Fables, Ancient And Modern "Made Almost A Sin Of Abstinence"

John Dryden

"Made Almost A Sin Of Abstinence"

Context: Proclaimed as "Imitated from Chaucer, and inlarg'd," Dryden included a portrait of a godly parson in his Fables Ancient and Modern, published in 1700, the year of his death. In 1698 the diary writer Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), while dining with Dryden, suggested that the poet bring some of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) up to date, and that he write a modern version of Chaucer's "Good Parson." The following year Dryden completed his "Character of a Good Parson" and sent a copy to Pepys. Dryden looked on the poem, perhaps, as a sort of apology for the many scathing and satirical remarks he had made about ministers in his writings. From its Preface, one might expect the fable to be a rewriting of the portrait of the parson in the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (lines 477–528), even though Dryden used the rhymed couplets and occasional triplets, instead of Chaucer's meter. However, a comparison of the two passages indicates that they must be parsons from different dioceses. Dryden's version begins: "A parish priest was of the pilgrim train;/ An awful, reverend, and religious man." It gives his age as sixty years, with the possibility of another sixty unless his severe and rigid mode of living kills him before his time. He wears shabby clothes, as Jesus did on earth, and is so pious and abstemious that he carries his virtues to excess and almost makes sins of them. Yet obviously, the poet admires the parson and thinks him as sincere as he appears.

. . .
Rich was his soul, tho' his attire was poor,
(As God had cloth'd his own ambassador;)
For such, on earth, his blest Redeemer bore.
Of sixty years he seem'd; and well might last
To sixty more, but that he lived too fast;
Refin'd himself to soul, to curb the sense;
And made almost a sin of abstinence.
Yet had his aspect nothing of severe,
But such a face as promis'd him sincere.
Nothing reserved or sullen was to see,
But sweet regards and pleasing sanctity;
Mild was his accent, and his action free.
. . .