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After John Donne and John Milton, John Dryden was the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century. After William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he was the greatest playwright. And he has no peer as a writer of prose, especially literary criticism, and as a translator. Other figures, such as George Herbert or Andrew Marvell or William Wycherley or William Congreve, may figure more prominently in anthologies and literary histories, but Dryden's sustained output in both poetry and drama ranks him higher. After Shakespeare, he wrote the greatest heroic play of the century, The Conquest of Granada (1670, 1671), and the greatest tragicomedy, Marriage A-la-Mode (1671). He wrote the greatest tragedy of the Restoration, All for Love (1677), the greatest comitragedy, Don Sebastian (1689), and one of the greatest comedies, Amphitryon (1690). As a writer of prose he developed a lucid professional style, relying essentially on patterns and rhythms of everyday speech. As a critic he developed a combination of methods—historical, analytical, evaluative, dialogic—that proved enabling to neoclassical theory. As a translator he developed an easy manner of what he called paraphrase that produced brilliant versions of Homer, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Persius, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and above all Virgil. His translation of The Aeneid remains the best ever produced in English. As a poet he perfected the heroic couplet, sprinkling it with judicious enjambments, triplets, and metric variations and bequeathing it to Alexander Pope to work upon it his own magic.
Dryden the poet is best known today as a satirist, although he wrote only two great original satires, Mac Flecknoe (1682) and The Medall (1682). His most famous poem, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), while it contains several brilliant satiric portraits, unlike satire comes to a final resolution, albeit tragic for both David and his son. Dryden's other great poems— Annus Mirabilis (1667), Religio Laici (1682), The Hind and the Panther (1687), Anne Killigrew (1686), Alexander's Feast (1697), and "To My Honour'd Kinsman" (1700)—are not satires either. And he contributed a wonderful body of occasional poems: panegyrics, odes, elegies, prologues, and epilogues.
Dryden was born 9 August 1631 into an extended family of rising Puritan gentry in Northamptonshire. But as a teenager he was sent to the King's School at Westminster to be trained as a King's Scholar by the brilliant Royalist headmaster Richard Busby. Dryden's family sided with the Commonwealth; however, in his first published poem, the elegy "Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings"—included in a commendatory volume (1649) of verses upon this young aristocrat's untimely death from smallpox—Dryden revealed Royalist sympathies in oblique references to rebellion and regicide. In a bold opening for a young (Puritan) poet—and such bold openings were to become characteristic—Dryden hurls a series of theodicean questions about why the good die young. In the middle of the poem he proffers the only answer the poem yields: "The Nations sin." He seems indirectly to identify this sin when subsequently describing the pustules of Hastings's smallpox: "Who, Rebel-like, with their own Lord at strife, / Thus made an Insurrection 'gainst his Life." What would perhaps have been worse to Dryden's family is his patent refusal to add religious consolation at the end of the elegy. Instead, he suffocates his continuing theodicean challenge—could Heaven choose "no milder way" than the smallpox to recall Hastings?—by the tears of grief instead of the prayers of faith and outrageously suggests that Hastings's disappointed fiancée mate with his soul and engender ideal representations of him. The brash youngster may have been suggesting that she patronize such poets as himself and such ideal "Irradiations" as the current poem.
Aside from two other minor juvenilia (one in a private letter)—and perhaps because of family pressure—Dryden did not go public again until he had left Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, and had been in the employ of Oliver Cromwell's government, probably in the Office of Latin Secretary along with Milton and Marvell. This is perhaps the first evidence of Dryden's trimming his sails to the political winds, as centuries of critics have accused him. His cousin, the prominent Puritan Sir Gilbert Pickering, lord chamberlain to Cromwell, probably procured employment for Dryden, and when the Protector died, Dryden, perhaps out of a sense of duty either internally or externally imposed, published his "Heroique Stanzas, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory ..." of Cromwell in a commendatory volume (1659). People—especially young people—change their opinions all the time, so we should feel no compulsion to make Dryden consistent. But this poem is filled with so many perplexing ambiguities, as especially Steven N. Zwicker has noted, that no coherent republican ideology emerges from it. Dryden skates on perilous ice by outrageously employing in the opening stanzas the metaphor of "treason" to refer to his "best notes": he seems to mean that however good his praise, it cannot properly measure Cromwell's "fame," yet "duty" and "interest" both dictate that he offer such praise as he "can."
Not only does he stumble awkwardly through these early stanzas, Dryden goes on to talk of Cromwell's "Grandeur" as if it seemed greater than it really was; to call attention to Cromwell's ambivalence toward being crowned (especially the ambiguity of Cromwell's "Vertue" not being "poyson'd" with "too early thoughts of being King"—emphasis added); to a potentially embarrassing implicit reminder of Charles I as one of those "rash Monarch's who their youth betray / By Acts their Age too late would wish undone"—surely no cause for beheading. Even when his praise for Cromwell seems unambiguous as he relates Cromwell's series of victories, Dryden raises the general problem of infidelity when he accuses "Treacherous Scotland" of being "to no int'rest true." In the light of these and other inappropriate tropes, readers might well have sensed that Dryden's seeming praise of Cromwell's putting an end to the bloodshed "by breathing of the vein" was a grotesque reference to the regicide. But if so, perhaps what Dryden has done is subtly to undercut his apparent praise and therefore to dissociate himself from the mourners. Perhaps his final references to Tarpeia, the traitorous virgin, and to the beached Leviathan leave us with the image of a prodigious monster, who performed great feats, some of them for the good of the empire, but who nonetheless was something of a scourge of God. (Dryden would implicitly portray Cromwell as such in Annus Mirabilis ). That might make sense of Dryden's strange last stanza:
His Ashes in a peacefull Urne shall rest,
His Name a great example stands to show
How strangely high endeavours may be blest,
Where Pietyand valourjoyntly goe.
The praise sounds unexceptionable, were it not for the troubling adverb "strangely." Maybe at this point we are to reflect back over the poem and wonder at the strangeness of a valor that commits treason and regicide in the name of piety. Are we to remember another "great example" in Western story, another conqueror who pretended to refuse the crown he lusted after, only to be taken off on the verge of it in strangely poetical justice?
If in "Heroique Stanzas" Dryden's ambivalence is expressed in the halting use of the quatrain made fashionable in Sir William Davenant's Gondibert (1651), the assuredness of his heroic couplets in Astraea Redux (1660), his poem celebrating Charles Stuart's restoration, may perhaps indicate Dryden's comfort with a feudal monarchist rather than a bourgeois republican ideological myth. Moreover, the first twenty-eight lines of Astraea Redux can be read as seven quatrains made up of couplets rather than alternating rhymes—as if to show Dryden could write sophisticated quatrains his own way:
We sigh'd to hear the fair IberianBride
Must grow a Lilie to the Lilies side,
While Our cross Stars deny'd us Charleshis Bed
Whom Our first Flames and Virgin Love did wed.
For his long absence Church and State did groan;
Madness the Pulpit, Faction seiz'd the Throne:
Experienc'd Age in deep despair was lost
To see the Rebel thrive, the Loyal crost.
The special effects here are manifold: the delightful internal rhyme ("sigh'd ... Bride"); the image of lily yielding to lily (a play on the Spanish infanta's whiteness and purity being allied to the French fleur-de-lis as metonymy for Louis XIV) subtly underwritten by the collapse of the intervening iamb; the spondees of the last two lines of the first quatrain (the second reinforced by alliteration) underscoring the portrayal of England and Charles as star-crossed lovers; the substitution of initial trochee for iamb to emphasize the irrationality of the "Madness" that has taken over the Puritan "Pulpit"; the assonance that unites and thus equates both "Madness" in the "Church" and "Faction" in the "State"; the enjambment of the last couplet coming to rest in the final caesura, underlining by the rush toward the "Rebel" and the isolation of the "Loyal" the theodicean problem of evil's thriving while the good are star-"crost." Moreover, these images of the monarch as lover and his land as either loyal or disloyal spouse are integral to Dryden's ideological myth throughout the rest of his career. Central to this myth is the ultimate theodicean problem/solution: if power is the essence of government, then God himself can be stormed and "violated"; that is, there is no metaphysical guarantee to enforce the bonds of fidelity between leaders and people. For Dryden, normally absent Astraea (Justice) does return. In this poem "Providence" rules not by sheer power but by law and thus ensures that Charles's "right" is ultimately upheld, that he cannot be "Gods Anointed" in vain.
In many ways Astraea Redux anticipates foundational tropes in Dryden's later, greater political poems: the iron law of oligarchy that belies rebellion's rhetoric; the analogy between King Charles and King David; the analogy between the Puritans' Solemn League and Covenant in Charles's England and the Catholics' Holy League in Henri IV's France; the hypocrisy of glozing the "sin" of rebellion with the name of "Religion"; the counseling of mercy over justice; and, finally, exhortation of the king to concentrate on England's navy and its trade. What little positive Dryden saw in Cromwell—his contribution to British imperialism—can now be extended exponentially:
Our Nation with united Int'rest blest
Not now content to poize, shall sway the rest.
Abroad your Empire shall no Limits know,
But like the Sea in boundless Circles flow.
Dryden identifies civilization itself, as opposed to a primitive "lawless salvage Libertie," with the "Arts" of "Empire" from Rome to contemporary England, an empire that is at once patriarchal, hierarchal, monarchal, and commercial."
In between the poems celebrating Cromwell and Charles, Dryden appears to have moved toward his career as a professional writer, his deceased father not having left him a sufficient income to survive where Dryden wanted to live--in the hub of political and cultural activity, London. In the late 1650s he seems to have lived with and written prefaces for the bookseller Henry Herringman, and by the early 1660s he had moved into lodgings with Sir Robert Howard, a younger son of Thomas Howard, first Earl of Berkshire, with impeccable Royalist credentials and a budding literary career. In a system of symbiosis between patrons and poets, Dryden had found himself a patron, and Howard had found himself an editor and collaborator. Dryden helped prepare Howard's first volume of poems for the press in 1660, for which he wrote the first of many panegyrics to prominent individuals, "To My Honored Friend, Sir Robert Howard," and in 1664 they collaborated on The Indian-Queen, a drama that contributed significantly to the Restoration fashion of rhymed heroic play (influenced, among other things, by those the exiled court witnessed in France) and that introduced what was to be the staple of Dryden's later contributions, the noble savage, whose powerful energy is eventually socialized."
Dryden's relationship with Howard is important in other ways: Dryden married his sister Lady Elizabeth Howard in 1663. Why a member of so prestigious a family would have stooped to a member of the lesser gentry remains a subject for speculation. But the match was certainly advantageous for Dryden, who was now a member of the powerful Howard family, several members of which aside from Sir Robert were playwrights. Along with his brothers-in-law Dryden tried his hand at his own plays. His first, a comedy entitled The Wild Gallant (1663), despite being a failure, won the support of another influential aristocrat, Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castelmaine, to whom Dryden addressed another verse epistle. Indeed, with such encouragement, abetted by his collaboration with Sir Robert (who had become a shareholder in the new Theatre Royal in Bridges Street), Dryden became a stable writer for the King's Company under Sir Thomas Killigrew and began to succeed on his own with his first tragicomedy, The Rival Ladies (late 1663?), and with a sequel to The Indian-Queen, The Indian Emperour (early 1665)."
Dryden wrote three other panegyrics during the early 1660s: To His Sacred Majesty, A Panegyrick On His Coronation (1661), To My Lord Chancellor (1662), and "To My Honour'd Friend, Dr Charleton" (1663). In them he perfected the witty compliment begun with the poem to Sir Robert. But he also perfected the device of giving advice under cover of compliment, for example reminding the rakish Charles in the Coronation poem that political stability depends on his choosing a bride with all deliberate speed in order to ensure the succession. And the Charleton poem reflects Dryden's interest in the new science, an interest rewarded by invitation in the early 1660s to become a member of the Royal Academy of Science, although he appears not to have participated and was subsequently dropped."
In 1665 the plague was so bad in London that Dryden had to rusticate himself and his wife at her family estate in Charlton, Wiltshire. There he wrote three excellent works: Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay (1667), the first great sustained work in English dramatic theory; Secret-Love (1667), the tragicomedy that perfected the gay couple motif, complete with proviso scene; and Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666 (1667). This "Historical Poem" celebrating English victories at sea during the Second Dutch War and Charles II's conduct during the Great Fire of London won Dryden the poet laureateship in 1668."
Because it was published in 1667, Dryden's heroic poem invites comparison with Milton's great epic Paradise Lost , first published in its ten-book format that same year. Ironically, Milton's epic--written by this radical Puritan secretary to Cromwell--despite its bourgeois elements of antimonarchism, emphasis on the individual and the domestic, and celebration of the paradise within of the private religious sphere, looks back through its aristocratic mode to classical and medieval times. Dryden's poem, despite its aristocratic elements of monarchism and heroic valor, its classical allusions and epic similes, looks forward through its bourgeois celebration of mercantile expansion, maritime dominance, and homely imagery of laboring citizens to the rule of a capitalist Britannia under a constitutional monarch."
Michael McKeon has brilliantly demonstrated that the poem is essentially political propaganda designed to stifle domestic dissent by rallying the nation around the common causes of war abroad and disaster at home. Dryden mythologizes Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and the triumphant admirals and generals as classical and Christian heroes and even gods. The care of the king is portrayed as being analogous to divine providence. The Great Fire of London (1666) is portrayed as a scourge for no particular sins (such as Charles's promiscuity, as his enemies would have it) but for the general sins of the nation and indeed humankind. And the fire's final extinction, having burned temples but not palaces, is portrayed as the result of Jove's melting with ruth upon hearing Charles's humble, pious prayer. This mythologizing seems deployed especially to defuse opposition to Charles and thereby to avert the potential unraveling of the Restoration compromise. Thus Charles is portrayed as the bride of his loyal country, or, even more explicitly, of the loyal City of London, and Dryden--from his Dedication to the City through his portrayal of the restored ship Loyal London to the restoration of the city itself as a "Maiden Queen" of commerce--exhorts almost desperately a fidelity on the part of the emergent bourgeoisie."
Underneath the mythologizing, Dryden is attempting to placate the growing power of the city as the center of trade and finance by getting it to view the real challenge for England as the battle over who controls world trade. Only one nation, one navy can and should control it ("What peace can be where both to one pretend?"). Therefore, the logic of the poem goes, Britain should defeat Holland, eclipse the trade of the rest of Europe, and make the world's waters a "British Ocean." Thus British "Commerce" will make "one City of the Universe." But this universal city will not mark the end of competition in some sort of utopian distribution of the cornucopia. Dryden's model is one of acquisitive crypto-capitalism: "some may gain, and all may be suppli'd." Then as now such a trickle-down theory results in the "some" gaining a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth at the expense and exploitation of the many. Behind Dryden's cornucopia lies an imperialist theory of dominance."
Nevertheless, at his very best Dryden the mythologizer of late feudalism and incipient capitalism descends occasionally from his highly allusive and allegorical mode to portray real people in material situations. Witness the momentary descent in these stanzas:
Night came, but without darkness or repose,
A dismal picture of the gen'ral doom:
Where Souls distracted when the Trumpet blows,
And half unready with their bodies come.
Those who have homes, when home they do repair
To a last lodging call their wand'ring friends.
Their short uneasie sleeps are broke with care,
To look how near their own destruction tends.
Those who have none sit round where once it was,
And with full eyes each wonted room require:
Haunting the yet warm ashes of the place,
As murder'd men walk where they did expire.
The opening allegorical yet human image is worthy of Donne. For anyone who has lived through fire, hurricane, tornado, or (in our century) saturation or nuclear bombing, the stanzas painting the near or already homeless are quite poignant. And Dryden's maturity as a poet is evidenced here by his masterful handling of not only image but sound: the reversed iambs and spondees, the frequent alliteration and occasional assonance ("Souls ... blows"), and especially the freeze-frame quality of successive emphasized syllables imitating the eyes' movement from room to room around the absent house."
Dryden also insightfully imagines the contrasting dreams of the English and Dutch sailors during an evening's respite from the battle. But he dares most by his inclusion, in these new heroic stanzas, of indecorously technical and vulgar terms for material work by the laboring force of shipbuilders called upon to repair the British fleet, from picking "bullets" out of planks, to caulking seams with "Okum" and "boiling Pitch," to binding "gall'd ropes" with "dawby Marling," to re-covering masts "with strong Tarpawling coats." Dryden is no democrat; he has no love here as elsewhere in his poetry for "th'ignoble crowd," and he hints at the anarchy unleashed by republican rebels. However, in his image of these industrious laborers demonstrating their loyalty and contributing to the cause, he raises them to the stature of the heroic. However he mythologizes the duke of York and Prince Rupert and George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, and King Charles himself, the reader experiences the following realistic snapshots within the same poem: Albemarle, his breeches ignominiously blown off, as Dryden's audience would know, "All bare, like some old Oak which tempests beat, / He stands, and sees below his scatter'd leaves"; and while the King harmlessly amuses himself playing with the "new-cast Canons," among the shipworkers "To try new shrouds one mounts into the wind, / And one, below, their ease or stifness notes." By diminishing heroes and exalting workers Dryden has at least leveled them into a common humanity, united in a bourgeois image of cooperation between government, venture capital, and guild labor in order to subdue the earth."
Dryden's return to London in the winter of 1666-1667 was triumphant. Several of his plays were staged, old ( The Wild Gallant and The Indian Emperour) and new (not just Secret Love but Sir Martin Mar-All and an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, plays he collaborated on with William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, and Sir William Davenant, respectively, and which were performed by the rival Duke's Company); the Essay was published; the King's Company signed Dryden to a contract in which he became a shareholder and agreed to give them three new plays per year; and he received the laureateship--all before the end of 1668. By the end of 1671 he had produced four more plays, including two masterpieces, The Conquest of Granada, a rhymed heroic play in ten acts, and Marriage A-la-Mode, a split-plot tragicomedy. Dryden had established himself as the greatest dramatist of his time. And if one can separate out his development as a poet per se--a difficult task when his plays have so much verse, so many songs, and prologues and epilogues in couplets--one would have to conclude that, despite the absence during these years of isolated poems, Dryden achieved a virtuosity of verse and wit unequaled during the Restoration. Palmyra's description of her falling in love with Leonidas in Marriage A-la-Mode is lovelily lyrical. The prologue to An Evening's Love (1668) concerning poets as worn-out gallants and the songs concerning wet dreams and worn-out marriage vows from The Conquest of Granada and Marriage A-la-Mode respectively are wickedly witty and wonderfully versified. But Dryden's masterpiece is probably his puckish epilogue to Tyrannic Love (1669), spoken by Nell Gwyn, outrageously rakish actress and mistress to Charles II (among others). Having played Valeria, daughter of the Roman emperor Maximin who martyrs Saint Catharine, and having herself been a martyr to love, Nell is about to be carried off at the end of the play, when she leaps up--most certainly to the audience's delight in such comic relief--and speaks the epilogue in couplets that rival Alexander Pope's for their colloquial and dramatically conversational style:
To the Bearer. Hold, are you mad? you damn'd confounded Dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
To the Audience. I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye,
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly....
O Poet, damn'd dull Poet, who could prove
So sensless! to make Nelly die for Love;
Nay, what's yet worse, to kill me in the prime
Of Easter-Term, in Tart and Cheese-cake time!
I'le fit the Fopp; for I'le not one word say
T'excuse his godly out-of-fashion Play:
A Play which if you dare but twice sit out,
You'l all be slander'd, and be thought devout.
But farewel, Gentlemen, make haste to me,
I'm sure e're long to have your company.
As for my Epitaph when I am gone,
I'le trust no Poet, but will write my own.
Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv'd a Slater'n,
Yet dy'd a Princess, acting in S. Cathar'n.
The laughter must have brought down the house. Yet twentieth-century critics do not seem to understand that such wit does not undercut (their favorite metaphor) the seriousness of such plays as Tyrannic Love, The Conquest of Granada, and Marriage A-la-Mode. Urbanity does not mean a supercilious, ironic rejection of all values but rather a witty reflexivity and studied insouciance about them."
By 1672, then, Dryden was at the height of his powers and reputation. He had added to the title poet laureate that of historiographer royal. He hobnobbed with the powerful and, despite his increasing family (by then, three sons), appears to have aped the manners of his betters by fashionably taking a mistress, the actress Ann Reeves. But the first hints of the tarnishing of his triumph had also appeared: his feud with his brother-in-law Sir Robert over the aesthetic merit of rhyme in drama escalated through Dryden's Essay to Howard's preface to The Great Favourite; or, The Duke of Lerma (1668) to Dryden's extremely intemperate "Defence" of the Essay, prefixed to the second edition of The Indian Emperour in the same year. Because this preface was removed from most copies of this edition, one can speculate that Dryden realized his error in judgment, but his relationship with his brother-in-law may have been permanently damaged. A few years later, perhaps out of pique at Dryden's pride in his success, George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, attacked Dryden as a poetaster in The Rehearsal (1671). The era of Dryden's public brawls with his critics had begun."
Things got worse when fire destroyed Dryden's company's theater at the inopportune time of the rival company's moving into an extravagant new theater in Dorset Garden. Furthermore, the Duke's Company was beginning to have the best actors as Thomas Betterton gathered great young talent around him, and it was beginning to attract new and successful playwrights: Thomas Shadwell, Edward Ravenscroft, and Elkanah Settle. Dryden's own new comedy, The Assignation (1672), failed, and even his jingoistic propaganda attack against the Dutch during the outbreak of the Third Dutch War, Amboyna (1673), did not salvage the fortunes of the King's Company. When their new theater in Drury Lane opened in 1674, Dryden, in an attempt to rival the extravaganzas of the Duke's Company, tried to turn his great admiration for Milton's Paradise Lost to account by creating an operatic version, The State of Innocence. He appears even to have gone so far as to visit the aged and blind poet, with whom he had once worked, in order to ask his permission. From all his references to Milton's great poems throughout his works, beginning perhaps as early as 1669, one can infer in what respect Dryden held Milton, but unfortunately nothing is known of this meeting. Even more unfortunately, for Dryden and the King's Company at least, the company could not afford to produce the opera, and it was never performed. At this nadir of his career, Dryden sought an appointment at Oxford where he could retire from the stage and write his own epic poem. Neither desideratum was ever to be realized."
Whether caused by Milton's great aesthetic achievements and his attack on rhymed plays, or by Settle's embarrassingly bathetic popular successes in Dryden's erstwhile favorite genre of rhymed heroic play, or just by Dryden's own study (perhaps of plays by the great French dramatist Jean Racine), Dryden began his comeback by moving toward a more neoclassical form of drama. In Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco (1674), he joined in an attack on Settle's extravagance. In 1675, although he gave the King's Company another excellent rhymed heroic play, Aureng-Zebe, in the prologue he bade farewell to his "long-lov'd Mistris, Rhyme" (and probably his other mistress, Ann Reeves, as well) as he began to imitate Racine. His next three serious plays were blank-verse, neoclassical tragedies, and one--All for Love (1677)--was the greatest tragedy of the Restoration; indeed, it remains the greatest tragedy in English after Shakespeare, and it is still performed in England. His theory of the late 1670s ("Heads of an Answer to Rymer," "The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy"), influenced by Thomas Rymer and the French critics, as well as by Racine, became more neoclassical. And he turned his attention to the translation of classics. In his dramatic compositions he was also influenced by the initial successes of two new playwrights, Thomas Otway and Nathaniel Lee. Dryden entered into a temporary rivalry with Otway, who wrote for the Duke's Company. Dryden entered into a friendship with Lee, who wrote for the King's Company, that produced mutual praise (commendatory poems addressed to each other prefixed to Dryden's The State of Innocence and Fall of Man and Lee's The Rival Queens , both published in 1677) and mutual work (by 1678 they had both abandoned the King's Company and moved to the Duke's Company, for whom they wrote Oedipus in 1678 and The Duke of Guise in 1682). Dryden's severing of ties with the King's Company had begun as early as 1677, when he insisted on the third night's profits from All for Love. It continued with the Duke's Company's production of The Kind Keeper in 1678 (apparently because the King's Company did not want it)."
In the meantime, however, before Dryden made the transition from King's to Duke's, from romance to neoclassical tragedy, from depression to renewed vigor as dramatist, he had some scores to settle. When his fortunes were sinking, he had appealed to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, to patronize him, but, after some initial flirtation, Rochester proved inconstant, supported Dryden's rival Shadwell instead, and lampooned Dryden in "An Allusion to Horace." Dryden had been feuding with Shadwell over the theory of comedy for years in various prefaces and dedications, but the two had remained relatively conciliatory and had collaborated with John Crowne in the attack on Settle. In early 1676, however, the same year Rochester's satire was circulating in manuscript, Shadwell broke the facade of civility and degenerated into lampoon. He pilloried Dryden throughout his comedy The Virtuoso, especially in the dedication to the published text."
Dryden responded with a vengeance probably doubled by displaced anger at Rochester and compounded by his own poor fortunes, both literal and figurative, in the first half of the decade. Beginning most likely in the summer of 1676, Dryden wrote one of the two greatest satires in English against rival poets, Mac Flecknoe (the other is Pope's Dunciad, 1728--1743). He certainly had finished it by 1678, though it circulated in manuscript until unauthorized publication in 1682. The controlling fiction of the poem is succession, a daring motif in a country where the restored monarch had produced no legitimate male heir. Witness the brashness of the opening lines:
All humane things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, Monarchs must obey[.]
The phenomenology of the first reading dictates that the reader's expectations for a heavy, topical political poem have been aroused. The next couplet provides a crashing diminuendo:
This Fleckno found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to Empire, and had govern'd long.
The poem is a mock panegyric, a paradoxical encomium, complete with parodic procession and coronation. Dryden the poet laureate destroys his rival by crowning him anti--poet laureate, king of "the Realms of Non-sense": "from Ireland let him reign / To farr Barbadoes on the Western main"--that is, he reigns over the unpopulated Atlantic Ocean! By making Richard Flecknoe his poetic forebear, Dryden denies Shadwell the lineage he has claimed, to be a new Son of Ben (Jonson) because of his dedication to a comedy of humors. Instead, Flecknoe was a poetaster who paid to have his plays published, who sometimes changed a title and added a little window dressing to get one produced (Erminia to Emilia ), whose plays, whether produced or not were uniformly bad. Yet Flecknoe may also have earned Dryden's professional envy by having the courage to appeal to Cromwell to reopen the stage in the dedication to Love's Dominion (1654) and by trying his own hand at a history of the English stage in the preface to that play's revision as Love's Kingdom (1664). To make Shadwell Flecknoe's heir was to put down another upstart, especially by portraying him as impotent, capable of producing urine and feces and freaks but no legitimate, manly poetic progeny."
Throughout the poem Dryden combines references to dirt with references to myth. The latter does not "transcend" the former (another favorite metaphor of critics) but coexists with it, cocreates the joke, which is intended to amuse Dryden's friends, antagonize his enemies, and hurt Shadwell himself--as if Dryden were saying, "Don't touch me!" Dryden's technique perhaps can be best illustrated by the following lines:
The hoary Prince in Majesty appear'd,
High on a Throne of his own Labours rear'd.
The second line echoes Satan's ascent to his parodic throne in the opening of book 2 of Milton's Paradise Lost , and its metaphor of "Labours" alludes to the leitmotiv of labor in Virgil's Aeneid, upon which alone can a lasting empire be built. But "Labours" of course refers primarily to a pile of Flecknoe's worthless books. Yet by extension of the repeated references to "Sh____" in the poem--ostensibly Shadwell but implicitly shit every time, as in "loads of Sh___ almost chokt the way"--"Labours" refers metaphorically to piles of material more than just books. Dryden may be portraying Shadwell as an Antichrist of Wit (in anticipation of Pope), but he is also and at the same time debasing him through folk humor as being full of shit. Neither level of meaning supersedes the other."
Another instance of the technique occurs at the end. Playing off the controlling fiction of succession, Dryden's elaborate use of classical and Christian allusions throughout allows him to compare Shadwell to Ascanius, Iulus, Christ himself, or, in the closing lines, Elisha to Flecknoe's Elijah. Flecknoe's last lines of encomium are lost as he disappears through a trapdoor mischievously engineered by a couple of Shadwell's comic characters:
Sinking he left his Drugget robe behind,
Born upwards by a subterranean wind.
The Mantle fell to the young Prophet's part,
With double portion of his Father's Art.
The f, P, p pattern of the penultimate line begs to be repeated in a p, F, [f] pattern in the last, so that the "subterranean wind" (perhaps an allusion to Milton's wind off the backside of the world that blows hypocrites awry in book 3 of Paradise Lost) gets positively identified in the reader's mind sotto voce: this mock-Elisha inherits his mantle upward not downward from his Father's fart. Curiously, the Dryden who seems so preoccupied in his prologues and epilogues with establishing a bourgeois community of taste that contemns "low" artistic techniques and types such as slapstick and farce reveals himself to be the master of Rabelaisian humor. In the cruelest cut of all, he has Flecknoe say to Sh____, "With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write, / Thy inoffensive Satyrs never bite." Dryden's satire has bitten so well that he has effectively decapitated Shadwell for three centuries, precisely because he has so masterfully combined high and low. Playing a mock--John the Baptist to Shadwell's mock-Messiah, Flecknoe prepares the way for a mock--Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem-London, where not palm leaves
But scatter'd Limbs of mangled Poets lay:
From dusty shops neglected Authors come,
Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum.
This mixing of sacred and scatological is positively medieval in its folk humor. Dryden can pretend that Shadwell has debased Jonson into selling "Bargains, Whip-stitch, kiss my Arse," but this last phrase is exactly what Dryden has commanded Sh____ to do."
After the success of All for Love and the growing chances for his security with the Duke's Company, Dryden must have felt emboldened enough to settle his other score by attacking Rochester himself in his preface to the published version of the new play in early 1678. While suggesting that Rochester specifically had bitten off more than he could chew in imitating Horace, that he ought to leave writing to professionals, that his own literary heritage descends from the poetaster translator of the Psalms, Thomas Sternhold, Dryden indicts not just Rochester but his "witty" comrades, such as Buckingham, Rymer, and Sir Charles Sedley, but also his zanies, such as Shadwell and Otway. Squire Dryden asserts his talents as a literary professional to be superior to those of the court wits, who properly ought to confine their literary dabbling to being good patrons. Perhaps Dryden was feeling protected by his new patron, the dedicatee of All for Love, Lord Treasurer Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby. Indeed, shortly after Danby's fall from power in 1679, Dryden was attacked by thugs in Rose Alley and beaten soundly. Did Rochester and his friends finally take their revenge? Or by that time had Dryden offended someone else (suggestions have included the King's mistress, Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and the Whig Opposition)? The point of the beating is that Dryden was considered uppity enough for some group to want to teach him a lesson. But if they thought they would intimidate him, they were mistaken."
In 1678 occurred the infamous Popish Plot. Several witnesses, most notorious among them Titus Oates, offered perjured testimony to the effect that the Jesuits were planning the overthrow of the government and a return of England to the yoke of Catholicism--a threat that Englishmen, in the light of characters in their history since the time of Henry VIII, from Bloody Mary to Guy Fawkes, found credible. (Indeed, they were right to be suspicious, for the Stuarts had made an unholy alliance with France eventually to deliver their nation back into the Catholic fold.) Several Catholic heads rolled; Catholic peers were removed from the House of Lords; the duke of York and his new Catholic duchess, Maria Beatrice, had to go into exile; and a new Parliament was elected, one that was ready to pass legislation to exclude James from the throne because of his religion: thus the name given to this political turmoil, the Exclusion Crisis. Some of the principals tried to get Charles to declare his bastard son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, his legitimate heir. Several playwrights jumped on the anti-Catholic bandwagon as if to say, "we might disagree with the exclusionists, but we are not therefore in favor of a foreign-based Catholic takeover, ultimately by Rome through France." Dryden himself grabbed onto the wagon in his next play, The Spanish Fryar (1680), in which he satirizes a priest; nevertheless, in the high plot he strenuously upholds the principle of hereditary, patrilineal monarchal succession. He apparently (his authorship is disputed) even more stridently defended Charles's dissolution of Parliament in a pamphlet entitled His Majesties Declaration Defended (1681). And finally he wrote the greatest political poem in the English language, Absalom and Achitophel (1681)."
Dryden's controlling fiction in this poem is the familiar trope of superimposing scriptural story over current events. He had already availed himself of the David story in Astraea Redux. The consequences for propaganda are obvious. Dryden endows his vision of events with sacred authority: the social and the sacred Logos are the same. Thus a theoretical dispute over the mode of political succession gets mythologized and mystified. Parliament's struggle to control succession becomes a blasphemous, ultimately Satanic revolt against "heavens Anointing Oyle." Absalom's sacrilegious revolt against David gets reenacted in contemporary history. The evil counselor Achitophel becomes Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, one of the leaders of the Parliamentary party, who was caricatured repeatedly in ways reminiscent of Shakespeare's treatment of Richard III. Dryden adds the further fillip of overlaying Miltonian pattern: Achitophel/Shaftesbury becomes Satan tempting an anti-Messiah to be the people's "Saviour."
One of the problems with the biblical parallel is that its arc is tragic. It is as if Dryden wrote Monmouth into a text from which he could not escape. David threatens at the end, "If my Young Samson will pretend a Call / To shake the Column, let him share the Fall." David's urge, on the other hand, is to be lenient. But Monmouth never did heed the poet's advice; he led a revolt upon his father's death in 1685 and was executed. Moreover, as with the biblical David, Dryden's David/Charles is trammeled up in the consequences of his adultery. Dryden opens again brilliantly:
In pious times, e'er Priest-craft did begin,
Before Polygamy was made a sin;
When man, on many, multiply'd his kind,
E'r one to one was, cursedly, confind:
When Nature prompted, and no law deny'd
Promiscuous use of Concubine and Bride;
Then, Israel's Monarch, after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did, variously, impart
To Wives and Slaves: And, wide as his Command,
Scatter'd his Maker's Image through the Land.
However wittily Dryden opens the poem, the ultimate point of its portrayal of David's promiscuity is that "No True Succession" can "attend" the "seed" of David's concubines. Another of Dryden's bold openings has cut to the heart of the matter. When Absalom and David both later complain that Absalom was born too high but not high enough, they may blame "Fate" or "God," but the fault is clearly David's own, as it was in 2 Samuel when God punished David with Absalom's rebellion for David's adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, and as Dryden's pointed reference to Bathsheba would remind his audience."
However, the main point of Dryden's poem is neither to recuperate Monmouth nor admonish Charles. It is to discredit thoroughly Charles's enemies and their putative political theory, praise his steadfast friends, and vindicate Charles himself. The first objective Dryden accomplishes with perhaps the most devastating rogues' gallery of satiric portraits ever assembled. The portraits are not devastating solely because of vitriolic lampooning, though there is plenty of that. They are devastating because they at first appear evenhanded, a studied moderation designed to appeal to the common sense of Dryden's contemporary audience. After praising Achitophel/Shaftesbury for being an excellent judge, Dryden breaks out in calculated lamentation:
Oh, had he been content to serve the Crown,
With vertues only proper to the Gown; ...
David for him his tunefull Harp had strung,
And Heaven had wanted one Immortal song.
That is, David would not have had to write Psalm 109 attacking Achitophel. "But," Dryden continues with studied sadness:
wilde Ambition loves to slide, not stand;
And Fortunes Ice prefers to Vertues Land:
Achitophel, grown weary to possess
A lawfull Fame, and lazy Happiness;
Disdain'd the Golden fruit to gather free,
And lent the Croud his Arm to shake the Tree.
Now, manifest of Crimes, contriv'd long since,
He stood at bold Defiance with his Prince:
Held up the Buckler of the Peoples Cause,
Against the Crown; and sculk'd behind the Laws.
What could be more temperate, more measured than this cool judgment? After all, Shaftesbury's prince had been lenient with him, forgiven him for supporting Cromwell. Nevertheless, "Restless, unfixt in Principles and Place," Shaftesbury was not content to await the descending benefits of a merciful king but, because of ambition, preferred "Fortunes Ice." Thus Dryden avails himself not only of the posture of fair judgment but also the leitmotiv of inconstancy versus steadfastness. By his very nature or character, Shaftesbury cannot remain fixed; driven by desire, he "loves to slide, not stand." The implication, of course, is that "Fortunes Ice" is perilously thin, that Shaftesbury's use of Parliament and the law is a flimsy ruse."
Dryden's portrait of Absalom also appears balanced. He is like one of Dryden's noble savages. But the difference is that he does not turn out to be the legitimate heir, and he knows it, acknowledging David's "Right" to rule and that of his "Lawfull Issue," if he should have any, or of his "Collateral Line," that is, his brother. When through ambition fostered by his noble nature Monmouth succumbs to Achitophel's Satanic temptation, Dryden again assumes the strategy of lamentation:
Unblam'd of Life (Ambition set aside,)
Not stain'd with Cruelty, nor puft with Pride;
How happy had he been, if Destiny
Had higher plac'd his Birth, or not so high!
His Kingly Vertues might have claim'd a Throne,
And blest all other Countries but his own:
But charming Greatness, since so few refuse;
'Tis Juster to Lament him, than Accuse.
The master stroke here is Dryden's sympathy toward Monmouth's ambiguous position in the hierarchy resulting from the circumstances of his birth (not his but Charles's fault) coupled with his insistence (as well as Charles's own) that nevertheless he remains illegitimate. Even if he were legitimate, Dryden implies, he would never be the heir (because he has shown by his character that he could never merit it?); he might have blessed other countries with his noble virtues (through royal intermarriage), but not--and never--his own."
Dryden also portrays the "Best" of the "Malecontents" assembled by Achitophel--that is, primarily, the Country party among the Lords--as being essentially well-meaning but "Seduc'd by Impious Arts" into believing the "power of Monarchy" a threat to "Property." Thus identifying with and appealing to the moderates in the House of Lords, Dryden does not want to seem to be maligning his betters. He saves his nastiness generally for the middle and lower classes, whom he portrays as motivated by "Interest," parsimonious "Husbandry," desire for "Preferment," or, under the hypocritical guise of (dissenting) religion, the sheer desire "all things to Destroy," especially monarchy itself. Dryden portrays the common "herd" as mindless, those "Who think too little, and who talk too much."
Dryden's next justly famous portraits are representatives of the three classes. From the truly rebellious aristocrats (implicitly a mere fringe group) he selects his old enemy Buckingham, whom he portrays as similar to Shaftesbury, too inconstant in his moods, postures, and political positions to remain constant to any one--or, by implication, to the king:
Some of their Chiefs were Princes of the Land:
In the first Rank of these did Zimristand:
A man so various, that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all Mankinds Epitome.
Stiff in Opinions, always in the wrong;
Was every thing by starts, and nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolving Moon,
Was Chymist, Fidler, States-Man, and Buffoon:
Then all for Women, Painting, Rhiming, Drinking;
Besides ten thousand freaks that dy'd in thinking.
In the whole passage, but especially in the last two couplets, Dryden is at his absolute best at wielding the rhetoric of satire. The zeugma of the antepenultimate line is worthy of Pope's more famous lists, especially when one considers that "States-Man," potentially a pejorative term anyway, gets completely leveled to the status of the concluding "Buffoon." Then the jingle of the participles dances through the feminine ending of the penultimate line, pausing for a moment on the spondee in the middle of "Besides ten thousand freaks" before tripping into the final feminine ending, creating a contemporary mindless marionette."
Dryden's representative of the middle class is the hypocritical Puritan Shimei (Slingsby Bethel, sheriff of London), whose animosity against the office of king itself is so strong he fears not to curse "Heavens Annointed," and whose very religion is simply a means for his personal "Gain." As do modern satirists with televangelists, Dryden turns Shimei's canting rhetoric against him:
For Shimei, though not prodigal of pelf,
Yet lov'd his wicked Neighbour as himself:
When two or three were gather'd to declaim
Against the Monarch of Jerusalem,
Shimei was always in the midst of them:
And, if they Curst the King when he was by,
Would rather Curse, than break good Company.
In a wonderful marriage of sound, sight, and sense, the middle triplet here inserts a third line into the usual couplet form as if in imitation of the insinuation of Antichrist Shimei into the midst of his disciples."
Dryden's representative of the lower class is Corah, who stands for Titus Oates, the weaver's son who was the archwitness of the Popish Plot. Dryden portrays him with dripping sarcasm:
His Memory, miraculously great,
Could Plots, exceeding mans belief, repeat;
Which, therefore cannot be accounted Lies,
For humane Wit could never such devise.
If Shimei perverts the words of Scripture for his interest, Corah perverts words in the very citadel of justice, where oaths are supposed to guarantee the truth. Indeed, all of Dryden's villains assault the social logos through disloyalty, hypocrisy, and perjury, thus challenging the underwriting divine Logos."
In addition to discrediting his opponents thus, Dryden discredits their political theory. Achitophel's articulation of Lockean theory--"the People have a Right Supreme / To make their Kings; for Kings are made for them. / All Empire is no more than Pow'r in Trust"--is belied by his own ambition for power. But Dryden appears to take his theory seriously and to approach the question moderately. Rejecting the position of absolute monarchy, Dryden equally rejects the position of social-contract theorists who argue that the people can take their bond back, a secession resulting, for Dryden, in Hobbist political instability:
If they may Give and Take when e'r they please,
Not Kings alone, (the Godheads Images,)
But Government it self at length must fall
To Natures state; where all have Right to all.
Purloining Locke's own concept of prudence, Dryden then asks in his most conciliatory mode, "Yet, grant our Lords the People Kings can make, / What Prudent men a setled Throne woud shake?" While Dryden appears to be adopting a Burkean conservatism based on the weight of tradition--as is obvious from all the references to God's involvement in anointing and supporting kings throughout the poem--the grammatical uncertainty of the first line images forth the political anarchy that would ensue if anyone but God--lords, commoners, kings themselves, by tampering with succession--were to make a king."
Dryden then proceeds to portray the king's friends as a loyal group of peers, bishops, judges, and even the former speaker of the (now rebellious) House of Commons. Unlike the conspirators, these men kept their words of loyalty and, like Dryden the poet, used their words to defend the king and to rebut his attackers--most notably, perhaps, Jotham, who represents George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, whose golden tongue in debate turned the tide against the Exclusion Bill in the House of Lords."
The greatest wielder of words in the poem is David himself, who comes forward finally to vindicate his power and position. Weary of abuse despite his wonted clemency and long-suffering, David insists that even if he has only a part of government, the part belongs to him, cannot be attenuated by any other part, and is "to Rule." Dryden endows his speech with magisterial authority:
Without my Leave a future King to choose,
Infers a Right the Present to Depose:
True, they Petition me t'approve their Choise,
But Esau's Hands suite ill with Jacob's Voice.
David becomes more aggressive as he progresses:
What then is left but with a Jealous Eye
To guard the Small remains of Royalty?
The Law shall still direct my peacefull Sway,
And the same Law teach Rebels to Obey.
Thus Dryden stakes out for David/Charles a middle ground between extremes of arbitrary or anarchic rule. He insists on the king's lawful prerogative granted by the unwritten constitution and forming part of a balanced system of government. The other parts of that balance have threatened the very Ark of the Covenant, and so David himself now threatens, "Law they require, let Law then shew her Face," for "Lawfull Pow'r is still Superiour found." So David will punish the transgressors, who will actually devour themselves by turning against each other. Dryden closes the poem by underwriting David's words with the Word of God: "He said. Th'Almighty, nodding, gave Consent: / And Peals of Thunder shook the Firmament." Dryden's final touch, then, is a kind of apotheosis: David and God become one: "And willing Nations knew their Lawfull Lord."
Absalom and Achitophel was a celebration of Charles's triumph over his foes in the Exclusion Crisis. As it was published in November of 1681, Shaftesbury was on trial for treason. But that triumph seemed short-lived, for Shaftesbury, to Dryden the archconspirator, got off scot-free, and his supporters cast a medal in his honor. Early in 1682 Dryden published another attack on Shaftesbury and his followers, The Medall. A Satyre against Sedition. He relinquished the moderate stance of the earlier poem and wrote a scathing Juvenalian satire, prefaced by an equally scathing "Epistle to the Whigs." The controlling fiction of the poem is the two sides of the medal, one with a portrait of Shaftesbury, the other with a portrait of the City of London. Again portraying Shaftesbury's political inconstancy as a function of inconstancy of character, Dryden says sardonically of the medal, "Cou'd it have form'd his ever-changing Will, / The various Piece had tir'd the Graver's Skill." Dryden traces him through his tortuous twists of allegiance until his final revelation of the "fiend" within."
On the other hand, Dryden addresses "London, thou great Emporium of our Isle" again in a lamentory mode, and one cannot help remembering his praise of the city in Annus Mirabilis as the emporium of England's imperialist trade. As in Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden spares the virtuous Londoners from blame, but he stridently attacks the "Fool and Knave" who corruptly misdirect the city's great energies. Here one sees as plainly as anywhere Dryden's fear of and contempt for the rising middle class that couched its political ambitions in religious rhetoric:
In Gospel phrase their Chapmen they betray:
Their Shops are Dens, the Buyer is their Prey.
The Knack of Trades is living on the Spoyl;
They boast, ev'n when each other they beguile.
Customes to steal is such a trivial thing,
That 'tis their Charter, to defraud their King.
Dryden has perceived the inherent danger of bourgeois individualism and incipient capitalism: the selfish, predatory accumulation of wealth by means of fraud and tax evasion. These are descendants of the Commonwealth's men who murdered a previous king and who are still bent on the destruction not only of "Kings" but of "Kingly Pow'r" per se."
In both sections of the poem, Dryden satirizes (this time he does not pretend to rational debate) the political theory of the Whigs. In both he reduces republican theory to a version of might makes right, here applied to the concept of majority rule, "The Most have right, the wrong is in the Few":
Almighty Crowd, thou shorten'st all dispute;
Pow'r is thy Essence; Wit thy Attribute!
Nor Faith nor Reason make thee at a stay,
Thou leapst o'r all eternal truths, in thy Pindarique way!
The wit in these lines resides not only in the brilliant imitative spillover of the concluding alexandrine but also in the mock theology: as in the disputes over whether God's will or his reason be his primary essence, Dryden follows his sarcastic reference to the crowd as "Almighty" with a pseudovoluntarist position, reducing reason or "Wit" to a mere "Attribute." But, as he had suggested early in his writing,
If Sovereign Right by Sovereign Pow'r they scan,
The same bold Maxime holds in God and Man:
God were not safe, his Thunder cou'd they shun
He shou'd be forc'd to crown another Son.
The marvelous irony of the last line works especially well when one reads from the caesura of the penultimate line through the enjambment to fall hard upon the reversed iamb of the last line: the implication is that even He would be forced, like Charles, to declare another son his legitimate heir. The pun on crown, referring to Christ's crown of thorns, is savage."
The best--because, perhaps, the most prophetic--parts of the poem are the early series of analogies to political majority rule and the later series of images of clipping of the royal power until the monarch is purely ceremonial--as indeed he/she became after the revolution Dryden so desperately feared. Dryden mocks the notion that majority rule is stable, citing historical examples of mistakes resulting in the deaths of heroes, among them Socrates. As he comes closer to his own time, he wickedly asserts, "Crowds err not, though to both extremes they run; / To kill the Father, and recall the Son." His most scathing indictment of this creeping relativism occurs in the following lines:
Some think the Fools were most, as times went then;
But now the World's o'r stock'd with prudent men.
The common Cry is ev'n Religion's Test;
The Turk's is, at Constantinople, best;
Idols in India, Popery at Rome;
And our own Worship onely true at home:
And true, but for the time; 'tis hard to know
How long we please it shall continue so.
This side to day, and that to morrow burns;
So all are God-a'mighties in their turns.
Instead of mythologizing the political theory he defends, Dryden attempts to justify it on pragmatic grounds, that their British forefathers attempted to avoid factional civil war by securing peaceful succession of both power and property through primogeniture. God has already tried us, Dryden argues, by giving the republicans what they wanted during the Commonwealth, and look what happened. And he predicts a similar cannibalistic civil war if Shaftesbury and his cronies succeed, for all will want a piece of the power, and none will be constrained by law. His concluding prophecy seems a bitter wish-fulfillment:
Thus inborn Broyles the Factions wou'd ingage,
Or Wars of Exil'd Heirs, or Foreign Rage,
Till halting Vengeance overtook our Age:
And our wild Labours, wearied into Rest,
Reclin'd us on a rightfull Monarch's Breast.
If as at the end of Absalom and Achitophel Dryden is again collapsing both earthly and heavenly monarch together, his vision has progressed from apotheosis to apocalypse, the ultimate curse of the satirist."
In the immediate aftermath of the Exclusion Crisis, Dryden continued to attack the Stuarts' enemies. He contributed satiric portraits of old nemeses now openly Whiggish, Settle and Shadwell, to a sequel to Absalom and Achitophel, written mostly by another young protégé, Nahum Tate. He contributed politically satirical prologues and epilogues to several plays. He wrote another play with Nathaniel Lee, The Duke of Guise (1682), which exploited the analogy between current events and those in France a century before; he wrote a Vindication of that play (1683); and in 1684 he translated Louis Maimbourg's History of the League, the source of most of his knowledge of that French analogue. The stridency of Dryden's tone increases proportionally to the growing strength of the Stuart position, especially after the discovery in the summer of 1683 of the Rye House Plot, an alleged plan to assassinate Charles and James and foment a radical revolution based in London."
In the midst of this political activity Dryden published another major poem on an apparently radically different topic, Religio Laici or a Laymans Faith (1682). The poem is a response to another French work, recently translated by a friend of his into English as A Critical History of the Old Testament (1682). The original was by a French priest, Richard Simon, and employed emerging modern methods of scholarship to examine the biblical text, its errors and contradictions. Dryden's response is essentially a declaration of faith in the few fundamental truths of Christianity that are "uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire, / In all things which our needfull Faith require," among them such doctrines as Original Sin and its consequences, especially death and the loss of heaven; the Incarnation of Christ; His Redemption and the consequent justification for the sin of Adam by means of the imputed righteousness of Christ extended to mankind. Astonishingly, the divinity of Christ is not among these essential doctrines, and Dryden is convinced that many, not only heathens but Christians, have been saved without "this Question" even "brought in play." On the other hand, Dryden attacks Deists by insisting that revelation is necessary for those essential truths to be known, that reason cannot discover them by itself, for, as he insists in another bold opening:
Dim, as the borrow'd beams of Moon and Stars
To Lonely, weary, wandring Travellers,
Is Reason to the Soul: And as on high,
Those rowling Fires discover but the Sky
Not light us here; So Reason's glimmering Ray
Was lent, not to assure our doubtfull way,
But guide us upward to a better Day.
And as those nightly Tapers disappear
When Day's bright Lord ascends our Hemisphere;
So pale grows Reason at Religions sight;
So dyes, and so dissolves in Supernatural Light.
Here Dryden perfects a casual epistolary mode of heroic couplets to be later employed by Pope in An Essay on Man (1733), among other philosophical poems of the age. The strong medial caesuras, the enjambments, the triplet, and the metric variety lend an air of almost casual conversation. The imagery is worthy of Dante or Donne or Henry Vaughan. At the end Dryden maintains that he has chosen "this unpolish'd, rugged Verse ... As fittest for Discourse, and nearest Prose." Not even Matthew Arnold could take this quite polished verse for prose. But Dryden had become a master of the philosophical epistle in verse, whose apparent casualness disguises its richly tropic nature."
Dryden had not really made a radical departure from his concurrent political poems, however. His attempt to steer a middle way between what he calls "Extreme[s]" concerning the issue of tradition in biblical interpretation is really a political stance, a proto-Burkean conservatism, indeed, a proto-Swiftian Erastianism:
'Tis some Relief, that points not clearly known,
Without much hazard may be let alone:
And, after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason 'tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is