258. (John Dryden)

For John Dryden, the world tends towards fusion and confusion and it is for the poet to establish distinctions and order. That does not mean Dryden is insensitive to the Romantic or Metaphysical power of a synthesizing imagination; it means that he feels it compounds, rather than relieves, the state of things. Much, then, needs to be given up to approach Dryden’s poetry; some assumptions and expectations it cannot sustain, and some experiences it cannot touch. But the upshot is a poetry that, like Pope’s and Johnson’s, is able to contain and communicate aspects of the world that poetry of intense synthetic powers, Metaphysical or Romantic, cannot. In particular, Dryden’s poetry can portray the monstrous; where could there be monstrosity in Donne or Shelley or even Browning (whose psychologically depraved characters might be monsters, but who are not registered as monstrous) or even Hopkins and Hardy? They are poets for whom the grotesque, the dissolute, the chaotic, and the marred can be vividly presented. But the monstrous as Dryden has it cannot come as easily to them as to him.

After all the monstrous arises from a confusion of categories, a collapsing of distinction; for such confusion and collapse to reverberate with horror, a poet needs to invested instead in the powers of division, classification, and distinction.If “monstrosity” seems too strong a word for Dryden, another might be substituted, more apt to the bodily bearing his verse often has: corruptibility. But it is corruptibility not of a moral, but of a more fundamental ontological and spiritual nature: it is the corruptibility of the order of things. And that, I think, might be thought of as “monstrous” without deforming the word.

The satires would maybe be the better place for a great example of what Dryden can effect, but to drive the point home, notice how the recoil at monstrosity animates even as occasionally tedious a poem as “The Hind and the Panther”:

 

Not arm’d with horns of arbitrary might,
Or Claws to seize their furry spoils in Fight,
Or with increase of Feet t’ o’ertake ’em in their flight.
Of easie shape, and pliant ev’ry way,
Confessing still the softness of his Clay,         270
And kind as Kings upon their Coronation-day:
With open Hands, and with extended space
Of Arms to satisfy a large embrace.
Thus kneaded up with Milk, the new made Man
His Kingdom o’er his Kindred world began:         275
Till Knowledg mis-apply’d, mis-understood,
And pride of Empire sour’d his Balmy Blood.
Then, first rebelling, his own stamp he coins;
The Murth’rer Cain was latent in his Loins;
And Blood began its first and loudest Cry         280
For diff’ring worship of the Deity.
Thus persecution rose, and farther Space
Produc’d the mighty hunter of his Race.
Not so the blessed Pan his flock encreased,
Content to fold ’em from the famish’d Beast:         285
Mild were his laws; the Sheep and harmless Hind
Were never of the persecuting kind.
Such pity now the pious Pastor shows,
Such mercy from the British Lyon flows,
That both provide protection for their foes.         290
  Oh happy Regions, Italy and Spain,
Which never did those monsters entertain!
The Wolfe, the Bear, the Boar, can there advance
No native claim of just inheritance.
And self preserving laws, severe in show,         295
May guard their fences from th’ invading foe.
Where birth has plac’d ’em, let ’em safely share
The common benefit of vital air;
Themselves unharmful, let them live unharm’d;
Their jaws disabl’d, and their claws disarm’d:         300
Here, only in nocturnal howlings bold,
They dare not seize the Hind nor leap the fold.
More pow’rful, and as vigilant as they,
The Lyon awfully forbids the prey.
Their rage repress’d, though pinch’d with famine sore,         305
They stand aloof, and tremble at his roar;
Much is their hunger, but their fear is more.

 

 

The definition of the lines is at one with the definition, and lack of definition, of which they speak. Notice the easy rhymes and internal glide (“kind” to “king”) of Dryden’s description of man before the fall:

 

 

Confessing still the softness of his Clay,
And kind as Kings upon their Coronation-day:
With open Hands, and with extended space
Of Arms to satisfy a large embrace.
Thus kneaded up with Milk, the new made Man
His Kingdom o’er his Kindred world began:

 

“With extended space” surprises with an enjambment that opens not only into space, but into a glimpse at Miltonic’s lofty syntax. Then the verse turns into something quite different:

 

Till Knowledg mis-apply’d, mis-understood,
And pride of Empire sour’d his Balmy Blood.
Then, first rebelling, his own stamp he coins;
The Murth’rer Cain was latent in his Loins;
And Blood began its first and loudest Cry
For diff’ring worship of the Deity.

 

“Mis-apply’d, mis-understood” thickens, and threatens to clot, the lines. “Sour’d” disrupts the abstract march of metaphor with a bodily wince and the intimation of blood tasted; is it possible that, beneath the lines, there is a pun on “Cain” and “cane” (as in Wheatley some 100 years later), drawing in the “balmy” climate where sugar cane was drawn, its role in the Empires of Europe, and the coin that its trade yielded? “Cry” and “Deity” rhymes, but not neatly; it resists closure.  All this in response to the “monsters” of what Dryden sees as heresy and schism.

 

But Dryden’s openness to the monstrous sets him apart not only from the Metaphysicals and the Romantics, but from his greatest successors, and Pope above all. Pope maintains Dryden’s sense that poetry ought to distinguish and clarify; that in part is what makes his depiction of Dulness and Chaos as overwhelming as it is:

 

 

The gath’ring number, as it moves along,
Involves a vast involuntary throng,
Who gently drawn, and struggling less and less,
Roll in her vortex, and her power confess.
Not those alone who passive own her laws,         85
But who, weak rebels, more advance her cause:
Whate’er of Dunce in College or in Town
Sneers at another, in toupee or gown;
Whate’er of mongrel no one class admits,
A Wit with Dunces, and a Dunce with Wits.         90
Nor absent they, no members of her state,
Who pay her homage in her sons, the Great;
Who, false to Phœbus, bow the knee to Baal,
Or impious, preach his word without a call:
Patrons, who sneak from living worth to dead,         95
Withhold the pension, and set up the head;
Or vast dull Flatt’ry in the sacred gown,
Or give from fool to fool the laurel crown;
And (last and worst) with all the cant of wit,
Without the soul, the Muse’s hypocrite.

 

What is overwhelming though is not the monstrosity, but the madness of social disarray: the degradation of self into caricature, the confusion of type and type, and the misapprehension of value in an arbitrary social hierarchy. As Dryden’s is not, Pope’s nightmare of confusion is set within and against a backdrop of the civilization that saves and must be saved from the threats it poses to itself; the social order is everything, and most so when it is, as in the Dunciad, rendered into chaotic nothingness.

 

Dryden’s monstrosity is different from this; it is sets itself against a universal backdrop, a cosmic order that threatens to come undone, whether the disorder is religious or political; the fact of confusion itself, the fact that the world as a whole might be so confused, is worrying for what even seem existential grounds, except that it is not worry—it is growling abhorrence that Dryden feels and wants for us to feel (in Pope, we are invited to feel contempt, but contempt that abhors no less).

 

Dryden is not unique in English poetry in making space for and accommodating the monstrous—Shakespeare, Milton, and even, maybe, Wordsworth—can do the same. But those three poets can always be listed off; they make space and accommodate everything. In Dryden, the effect is a chief source of excitement for people who find him exciting at all (admittedly not easy). It is a characteristic of his wit, and relates, I suspect, to why Eliot’s comparison of Dryden and Baudelaire feels apt; not only because of their controlled rhetorical dimension, their trusting to their words as if they could trust to an audience that would receive them without special pleading, but because Baudelaire, like Dryden, evokes monstrosity, albeit one that has a different quality still.

 

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