Dryden honored music in his verse, and his verse in general repeatedly challenges us to better tune our ears to poetry. Eliot was right to disparage the lumping together of Dryden and Pope, for however bound in their ambitions towards wit, and however dedicated to the techniques of the heroic couplet, they sound different. To let the ear by carried by Dryden’s poetry is to let the ear be carried into the occasion of the poems. Although fairly though to be a poet whose language harbors fewer lexical ambiguities, syntactical suggestions, and rich transgressions of metaphor than others, even among his peers, Dryden’s poetry depends a great deal on hearing the elusive tone or pitch in the words in order to appreciate their admiration; to appreciate the judgment behind the language, the attitude towards the world they harbor and express, requires hearing how the language impresses itself on the occasion of its utterance. This is not an appeal to pure sound, but to grasping that the meaning of the words is inseparable from the performance they imply; perhaps this is the essence of rhetorical poetry.
More specifically, it is helpful when reading Dryden to bear in mind an oscillation of attitudes, each capable of finding a range of expressions, with over-tones and under-tones: defiance on the one hand and concession on the other. Both are argumentative, with the former an occasional rough enjoining, an occasional assertiveness, against an opponent whose objections are indirectly registered by the argument; the latter is felt sometimes as a desire to please, even to flatter, but more often as a complaisance that is not complacent so much as open to admitting to being wrong, to making amends for the sake of social harmony. In this sense, it is a poetry of civic occasion; courtly in a court shot through by divisions. Even the humor can be felt to work within the arc formed by the pendulum.
Both extremes are present in a poem I’ve read at length before, the perfect “To the Memory of Mr Oldham,” heard for instance in the word “sure” in the second line (“For sure our souls were near allied”) and in the brusque dismissal, “But satire needs not these,” and even in the final grudging concession of the “But” that opens the closing line: “But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.” It is a poem whose very dynamic is one of give-and-take, alive also the give-and-take of creative allusion with Virgil, which would later become the give-and-take of translation itself, as Dryden practiced it.
But it is also found in less likely places:
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs, and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair, disdainful dame.
From “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” for instance. The compounding of feelings and rhymes, desperation-indignation-passion, the collapsed syntax of “fury, frantic” and the lack of conjunction before “fury,” mirror, of course, the violins; but they do not get within the passion of the violin, and working from without that passion as they do, mirroring its intensity from without, they seem instead to appeal on its behalf; to push on us, and to pull us towards the violin as Dryden hears it.
Or perhaps it is better to say is that Dryden hears in the instruments the same oscillation of feeling—the defiance and the concession—that he knows so well, and that when he gives words to what they express, he does so in terms that suggest music itself works on listeners as a sort of argument with an implied other (the “dame”). Hence the fourth stanza, on the flute:
The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.
The hopeless lovers make the ultimate concession to their fate. And in the first stanza, the repetition within the first line can be heard not only as a specification, but as a doubling down and raising the ante, with the word “heavenly” serving both to dramatize Dryden’s swoon towards the music he imagines, and also insisting that harmony is more than nay-sayers might think:
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music’s pow’r obey.
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.
Here too the tuneful voice does the work of commanding, but Dryden knows also that any command, any act of authority, inspires resistance as well as obeisance. Nor is the tale he tells a exercise of fancy that the reader can enjoy at whim; the shortened meter of the cinching lines, “This universal frame began,” “And music’s power obey,” and “the diapason closing full in man,” round out with a sureness that would override doubt. Dryden closes off counter-argument by the movement of the lines.
C.S. Lewis countered Eliot’s praise of Dryden (as opposed to Shelley) by pointing out that Shelley, more than Dryden, respected the proprieties of genre and form; Dryden’s odes are not, Lewis points out, all ode; his panegyrics, not all panegyrics. But Dryden defies those proprieties with purpose, as he does all others—just as, at other times, he respects them with shrewd decorum. And it is to his purposes to tussle and kick even when being decorous and compliant. So the final lines of the third section of “To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady Anne Killigrew” knows the limits of true propriety:
And if no clust’ring swarm of bees
On thy sweet mouth distill’d their golden dew,
‘Twas that, such vulgar miracles,
Heav’n had not leisure to renew:
For all the blest fraternity of love
Solemniz’d there thy birth, and kept thy Holyday above.
“Vulgar” is neither mincing nor surgical; it does not sneer; instead, Dryden wields the word like a club, albeit one that he handles gently. The notion that heaven could not afford the miracle, its resources directed elsewhere, is knowingly preposterous, and removes much of the sting in the blow from the word; but the force of the word remains.
In the next section, the affront against propriety and “decorum” (which is Lewis’ word) is greater:
O Gracious God! How far have we
Profan’d thy Heav’nly gift of poesy?
Made prostitute and profligate the Muse,
Debas’d to each obscene and impious use,
Whose harmony was first ordain’d above
For tongues of angels, and for hymns of love?
O wretched we! why were we hurried down
This lubrique and adult’rate age,
(Nay added fat pollutions of our own)
T’increase the steaming ordures of the stage?
What can we say t’excuse our Second Fall?
Let this thy vestal, Heav’n, atone for all!
Her Arethusian stream remains unsoil’d,
Unmix’d with foreign filth, and undefil’d,
Her wit was more than man, her innocence a child!
But such a violation against the decorum of the occasion of pious memorial can be felt as Dryden’s taking poetic arms against the affronts and violations of his time; he cannot praise without defending, and he cannot defend without attacking; he defies (and defiles) decorum to defy his enemies—and yet it is essential all the while that he maintains elsewhere a clear understanding of what decorum would be. It is the tension between defiance and compliance that achieves the fine effect of the poetry.
I don’t think it’s possible to pretend that The Hind and the Panther is not a dull poem, but even here, passages are elevated where Dryden is most willing to bluster:
O happy pair, how well have you increas’d,
What ills in Church and State have you redress’d!
With teeth untry’d, and rudiments of claws
Your first essay was on your native laws:
Those having torn with ease, and trampl’d down,
Your Fangs you fasten’d on the mitr’d crown,
And freed from God and monarchy your town.
What though your native kennel still be small,
Bounded betwixt a puddle and a wall,
Yet your victorious colonies are sent
Where the north ocean girds the continent.
Quicken’d with fire below, your monsters breed,
In Fenny Holland, and in fruitfull Tweed.
And, like the first, the last affects to be
Drawn to the dreggs of a Democracy.
As, where in fields the fairy rounds are seen,
A rank sow’r herbage rises on the green,
So, springing where these mid-night Elves advance,
Rebellion prints the foot-steps of the Dance.
Such are their doctrines, such contempt they show
To heav’n above, and to their Prince below,
As none but Traytors and Blasphemers know.
God, like the Tyrant of the skyes is plac’d,
And kings like slaves beneath the crowd debas’d.
So fulsome is their food, that flocks refuse
To bite, and onely dogs for physick use.
As where the lightning runs along the ground,
No husbandry can heal the blasting wound
Nor bladed grass, nor bearded corn succeeds,
But scales of scurf, and putrefaction breeds:
Such warrs, such waste, such fiery tracks of dearth
Their zeal has left, and such a teemless earth.
But, as the Poisons of the deadliest kind
Are to their own unhappy coasts confin’d,
As only Indian shades of sight deprive,
And magick plants will but in Colchos thrive,
So Preby’try and pestilential zeal
Can only flourish in a common-weal.
“Such contempt they show,” but “such” itself teems with contempt, while “teemless earth” shudders with horrified disgust, “only flourish” sickens with irony (they alone can flourish; they can flourish there alone), and “common-weal” is spit out like a bone. But Dryden elevates also the passages that yield to yielding:
Of easie shape, and pliant ev’ry way;
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 satisfie a large embrace.
Thus kneaded up with milk, the new made man
His kingdom o’er his kindred world began:
Till knowledge misapply’d, misunderstood,
And pride of Empire sour’d his balmy bloud.
Then, first rebelling, his own stamp he coins;
The murd’rer Cain was latent in his loins,
And bloud began its first and loudest cry
For diff’ring worship of the Deity.
How delicate the returning weave of “kind” and “kings” to “kingdom” and “kindred” with “kneaded” yielding to “knowledge misapplied” and the corruption of the delicacy, as “Cain” picks up the sound of “king” and “kind.”
Perhaps the poem is dull not because of its theological matter, but because Dryden does not quite know how to position himself against, or with, the Panther:
Fierce to her foes, yet fears her force to try,
Because she wants innate auctority;
For how can she constrain them to obey,
Who has herself cast off the lawfull sway?
Rebellion equals all, and those, who toil
In common theft, will share the common spoil.
Let her produce the title and the right
Against her old superiors first to fight;
If she reform by Text, ev’n that’s as plain
For her own Rebels to reform again.
As long as words a diff’rent sense will bear,
And each may be his own Interpreter,
Our airy faith will no foundation find,
The word’s a weathercock for ev’ry wind:
The Bear, the Fox, the Wolfe, by turns prevail;
The most in pow’r supplies the present gale.
The wretched Panther cries aloud for aid
To church and councils, whom she first betray’d;
No help from Fathers or traditions train,
Those ancient guides she taught us to disdain.
Dryden was right to call such an institution the Panther; but its poise and elusiveness, alert and aloof, menacing but withdrawn—the essence of the feline—was inimical to Dryden’s canine qualities.