John Dryden’s Religio Laici (1682) was situated at the center of debates over religious toleration in Restoration England. With this poem and its preface, Dryden took up the question of how to represent—how to give poetic voice to—forbearance in a world of contentious religious belief. His answer was to orchestrate the distinctive styles of Restoration spirituality—deist and dissenter, papist and latitudinarian—by passing his voice through each position and, with an apparent concession of poetic style, to bring his performance to rest within the central tolerationist argument: liberty of tender conscience. Writing different voices, and often with an intent to abuse, may unsettle toleration’s claims of quiet forbearance with a clamor of conflict and argument, but the tension that Dryden creates between and among voices engages his readers and draws them through the styles of spirituality and into the space, the very experience of early modern toleration. Perhaps, too, Religio Laici helps us better to understand how to represent and perform what we now call tolerance.


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pp. 539-566
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