Tuesday, October 14, 2014

John Dryden (1631 - 1700)

John Dryden (portrait by John Michael Wright, c. 1668)
[This recently identified painting was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2009 (Image from ArtFund)]

Scattered notes written in 2001 and 2004...

Dryden’s Poems

January 2001. For the last four months or so I’ve been reading Dryden. It began with an accidental dip into the Auden/Pearson anthology of English poetry - a book my father acquired from a brief dalliance with Heron Books, a sort of classic book club. He passed it on to me when I began university twenty-five years ago. I’ve always used it, and it survived the purge of my library in 1996 - by choice not accident; I wanted to keep the canon by me.

So, I dipped in Volume III, my least-loved period in English verse. Then I wanted to read Absalom and Achitophel in full, so I went to Waterstone’s. There was no Dryden at all - I was astonished, and then of course hooked on the quest. A second-hand bookshop in Bath supplied further inadequate selections, eagerly devoured. Then came the Arthos selection, found in St Leonards on Sea; like all in the Signet series, generous and attractive. Finally the Oxford Poems, borrowed from Frome library, and - ordered from bookshop - the cheap Wordsworth volume - £2.99, and as complete as any.

[This curious hiatus of Drydens didn’t last; there are now, it seems, a mass of Selected Drydens in the shops (2002).]

Dryden is a poet who can’t quite be made to fit into a single volume. But after many years I can more or less claim that I have read another “complete” English poet, to add to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton and Keats; but that was all a long time ago. It means more now; there’s less time. And I have really immersed: I feel like saying (as biographers do) “Dryden has been a good companion”. Indeed, I don’t want it to end. I have an eighteenth-century volume of Plutarch with an introductory Life by Dryden; his prose too is a fine thing – though somehow a bewilderingly different thing.

None of the books mentioned is really complete because there’s no Aeneid - though I have since discovered that this has an unexpectedly vigorous life on the Internet, since it’s invariably the translation used by those benefactors who have made Virgil available on their websites. I was at first misled into thinking that the bulky Oxford volume was complete but it’s a selection, pointedly excluding The Hind and the Panther. I appreciate the polemical gesture, but don’t really condone it; a poet’s original work, however unsatisfactory, must always supply a fuller idea of the writer than translations. And whether Hazlitt is right to say this, it is certainly a higly defensible claim, that  “it has more genius, vehemence, and strength of description that any other of Dryden’s works, not excepting the Absolom and Achitophel. It also contains the finest examples of varied and sounding versification...” You need The Hind and the Panther to sign off Dryden.  

His early poems are the most exciting, though the translations constitute a graceful re-education in many classics. I like the social and political emphasis; I feel that I’m present at the forging of Toryism at the historical moment when the pressure of Dryden’s ideas was strongest. Johnson or Scott, still less Powell, could never convert me - Dryden at times almost could. In the later Tories the body of thought is already to a great extent “given” - however convinced they are, I never quite feel that they are thinking it out for themselves, there is always a measure of adhesion to a predetermined tradition for which they have sentimental feelings - a hazy mental leap, an “of course!” that they don’t fully understand themselves. But Dryden’s vision arises quite naturally from his experience - not logical but intuitive, nevertheless an unfiltered response, and his expression of it a true act of creation. That’s how I should like to write.

But now I think of it, this descent onto the corpus of Dryden has other distant causes. I studied him at university - my copy then was the Everyman Selected, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (who, I think, was one of the many people roasted in Muggeridge’s memoirs). It was a graceful yet unconvincing collection; seeming to confirm C.S. Lewis’s assertion (in the essay about Shelley) that Dryden wrote from hand to mouth and produced good work only with qualifications, uncertain in taste and apt to spoil a good idea.

After this, I pretty much ignored Dryden for twenty-five years, but in fact the seeds of future interest were germinating. Three things in particular operated as signposts: the first, seeing a couplet or two as epigraph to the chapter of some book; the second, reading Peter Levi’s praise of Annus Mirabilis in his anthology of Christian verse; the third, skimming a review of a biography of Dryden (perhaps in The Times) - the reviewer calmly taking it for granted that Dryden was a “master”, one of the great figures in our literature. From such tiny details initiatives start (the Levi remark was backed up by impressive quotation, and thinking it over it was probably Annus Mirabilis that I most wanted to read in full).

The State of Innocence.

I had not heard of this until today; it’s very impressive and interesting - cold words, perhaps, but much of the undoubted excellence is due to Milton (this is a sort of dramatised condensation of Paradise Lost). Dryden drops all Milton’s more questionable inclusions - Sin and Death, the Father and Son, the war in Heaven, etc - and leaves himself with material for a swift, absorbing, five-act play. Was it worth the trouble? Well, I never planned to re-read Paradise Lost, so I am grateful for being gifted most of the best drama and the key apophthegms (you miss the extended similes, the forest-like, organ-voluntary-like paragraphs - but what a gain in some respects!). In Dryden’s “opera” the story, the psychology, the ethics all make sense - this could be an aid to devotion, not (like Paradise Lost) a prevention of it.

And I think it would play well. The verse is vivid - a mixture of blank verse, couplets, short lines, alexandrines - but the couplet predominant. It makes quite a sinewy vehicle for dramatic verse.

(Luc.) Think’st thou these wounds were light? Should I not seek
The clemency of some more temperate clime,
To purge my gloom; and, by the sun refined,
Bask in his beams, and bleach me in the wind?

I hardly know, after Shakespeare, where else I’d look for poetic drama in English so confidently achieved.  


T O    W H I C H    I S    P R E F I X E D

T H E   L I F E   O F   P L U T A R C H,

W R I T T E N      B Y     D R Y D E N.

Dryden is self-consciously writing a “Life” on the Plutarchan model (but, as he suggests, with especially little material). He pitches Plutarch as a wise, “human” writer – thinking of Montaigne, and no doubt of Shakespeare. Thinking hopefully of himself, too. I said “human” because of Harold Bloom. The expressions used by Dryden include:

“great friendliness”

“By this liberal sort of education” (not wasted, as Dryden notes, on learning dead languages) “study was so far from being a burden to them, that in a short time it became a habit; and philosophical questions, and criticisms of humanity, were their usual recreations at their meals.”

“like a true philosopher, who minded things, not words...”

“so it was his own virtue, to suck in with an incredible desire, and earnest application of mind, their wise instructions; and it was also his prudence so to manage his health by moderation of diet and bodily exercise, as to preserve his parts without decay to a great old age; to be lively and vigorous to the last, and to preserve himself to his own enjoyments, and to the profit of mankind.”

“diligent” “wise” “modest” “moderation”

“so grateful in his nature”

“and more than all this, for a certain quality of goodness which appears through all his writings”.

Dryden draws together all these faint colourings into his notion of historical biography. Plutarch's work does not have the strength or status of major history (as for instance Thucydides or Commynes), but in compensation it has an intimacy and agreeableness that is admirable. For example, of Plutarch’s digressions he says:

The best quarry lies not always in the open field: and who would not be content to follow a good huntsman over hedges and ditches, when he knows the game will reward his pains? But if we mark him more narrowly, we may observe, that the great reason of his frequent starts, is the variety of his learning: he knew so much of nature, was so vastly furnished with all the treasures of the mind, that he was uneasy to himself, and was forced, as I may say, to lay down some at every passage, and to scatter his riches as he went...

He writes of great men not only in staterooms.

You may behold a Scipio and a Lelius gathering cockle-shells on the shore; Augustus playing at bounding-stones with boys; and Agesilaus riding on a hobby-horse among his children. The pageantry of life is taken away; you see the poor reasonable animal, as naked as ever nature made him; and are made acquainted with his passions and his follies, and find the Demi-god a Man.

digesting all their memorable deeds with so much care, that he has not omitted those even of their women, or their private soldiers...

In short, his formal impurity is a roundedness of personality, what we may well call humanity.

There is a political dimension to this vision, for positive words mean something specific to those who employ them. Here are some sentences I missed out earlier.

Boys lived then as the better sort of men do now; and their conversation was so well bred and manly, that they did not plunge out of their depth into the world, when they grew up; but slid easily into it, and found no alteration in their company.

Plutarch’s family, Dryden suggests, belonged to a line of Archons, or as it were Lord Mayors.

He was not so austere as to despise riches, but being in possession of a large fortune, he lived, though not splendidly, yet plentifully; and suffered not his friends to want that part of his estate, which he thought superfluous to a philosopher.

As often in Dryden, we remark a sensation of flexibility or opportunism. Dryden’s image of the ruling class co-opts the features of “humanity”, be it Plutarch’s or Shakespeare’s, both as an acknowledgement of changed conditions and as a way of maintaining its privileges. It was in the end a highly effective way of avoiding a revolution, and not I think a calculated one. Dryden, an instinctive time-server, nurtured a literary community more than he moulded it.

[I hope you admire the extract from the elegant title-page of the 1770 edition, in Baskerville’s manner, as considered suitable for classical works. This third edition of The Lives, in eight volumes, was printed in London for a conger of ten publishers headed by J. and F. Rivington.  Unlike the publishers, Dryden (like Dacier and Plutarch himself) has shed his initial, as befits a dead author.]

(2001, 2004)

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