- Seeming as Believing:Epistemological Uncertainty and the World of Annus Mirabilis
Early in his long poem Annus Mirabilis (1667), before the Great Fire vaporizes a quarter of the metropolis, John Dryden seems to privilege the conjunction "or," as if contemplating the limits of possibility. Here are distant fires nearly two hundred stanzas before the "prodigious"1 one that engulfs London: celestial fires, of comets that act as "Tapers" to light the poem's stage. As the comets rise, Dryden considers their origins in a series of lines that explain them away as if each possibility were equally likely. "Whether they unctuous Exhalations are, / Fir'd by the Sun," he begins, "or seeming so alone, / Or each some more remote and slippery Star, / Which looses footing when to Mortals shown" (AM 65-68). After the repeated "or," Dryden suggests that the comets are stars that slip away when viewed, a strangely Einsteinian effect of observation. Do they exist in one state, or does viewing them change the way they give off light in the night sky? And so he continues: "Or one that bright companion of the Sun, / Whose glorious aspect seal'd our new-born King" (AM 69-70). Unable—or unwilling—to fix his mind, Dryden seems to present us with a poetics of indeterminacy. What is it that drives his equivocation in an historical moment that has often been identified with prophetic certainties, and perhaps as well with an increasing confidence in the experimental procedures of the Royal Society? And why does Dryden fall back to uncertainty even after proclaiming his intention to journalistically "describe the motives, the beginning, progress, and successes of a most just and necessary war," and to do so in a poem rife with technical and documentary language?2 We might ask, following Dryden's assertion that Annus Mirabilis is an historical project, whether the young-ish John Dryden believed that things historical and scientific could be explained and represented accurately; whether his persistent traffic [End Page 29] with scientific metaphors belies a decidedly un-empiricist mind; or if the poet may have been not so much invested in the work of the Royal Society as eager to use its language—perhaps opportunistically. What uncertainties, we might ask, is Dryden navigating in his verse, in his career, indeed in his life?
Not all of Dryden's contemporaries were interested in proposing or negotiating uncertainties. One quite certain idiom, running contrary to the whole project of natural philosophy, was apocalyptic prophecy, whose proponents often seemed fabulously confident in their declarations and prophesyings. Pamphlets and broadsheets decrying the court had their heyday when licensing collapsed in the tumult of the civil war and lasted into the revolutionary 1650s, a time when booksellers at St. Paul's stocked their stalls with cheap prophetic commodities. The anti-royalist sermons and pamphlets of Dryden's adolescence were written in no uncertain terms: Quakers, Diggers, and Fifth Monarchists like Eleanor Davies and Mary Cary fashioned portents and signs with self-assured ease.3 In a 1651 pamphlet, for instance, broadly predicting the doom of England if she would not right her ways, Cary issues interpretations of visions wholly in the indicative mood. "I say," she writes, that a prophecy of Daniel "hath been in that part of it fulfilled, is very cleare, and acknowledged by all that acknowledge any thing" (4). Throughout the piece, she declares in "shoulds" and "wills" that her exegeses of historical events (past and to come) align with biblical prophecies; she appeals broadly to anyone with sense: who "acknowledge[s] any thing."
In addressing himself to such prophetic certainty, Dryden conjures up visions of prosperity and visions of discovery and scientism—at once objective and skeptical throughout. We have been well taught that Annus Mirabilis is a poem about commerce, one that promises almost literally that spices will wash up on English shores, and we are familiar with the critical correlation drawn between trade and the poem's scientific metaphors as part of a story of national advancement.4 Progress seems inherent in the poem's scientific references and metaphors, or in moments when the "bold English" teach navigational techniques to lesser "admiring Nations...