Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although Dryden acknowledges the limits of reason in religious inquiry, his objective is to persuade the reader by presenting a rational, moderate argument. As he says in his preface, men are to be reasoned into truth. His portrayal of the Church of England and its theological stance reflects the longstanding view of the church as a via media, a middle way between extremes. Dryden is content to uphold general beliefs, such as the authority of Scripture and atonement, and leave other points vague.

The occasion for the poem is not known, though it is possible that, as poet laureate, Dryden thought it prudent to distance himself from the rising current of Deism, or rational religion, which appealed to his age. Like many Englishmen of the Restoration, he shared the view that extremes in religion brought calamity to society, though unlike the Deists, he was unwilling to distance himself from Christianity.

He disagrees with Deism on two basic assumptions. First, he rejects the view that basic religious truths are innate and articulable through reason. If that were so, Dryden argues cogently, the ancients would have discovered them. Second, he argues that following the fall, man’s reconciliation with God cannot be achieved by man himself. The Deists, rejecting the idea of original sin, logically denied the need for atonement. On the other hand, Dryden agrees with the Deistic view that to condemn those who lived before or outside the...

(The entire section is 475 words.)