dryden’s poem. Dryden’s political allegory might have been prophetic, but he could not foresee the future. Charles died four years after the poem was published, and in the same year, after the accession of James II, Monmouth was to land at Lyme Regis, lose the battle of Sedgemoor, the last battle fought on English soil, and be captured and executed. A year later, with the new king’s religion in the ascendant, Dryden himself did a Vicar of Bray, and became a Roman Catholic, publishing soon afterwards that superb defence of the old religion, The Hind and the Panther. He was no doubt sincere as well as adroit – the poem is masterful enough to include both possibilities – but he also backed the wrong horse; for when William of Orange landed at Torbay in 1688 and a Dutch army captured the King and garrisoned London in the last successful invasion of England, Dryden lost all his offices – Shadwell replacing him as Laureate and Historiographer – and was compelled to return to writing plays in order to make a living.

He had forecast Monmouth’s future while miscalculating his own. In any case Absalom and Achitophel could not have ended with the bang appropriate to downright deep tragedy. Dryden had to make what he could out of anticlimax, and a graceful shrug of the shoulders. King David has triumphed, his son is temporarily discomfited: ‘Thenceforth a series of new times began.’ To compare the long with the short, it is as much a bathos as the ending of many a Shakespearean sonnet or verse of Emily Dickinson; but it was history that stole, as it were, the poet’s inspiration, for in general the ends of Dryden’s poems, long or short, are as supple and strong as their beginnings. Absalom and Achitophel is the essential index of Dryden’s wide capabilities and achievement as a great poet. Graciously argued, and subtly elegiac in tone, The Hind and the Panther is equally skilful at recommending itself in high places (the earlier poem had shown just how deftly Dryden could gauge the tone of respectful banter that is often most flattering to royalty) but James was not a connoisseur and man of poetic taste like his royal brother. A series of new times had indeed begun, and a more thoughtful and even earnest kind of poetry to go with them.

Dryden could do this as well as he could do any other kind. Four years before his conversion he had written Religio Laici, or A Layman’s Faith, which availed itself of all the more enlightened latitudinarian opinions of the Anglican religious establishment, opinions that went back to the Tew Circle and the Cambridge Platonists of pre-Revolutionary days. They showed the Anglican Church – the ‘Panther’, as Dryden was to write of her in his later poem – in her most thoughtful and civilised mood. The immediate inspiration of Religio Laici was the work of a French Catholic priest, Richard Simon, who had written a crafty but temperate essay to undermine the basic Protestant position by investigating the obvious corruption of the Old Testament text. Reliance on Scripture as the sole authority for belief was, as he gravely maintained, compromised by Scriptural unreliability. The controversy was just what Dryden, the premier poetic investigative journalist of the age, liked; and the arguments he deployed against both the fashionable deists and the surviving nonconformists of the ‘Good Old Cause’ take a logical step towards the Roman Catholic apologetics of The Hind and the Panther.

Dryden’s mastery and versatility were honed in every verse form from early on by the writing of innumerable songs, prologues and epilogues for his own and others’ plays. Scarcely one fails to display his sinewy ease without seeming effort, and the casual bite of a wit too confident to need to display itself. It was the same gift for writing extempore that Shakespeare as manager-dramatist must have had. Once when the star heroine failed to show up at a first night, and an untried substitute had to be hastily brought to London, Dryden makes a comically courtly virtue of the fact by inserting a new triplet in the Prologue:

The country lip may have the velvet touch;
Though she’s no lady you may think her such,
(A strong imagination may do much.)

Such ease is all the more remarkable because Dryden’s first efforts were decidedly clumsy, although they demonstrate the instant ability to make use of every poetic style then current, from Miltonic to Metaphysical. When Henry Lord Hastings died of smallpox in 1649 a collection was printed called Lachrymae Musarum, the Tears of the Muses for this most hopeful young nobleman. Michael Gearin-Tosh, in Essays and Studies, has cogently argued that this was an opportunity for poets of royalist sympathies covertly to mourn Charles I’s execution. Marvell contributed a beautiful and haunting little poem, but young Dryden’s effort is in the worst and most laborious taste of the time: unfeeling funerary rhetoric mixed with conceits so ill-conceived that even an audience used to that sort of thing must have tittered with embarrassment.

Heaven would no longer trust its pledge, but thus
Recalled it, rapt its Ganymede from us.
Was there no milder way but the small pox,
The very filth’ness of Pandora’s box?
So many spots, like naeves, our Venus soil?
One jewel set off with so many a foil?
Blisters with pride swelled, which through’s flesh did sprout
Like rose-buds, stuck i’ th’ lily skin about.
Each little pimple had a tear in it
To wail the fault its rising did commit ...
Or were these gems sent to adorn his skin,
The cab’net of a richer soul within?

Even Crashaw or Waller would not have taken matters as far as that, though the little touch about feminine beauty-spots has its own kind of slightly dubious felicity. The same pleasure in the incongruous and grotesque was made effective use of in Dryden’s first shot at a heroic poem, Annus Mirabilis (1665-6) celebrating the Second Dutch War and the Fire of London. In fact it’s less of a heroic poem than a rambling but vivid account of two English victories, the Battle of Lowestoft and the St James’s Day Fight, and the English defeat at the Four Days Battle, which Dryden plays down with all the accomplishment of an old-fashioned war correspondent. Tone and detail bear an odd resemblance to popular naval romances of our own time, like those of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian; for poetry in the 17th century was expected to cater for all a public’s literary appetites, and usually did so very well, whether it was war in Heaven or bombardment on the high seas. Sylvester’s version of the French poet Du Bartas is much in evidence, helped out by Ovid and Virgil, but Dryden has a much more practical interest in what actually occurred than was common in the poetry of his contemporaries. Even his flattery is full of persuasive detail.

Our careful monarch stands in person by,
   His new-cast cannons’ firmness to explore:
The strength of big-corned powder loves to try,
   And ball and cartridge sorts for every bore.

Indolent as he was, Charles took as keen an interest in gunpowder and Norway spruce as his seamanlike brother James and his cousin Prince Rupert. Unlike Pepys, who ‘gave over the thoughts of it as a victory, and do reckon it a great overthrow’, Dryden makes little mention of the severe casualties in ships and men at the Four Days Battle, and makes much of the equally inconclusive English raid on Bergen, where a Dutch fleet had taken refuge, laden with the spices and ceramics of China and the East Indies. About the effects caused by cannon fire on such a cargo Dryden seizes with almost surrealistic relish.

Amidst whole heaps of spices lights a ball,
   And now their odours armed against them fly:
Some preciously by shattered porcelain fall,
   And some by aromatic splinters die.

This unexpected love of grotesque detail, itself inherited from the Metaphysical poets, Dryden was to pass on to Pope, who refines it to extreme delicacy in The Dunciad and The Rape of the Lock.

Annus Mirabilis is absurd (the poet manages to turn into heroic simile the Duke of York’s partial disrobing as a result of one broadside – ‘his breeches to his skin were shot off,’ as the London Gazette more tersely recorded) yet it is not easy to know whether Dryden himself knew it was absurd, and in a sense made it so deliberately. Pomposity is its own point and has its own reward, as the age of the Sun King knew full well, but Dryden’s very suppleness in enacting the motions of pomp has here a deadpan quality which foreshadows the masterful ease and opulence of his later style. These first two volumes end in 1685 with Threnodia Augustalis, the ‘Funeral-Pindarique Poem’ commemorating the unexpected death of Charles II at the age of 54. Dryden was the same age. The Hind and the Panther, Alexander’s Feast and A Song for St Cecilia’s Day were still to come, but the greatest of Augustan poetic styles was now fully formed, the mode of writing which, in Dr Johnson’s words, can ‘exert all the force of poetry, the force which calls new powers into being’.

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