- John Dryden (1631-1700): His Politics, His Plays, and His Poets
Five years after the tercentenary of Dryden's death, the fruits of scholarly celebration of the now neglected poet are still being felt. As Claude Rawson acknowledges in his brief preface, a collection like this and the conference from which its papers evolved are necessarily conscious of not being alone in their endeavours to revive Dryden. This collection, accordingly, strives 'to achieve a broadly representative view of his extraordinary range,' while focusing on 'two aspects of his works: the politics of his plays, and his relations with some of the poets, ancient and modern, who helped to shape his work, or who, in his own and the next generation, absorbed his influence, or regarded him with hostility.'
Indeed, the volume is refreshing in its innovative approaches. Part 1, on 'The Court, the Town, and the Playhouse,' begins with two energetic essays by Lawrence Manley and Harold Love c New Historicist treatment of [End Page 256]Dryden's lifelong 'fear of chaos and the mob.' The two other essays by Howard Erskine-Hill and David Womersley derive the strengths and weaknesses of individual Dryden plays from their specific political and social climates.
The wide-ranging scope of part 2 ensures an equally instructive contemplation of both Dryden's legacy and the complexity of his relationships with ancient and contemporary poets. Steven Zwicker and Emrys Jones begin the discussion by showing what Dryden's Virgil and his Persius, respectively, tell us about the development of the poet's own career - how his style develops through communication with ancient poets. Both critics also note his Drydenification of his Ancient subjects. Similarly, Susanna Morton Braund's consideration of Dryden's 'Safe Sex' outlines the great poet's sanitization of Juvenal's notorious sixth satire because of his disapproval of the ancient's misogyny. Paul Hammond shifts attention to Dryden's English literary relations as he examines Dryden's reflections on Shakespeare and his contemporary dramatists in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie. In particular, Hammond probes Dryden's concept of 'art' and 'nature' from within their literary heritage. Approaching the Restoration consciousness of Renaissance literary might from a different angle is Barbara Everett's essay, which ponders the problem of Dryden's variability in temperament and performance as it searches for his Hamlet- that one 'focal and representative work.' Annabel Patterson, meanwhile, wonders at the vitality and power of Absalom and Achitophel, especially given what preceded it and Dryden's ill success with rhyme. Its genesis, she concludes, is in no small part owing to Dryden's troubled relationships with Marvell and Milton. Louis Martz (to whose memory this collection is dedicated) is specifically interested in Dryden's encounter with Milton through his dramatic 'Poem of Paradise.' Examining the significant differences between Milton's great epic and Dryden's modest play, he concludes that the latter is, in the end, an exploration of the theme of free will - a prevailing concern of the day. The remaining essays consider two of Dryden's greatest literary heirs: Ian Higgins investigates the causes of Jonathan Swift's contempt for Dryden, while Valerie Rumbold maps Alexander Pope's concerted efforts to plot 'Parallel Lives' for himself and Dryden.
Perhaps the strongest thread that binds these essays by leading American, Australian, and British scholars is Dryden's profound modernity. From start to finish - and the collection includes important works from the beginning, middle, and last stages of Dryden's career - the essays reinforce not only Dryden's struggles but the ingenuity with which he faced them. The collection also reminds us that if Dryden's popularity is not a given and if individual works have been and still are subject to scorn, what is undeniable is the greatness that lies in what Barbara Everett calls those 'entirely Drydenian moments.' [End Page 257]
Tanya Caldwell, Department of English, Georgia State University