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  • Heroic Restorations:Dryden and Milton
  • Thomas H. Luxon

In his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (2004), Steven Zwicker maintains that "Dryden seldom wrote of, or even seems to have imagined, a coherent and progressive literary career of the kind that was often on Spenser's or Milton's mind."1 In the same 2004 Companion, Annabel Patterson challenges Zwicker's claim. Patterson reminds us that in fact Dryden was driven, almost from the beginning of his career, by a "grand ambition"—to redefine "the heroic," both in subject and in form. She advances the fascinating (and counterintuitive) thesis that Dryden's ambition to reinvent English heroic poetry for his age probably also drove his political affiliations: "Most of this has to do, obviously, with Dryden's idea of the heroic, as something that writers, especially if they have the laureateship in mind, must redefine for their own place and time."2 I cannot let it go without saying that John Milton was driven, from a very young age, by much the same ambition. Milton realized his ambition in three heroic poems (Paradise Lost, Paradise Regain'd, and Samson Agonistes) published between 1667 and 1674, exactly the years [End Page 199] when Dryden was experimenting with his reinventions of heroism for the Restoration stage.3

This essay will sketch out the very different modes by which Milton and Dryden pursued this ambition of redefining heroism for an age that was gradually coming to recognize itself as postheroic. What could convincingly count as heroic behavior in an age like theirs? What depiction of heroism could survive the corrosive context of Stuart England from the late 1630s on without degenerating into satire or even farce?4 Both poets regarded their ambitions as crucial to the future of the English people. Both believed that heroic virtues bound civil societies together and that poets could inspire such virtues in people and rulers alike. The task of redefining heroism for a post-heroic age looked very different to these two poets, one a disappointed republican and the other an ambitious "Servant to His Majesty," and critics have justifiably belabored those differences. But after reviewing those, I want to concentrate some attention on an important, but misunderstood, intersection of their ambitious paths—Dryden's adaptation of Milton's great epic as a heroic drama: The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man.5

Dryden imagined that his project was to restore traditional heroism for what he regarded as a new age. As Marcie Frank puts it, he took advantage of Milton's own self-presentation as "old fashioned" by exaggerating it, as if Paradise Lost belonged to a pre-Restoration era.6 For Dryden, "old fashioned" is largely code for the "good old cause," and royalists were ever anxious to depict that as hopelessly outdated. But far from being old-fashioned, Milton actually wanted to start fresh. He chose to celebrate versions of heroism hitherto ignored.7 In book 9 of Paradise Lost, the narrator dismisses first the classical "argument[s]" of Homer and Virgil (PL 9.13–19), and then the romance subjects of Ariosto and Tasso (9.27–41), proposing instead tragic "disobedience" and "Patience and Heroic Martyrdom," subjects hitherto "Unsung" (9.32–33).8 Milton also used Adam, Eve, and Raphael to illustrate and promote more domestic forms of heroism such as condescension, marital conversation, friendship, self-esteem, and sacrifice. As late as 1693, Dryden still maintained that Milton's "Subject is not that of an [End Page 200] Heroique Poem; properly so call'd: His design is the Losing of our Happiness; his Event is not prosperous, like that of all other Epique Works" (Works 4:14–15). Nevertheless, twenty years earlier, he chose a version of the Miltonic subject for his latest experiment in heroic drama, an opera in five acts, dedicated to celebrating, among other things, heroic beauty and the more domestic virtues of human behavior, marriage, mutual submission, love, and the cultivation of a "Paradise within." The literature of the coming centuries, in novels and plays, would continue to explore these more domestic heroisms long after Dryden's earlier experiments with heroic drama turned into fodder...


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