I was mostly in my right mind when I blustered, a few years ago, that John Dryden was among the five great poets in English. The number five was arbitrary and probably a stretch, and rankings are adolescent indulgences; but adolescent indulgences can’t be given up without incurring some serious damage and my point, which I stand by, was that Dryden really was a great poet. I don’t know what had brought me to the outburst, but I wasn’t just imitating the enfant terrible Eliot; I’d been reading Dryden with pleasure. Sometimes that happens.
The occasion was a late night conversation with a friend, an academic, now a newly-minted professor, one of the best young (young for academics) historians and critics of the thoughts and feelings storming around and through Romantic poetry. To show me what was lacking in Dryden, he proposed a face-off: I would read a Dryden passage aloud, and he would read a passage from Stevens. I was disadvantaged in the enterprise by my warbling voice, hardly the best to bring out Dryden’s majestic strength; and my friend’s voice, somewhat smoky and deep, could not be better designed to set off unexpected depths in even Stevens’ moments of frivolous play. I suffered a shellacking; or, given Stevens’ inheritance, a shelleyacking.
Though Stevens and Dryden belong to traditions that have often been counter-posed (classical or neo-classical v. Romantic), of all the Romantic poets, they are well-paired in at least one regard. Both are capable of writing philosophic poetry. Eliot, in the essay on Dryden, quotes disapprovingly Milton’s description of the food of the angels (“food alike those pure| Intelligential substances require| As doth your rational”)— a point upon which Milton has been attacked for imaginative confusion—and remarks that “Dryden might have made poetry out of that; his translation from Lucretius is poetry.” Eliot is referring to Dryden’s poetry to write poetry that systematizes and categorizes, even at a level of some abstraction; and Stevens, though not as systematic as Lucretius, is capable of doing the same.
The comparison to Lucretius, and the passage from Milton, is helpful for drawing attention to further similarities and differences between Stevens and Dryden. Like Lucretius, both Stevens and Dryden are poets of matter. Though Stevens is an heir of impressionist and modernist painting, where perspective is fractured and refigured, and Dryden an heir to the baroque exterior lighting of Rubens’ writhing Herculean forms, both Dryden and Stevens are poets of the concrete; against the concrete, flights of conceptual abstraction are possible. Stevens’ aptitude for summoning and presenting the weight of matter sets him apart also from some of his Romantic forbears: Shelley is a poet of reflections and shadows; Wordsworth of empirical doubt. They both depend on the matter of the word–and in both Wordsworth and Shelley, the word “thing” is pressed on, sometimes subtly, sometimes excruciatingly (as in “Mont Blanc”)–but they do not ask language to give us that matter, to find its opportunities in meeting the challenge of getting matter into poetry without transforming or sublimating it from physical stuff. The Romantic that most would see behind Stevens, and that would seem to prove an exception to what I say, is Keats; but Keats writes of qualia, of the feel and experience of touch itself, rather than of the stuff that is touched. Reading his poetry, we are asked more often to feel feeling than to feel the material of the world.
What Keats and Dryden hold in common against Stevens is that they are poets of the body. Maybe it was Keats’ sense of kinship for Dryden that led him to that “intensive study” (John Jones’ words) of Dryden which yielded “Lamia.” But Dryden does not provide Keats what he needs in that poem. John Jones, the unjustly forgotten Oxford critic with single-author studies of Wordsworth, Keats, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky (how’s that for range, and even where he fails he keeps in mind the essential critical task: accounting for a work’s power), takes the poem’s measure: One reason for arguing against visual-pictorial accounts of Keats is to appreciate the singularity of “Lamia”. At last we have a poem whose descriptive progress is wedded to the eye, to light. Its Greek and legendary material seems unearnestly handled because the characteristic Keatsian penetration is absent; and so the spatial and temporal consequences of that penetration do not follow either; the snailhorn has been denied, and the story follows insensitively brisk. This is a work of surfaces: of “frecklings, streaks, and bars”, of “phosphor glow| Reflected in the slapped steps below”, of “crystal polish.” Sight has expelled feel except where feel can be made to agree with the new Drydenesque hardness: “his galley now| Grated the quaystones with her brazen prow–“
And a bit further on, Jones elaborates further: The reality in Hermes’ dream is a heartless postulate; therefore his love-experience, the “warm, flush’d moment” and what follows, lacks imaginative body. But it has been lent a rhetorical voice, the bodiless voice of great Keats, which is why those who rejoice in Keats find the voice distressing.
Whatever justice all of this does or does not do to Keats, it does a great deal to Dryden, though maybe without realizing it. The reason that Jones understands readers of Keats to be disappointed by “Lamia” is that they are given a) external realities without “Keatsian penetration” and b) the (somewhat tired) characteristic features of “Keatsian penetration,” the “warm, flush’d moment,” for instance, without the imaginative body, or the imagined body, of the poet; they are voice alone. Where Keats penetrates into love-experience, the body fades from view; where the body appears, it is one object experienced from without, interacting with other objects, from without. Keats cannot reconcile the “voice of great Keats,” a voice that speaks to and of rushes and flushes of blood, the glands and veins swelling in response to the world, with the experience of the body that he finds in Dryden’s poetry. This because Dryden’s sense of the body, his experience of the body and presentation of the body in his verse, is fundamentally at odds with Keats’. Jones writes of “Lamia” that “Sight has expelled feel except where feel can be made to agree with the new Drydensque hardness.” I would modify the phrase in one regard: “Sight has expelled feel except where, in a manner typical of Dryden, feel can be made to agree with hardness.” And the line from “Lamia”: “Grated the quaystones with her brazen prow” does have the ring of Dryden.
In saying “Lamia” is “a work of surfaces,” Jones suggests that Dryden’s poetry is a poetry of surfaces too; and he recalls also Dryden’s great critical and poetic heir, Ben Jonson, whose poetic dramas Eliot had called “poetry of the surface.” Stevens’ poetry is of surfaces too; but Stevens’ poetry is of surfaces observed (and under varied perspectives, various lights, as in post-impressionism and early modernism painting); Dryden’s poetry is of surfaces felt, encountered bodily: not, as in Keats, the feel of a body feeling surfaces (what Jones, broadening “empathy” by returning to its German origin, calls “in-feeling”), but the feel of the surfaces by a body.
Dryden: the body’s surface feeling surfaces. Keats: the feel of a body feeling surfaces. Stevens: observing the surfaces of the surface.
Keats’ voice in “Lamia,” where it is most bodiless, might have come close to Stevens—had Keats abandoned the aspiration of Keatsian penetration and in-feeling: he might have indulged more entirely in the surfaces of things, without concern for a body at all. Or else he might have returned to Dryden, remained content with repeating, under new conditions, to new ends, what Dryden had done already; but this would have meant accepting a body of surfaces.
Lots of readers nowadays are maybe inclined to find Dryden less worthwhile because he is a poet of surfaces; but this neglects that “feel can be made to agree with hardness,” that he does not abandon feelings, but must feel differently than Keats because he writes poetry that aims at something distinct, and something that Keats, and all of the Romantics except for Byron (who, of surfaces, and heir to Pope heir to Dryden, is not really a poet of the body, despite his eroticism; once we know about it, the vinegar-diet is difficult to forget when reading his descriptions; he is best where the body fails, as in the second canto of Don Juan), either did not aim at, or else did not manage with much success.
In an essay on Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Donald Davie returns to an old tried truth about Wordsworth’s genius: that it thrived on immobility and stasis. Where Wordsworth does describe a body, as in “Old Man Travelling” or “Old Cumberland Beggar” or “Resolution and Independence,” he is fascinated by how inhuman the bodies seem, and how little they move; and rather than give a sense of their dimensions, the bare, wasted forms of the figures lead Wordsworth to discover a quasi-spiritual aura about them, obstructing their physical features, preventing his imagining what it is like for them to have corporeal existences, and to feel. He is often amazed that they can move at all, their human features being refined to such a degree that they become other-worldly, both less and more than human.
Keats writes in Wordsworth’s shadow in this regard: he too is a poet of stasis and immobility. He differs from Wordsworth, of course, and here too John Jones is a helpful guide: explaining the difference between Keats’ successes and failures: All Keats does in these 1817 examples is to declare a pose. That, indeed, makes them interesting, since the unvindicated words of attitude give us access to the crucial distinction between visual and spatial imagining. No pandering to vision will help him fill his attitude-words, because he is not that kind of poet….These are empty attitudes awaiting their conventional visual filling, and he can supply it. But the phrase which gave us momentary pause, “Thy ruby lips part sweetly, | And so remain, because thou listenest:” is on a different plane. An illustrator would be at a loss here because the attitude has already been filled, and the filling is not visual except in one of its effects…A stasis, spatial and time-defying, is the feat of imagination we are saying yes to.
Jones struggles to define the nature of Keats’ stasis, but there is no doubt that it is stasis. In Stevens too, stasis is the end; and once again a different stasis from that of Wordsworth or Keats; the stasis of the observer, of the inhuman, of the point of rest maybe. But I would think that in Stevens too the static predominates; which is not to say that it is all that there is, since of course stasis can only be known against a backdrop of action; but center-stage or chief focus can be given to one or the other.
Dryden, though, is not a poet of stasis: he is a poet of the body in action. He is a poet of surfaces, as Byron is, because surfaces are encountered in acting in the world, in moving through it; and he is, more than Byron, a poet of the feel of surfaces, because he can write about what it feels like for a body to encounter the world, with visceral directness. Nor, I think, can this be explained by his writing during the flourishing of British empiricism; empirical philosophy is a response to doubts, and Dryden does not seem possessed of these, does not write to answer them. He cares about how the world can be used, about what can be done with its things, but he accepts that they are present before him.
Because of this, Dryden is easiest to come to, not necessarily in his own poems, not even the satires, but in his translations, of Lucretius, of Virgil (especially the Georgics). But rather than look at those poems right now, I would like to choose a very different poem, a poem that most readers would now think dull, “Religio Laici.” This is a poem of ideas, and more than that, it is a poem about the need to accept ideas without too supercilious an attitude of inquiry, respecting what has been given, as something given. Now, this attitude is of limited use, since there is much that ought to be questioned, but it of use nonetheless, and maybe especially in matters of faith, after a period of severe civil unrest. The poem is, as I’ve said, chargeable with dullness, and yet Dryden seems to have known that even his contemporaries would have thought so: “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 designed purely for instruction ought to be plain and natural, and yet majestic; for here the poet is presumed to be a kind of lawgiver, and those three qualities which I have named are proper to the legislative style.” And the poem’s concluding lines: “Thus have I made my own opinions clear; | Yet neither praise expect, nor censure fear;| And this unpolished, rugged verse, I chose, | As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose; | For while from sacred truth I do not swerve, | Tom Sternhold’s, or Tom Shadwell’s rhymes will serve.”
I am going to press hard on some fairly common phrases that Dryden uses, but I think they are symptomatic of his attitude towards poetry and language, and that they bear on his being a poet of a body coming into contact with bodies; or rather, that they are continuous with his sense of his own body jostling and knocking up against the stuff of the world. For Dryden, language and poetry was among that stuff that his body jostled and knocked against; not only because the poetry was often a vessel for opinions that might have real consequences for his material comfort and for the material bases of power in society, but because poetry was itself a form of public commerce and a forum for it. In the lines above, “Do not swerve” refuses to deflect a course aimed at truth; but “will serve” accepts that language need not be perfect, but only good enough in getting one there; it takes a potentially crudely instrumental view of language, even while implicitly claiming that his rhymes are superior to Sternhold’s or Shadwell’s (Dryden’s are superior, but not because they need to be; we should be grateful for it nonetheless).
And there is also in Dryden’s closing lines a pride in having chosen “unpolished, rugged verse,” a description that might be taken for granted, itself an unpolished commonplace description, except that for a poet of surfaces, we need to realize that the description insists that language itself is to be treated as a thing of surfaces, that the surfaces of language are what we come into contact with.
For all that “Religio Laici” is a poem about Dryden’s opinions, and the truth, it is also a poem about the Word, about Books, and about how to receive these; and a dominant figurative strain running through the poem is that these are to be received as physical things, and not only because printing made it possible for the Bible to be disseminated (though that is one cause that Dryden recognizes):
In times o’ergrown with rust and ignorance,
A gainful trade their clergy did advance:
When want of learning kept the laymen low,
And none but priests were authoriz’d to know:
When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell;
And he a God who could but read or spell;
Then Mother Church did mightily prevail:
She parcell’d out the Bible by retail:
But still expounded what she sold or gave;
To keep it in her power to damn and save:
Scripture was scarce, and as the market went,
Poor laymen took salvation on content;
As needy men take money, good or bad:
God’s Word they had not, but the priests they had.
Yet, whate’er false conveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learn’d their knack so well.
That by long use they grew infallible:
At last, a knowing age began t’enquire
If they the Book, or that did them inspire:
And, making narrower search they found, though late,
That what they thought the priest’s was their estate:
Taught by the will produc’d, (the written Word)
How long they had been cheated on record.
Then, every man who saw the title fair,
Claim’d a child’s part, and put in for a share:
Consulted soberly his private good;
And sav’d himself as cheap as e’er he could.
The lines are scornful of the way in which the Bible’s words have been exchanged, too dearly or too cheaply, but they are not scornful of the figure of exchange, or of the implication that there is a real substance to the Bible, a substance for life and nourishment. The figure of the Bible as matter, the Word as material (not only begetting the world, but itself of the world’s stuff), is built upon to describe the destruction wrought by the extremes of Protestantism:
While crowds unlearn’d, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buzz and swarm,
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood;
And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
A thousand daily sects rise up, and die;
A thousand more the perish’d race supply:
So all we make of Heaven’s discover’d Will
Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
In part, it’s only natural, naturally conventional that is, that the inheritance of the Bible and God’s word finds expression in figures drawn from the inventory of the world’s materials. But it’s one thing to draw from those materials, and another to insist on their corporeal presences, and on their circulation in the world, as Dryden does in both passages.
Why Dryden being disingenuous when he wrote that the language of the poem would be “plain, and natural, and yet majestic” rather than “florid, elevated, and figurative”? He describes the latter as the “way for the passions” and he justifies his preference for the former: “love and hatred, fear and anger are begotten in the soul by showing their objects out of their true proportion, either greater than the life, or less; but instruction is to be given by showing them what they naturally are.” We are left to weigh Dryden’s irony against two other possibilities: that he viewed these passages as exceptions, necessary portions of passion, or else that he accepted that figures were necessary for all poetry, and that these were figures that showed how objects naturally are. Irony seems out of place in the preface where Dryden defends his poetry; he would in that case provide his enemies with fodder. I accept that these passages are written with greater passion than the poem in its coolest moments; that the contrast is part of what lends sturdy reliability to the cool reason of lines such as “Faith is not built on disquisitions vain; | The things we must believe are few and plain.” But even granting this much, it would have been a disadvantage to Dryden if he had done what he said what he would not, had abused his enemies with the figures of passion, rather than of reason. As he concludes his preface by writing: “A man is to be cheated into passion, but reasoned into truth.” Dryden, in other words, would likely have felt that these figures were reasonable. Whatever Dryden’s views of language and the language of scripture, they seem at least to contain this element: that he thoughts words were, naturally, fundamentally, akin to the material objects, not only resembling them for occasional heuristic purposes.
Dryden goes further yet, and gives hardness not only to words, but to that more nebulous character of language: truth. “But truth by its own sinews will prevail.” And appropriately to a poet with such a belief, there is something sinewy in this. It anticipates Hopkins’ praise of Dryden: “his style and his rhythms lay the strongest stress of all our literature on the naked thew and sinew of the English language.” And we understand why Hopkins, of all poets of the nineteenth century, admired Dryden when we realize both that Hopkins was the most brutally physical poet in his encounters with the surfaces of the world, and also wrote one of the century’s greatest poems on a strong, muscular body (as opposed to the withered bodies in Wordsworth’s poetry or the wasted bodies of Tennyson): “Harry Ploughman.”
Even in a poem like “Religio Laici,” where Dryden is concerned with opinion and scripture, with controversies of interpretation and faith, he imagines the feel of the hardness of things as he comes into contact with them. Doing so allows him to gain a purchase on those matters as commodities, as subject to deprivation, to apportioning, as resistant and resisting, and as possessed of an inertia of matter, as well as a variety that corresponds to the range of variegation encountered in everyday material transactions.
The tendency, even appetency, to encounter even the spiritual and metaphysical as the physical is found throughout the verse. In so different a poem as “Eleonora,” for instance: “As in perfumes composed with art and cost, | ‘Tis hard to say what scent is uppermost; | Nor this part musk or civet can we call, | Or amber, but a rich result of all; | So she was all sweet, whose every part, | In due proportion mixed, proclaimed the maker’s art.” Even in these lines, I find that Dryden goes further than other poets would, remaining longer with his consideration of the physical, in the lines after “uppermost,” than the point might seem to require. And in the next verse-paragraph:
A wife as tender, and as true withal,
As the first woman was before her fall:
Made for the man of whom she was a part;
Made to attract his eyes, and keep his heart.
A second Eve, but by no crime accursed;
As beauteous, not as brittle as the first.
These are not especially remarkable lines, but there are nonetheless a few remarkable touches on them. First, there is the light pun on ” a part,” since she was “apart” from and “a part” of him at once, and unfortunately apart from him when she fell, and yet never more with him than after the fall. Then there is the word “brittle,” where Dryden, to me shows his genius, giving Eve’s virtue, and her weakness, a tangible reality; Eve would not just fall, but falling, would break, as anything brittle might; no such thing for the Countess of Abingdon, to whom the poem was dedicated. But the word “brittle” bestows new life also on a dead metaphor earlier: “A wife as tender.” “Tender” because caring, as Eve was, but also, as Eve was not, tender to the point of softness, where was is tender is not often brittle; whatever the logic of softness and hardness, fragility and resilience, the word “brittle” reminds us that “tender” has a tactile dimension too, and that both brittleness and tenderness are known not by touch alone, but by physical pressure.
Moments like this are frequent throughout Dryden’s verse; we need only urge ourselves slightly towards understanding that he really means for his physical, tangible figures and metaphors to be felt by the mind’s moving body, and not just heard by the mind’s ear or seen by the mind’s eye. Doing so, we can better appreciate the force of his poetry where sonority is lacking and the visual imagination is deprived of rich detail. Arnold complained that his was a poetry of the age of prose, and of a prose appropriate for reason; Arnold was seeking the true “accent” of poetry, and he joins others in finding Dryden’s ear to have unfairly maligned Chaucer, to have flattened rather than respected the diversity of passionate sound available to poetry. Maybe so; but Arnold might have been misled by reading for an accent in the first place. Dryden, asks to be read not by an accent, and not even by touch, but by something more forceful than touch alone—by his exertion. Of the Countess of Abingdon’s virtues: “The several parts lay hidden in the piece | The occasion but exerted that, or this.” “Exerted” a key word of Dryden’s involvement with the world.
It’s on account of his exertion that he writes so well in his translation of Virgil’s poem about the labors of bees:
Exalted hence, and drunk with secret joy,
Their young succession all their cares employ:
They breed, they brood, instruct and educate,
And make provision for the future state;
They work their waxes lodgings in their hives,
And labour honey to sustain their lives.
Dryden here, as elsewhere, can be appreciated for his apprehension of the “tenacious mass” of the world and its words.