Dryden of course neither wrote nor adapted a Hamlet. But sometimes negatives, or questions, can say as much as positives. And Dryden is perhaps an odder, a more involved figure than might be surmised from his enormous productivity – from his energy, his directness, his mass and variety of achievement. This first of our great professional poets may have understood very fully the oxymoron in that phrase, ‘professional poet’: may have known, even beyond the withdrawals of his own temperament, how many silences went into being so formidably articulate. Biographers don’t forget the history of himself that Dryden was to have given John Aubrey, but that he never gave.
Dryden adapted Shakespeare, out of confidence and from a sense of necessity. I have chosen Hamlet as a point of comparison between them – a comparison, after all, provoked by Dryden himself – for a reason best given by anecdote. A very long while ago I found myself in the stalls enjoying Shakespeare’s play. At the interval one of the two ladies in front of me turned to the other and said, with deep if philosophical sadness: ‘Don’t tell me, May. I don’t want to know. But he isn’t going to come through, is he?’ I think Shakespeare would have been delighted. This is not the only way to define a classic – by the power to hold and move two sensitive and intelligent if not particularly literate persons, 350 years after first publication. But it is one way: and, though that was certainly a more innocent phase of our culture, I was glad to see a warning in a recent Radio Times that Romeo and Juliet contains violence and ‘drug abuse’.
I use Hamlet as a case, as the case, of the power to be taken seriously (while not forgetting that Shakespeare is also characterised by Henry IV and King John and Timon and Cymbeline). If Dryden died three hundred years ago, then a tercentenary feels like the right moment to ask what his Hamlet is, or what it is that we now recommend him for. The interest of the question is increased, though also complicated, by the fact that the writer’s public esteem has surely never been so low. Perhaps the few readers of poetry who still exist need an intensity of verse that Dryden never cared to supply – perhaps his great virtue was to relieve his readers of that intensity. Whatever the explanation, and though this is by no means the only or best definition of a good readership, I have to acknowledge after decades of teaching that only the rarest of able pupils has agreed to try Dryden, has indeed (it sometimes seems) heard of him. It is true that these rarities have gone on to join the still flourishing and admirable world of Dryden scholarship. But it remains equally true that Hamlet has had a life beyond scholarship.
An obvious place to begin would be among the plays themselves. Dryden’s output, of rising thirty dramas, was nearly as extensive and various as Shakespeare’s own. They filled the first half of his career, and he was still writing for the theatre at the beginning of his last decade. Even if the poet himself came to hate his work for the stage, this enormous labour can hardly be just dismissed. And in fact the quandary is in itself interesting. The plays represent in the simplest way the utilitarianism governing post-Restoration arts, and colouring in different forms all Dryden’s career. He wrote (necessarily) for money, for a political party, or for an audience.
There are scholars who are happy to extend his success in the theatre into the present moment. Deference used to go to All for Love. Mark van Doren called it ‘the maturest of the tragedies’, its style ‘virtually impeccable’ – but his general critique of the plays is always disaffected: a judgment that matters, given that his eighty-year-old study of Dryden remains that unusual thing, a more or less perfect critical book, deeply learned, fine in analysis and marvellously written (no wonder Eliot liked it). The preference has moved now to Amphitryon, called by Earl Miner ‘his greatest comedy and one of the greatest comedies in English’. More recently, Howard Erskine-Hill, pursuing a political theme, sees the writer as doing a ‘particularly brilliant thing’ in Amphitryon; and Michael Cordner three times reiterates the word ‘masterpiece’ when introducing his edition of the play.
There is an appealing American proverb, ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ It seems to throw light on the difficult case of Dryden. During the past century productions of Dryden’s plays have been few and far between. Directors and dramaturgs in our major theatres, always desperately hunting for new plays and themselves neither illiterate nor inexperienced, have clearly done what my directorial or theatre-minded students have done, when appealed to to go away and read Marriage à la Mode or Sir Martin Mar-all or Don Sebastian or Amphitryon. They have nodded, said ‘interesting’, and gone away to direct Congreve or Otway or Vanbrugh or Etherege or Wycherley or Southerne or Behn, sometimes with dazzling success.
Dryden’s plays lack the dramatic pace and rhythm that come only from a belief in the significance of human action; and his characters have no character. But again and again stylistic confidence and point will make these things seem not to matter. There are the lovers in Marriage à la Mode who ‘when they came to possession, have sighed and cried to themselves, “Is this all?”’ – a brutalism modern in its economy. Or there is this grace note from The Rival Ladies:
I think and think on things impossible,
Yet love to wander in that golden maze …
– a note almost Racinian. But the fact is that Dryden disliked Racine. What we have here is what his plays often give us: imitation Racine and pastiche drama – something flawlessly achieved from outside without any sympathetic or original life from within. This has been much better said before, and by a great critic: ‘He could more easily fill the ear with some splendid novelty than awaken those ideas that slumber in the heart’ – Samuel Johnson, who in a page or two of unanswerable analysis clarifies the reasons why a poet whom he both loved and respected could not conceal ‘the difficulty which he found in exhibiting the genuine operations of the heart’. The key word is ‘genuine’. Probably all Drydenians tolerantly accept that the heroic dramas are, in their exposition of love and honour, farcical, pure Cecil B. DeMille (though Aureng-Zebe, too, or The Conquest of Granada, it would be good to see just once, for the fun of it).
This speciousness or fine hollowness always touches the rest of the plays. Their steady assurance and their real intelligence can prove persuasive for those who don’t much like the theatre: but on stage, they die the death. Since criticism is pointless without honesty, I will admit that Amphitryon strikes me, with all its momentary stylishness, as inept and unstructured. It startlingly wastes its peculiar but haunting source story, which it renders above all heartless, therefore weightless. By ‘heartless’ I don’t mean simply ‘cold’ or ‘cruel’. It is to be noted that Johnson, unlike Earl Miner, does not simply contrast ‘intellect’ and ‘feeling’. He is saying something much subtler and truer with his ‘ideas that slumber in the heart’. Real thinking and real feeling are indivisible in great dramatists, or even good minor ones.
For reasons partly social or sociological, the theatre of Dryden’s time operated at a great distance from whatever we mean by ‘reality’. Though the work of a mind at once shrewd and large, Dryden’s plays have a kind of false purchase on human experience in general. But they also lack – as, indeed, his poems often do, too – social actuality in a quite limited sense. We don’t turn to Dryden for anything like the vision of the common life of his time that makes Pepys, say, so much less of an artist in considerable ways, survive so much more widely through his diary. Probably Dryden’s whole dramatic canon contains nothing seen with the clarity of that old muff of his wife’s that Pepys borrowed when the fashion moved to men; or those London pigeons, unwilling to leave their nests in the Great Fire and falling to the ground, their wings burned; or Pepys himself, walking home reading by the light his man carried. These are small things. But Hamlet begins with ‘not a mouse stirring’.
If we find the plays lifeless, where then do we look for Dryden’s Hamlet, the focal and representative work that can still command our attention? Van Doren, who is as solidly appreciative as he is sharply critical, loves much in the poet, but at one point decides that ‘on the whole it may be said that Dryden’s Odes … seem the most indestructible portions of his verse.’ Of all his judgments, this most reminds us that van Doren’s Dryden was first published in 1920. Certainly Alexander’s Feast was uproariously welcomed in the 18th century. And the Odes remain marvellous pieces of baroque performance art. But it is hard to know how at this moment they can be praised in language less external.
For van Doren, then, the Odes. Anthologising Dryden, W.H. Auden remarked appreciatively that left to himself he would have filled his whole book with Prologues and Epilogues. Or again, Keith Walker, in his Oxford Poetry Library selection, confines himself almost entirely (after Mac Flecknoe, parts of Absalom and Achitophel, ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’, ‘St Cecilia’s Day’, and the ‘Lady’s Song’) to translations and Fables. All these preferences are understandable. Modern opinion in general agrees with Walker in a stress on the late work, and on translation or adaptation in particular – though there is division of taste here, too. Walker does not include the 29th Ode of the Third Book of Horace (‘Happy the Man’) chosen by H.A. Mason to write on as an example of the poet-translator at his most genuinely inspired.
Critics do and should differ, where an art is alive to them. But there may be something exceptional in Dryden’s case. He is plainly the most uneven of all our major poets, with a variability both in apparent temperament or character and in actual literary performance. It’s at moments hard to believe that the same man effected the beautiful poise of the critical prose and the gross flat-footedness of the heroic drama. These are variations that perhaps depend on the new implications of professionalism, of literature pursued as labour. It took an extraordinary mix of qualities to make a writer succeed in the second half of the Century of Revolution. Dryden’s whole literary being – the ambition, the vulgarity, the intelligence, the marvellous maturing musical skill, the reflectiveness, the humour, the brutality, the staying power – all together provoke the quotation of Walt Whitman’s protest, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself./I am large, I contain multitudes.’
Contemporaries of the poet picked up something of this self-contradiction, reflected in the fact that Dryden was, it seems, though a silent, withdrawn man, very decidedly loved and hated: sweetly commemorated by Congreve, beaten up verbally and physically by the Duke of Buckingham and others. When the poet Rochester wanted to malign his ex-friend, he spoke of ‘a rarity that I cannot but be fond of, as one would be of a hog that could fiddle, or a singing owl’. This is a mean remark that offloads onto the rival (and greater) poet Rochester’s own feeling for the paradoxical, the metaphysical; but there is something in it that has the ring of truth as well as of wit. All Dryden’s portraits except that by Kneller (which shows a fine fastidious face that doesn’t want to be painted) are of singing owls, hogs that fiddle.
Interestingly, Dryden himself made rather the same point in a late letter. Socially, he seems to have fused, as many poets do, the morbidly modest – Congreve’s description suggests this – with the downright arrogant (van Doren: ‘He looked down not only upon other controversialists but even upon the events which he was to treat’). This is evidently true of the poems, though their writer sounds trustworthy when he explains himself as one who speaks fiercely more readily than ingratiatingly. It is easy, comparably, to envisage Dryden as not very agreeable socially, silent and almost surly in company, yet in private relations capable of the peculiar charm that touches the sentence he wrote in a letter to Mrs Seward, not long before his death: ‘I am still drudgeing on: always a poet, and never a good one.’ This is the singing owl in person; all Dryden’s great yet elusive quality as a writer is momentarily compounded in this tough, depressed and comic sentence.
Precisely the same qualities give extraordinary character to the six best-known lines he ever wrote:
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about,
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
I happened the other day to reopen Iris Murdoch’s first published novel, Under the Net, and was faintly surprised to find Dryden’s lines inscribed as epigraph, perhaps not exactly appositely; but their appearance there is a reminder how widely they were disseminated, in the wake of Modernism and Eliot’s essay on the poet, through another period heavy with the sense of something finishing. But the lines are of course only a fragment of ‘The Secular Masque’, written in the poet’s last year, almost his last poem. They are not in themselves a Hamlet, only perhaps suggestive – in their quality as in their regret – of the Hamlet that Dryden never quite wrote, the local intensity of art that wasn’t quite his game. And, as his letter to Mrs Seward shows, there were moments when he felt it.
‘All, all of a piece’ is not exactly satire. The potency of the stanza comes from the brisk ache of idealism refuted. Dryden’s idealism is surely, despite the late Catholicism, in practice more literary than political or ecclesiastical. His hunger for order was that of an artist who achieved in words what he did not find in matters of state. Even the Catholicism might be understood less as devotion or policy than a gesture of desperation at the inoperability of his earlier quasi-political manoeuvres: his Jacobitism a withdrawal, not an advance into the actual. With all his penetrating shrewdness, Dryden’s idealism is tired, is the nostalgia that can beautify the plays (and his best writing outside the plays tends to the elegiac, ‘Mr Oldham’ being a case in point). The elegance, even the sterile elegance that gilds All for Love, is a salute to that uncouth, almost Caliban-like power of high dreaming open to the Shakespeare of Antony and Cleopatra but closed to civilised men now – a nostalgia, and a closure, that explain the lifelessness of Dryden’s ‘masterpieces’ in the theatre. The magnificent presentness of the poet’s stance is really just a supportive limitation of experience, and it can’t compare to that haunted and perspectived grasp on the moment (‘the bell then beating one’) that characterises every performance of Hamlet. This is one of the reasons that, as any history of drama tells us, the English theatre started to die in the year of Dryden’s own death.
The anxieties of time and history, in the newly self-conscious if self-confident Restoration culture, trouble Dryden’s verse throughout. The extremely fine ‘To My Dear Friend Mr Congreve’, which is, along with ‘Mr Oldham’, one of the poet’s strictly social or fragmentary Hamlets, is about being ‘always a poet, and never a good one’ – about being always caught, by the powers of a high conceptual intelligence, between the admired or imagined idealisms of the past and the enforced, responsible realities of the present. ‘Theirs,’ he says warmly yet placingly of Shakespeare’s generation, ‘was the Giant Race before the Flood.’ This is the unsafe strategy of cultures which, like his and our own, suffer degrees of change so great and so sudden as to enforce a securing of balance, a defining of the viewer’s point of vantage. It is our place to be superior, our calling to miss something. Intense regret at being belated in history, at having failed somehow, touches Dryden’s easy conversational lines. The result is a trenchant monosyllabic lucidity that turns some corner and becomes wholly poetry. The lines to ‘My Dear Friend Mr Congreve’ can linger in the mind, seeming to mean much more than they should. ‘The Second Temple was not like the First’, and more bitterly, ‘Tom the Second reigns like Tom the First’ – the very plainness here incises what an ironic imagination sees.
Dryden’s Hamlet does not consist in any given work. But it does consist, perhaps, in the understanding, which grew as he grew older, that his Hamlet wasn’t going to be written, that it couldn’t be. To say this is to run the risk of paradox. The point seems worth making explicitly, because it isn’t (so far as I know) stated elsewhere: scholarly criticism may not always be ready enough to see advance in the arts as dependent on the embrace of difficulty. In fact, in the form of an idea about Dryden’s long-proposed heroic poem, an altogether opposite sense of the poet has been voiced. Paul Hammond’s John Dryden: A Literary Life (1991) asserts that Dryden could most certainly have realised his early hope to ‘make the world some part of amends for many ill plays by an heroic poem’. Hammond goes on:
The writing of an heroic poem was thwarted, however, not by any lack of abilities on Dryden’s part, but by his failure to find patronage. What might easily have been the crowning glory of Restoration culture never materialised. Though Dryden always remained loyal to his ungrateful master [i.e. Charles 11] he was to devote much of his writing to the absurdities and tyrannies of those who wield power.
This last sentence may be true, but it does reduce a satirical artist’s main motive to self-interest. Hammond is surely damaging Dryden in his attempt to excuse, to reassure. The main drift of his case I can’t help disagreeing with, even when it is translated into Howard Erskine-Hill’s contention that Dryden did in fact write his epic: Milton and Dryden, he says, each ‘produced an epic poem, Dryden’s Aeneis being a sufficiently independent version of its original’. But it seems from the letter to Mrs Seward that Dryden’s Aeneis wasn’t ‘sufficiently independent’ for him.
Hammond and Erskine-Hill’s wish to unsimplify, to invent some alternative world in which Dryden could have written or actually did write his epic, is not without interest. And Erskine-Hill’s pairing of Milton and Dryden similarly happens to make the point of the extreme incompatibilities within late 17th-century culture which it was necessary to live through and, more, to contain, in order to be a Restoration writer: Milton and Bunyan, Bunyan and Rochester, Rochester and Marvell, Marvell and Pepys. These juxtapositions reflect the changes and instabilities of the culture itself. Someone born under Elizabeth might, just possibly, have lived into Anne’s reign. The Restoration writer looks back to Donne and forward to Defoe. There is a gulf between, say, Marvell’s ‘green’ poems and his political verses, and some of the first may be contemporary with the second. An artist may or must (like Hamlet) look back and forward, ‘before and after’, as Dryden himself does in ‘Mr Congreve’: ‘Well now, the promis’d hour is come at last.’
This new and hard historical attainment of balance, after so much change, has its technical effects. One of Dryden’s great achievements was to settle terms on which poetry could survive in the Augustan world: and those terms included a partial rejection of the more lyrical and private stanzaic modes for the couplet forms, metres of strong closure that defeat chaos with balance and control. But it is vital, too, that Dryden does so much in that ‘other harmony of prose’, coming near to inventing the method of modern prose and the substance of literary criticism as it was recognisable until some fifty years ago. His prose is what most 16th-century prose wasn’t, a civilised talking, a high and agreeable social utility of conversation. It matters that the Essay of Dramatic Poesy is a conversation, an unresolved chime of debating voices, sustained against the distant thunder of guns downriver.
Something comparable may be said about the means by which Dryden began to make his poetic breakthrough, in the theatrical Prologues and Epilogues. These colloquial addresses, which Auden admired so much, helped the later poet discover his 1930s verse style as (similarly) an open conversation. In Dryden’s hands, Nell Gwyn, who has just died in the role of (of all things) St Catherine, bounces back into her own life to speak the Epilogue:
Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
I come, kind gentlemen, strange news to tell
am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly …
O Poet, damn’d dull Poet, who could prove
So senseless! to make Nelly dye for Love.
This is more than Audenesque Modernist: it is positively Post-Modernist, in its nerve, its irresponsible knowingness about the lack of stability in aesthetic illusion, its full mix of finesse and brutality, of vulgarity and advanced expertise. Surviving as an artist after the Restoration was a complex business, though oddly recognisable. If we talk of Dryden’s obvious maturing as a writer through the 1660s and 1670s, of his emergence as himself in the 1680s and 1690s, then what we mean is that the poet learns an art of survival.
Philip Larkin once told an interviewer that there is one significant fact about poets that all interviewers ought to know. Poets, he said, don’t write what they want to write; they write what they must. Dryden’s career has its strange features, because it shows him meeting conditions – psychological, social, cultural and political – that have made poetry, and especially any form of heroic poetry, peculiarly difficult. The 1690s, for instance, possess few outstanding works of imaginative literature: the best Restoration comedies, Dryden’s last poems (mostly translations and adaptations), and what is in some ways the most brilliant of all these works, Swift’s then unpublished Tale of a Tub, which could be said characteristically to raise questions about what imagination is, and whether it actually has any value. The answer to that second question isn’t at all a simple yes.
Dryden wrote to Kneller of ‘Thy genius, bounded by the times, like mine’. By ‘the times’, he probably didn’t refer only to the course of history. He is alluding to Kneller’s own work as a painter, an artist limited to fabrication, to coloured objects. He is phrasing that uncertain involvement he has himself, of mixed love and hatred for materiality, earthiness, mundanity; and he is all but saying that for the conscious and rational person life is a physical instant, a now, or what Rochester called ‘this live-long minute’. In the world of the minute, epic cannot survive, and the heroic and the tragic are lost with it, converted into that spectacularly flash medium, heroic drama. The Preface to Religio Laici makes plain how little a poet who in a sense loved the higher form and style could now write in it: ‘The florid, elevated and figurative way is for the passions … either greater than the life, or less … A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reasoned into truth.’ We are back with the period’s false distinction between ‘passion’ and ‘truth’, so different from Johnson’s ‘ideas that slumber in the heart’. And yet Dryden’s position is more clearly understood from the fact that Johnson must surely have been remembering Dryden’s own aperçu of the artist, in more self-forgetting mood, ‘moving the sleeping images of things towards the light’. In his more fully public self, Dryden – the distinguished dramatic critic – can sound as if he understands Hamlet considerably less well than my neighbours in the stalls.
The honest attempt to serve public functions can bring to all of Dryden’s work these stultifications, these dead ends. All for Love, once so much praised by scholars, is certainly pretty: but its tragedy, like its heroics, approximates to the lifeless – which is to say the passionless, the immaterial, the unembodied. It would be easy to guess from this work, not perhaps absolutely accurately, that its maker, like many poets, cared for few human beings outside himself, and failed to understand them, except for women, whom he disliked. All for Love has no notion of the depth and breadth of human pain, of the experienced loss and betrayal and destruction that form (paradoxically) the inexhaustible life of Shakespeare’s tragedies. All for Love is, by contrast, an impertinent masterpiece of the lifeless, a fine study of cessation, of blankness, of breathlessness:
Five thousand Romans, with their faces
Lie breathless on the plain …
the world stands before me
Like a black desert at the approach of night:
I’ll lay me down, and stray no further on.
Its fourth act is full of echoes, not of the Roman source-play, but of Iago-speech: because Othello, Shakespeare’s most Restoration drama, gives Iago that dangerous dialect which severs passion and reason. There is something similar in the way the more dramatic and heroic Don Sebastian handles action by negation, by cancelling out: as in the decidedly peculiar effect with which Dorax will be killed by secret poison and then cured by secret poison; or Sebastian and Almeyda will manage brother and sister love, and a conjugal night of bliss, and eternal separation, and a shared spiritual life of honour. Whether or not Don Sebastian resembles William III is hard to argue about, where the political life, and the active life are all a cancelling out. As Dorax sharply says:
My master? – By what title?
Because I happened to be born where he
Happened to be king?
Take reason out of passion, take God out of history, put Hobbes into the theatre, and tragedy and the heroic become impossible: they become a world of ‘happening’. Certain very strong minds writing in the later 17th century are able to hold on to heroic traces of the culture they were born into. Part of the experience of reading through Paradise Lost is to feel the century change in it, to watch Satan’s corrupt if once Shakespearian heroics mutate steadily towards the grey light of the quotidian that fills the last two books. There is something comparable in the way that extremely different master, Bunyan, gives the first book of his Pilgrim’s Progress to male warriors, their heroic crossing of the river one of the great sequences in literature; and the second book to a small group of women, through whose chattering voices we can almost hear the comedies of the time. The ending of the second book, full of compassion for the frightened and weak and depressed, is no less fine than the first, but a great contrast, too. In 1691, in his Preface to William Walsh’s Dialogue, Dryden wrote of ‘this Age, and … this time, particularly, wherein I find more Heroines than Heroes’ – and there is room in this quiet jibe for Bunyan.
There are moreover other great non-literary geniuses who (like Milton and Bunyan) found ways of shaping their ideals around the needs of the moment. Christopher Wren built his churches around congregations – ‘In our reformed religion it would seem vain to make a Parish Church larger than that all who are present can both hear and see’; and Purcell comparably trained his music into an art of function, moving from the ecclesiastical into the operatic.
Dryden, probably less sure of himself than Milton and Bunyan, works his way forward through change and uncertainty. The pure Drydenian voice develops first in those theatres half hated by the poet, and the Prologues and Epilogues leap into life like Nelly herself; and there is a style curiously Drydenian in this irritated learning, this ‘still drudgeing on’. The poet is making a language that will last into the age of Swift (‘Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet’), or Defoe: the new master of a form that will all but replace poetry for a century, as Robinson Crusoe in its extreme shipwrecked mundanity throws away every heroic convention that preceded it. Robinson was born the year after Dryden, 1632. If there is, in the age of Defoe, any way forward for real poets, then it is owed to the writer who looked ‘to begin a new’.
In the Dedication to the Georgics, Dryden recommends ‘not him who never knew a Court, but him who forsakes it because he knows it’. This Miltonic echo is a good analogy to Dryden’s own remaking of the heroic as the satirical mock-heroic. Poets’ satire is on the whole beneficent, it has warmth. The warmth is audible in another Dedication, that to the Examen Poeticum: ‘Homer forms and equips those 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.’ His own heroes, Almanzor and Aureng-Zebe, are in this line – ungodly man-killers, roarers and slaves of passion, unrefined in the fires of irony, and so less revivable now than Nelly herself. And yet Dryden is exact when he observes in the Original and Progress of Satire that satire is ‘undoubtedly a species’ of ‘Heroicke Poetry it selfe’.
I am hoping to suggest the literary conditions of a paradox. If Dryden could have written, or indeed did write, some kind of heroic poem, then the result does not depend on the pay of Charles or the work of Virgil. It derives from his own sense of what was possible and impossible for himself in his own time (the Dedication to Don Sebastian: ‘A wise man will never attempt an impossibility’). But wisdom may have as much of the imaginative in it as of the prudent. The German Symbolist poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a poem about an architect who would go out at night and collect up the spaces between the palings of council fences: from these spaces he built his castle in Spain. Dryden’s heroic poems are mock-heroic; his only Hamlet the knowledge of what he couldn’t write.
Among the public satires, Absalom and Achitophel is usually reckoned to be Dryden’s chief poem. Vivid and magnificent it certainly is, a triumph in itself. But it is perhaps not quite humanly large enough to fill its own scale. There is an element in the treatment of Achitophel’s son, ‘that unfeather’d two-legged thing’, ‘born a shapeless lump, like anarchy’, that illustrates Johnson’s sober charge against the poet whose art he loved – that he lacked ‘nature’. It isn’t the cruelty that is especially worrying here, but an inanity or unreason. A marvellous story, both ancient and contemporary, is sacrificed to political pattern-making.
Oddly much for a man who writes for his social audience, and who generalises wonderfully, Dryden’s principles were those of a poet’s poet: he hated artlessness, formlessness, disorderliness. At some level these are standards too private for the public task Dryden is taking on himself, or which the functionalist and professional artist of the time found himself pursuing. Hence the suffusion in Dryden’s work of tones too hollow for the private artist and too personal for the public man. Too large a human subject can leave him lacking something. For this reason, Mac Flecknoe, written some years before Absalom and Achitophel though published after it, can claim to be the most perfectly original of his poems. Though public in its impersonality, it seems private in that there is an animation in its insults that gives an intimate and even inward tone. Johnson remarked reflectively that ‘Dryden and Settle had both placed their happiness in the claps of multitudes.’ Long before he was politically out of favour, the man who felt himself to be ‘always a poet, and never a good one’ is living with Grub Street around the next corner. This is perhaps why the shadow of Shadwell (to whom the poet laureateship would pass, a decade later, when it was taken from Dryden) has a power beyond caricature:
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Released into poetry as a primary mode, irony gives to ‘sense’ lights and shadows, heights and depths it didn’t have before: even makes it a secret back door into self-knowing. The fading Renaissance panoplies of myth blow about the poem’s Grub Street like the newspapers in Eliot’s tube station corridors. If we laugh and yet feel a certain awe at Shadwell, it is because Dryden has caught in him the mundanity of all time, held in a locus classicus of history, a century of revolution. If epics die, Shadwell is not the only dullard. The poem finds a genuine mystery in the lapses and failures of civilisation, as if we only perceive the supernatural through what is boring in the natural, or the metaphysical through what is mad in the physical. Dryden takes up his position ‘Amidst this monument of vanished minds’: and such writing is neither heroic nor burlesque, neither for nor against, neither political nor aesthetic. This is heroic writing that despairs of itself and laughs at itself; it is satire that for the first time in English takes on not Juvenalian power nor Horatian civility but something softer and wilder and, if one wants, more English. This is satire as dream (‘His rising fogs prevail upon the day’, ‘Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain’, ‘And lambent dullness played around his face’) – satire as longing, as true poetry.
David Nichol Smith said: ‘He could not have given us our greatest epic; but he is our greatest satirist.’ Pope, who offers some strong competition, must have learned from Dryden the interaction of these two ideas. The gift in the older poet that provokes this word ‘great’ is the understanding that satire, the art of drudging on, is in itself a hard, odd poetry too.
Mac Flecknoe is still not Dryden’s Hamlet. Its intensely individual character, its seminal quality, unfit it for any function more simply classic. It is, in a word, too strange a poem, too brilliantly inhuman, with its litter of letters, its dead gods and dunces, its jokes and dirty ceremonies – all its furious brooding on the artlessness of art. Dryden really was what Auden called him, ‘the greatest occasional poet in English’, a master of the publicly discursive and privately argumentative, and of all social and conversational kinds of verse: in a sense Mac Flecknoe is a lament for a world made up of occasion, of mere happening.
But a reader may also find Dryden ‘occasional’ in a different way: able to survive with peculiar strength and character through the sudden intensities and mockeries of lines that can occur anywhere, early and late in his work (‘Whilst the deep Secrets beyond practice goe’, from the Heroick Stanzas or, from The Hind and the Panther, ‘All would be happy at the cheapest rate’). My own favourite line from Dryden is that kindest and most unbeatable of insults from Mac Flecknoe, ‘Trust nature, do not labour to be dull.’ Dryden hardly seems to have trusted nature in his life, laboured all his days in his literary profession, and very possibly died thinking himself a dull dog. The work he left is dense with such entirely Drydenian moments, all glittering fragments of his Hamlet, the masterpiece that was never written.