John Dryden the Restoration poet and critic, has been justly praised as the father of modern English. In spite of the three centuries separating his age from our own, his works in both verse and prose are surprisingly contemporary in his diction and sentence structure. Dryden had an uncanny instinct for avoiding fads and selecting those elements in the language of his day that were to be relatively permanent, and his style exerted a powerful influence on succeeding generations of writers.
Dryden’s reputation as a poet rests upon his control of language, his ability to treat widely different subjects with equal skill, and his remarkable gift for expressing complex ideas clearly in verse. His work does not often convey great emotional or imaginative power, and he was generally most successful when he could apply his wit and clarity of expression to someone else’s plot. His best known satire, Absalom and Achitophel, is based upon Old Testament history and a contemporary political intrigue; his finest play, All for Love, owes much to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. His talents were especially well-suited to the journalistic chronicling of events in works like the Annus Mirabilis, an account of the war with the Dutch and of the great fire of London that marked the year 1666, and to translations. His versions of the fables of Chaucer and Boccaccio and of Vergil’s Aeneid have merited special praise for their smoothness and their fidelity to the original texts.
Dryden is best known for his satirical poetry, which depends for its effect chiefly upon devastating, succinct character sketches and pungent witticisms. Writing without the personal bitterness of the great eighteenth century satirists, Swift and Pope, Dryden humorously ridicules the corrupt politicians and bad poets of his day. “The Medall” attacks the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Achitophel of Absalom and Achitophel, who was involved in a plot to name the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, heir to the throne. Dryden based his satire on a medal struck by Shaftesbury’s supporters to celebrate his release from the tower of London, comparing the Earl to this commemorative piece:
Never did Art so well with Naturestrive,Nor ever Idol seem’d so much alive:So like the Man; so golden to the sight,So base within, so counterfeit and light.
“MacFlecknoe,” an amusing mock heroic poem, is a witty attack upon several minor poets, notably Richard Flecknoe and Thomas Shadwell. Much of the poem’s humor is derived from the contrast between the absurd subject, the coronation of a new king of the realm of Nonsense, and the lofty style in which Dryden couches his account of the ceremony. The poem opens with an elevated moral sentiment, then dignifies the old king, Flecknoe, by comparing him to the Emperor Augustus:
All human things are subject to decay,And, when Fate summons, Monarchsmust obey.This Flecknoe found, who, like Augus-tus, youngWas call’d to Empire, and had govern’dlong;In Prose and Verse, was own’d, with-out dispute,Thro’ all the Realms of Nonsense,absolute.
Dryden punctures the epic elevation of his beginning with the word “nonsense” in line six, but he gives no indication of awareness that his subject is less significant than that of the Iliad, preserving the essentially serious tone of the mock epic.
In describing his hero, Shadwell, Dryden again makes skillful use of the satirical portrait. Flecknoe says:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,Mature in dullness from his tenderyears:Shadwell alone, of all my Sons, is heWho stands confirm’d in full stupidity.The rest to some faint meaning makepretence,But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Dryden handles the heroic couplet brilliantly for comic effect in the satires, working within the confines of its two lines for pointed criticism and exploiting the humorous potential of rhyme. He achieves a very different result with the same verse form in his two major theological works, the Religio Laici (The Religion of a Layman), a discussion of his Anglican faith, and The Hind and the Panther, an allegorical beast fable written in defense of its doctrines after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. He places less emphasis on rhyme in these works and often carries his thoughts through several couplets as he deals with such knotty questions as the doctrine of invincible ignorance, the interpretation of scripture, and the power of reason. These are not poems designed for light entertainment, but the clarity and logic with which Dryden presents his arguments are impressive. Many passages, among them these lines from the Religio Laici, are worthy of comparison with the philosophical poems of Lucretius and Vergil:
Dim, as the borrow’d beams of Moonand StarsTo lonely, weary, wand’ring...
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