restricted access John Dryden
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120 ] John Dryden1 The Listener, 3 (16 Apr 1930) 688-89 [It may seem odd that I have chosen to include Dryden in a series of six talks, five of which have been devoted to those whom we call the metaphysical poets. For no one appears less “metaphysical” than Dryden; and his inclusion here may seem to you a caprice. But as I said at the start, I have chosen to dwellonthecontinuityofEnglishpoetryratherthanonitsdivisions.Among all English poets, Donne is certainly one of the most original (which does not necessarily mean one of the greatest); yet even he has close affinities with the Elizabethan drama which surrounded him; and at the other end of my list Dryden is related through Cowley to the disciples of Donne. And the poetryoftheeighteenthcenturyisdominatedbyDryden,justastwogenerations of the seventeenth century were dominated by Donne.] In an essay on Dryden written eight or nine years ago, I conjectured that our time might see some rehabilitation of the reputation of Dryden and of some of his followers. My guess was inspired by a brilliant and useful critical book, John Dryden, by Mark van Doren, published in New York, but I believe never republished in London. Within the last year we have the Restoration Tragedy of Mr. Bonamy Dobrée; and the recent book by Miss Sitwell on a not unrelated subject, Alexander Pope, tends to confirm my opinion.2 We have at least, I think, adjusted our view of Dryden by taking account of two very important parts of his work, neglected during the last century: his plays and his literary criticism. And I think we have a higher opinion of satire in verse, and a better understanding of its varieties, than our grandfathers did. But it is a mistake to think of Dryden as solely, or even as first and foremost, a satirist: Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Hind and the Panther form but a small part of his total work. He was primarily a dramatist, secondly a translator; but it is as an artisan of the English language, helping to give us the modern language for verse – and indeed for prose too – that I want to discuss him. And Dryden is one of the most remarkable masters in this respect, that no great English poet ever began with less promise. His “Heroic Stanzas” to the memory of Oliver Cromwell, and his Annus Mirabilis, a paean over a naval victory of the Duke of York, are assuredly amongst the worst poems [ 121 John Dryden in their form that exist. The metre is monotonous, the choice of words dull, his images so heavily weighted with expiring conceits that the sense is insensible and not worth getting at. [In contrasting Cromwell with “our former chiefs” he observes that War, our consumption, was their gainful trade;    We inward bled, whilst they prolonged our pain; He fought to end our fighting, and assayed    To stench the blood by breathing of the vein. Again, Tis true, his countenance did imprint an awe,    And naturally all souls to his did bow; As wands of divination downward draw,    And point to beds where sovereign gold doth grow.3 This ingenious elaboration of nothing is the last feeble gasp of the conceit: though it does not remind you very forcibly of Crashaw, or even Benlowes. Dryden has replaced the grotesque folly of third-rate seventeenth-century verse with something of the jog-trot dullness of the eighteenth. He is still using a metaphysical idiom, but without the metaphysical spirit. Dryden was slow in learning how to write because he had to find out for himself how to say what he could say. It must be admitted that Dryden’s ready change of allegiance from the Commonwealth to the Restoration did not itself improve his versification; for in Annus Mirabilis we find him still writing like this. The second stanza seems to be a plea for Free Trade, a sneer at the Dutch, and an allusion to Dr. Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood: Trade, which like blood should circularly flow,    Stopped in their channels, found its freedom lost; Thither the wealth of all the world did go,    And seemed but shipwracked on so base a coast. (Where I take it that “so base a coast” is a kind of pun upon the Dutch seaboard.) Here is another extreme stanza: The fugitive flames, chastised, went forth to prey    On pious structures, by our fathers reared; By which to heaven they did affect the...