Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

In his formative years, Dryden saw the chaos and destruction brought by a religiously inspired civil war in England. Most of Dryden’s major poems, including Absalom and Achitophel (1681-1682), Mac Flecknoe (1682), and Religio Laici (1682), deal with his search for an authority and a coherent tradition that could stand against anarchy and the destructive power of radical individualism. The Hind and the Panther is Dryden’s longest and most ambitious treatment of this theme. His fear of and scorn for the radical individualism that leads to extreme sectarianism is evident throughout the poem. In part 1, the sectarian animals (the wolf, the fox, the hare, and the boar) are all satiric portraits revealing the dangers of “private reason.” For Dryden, all religious sects are tainted by pride, arrogance, confusion, violence, and a generally rebellious spirit. This sectarian rebelliousness has dangerous political and religious implications. Also for Dryden, sectarian belief in the efficacy of reason presents a fundamental and profound problem. In Dryden’s view, the very essence of religion is that it deals with things beyond reason. Reason is valuable in those areas where it is appropriate, but it is helpless and misleading in the higher sphere of divinity: “Let Reason then at her own quarry fly,/ But how can finite grasp Infinity?”

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In part 2 of The Hind and the Panther, Dryden sees the Anglican church as the least tainted of non-Catholic faiths. It is “least deform’d, because reform’d the least.” Still, with great argumentative and poetic skill, Dryden expresses what he sees as the essential faults of the Anglican hind: It has no real apostolic authority, it is the dubious result of English political history, it is inconsistent and wavering in its basic doctrine, and it relies on a belief in individual biblical interpretation that can only produce chaos. In part 3, Dryden goes on to emphasize what he sees as the Anglican church’s destructive willingness to enter into unscrupulous political alliances.

Since, for Dryden, no church based on “private reason” and sectarianism can provide a true authority and a valid tradition, it is in the Catholic church that he finds what he calls the “one central principle of unity.” For Dryden, the Catholic church is “Entire, one solid shining diamond.” It has the majesty of the bride of Christ. It is an authoritative and unwavering source of doctrine. It has a unity, a sanctity, a universality, and a claim to apostolic succession that form a telling contrast to the intellectual and spiritual chaos which, for Dryden, marked the English religious sects of the late seventeenth century. Certainly, from one point of view, Dryden’s poem is a brilliantly versified defense of Catholicism. It is, however, something more: the dramatization of a powerful mind’s search for certainty in a world of political and religious confusion.

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