- The Politics of Providence in Dryden's Fables Ancient and Modern
The politics of Dryden's Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) are at once transparent and obscure. These poems speak the idiom of late seventeenth-century political debate, introducing into, or simply discovering in the fictions of Chaucer, Ovid, Homer, and Boccaccio, the language and concepts of patriotism, abdication, passive obedience, arbitrary power, and political flattery. They seem to invite political reading on account of their subject matter itself – their narratives of tyrants, wronged parents and children, dynastic disputes, and usurpation. Moreover, they have been shown to incorporate numerous topical reflections on contemporary political issues: there are clear allusions to the standing army debates in Sigismonda and Guiscardo and Cymon and Iphigenia; to contemporary controversy over moral reformation and satire on Puritanism in The Cock and the Fox. Yet although the seventeenth century, and the 1690s in particular, saw an outpouring of explicitly political fables, Dryden's translations frustrate the application of sustained political allegory, as numerous critics have found.1 They offer contradictory signals: so, for example, we are invited to identify the conquering Theseus at the beginning of Palamon and Arcite as a type of William III, but by the end of the translation he has become a stoic figure offering a humanist consolation on loss [End Page 1] and love.2 The collection as a whole tends to deny us the consistent political allegory that it invites us to make through its vocabulary and topical allusion.3
In this essay I offer some ideas about how we might link the local allusion to broader narrative structures by exploring the significance of Providence in the Fables. I shall argue that through his translations, and particularly through augmentations of his originals, Dryden engages with contemporary political and literary debates about the function of Providence in narrative. Through a critique of contemporary Whig providential argument and historiography, he attacks the practice of identifying particular providences, and the ways in which 'providential design' is invoked to excuse usurpation, conquest, or tyranny. The widespread contemporary identification of a providential order behind the events of recent history was effectively a matter of interpretation; an exegetical practice that focused attention on the identification of meaning in historical narrative, re-reading history to find examples of specific and particular providences.4 It may be that the difficulty critics have found in trying to identify overarching 'morals' in the Fables reflects a deliberate intention on Dryden's part, and stems from his questioning of such interpretation. And we might also link the interpretative problems posed by the fables to their tendency to reject or refuse poetic justice. The controversy surrounding Jeremy Collier's attack on the stage had centred on the ways in which literature could be said to be morally instructive: thus both Collier and his opponents had drawn heavily on Thomas Rymer's theories of poetic justice in order to prove that contemporary drama, including Dryden's, was (or was not) exemplary in its disposition of rewards and punishments.5 This essay will demonstrate the ways in which contemporary political and literary arguments about Providence influence Dryden's translations. It will examine first the explicit criticism of Williamite providentialism [End Page 2] in the poems, and then move on to consider the philosophical and literary ramifications of such determinism in the Fables. In doing so, it will not only offer a new perspective on the Fables, but also suggest how to read Dryden's post-Revolutionary works within a political context, while acknowledging their oblique and evasive relationship with contemporary history and polemic.6
Providence, or the belief in the ultimate ordering of the universe by a supreme being, was of course an important concept in early modern thought, and the ramifications of its importance have most recently been explored by Alexandra Walsham.7 As an explicitly Christian model of divine determinism, it was seen as distinct from the 'heathenish' concepts of fate and fortune that also had a claim on popular belief. Most authorities differentiated between general Providence, or God's all-encompassing programme for the evolution of the macrocosm, and special, or particular providences, individual dispensations the divinity dealt out...