- The Paradoxes of Tender Conscience
Toward the end of Dryden’s Hind and the Panther, in that elaborate and mysterious exchange of aviary fables that comprises much of part 3 of the poem, the Hind introduces the person of James II disguised as a “Plain good Man.” 1 For the Hind the allegory is transparent because in this age, “So few deserve the name of Plain and Good” (3.907). James has appeared briefly before in the poem, and rather more conventionally, roaring and shaking his mane as the British lion (1.289, 304). But in the longest portrait of the king, this protector of hapless Roman Catholics, proclaimer of Toleration, and patron of the recently converted laureate is displayed neither in the glory of military exploit, nor in the conventional imagery of Stuart panegyric, nor even in the language of piety and wisdom so prominent in the dissenters’ thankful addresses for the Toleration, but rather in the dress of a blunt and gullible farmer of domestic poultry. 2 Even allowing for the fabular character of the poem as a whole and for the idiom of the Panther’s particular fable which the Hind is about to engage and contest, the decision to cast James II as the barnyard landlord is puzzling. More than one of Dryden’s contemporaries remarked the embarrassing oddity of the portrait, contrasting the slack and effeminate character of this panegyric with the strength of the laureate’s earlier praise of Oliver Cromwell. 3 Perhaps in a poem that turns on mysteries, we ought not to be wholly surprised by the turn of this portrait, but it remains a rather large puzzle deposited near the poem’s oracular conclusion. To cite Burnet’s remark that James was noted neither for wit nor fancy, does not, I think, solve the rhetorical mystery of the portrait; nor does it explain the portrait’s function to suggest, on the evidence of the poem, that Dryden needed to keep the portrait simple and restrained. 4 The laureate had not, up to this point, been known for either the realism or the restraint of his Stuart panegyrics, and the spring of 1687 seems an odd moment for Dryden to begin experimenting with paradoxical encomia: strength of mind figured as gullibility, imperial sovereignty as barnyard sway.
But the puzzles and paradoxes of The Hind and the Panther hardly begin in part 3. They are present where we have learned most immediately to expect this poet to begin unfolding the characteristic [End Page 851] modes of his work: the prefatory address to the reader. Here we discover that Dryden composed the poem “during the last Winter and the beginning of this Spring” (468, ll. 58), and that two weeks before it was finished, and in a disconcerting surprise to the poet, James issued his Declaration of Indulgence. Dryden distances the Declaration from his poem, claiming that if he had “so soon” expected the Declaration, he would have spared himself “the labour of writing many things which are contain’d in the third part of it” (468, ll. 61–62). But neither Dryden’s first readers, a number of whom shrewdly and maliciously combed over Dryden’s text looking for just such problems, nor more recent and more sympathetic students have been able to identify what about part 3 was rendered superfluous by the Declaration. 5 As we might expect, the puzzles that Dryden flagged in the Preface are only the beginning.
The Declaration was a surprise, so this idealist tells us, because he had clung that spring to “some hope, that the Church of England might have been perswaded to have taken off the Penal Lawes and the Test, which was one Design of the Poem when I propos’d to my self the writing of it” (468, ll. 63–65). Setting aside the poet’s “surprise” in April of 1687 (and how many other well-placed apologists of the court could have been surprised by the London Declaration of 4 April?), we might wonder exactly what in the poet’s exhaustive and abusive handling of the origins, character, and conscience of the Anglican confession, or the motives and tactics...