It seems necessary that, if poetry is not to effect synthesis by way of the elaborate similes and coaxed metaphors of the Metaphysical, and by way of self-referential formalisms of the Romantics (their enactment of poetry as creative receptivity of the world and self); and if poetry is to maintain distinctions and strive for order, then it nonetheless effect a novelty relation to experience and suggest new relations between parts, if it is to feel like poetry at all. This, I imagine, is what Arnold struggled to find in the verse of Dryden and Pope; it is not where he expected it to be because of what Dryden wanted poetry to do. It resides, nonetheless, in Dryden’s verbs—they, almost alone, can provide a focus for a reader of Dryden’s verse trying to appreciate its design. By saying that, I do not mean that the verbs are of sole interest or exclusive source of what is living in the poetry, but that what happens in each line can be seen most clearly when the verb is the starting point. Dryden’s generalizations, his abstractions, his occasional didacticism, his most frenzied narratives, and his most remote quarrels are approachable, their intelligence revealed, by attending to the verbs and their placement in each line and couplet.
I do not know whether his feel for verbs drew Dryden to the couplet or whether his instinct for the couplet compelled an attention to verb, but reading the odes, the verbs do not compel or reward attention to anything like the same degree (they are often gateways to Dryden, perhaps because they open themselves by more familiar paths).
Rather than just show a passage where the verbs work to consistently good ends, it’s worth taking a passage where the verbs vary in their intensity, either because they are asked to do less as a dramatization of the matter, or because the poetry is not evenly strong (the long-standing judgment of Dryden as a “strong” poetry is obviously relevant here). “Religio Laici” is, for readers nowadays, one of the duller of Dryden’s famous poems. Here is the opening:
Dim, as the borrow’d beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wand’ring travellers,
Is reason to the soul; and as on high,
Those rolling fires discover but the sky
Not light us here; so reason’s glimmering ray
Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day’s bright lord ascends our hemisphere
So pale grows reason at religion’s sight:
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.
Some few, whose lamp shone brighter, have been led
From cause to cause, to Nature’s secret head;
And found that one first principle must be:
But what, or who, that Universal He;
Whether some soul incompassing this ball
Unmade, unmov’d; yet making, moving all;
Or various atoms’ interfering dance
Leapt into form, the noble work of chance,
Or this great all was from eternity;
Not even the Stagirite himself could see;
And Epicurus guess’d as well as he:
As blindly grop’d they for a future state;
As rashly judg’d of Providence and Fate:
But least of all could their endeavours find
What most concern’d the good of human kind.
For happiness was never to be found;
But vanish’d from ’em, like enchanted ground.
One thought content the good to be enjoy’d:
This, every little accident destroy’d:
The wiser madmen did for virtue toil:
A thorny, or at best a barren soil:
In pleasure some their glutton souls would steep;
But found their line too short, the well too deep;
And leaky vessels which no bliss could keep.
Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll,
Without a centre where to fix the soul:
In this wild maze their vain endeavours end:
How can the less the greater comprehend?
Or finite reason reach infinity?
For what could fathom God were more than He.
I have bolded what I think are the most living of the lines, where the life also seems to depend on the verbs. The first line is the weakest, but the weakness is to the point; its verb “borrow’d” is removed from agency as the light of the moon is removed from the sun. “Discover” in the second instance means “uncover” or “reveal” but with a sense of revelation nonetheless, and so Dryden finds a sort of pun. “Pale grows reason” turns on a pale verb, but again the effect is dramatic, contrasting with “so dies, so dissolves” where the sequence of verbs is itself curious, growing pale, dying, then dissolving. “Leapt” takes force by starting a line, by leaping into the form of the couplet, itself a work of chance, dependent on rhyme. “Blindly grop’d” and “Rashly judg’d” come as a relief, human, bodily, but also opposed to one another in their parallel positions, the one feeling by touch and the other by mind. “Roll” is maybe not especially surprising but it is an active verb that describes an activity that is both with and without purpose and intent; the anxious thoughts are rolled in their circle of their own orbits, and then “to fix” seizes at a resting point, cinching and closing the motion on the “soul” as the “soul” closes the couplet, ironically in both cases since there is no rest to be had. “Comprehend” looks both at physical space, where it is not possible for a smaller figure to take in a larger, and also at understanding.
It is not in this passage alone that I find the poem to stop and start with frequent correlation to the force of verbs. If I approach both poems with my attention thus focused, I find that I would by far prefer to spend time reading “The Hind and the Panther” than “Religio Laici.” Early in the doldrums of the third part of that poem, a passage such as this (ll. 261-276):
This said, she paused a little and suppressed
The boiling indignation of her breast;
She knew the virtue of her blade, nor would
Pollute her satire with ignoble blood:
Her panting foes she saw before her lie,
And back she drew the shining weapon dry;
So when the gen’rous lion has in sight
His equal match, he rouses for the fight;
But when his foe lies prostrate on the plain,
He sheathes his paws, uncurls his angry mane,
And, pleased with bloodless honours of the day,
Walks over and disdains th’inglorious prey.
So JAMES, if great with less me may compare,
Arrests his rolling thunderbolds in air
And grants ungrateful friends a lengthened space
T’implore the remnants of long-suff’ring grace.
But as a test case, it is worth taking a poem that is not, even to the extent of so static an allegory as “The Hind and the Panther,” a narrative. T.S. Eliot thought Dryden’s virtues exemplified in “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham”:
Farewell, too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near ally’d; and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike:
To the same goal did both our studies drive,
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime
Still show’d a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail and farewell; farewell thou young,
But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue;
Thy brows with ivy, and with laurels bound;
But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.
Over the poem, the shifts in the sorts of verbs, the different arcs of verb clusters, itself tells a story. In the second line, the tentativeness and intimacy of “began to think,” and the speculative nature of “think,” the sense what it means to think another a friend, is brought into focus by “call,” which we are asked to see in its social context, as a confession that Dryden might have addressed Oldham as a friend but also spoken of Oldham to others and called him a friend. “Ally’d” transition to “cast” because it invites but does not contain a pun on “alloy’d” and so brings us to the casting of metals. “Cast,” “strike,” “abhorr’d,” and “drive” present Dryden and Oldham as comrades in a field of action, with the forging of weapons, the facing of foes, and the motions of battle beneath the account of versifying.
That same relationships brings us to the allusion to the Aeneid with Nisus having fallen in the race at the games, but also fallen during the night raid with his lover Euryalus. “Fell” therefore delicately alludes to death in battle as well as a friendly competition in games; Oldham and Dryden competed as poets but were nonetheless engaged in a common fight. The allusion to the sexual intimate couple is unabashed, unembarrassed, and so lacking in prurience; there is, moreover, an edge of absurdity, as if it were a joke among two grown men that they might resemble those youths. Most devastating is the inaptness of the comparison: Oldham, younger the Dryden, died first; Nisus was the older of the pair, who fell and tripped another racer to allow Euryalus to win; in their night raid, both die together. “Fell” looks to both death and the footrace, whereas “performed and won” looks only to the latter; the verbs juggle the allusion carefully.
In the next arc, the movement is from “could have added” to “might have taught” to “needs not” to “shine” so that the possibility of what else Oldham could have been, what else might have been done is rejected and the final verb, “shine,” emerges despite it all. The verb “shine” also looks back to Nisus—now the night raid, where the shine of the captured armor attracts the enemy and so betrays him; in that bloody raid, Nisus and Euryalus were likewise betrayed by too much force. “Made” is a dull verb, but dullness is here a virtue that Dryden suggests is worth praising: “the dull sweets of time.”
“Gather’d” is delicately passive: has death gathered Oldham or has the world gathered what Oldham has left for it; it brings other, unexpected life into “generous” because the fruits are yielding themselves up as well as being snatched up or plucked away; it might also be a comment on the poetry, that it was published before it was all it could have been. The admiration for Oldham is hedged with a respectful acknowledgement that his poetry was not yet great, though showing promise of greatness. The “generous” fruit was then “gather’d” into publication and its generosity lie in its willingness to give itself to the world before it was perfect (a comparison with the myth of Virgil’s perfectionism perhaps implied?); that generosity and gathering are both Oldham’s.
“Show’d a quickness” refers to Oldham’s life and work at once; it is difficult to explain the success of the verb, but it has to do with its placement in the line, where one sense of “Still” plays against “quickness,” where “quick” refers to life and speed at once, where “still” is that which is always present but also not moving and where the weight is given to the adjectival “maturing” that I have underlined because it insists so much upon the inherent activity of time. I suppose “show” works because of how it feels sufficient and insufficient at once: fruits need to do more than show, to show is to reveal but not necessarily to sustain. The sense of the verb evades me. After the string of passives, “time” is given the active verb “mellows” and it is followed by the active “we write,” where the subject is that of all poets and these two poets in particular. Then a pivot to the address of “hail and farewell” with “farewell” repeated (and another Virgilian echo); the verb mood insists on presence at the moment the absence is fully registered, and the poem closes with a juxtaposition between a passive “bound” and an active “encompass.” The dead body, the “brows,” can only be acted upon by the stuff of this world, its symbolic honors, but the whole self “thee” is subject to the active agency of “fate and gloomy night.”