The Poem

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...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)