The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

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Religio Laici (a layman’s religion) represents John Dryden’s tentative and candid examination of major religious issues of his day. From the title, one might expect a personal confession of faith. Instead, Dryden examines the principal contemporary religious currents in England and, although he reveals only general points about his own beliefs, he clearly expresses his adherence to the Church of England. The poem, consisting of 456 lines of heroic couplets, divides into several logical sections.

In the beginning, Dryden eloquently points to limitations on the power of reason in religion, stressing that even the ancient philosophers, despite all their wisdom, could discover no adequate foundation for religion through their intellectual efforts. Because he shared with his contemporaries a profound respect for the intellectual attainments of the classical Greeks and Romans, this line of reasoning effectively prepares the groundwork for Dryden’s rejection of Deism, the rational religion of his own day. A summary of basic Deistic tenets (lines 42-61) precedes a formal rejection of natural religion.

Dryden suggests that any light the Deist sees originates in revelation, not from man’s intuitive knowledge as the Deists assumed, and that, in any case, a lesser being such as man cannot atone for his own sins through his own efforts (lines (62-125). Only an unfallen being, Dryden urges, would be adequate to the task. Defending the Bible as the true source of religious revelation (lines 126-167), Dryden cites specific factors that support its authority: its antiquity, its narrative consistency, the conviction and courage of its authors, external confirmation from other sources, its style, its success despite its demanding ethics, and its acceptance despite persecution.

The Deist renews the debate that it is unjust that so many who never had an opportunity to receive revelation have been lost. Dryden agrees that this is a grave charge, yet he thinks that through divine mercy many who never knew the true religion might yet have been saved (lines 168-223).

As this point, the poem takes a different approach to the question of scriptural authority by discussing Father Richard Simon’s Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (Critical History of the Old Testament), first published in 1678 and translated into English in 1682 by Henry Dickinson. In a note in his text, Dryden explains that this portion is a digression, though it returns him to the authority of Scripture versus tradition, a central difference between Protestants and Catholics. Since he has already argued for the authority of the Bible, Dryden has laid the groundwork for parrying a newer and more recent challenge. Through meticulous scholarship, Simon demonstrated that translators had so loosely and inaccurately translated biblical books that their claim to serve as a basis for faith was seriously compromised. His purpose was to induce readers to turn to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church as an infallible guide. Dryden acknowledges that Simon’s points are cogent in many instances but believes that the translations are sufficiently accurate on matters of genuine importance. He asserts that Scripture is clear on essential points and rejects the view that an infallible church exists. While Dryden does not entirely exclude reliance upon tradition, he points out that generally the most reliable is the most ancient. Thus, tradition should be considered, but more trust should be placed in the authority of the most ancient church fathers.

Excessive reliance on tradition, Dryden charges, has caused the Catholic Church to deny the laity access to the Bible (lines 356-397). Yet making the text available had the unfortunate effect of causing individuals to become overzealous and to run to extremes of contention and sectarianism (lines 398-426). Rejection of tradition thus led to extremes of private interpretation and ensuing religious strife.

In the conclusion of the poem (lines 427-456), Dryden recommends moderation based upon the realization that necessary points of faith are few and plain. He further suggests that disputed points might be settled through the authority of the earliest and least corrupt of church fathers and that an individual who differs from others on doctrine can promote the interests of society as a whole by keeping personal beliefs private.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

In his lengthy prose introduction to Religio Laici, Dryden comments on the style appropriate to a poem of its kind:If anyone be so lamentable a critic as to require the smoothness, the numbers, and the turn of heroic poetry in this poem, I must tell him that, if he has not read Horace, I have studied him, and hope the style of his Epistles is not ill imitated here. The expressions of a poem design’d purely for instruction ought to be plain and natural, and yet majestic; for here the poet is presum’d to be a kind of lawgiver, and those three qualities which I have nam’d are proper to the legislative style.

Casting himself in the role of an instructor and teacher, Dryden is content to eschew poetic ornaments and figures in favor of a direct, plain style.

The poem employs the heroic couplet, Dryden’s preferred verse form, with few variations. Major structural divisions are usually indicated through verse paragraphs. Although most of the couplets are end-stopped, the norm for this stanza pattern, a large number end with less than a full stop so that the grammatical unit carries over to additional lines. This extension of the grammatical unit enables Dryden to pursue a line of reasoning smoothly to its end, taking into account some of its complexities. Dryden’s expansion of the normal limits of the couplet is one key to his skill at reasoning verse.

In Dryden’s heroic couplets, metrical departures are limited to two major ones, and both can be observed in Religio Laici. By occasionally adding a line to form a triplet, Dryden breaks the steady rhythm of the couplet. The break is even more effective when he makes the third verse a hexameter and creates a climactic effect, although among the seven triplets in Religio Laici few create an impressive rhetorical climax. The satiric tone of the following, expressing disapproval of excessive and individual reliance upon Scripture, may represent the triplet at its most effective in the poem:

The spirit gave the doctoral degree;And every member of a companyWas of his trade and of the Bible free.

The triplet’s final verse, a hexameter for emphasis, achieves subtle poetic effects through balance and the use of zeugma, an unusual scheme for Dryden.

The second variation, use of a hemistitch or “half line,” occurs only once in the poem. As a precedent for this metrical variation, Dryden cites Vergil, probably erroneously, for modern critics believe that the short lines in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) are actually incomplete verses. Dryden uses the hemistitch to achieve an effective climax in the following passage:

Those giant wits, in happier ages born,Knew no such system; no such piles could raiseOf natural worship, built on pray’r and praiseTo One Sole GOD.

The final verse of only four syllables draws the reader up short; emphasis is further heightened by accents on three of its four syllables.

Throughout the poem Dryden uses schemes of repetition, such as balance and antithesis, yet his style remains for the most part simple and unadorned, at least by comparison with his other long poems in heroic couplets. In large measure, he assumes the stance of the debater, answering objections from the Deist on the one hand and the Catholic on the other. On occasion, Dryden personifies his adversary and gives him a direct quotation. The effect is clearly to stack the argument in Dryden’s favor, since his opponents have no opportunity to attack his own moderate positions outlined near the poem’s conclusion. When he presents his own views, he speaks in the first person, in a tone that is both reassuring and restrained. In both prose and verse, Dryden was a master of the art of taking the reader into his confidence.

Not all the diction is informal and colloquial, however; the most striking departure from the plain style can be found in the poem’s opening twenty-two lines. In stately, slow rhythms, verses adorned with similes and metaphors and with schemes of repetition achieve a studied, majestic effect as Dryden explores the limitations of reason. The careful arrangement of sounds creates a tone of solemnity appropriate to Dryden’s subject—the inadequacy of reason in religion. The verses remind the reader that Dryden is indeed capable of the heroic style that he has agreed to abandon. Paradoxically, while Dryden rejects reason as inadequate, he employs it as fully as possible in support of his major arguments throughout the rest of the poem.