The Hind and the Panther is a long poem in three parts totaling 2,592 lines. In this poem, John Dryden employs his favorite verse form, the heroic couplet. Taken as a whole, The Hind and the Panther is an allegorical and argumentative treatment of the religious conflicts that took place in England during the reign of King James II. More specifically, the poem is a defense of the Catholic faith and of Dryden’s conversion to Catholicism in 1685. The hind of the poem’s title is an allegorical deer representing the Catholic church, while the panther represents the Anglican church.
In part 1 of The Hind and the Panther, Dryden introduces the various religious factions of his time as allegorical beasts. Thus, the bear represents religious independents, the hare represents Quakers, the ape represents atheists, the boar represents Baptists, the fox represents Unitarians, and the wolf represents Presbyterians. The fox and the wolf are described with special satiric intensity. Also in part 1, Dryden includes a moving and beautifully expressed confession of his own religious faith. Part 1 concludes with a meeting between the Catholic hind and the Anglican panther, which sets the stage for part 2.
Part 2 is essentially a vigorous debate between the hind and the panther in which the main differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism are argued in verse of great power and discursive clarity. The issues discussed include church authority, biblical interpretation, the value of Catholic oral tradition, the Catholic doctrine of infallibility, and the 1673 Test Act, which prevented Catholics from being appointed to important state positions. Consistent with the general purpose of the poem, the Catholic positions are expressed with overwhelmingly persuasive force.
Part 3 continues the debate between the hind and the panther but deals less with doctrine than with the political future of Catholics in England. The panther tells an animal fable dealing with swallows and martins in which the swallows, representing Catholics in general, and the martins, representing the Catholic clergy, are fooled by mild weather into delaying migration until they are destroyed by the coming of winter. This fable within a fable not only expresses Anglican antipathy toward the Catholics but also serves as Dryden’s warning to his fellow Catholics that they should not depend too much on King James’s pro-Catholic policies. By way of answer to the panther, the hind tells her own fable of the pigeons and the buzzard in which she warns of the dangers to the Anglican church if the Anglicans ally themselves too closely with the sectarian supporters of the anti-Catholic Test Act. Following this fable, the poem ends with a beautiful passage that suggests the divine nature and the glorious future of the Catholic church.
Dryden’s most obvious literary technique in The Hind and the Panther is the allegorical animal fable. Not only is the poem as a whole an animal fable, but part 3 also presents two distinct animal fables within the larger fable. As Dryden makes clear at the beginning of part 3, he is very much aware of the tradition of the animal fable, which goes back to ancient times. By using the fable, he is able to deal with very controversial and potentially explosive religious and political matters with humor, detachment, clarity, and simplicity. His use of the animal fable gives The Hind and the Panther a lightness and playfulness that the reader might not expect from the poem’s serious subject matter.
Dryden balances the lightness of his fable with another literary technique that is important in both The Hind and the Panther and his poetry in general. Dryden was a great master of the...
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verse essay. There are few poets in all of world literature who can equal his ability to reason and debate within the restrictions and formal demands of verse structure. Thus, especially in part 2, the debate between the hind and the panther regarding complex religious issues is handled with a precision, force, logic, and polish that are uniquely Drydenian. Much of the success ofThe Hind and the Panther stems from Dryden’s remarkable combination of fabulistic charm and discursive strength.
Dryden’s poetry as a whole is famous for its satire, and satire is, predictably, an important element in The Hind and the Panther. In part 1, Dryden sharply satirizes religious sectarianism in general and Unitarianism and Presbyterianism in particular. Moreover, the history of Anglicanism, the contradictions of the Church of England, and the political effects of radical Protestantism are handled with flashing ridicule.
Dryden’s imagery is also important in The Hind and the Panther, especially imagery associated with light. Light is most often used to describe the purity and truth of Catholicism. Thus, the Catholic church is “a blaze of glory that forbids the sight,” while the Anglican church is seen as a moon that reflects the higher light of Catholicism: “The rays she borrow’d from a better star.” Dryden also uses a wide variety of imagery to clarify arguments or to sharpen satiric points. Thus, he communicates the doctrinal instability of Anglicanism with a simple but effective image: “Her wild belief on ev’ry wave is toss’d.” In discussing the intellectual darkness of radical sectarianism, Dryden reduces the followers of such sects to blind insects. They are “such souls as shards produce, such beetle things/ As only buzz to heav’n with ev’ning wings.” His wonderfully diminishing imagery also describes the origins of Calvinism on the shores of Lake Geneva near the Alps: “What tho’ your native kennel still be small,/ Bounded betwixt a puddle and a wall.”
Finally, Dryden’s complete mastery of the neoclassical heroic couplet is crucial to The Hind and the Panther. His handling of narrative, argument, and satire in the poem depends on the compression and energy of his couplets. As an example, note how Dryden uses rhythm, parallel structure, and alliteration within the heroic couplet to define the weakness of the Anglican church surrounded by sectarian enemies: “Rul’d while she rules, and losing ev’ry hour/ Her wretched remnants of precarious pow’r.”