There is an anonymous portrait of Dryden, ‘dated 1657 but probably 1662’, which shows a full-fed figure with plump alert eyes, comfortable and predatory. He seems poised between repletion and dyspepsia, like a bewigged Nigel Lawson, arrested for all time at the moment of incipient eructation. James Winn says: ‘His short, squat figure later led his enemies to call him “Poet Squab”, and the plump birdlike face in this picture justifies the nickname.’ When Rochester, about 1675 or 1676, called him by that name, perhaps for the first time, in his ‘Allusion to Horace’, the idea was that Dryden couldn’t manage gentlemanly smuttiness, the ‘mannerly obscene’, though he tried:
Dryden in vain tried this nice way of wit,
For he to be a tearing blade thought fit.
But when he would be sharp, he still was blunt:
To finish his frolic fancy, he’d cry. ‘Cunt!’
Would give the ladies a dry bawdy bob,
And thus he got the name of Poet Squab.
The suggestion is that Dryden is a beginner, indeed a non-starter, whether as wit or gentleman, for ‘squab’ also means an inexperienced person, young pigeon or unfledged bird. Birds came in handy, you might say, in lordly imputations of sexual inadequacy, as when Fielding called Lord Hervey Lord Didapper.
The Earl was giving Dryden the ‘scribbling author’ the sort of lofty treatment which commoners like Dryden himself, as well as Swift and Pope after him, liked to hand down to still lower scribblers. The case is paradoxical not only because of the lordly pretensions of unlordly wits, familiar at all levels of the Augustan literary scene; nor even because Dryden eventually retaliated, in the Preface to All for Love (1678), with a lordly tu quoque, variously intimating that real poets are better at poetry than their lordly betters (not an impression Dryden is normally anxious to give in his dedications to nobles), and pretending on a contrary tack to mistake the author of the ‘Allusion’ for a low scribbler and true ‘Son of Sternhold’ – an insult implying, in Dryden’s demonology, both puritan affiliation and inter-changeability with poetaster Tom Shadwell.
The complexity of the Rochester-Dryden relationship harboured further piquancies. Marriage à la Mode (1671), a play dedicated to Rochester at the time of their friendship, did in fact contain examples of the ‘mannerly obscene’ as gracefully executed and as hard-edged as any libertine verses of any of the court wits, including the song ‘Whilst Alexis lay pressed’, wittiest of all puns on sexual dying. The play was, as Dryden’s dedication says, corrected by Rochester, who commended it to the King, and some of its polished repartee, as Winn and others have said, may owe something to Rochester. But the song, though as good as Rochester, isn’t like Rochester. If Rochester in the ‘Allusion’, and Shadwell in The Medal of John Bayes (1682), accused Dryden of clumsy attempts to ape the rakish idiom, some of the written specimens weren’t in the least clumsy. This couldn’t be said of the play’s dedication to Rochester, however – a document of such laboured oiliness and such particularised self-abasement that even the most hardened connoisseurs of Drydenian toadying might be expected to find it unusual: Dryden himself called it an ‘ill Dedication’, but only in a further sycophantic admission of unworthiness.
Shadwell, who had called Dryden Drybob before Rochester did, as Rochester seems to have called him Squab before Shadwell, played a full part in these uppish reciprocities. In the year that Dryden mythologised him in ‘Mac Flecknoe’ (written in 1676) as the type of the Grub Street dunce, Rochester’s ‘Allusion’, in between smacks at Dryden, ascribed to him an improbable patrician nonchalance at ‘Showing great mastery, with little care’. Shadwell went on to demonstrate this newfound sprezzatura by making heavy weather of Dryden’s heavy weather with the ‘mannerly obscene’, adding for the ornithological record that Poet Squab’s plumage was borrowed. Not only the name, but the charge of borrowing, were presumably themselves borrowed from Rochester’s ‘Allusion’, which had already announced that
Were stol’n, unequal, nay dull many times’.
Dryden ‘stole’ no more than some of his accusers, or than came naturally in a culture whose poetry flourished on ‘allusion’, ‘poetical imitation’ and various mutations of heroic and mock-heroic, and whose theatre at its best and worst relied heavily on more or less creative adaptations of foreign or older English plays. Dryden was profoundly conformist. His genius required the commonplace, took reassurance from it and gave it authority in return. He took what was going and made it his own, not merely in the general sense in which all writers do, but in the special fervour he derives from (or gives to) the truism. This is especially evident in his criticism, one of his areas of pre-eminent achievement.
He was in a deep sense ‘representative’. His writings articulate virtually very principle of Classical and Renaissance literary theory, including the unresolved and contested ones. The absorbent generosity of his intellect made him a perfect echo-chamber for the entire play of serious opinion concerning poetry and drama especially, but also other forms of writing and indeed the other arts. This does not imply that he merely bounced ideas back, at a low level of bland reportage: there is energy and passion in his engagement with ideas. Nor did he have a philosophy comprehensive and supple enough to accommodate the entire range of his intellectual interests in a single elaborate system. He is, perhaps, the most eclectic and pliable of all distinguished critics: not because he had no convictions of his own, but because he had many, changed them often, and admitted it freely. He was a ‘chameleon critic’ not just in any time-serving or ignoble sense of that phrase, but in a more disinterested sense too. Time-serving was not always separable from this, but the fact that others held another opinion seriously was a genuine predisposing factor for Dryden to think himself into it. This may be what gives his toadying, even (or perhaps especially) in its more outrageous forms, a certain guilelessness: the sense that he was throwing himself into a prescribed routine, sanctioned by custom and expectation, not just self-interest. His notorious vacillations and gyrations in both politics and religion are perhaps partly explicable in similar terms.
It’s revealing that his ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy’ (1668), which first established him as a respected critical thinker and is probably to this day his best-known work in that mode, is formally structured as an expression of several points of view rather than as a single directed argument. Each of these (including that of the Drydenian spokesman Neander) was representative of traditional and/or current positions on a standard set of contested issues: the merits of ancients and moderns, of English versus French drama, of rhymed versus unrhymed verse. Some, notably rhyme, were matters on which Dryden would later change his mind publicly: and some of the things said by others than Neander were sometimes expressed, in other contexts, as Dryden’s own views. The fact that they were in intellectually respectable circulation gave them the necessary legitimacy not for thoughtless acquiescence but for deep (if often temporary) assimilation.
For all the malleability of Dryden’s opinions, however, and despite its formal self-effacement, the ‘Essay’ is powered by an intense and ostentatious egotism. The first person singular appears in it with a frequency which is remarkable by any standards, and startling in a work which justly prides itself on its undogmatic discourse and on a dialogue form that protects debate from undue pressures of individual partisanship: 18 times, by my count, in the first six sentences of the Dedication. This frequency is somewhat abated in the dialogue proper, where the authorial presence is formally neutralised, but Dryden’s ‘dramatic’ investment in his speakers (not merely but perhaps especially Neander) gives the discourse of each of them a more than averagely egocentric air.
The tendency is naturally greatest in Dryden’s direct writings, however. In three consecutive sentences of the ‘Account’ prefixed to ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1667), we read ‘I have judg’d ... I mean not ... I am apt to agree ... if I am not deceiv’d ... I have chosen ... I have ever judg’d ... I am sure I have your approbation.’ In such places, Dryden becomes the Cyril Connolly of the 17th century. Those who have played the weekly game of seeing how many sentences Connolly could write before mentioning himself (two or three, perhaps?) may find a new reason to view Dryden with awe: in the ‘Essay’s’ Dedication, it isn’t until the seventh sentence that he doesn’t mention himself.
Rochester’s ‘Allusion’ is amusing on Dryden’s self-gratulatory wordiness, but as Winn even more pertinently notes, he was much given to ‘citing his own ... works as cautionary examples of various excesses’. The effect of this, however, was not merely ‘to disarm his critics’: indulgent self-castigation is one of the standard compulsions of confessional ego-centrism. Swift’s Tale of a Tub, that most piercing critique of modern literary self-consciousness, with its stinging anticipations of Shandean and Mailerian self-exhibition, cites Dryden as one of the main examples observable to date. With his ‘forty or fifty Pages of Preface and Dedication, (which is the usual Modern Stint)’, he stands as the archetypal embodiment of the bumptious confessional enterprise, the mass-production of self, generated by the typographical revolution in its first major phase.
Swift offered an alternative portrait to that of Poet Squab, which both defined and qualified this conception of Dryden’s ‘modernity’. In the Battle of the Books a helmeted stranger confronts Virgil: ‘a Face hardly appeared from within, which after a pause, was known for that of the renowned Dryden ... the Helmet was nine times too large for the Head, which appeared Situate far in the hinder Part, ... like a shrivled Beau from within the Penthouse of a modern Perewig.’ The point of the parable is that this Modern has Ancient pretensions, ‘humbly’ proposing to Virgil ‘an Exchange of Armor’, having first ‘in a long Harangue soothed up the good Antient, called him Father, and by a large deduction of Genealogies, made it plainly appear, that they were nearly related’.
Dryden had recently (1697) translated Virgil. What Swift saw as the ultimate Modern arrogance may equally be described as a genuinely ‘humble’ tribute to the Ancient master, especially as the Virgil translation, completed near the end of his life, took the place of the heroic poem of his own that Dryden had always hoped, and never managed, to write. ‘A heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform.’ These opening words of Dryden’s Dedication to the Aeneis derive much of their thrust and reverberative assurance from the fact that they had often been said before, by others as well as by Dryden himself: he had great powers of self-repetition. The proposition was so commonplace that Pope could mock its ritual recitation by Martinus Scriblerus without undercutting its substance. This was not Dryden’s way. He indulged in self-criticism but not usually in self-mockery, and his way with a truism was to restore its fire rather than expose it to the cold air of an ironic perspective.
All his life Dryden protested the supremacy of epic as the highest of all genres, superior even to tragedy. He thought it the only genre of which it could be asserted beyond dispute that no subsequent practitioner had equalled the main Classical models, Homar and Virgil. He conceded that Christianity might seem inimical to heroic poetry, which upheld ‘Pride and Worldly Honour’ and required ‘as its last Perfection, some great Action of War’. In the callow days of ‘Annus Mirabilis’ Dryden had declared that the ‘onely real’ greatness was ‘the greatness of Arms’, but he came to modify this view of war, partly under the influence of Milton: indeed, when he wrote the State of Innocence (published 1677), a dramatic adaptation of Paradise Lost, he even omitted the War in Heaven, except, as Winn says, ‘for the opening tableau’. In this he resembles all the important mock-heroic writers, Boileau, Garth, the Swift of the Battle of the Books, and Pope, who minimised reminders of the military aspect of the heroic or reduced it to an innocuous and unsanguinary foolery. Milton’s poem, however, contains within it a critique of the heroic ethos: Augustan mock-epics were more protective of the epic than was the last great example of the parent form.
By 1693 Dryden spoke of personages like Achilles as ‘ungodly Man-killers, whom we Poets, when we flatter them, call Heroes; a race of Men who can never enjoy quiet in themselves, ’till they have taken it from all the World’. Such statements, frequently co-existing with fervid assertions of Homer’s greatness, were a common critical manoeuvre to dissociate the poetry of the epic from its morality. A comment in the Spectator stated that Achilles was ‘Morally Vicious, and only Poetically Good’.
Neither Dryden, nor Pope after him, was deterred by any of this from aspiring to write epics of their own, and neither poet completed one. Dryden spoke for years of his hopes of writing a Stuart epic and in the ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’ (1693) referred to his ambition to write an epic on King Arthur or Edward the Black Prince as having been foiled by adverse circumstances. In the very place where he insisted on the unsurpassability of Homer and Virgil, and the oppositions between Christianity and the heroic ethos, he was also protesting that a true epic on a Christian theme was possible in principle, assuming the availability of a suitable genius, who might well have been himself. Swift jeered at Dryden’s self-pity over his circumstances, and circumstances never prevented him from writing copiously in virtually every other genre.
The epic inhibition went deeper. In the years immediately following the ‘Discourse’, Dryden completed translations of the Aeneid, the first book of the Iliad and portions of the Metamorphoses dealing with the Trojan War. It seems that he could immerse himself in major heroic compositions as long as they were done, so to speak, by proxy. The case closely resembles that of Pope, who translated the two Homeric poems but whose own epic undertakings remained uncompleted.
Perhaps ‘the failings of many great wits amongst the Moderns, who have attempted to write an epic poem’, harped on by Boileau and Pope as well as by Dryden, created the disabling negative example. Pope cited Blackmore, ‘whose indefatigable Muse produced no less than six Epic poems’. Two of these were on the Arthurian theme, which Dryden accused Blackmore of stealing from him and which he said he would ‘deal the more civilly with ... because nothing ill is to be spoken of the dead’. Milton had contemplated an Arthurian epic before Dryden, and did write Paradise Lost: Dryden only managed operatic versions of both subjects, as though determined in each case to dissolve the heroic impulse in an ornamental and ‘unserious’ kind.
Dryden’s entire literary career may be seen as a persistent quest for a heroic style, undermined by loss of nerve, whether in ostensibly ‘serious’ or in overtly ironic modes. As early as ‘Annus Mirabilis’, where the celebration of heroic prowess seems most naively explicit, martial exploits are conducted in an atmosphere of almost Disneyan baroque bizarrerie: ‘Angels [draw] wide the Curtains of the Skies’ to observe the battle, casualties expire in aromatic slaughter as cannon-balls hit spice-laden ships. The passages have analogues in Sidney or Milton or Waller, but the peculiar blend of the heroic and the bizarre seems to be Dryden’s own.
The main unironic outlet for Dryden’s heroic aspirations was the heroic play. Winn notes that the Conquest of Granada (1670-1), which dates from about the time that Dryden first expressed the ambition to write a Stuart epic, ‘brings epic grandeur and complexity to the stage’, just as Dryden’s (much later) ‘satiric masterpiece, “Absalom and Achitophel”, draws on Miltonic language’, asserting heroic interests in an alternative mode. Both were a flawed homage, the ironic version making the point that modern realities didn’t measure up to the heroic grandeurs of which epic was once an appropriate expression; while the plays offered the heroic in a coarsened form, catering to popular tastes without overt irony.
To many, it was a debased kind, signalling the impossibility of serious heroic endeavour. To others who, like Dryden, practised it more or less straight, it carried elements of fantastic incident, high-falutin romance and extravagant violence, proffered ‘seriously’ but with sufficient hints of excess to suggest disengagement at some level, a kind of underisive counterpart of irony. Winn observes the preposterous account of the bullfight in the Conquest, where a bull’s head, severed by Almanzor with improbable ease, continues to bellow as it falls, outdoing some traditional epic decapitations in wilful grotesquerie. He also notes ‘the self-conscious excess by which some of [the epic] language shades into amusing bombast’, though he doesn’t attempt the really difficult discussion of how this might be related to outright irony. On the romance ingredients, and the curious cross-breeding between Renaissance epic and the traditions of love-poetry in which erotic killings might be conducted in the language of military warfare, he also writes well: one would only add the reminder that this particular symbiosis was to find its great mock-heroic orchestration in the ‘Rape of the Lock’.
It’s evident that Dryden at least intermittently regarded his rhymed heroic plays as substitutes for the epic he wanted to write, with increasing diffidence of his power to do so. The Dedication to Mulgrave of his last such play Aureng-Zebe (published 1676) announced that he still had hopes ‘that I may make the world some part of amends, for many ill plays, by an Heroique Poem.’ In the same year, Dryden wrote his first and greatest mock-heroic poem, ‘MacFlecknoe’.
It’s not clear when Dryden first consciously realised that the truest outlet for the heroic impulse could only be for him an ironic one. But it is in that mode, from ‘MacFlecknoe’ to ‘Alexander’s Feast’ (1697) and the ‘Secular Masque’ (1700), that he attained his most genuinely high style. The writings of his last decade, when he took stock of his times and his career, show him explicitly reflecting, as in his poem ‘To Sir Godfrey Kneller’ (1694), that he lived in ‘Inferior Times’, inhospitable to grand styles in painting and poetry:
Thy Genius bounded by the Times like mine,
Drudges on petty Draughts, nor dare design
A more Exalted Work ...
The ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’ the previous year had shown a preoccupation with epic poetry which might in itself seem surprising in a treatise on satire. But even as Dryden insists in that context that an epic is still possible, what is really striking is his obsessive interest in the possibilities of achieving nobility of utterance, majesty, sublimity in satire itself. It is there that he asserts that satire may be considered ‘undoubtedly a Species’ of ‘Heroique Poetry’ and (with Boileau’s Lutrin in mind as his main modern example) gives his celebrated definition of mock-heroic as ‘the most Beautiful, and most Noble kind of Satire. Here is the Majesty of the Heroique, finely mix’d with the Venom of the other; and raising the Delight which otherwise wou’d be flat and vulgar, by the Sublimity of the Expression.’
In the ‘Discourse’ at large the term ‘Sublimity’ is especially attributed to Juvenal, whom Dryden ranks highest among the Rom an satirists. But it’s to Dryden’s own work that his description is best adapted, and I suspect that Dryden would not have been able to write about either Boileau or Juvenal in the way he did if he had not himself written ‘MacFlecknoe’. The Juvenalian majesties Dryden refers to are in any case very different from his own. They are grandeurs of irritability belonging to the speaker, whereas Dryden’s grandeurs are transferred from the speaker to the objects of ridicule: ‘Thoughtless as Monarch Oakes, that shade the plain’, ‘Amidst this Monument of vanisht minds’. The derision has a serene monumentality which focuses attention not on the feelings of the satirist so much as on the established solidity of the enemy. Such effects may be reinforced by specific epic resonances, as in the passage about Barbican brothels, ‘Where their vast Courts the Mother-Strumpets keep’, which derives from Cowley’s Davideis, or in various Miltonic evocations.
We’re nowadays accustomed to the idea of epic grandeurs rubbing off on the mock-form, and Juvenal was not in any systematic way mock-epic. Nor, for that matter, was ‘MacFlecknoe’, in the full structural sense in which Boileau’s Lutrin or Pope’s Dunciad are mock-epic. But Boileau’s poem, brilliant as it is, remains fixed by its trifling subject. It lacks the solidity, the weight of negative realisation, which transcends parody and produces a brooding grandeur of its own, deformed or defiled rather than diminished. If the Dunciad does achieve this it is at least in part because Dryden created the possibility in ‘MacFlecknoe’ and gave it critical definition in the ‘Discourse’. The style is one whose grandeurs, in ‘MacFlecknoe’ as in the Dunciad, thrive even on cloacal indignity. It also includes passages, like this opening couplet,
All humane things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, Monarchs must obey,
which in themselves give no indication of parodic intention and would be perfectly at home in a ‘straight’ heroic poem: the kind of poem Dryden was always wanting to write, and was a good enough poet to know he mustn’t. His distinction lies in what he made of the frustrated impulse.
Mr Winn’s biography is in the main excellent. The earlier chapters, where the biographical facts are especially scarce and the literary texts undistinguished, have their longueurs. Some of the ‘readings’ are pedestrian or strained or both. There is some pompous jumpiness (‘there is no such thing as objective literary realism, even in Robbe-Grillet’). But the information in the volume as a whole is rich and well-marshalled. The presentation of Dryden’s numerous and varied writings is in general very competent, and the account of his personality sympathetic and unsentimental.
Keith Walker’s edition of Dryden in the Oxford Authors is a useful selection. All the major poems are included in full, with prefatory material where appropriate. No plays are included, and the critical works do not include the ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’. Dryden’s last collection, Fables (1700), is given complete. The modernised texts are ‘based on the earliest published versions’. The editorial material is concise and efficient, if at times a little spare. The biographical introduction is a model of compression, and vividly written.