Critics can be expected to have a nearly unerring sense for what is extraordinary and a strong sense for what is also right; in this way, fine critics can point us in a promising direction, and notice what we might not otherwise have noticed, and even deplore what we would praise in terms that take hold of the right stick from the wrong end. More difficult is to imagine things the other way around: with a critic’s consistently being persuasive about something being right but never making sense of how or what is extraordinary in it, or even whether it is extraordinary, and this because the very fact of something seeming to be right, if fully understood, must contain what also will, on occasion, make it extraordinary. At least one author, though, seem to put critics into just this quandary: John Dryden.
Many of the best critics of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, William Empson, Donald Davie, and Christopher Ricks have expended serious thought and energy on Dryden, as has the finest British poet-critic of the second half of the century, Geoffrey Hill. Of these, Empson and Eliot stand out as Dryden’s great champions, converging on praise from opposing principles. Eliot’s essay on Dryden is not valuable because of his insistence that Dryden is a classic, with qualities of a classic that cannot be ignored; “classic,” like “Classicism,” is a perilous term in Eliot’s criticism, and Lewis’ essay on Dryden probably errs in taking it up, defending Shelley by attempting to circumscribe the term. Instead, Eliot’s essay is invaluable for keying in on those passages in Dryden’s verse that testify to what is powerful in his language, and then for setting out the distinct quality of that power in terms that must be answered even if rejected.
He does so first by situating Dryden in a tradition, extending through Jonson, to Marlowe, that Eliot establishes in other earlier essays as hinging on the art of caricature; in the background of the Marlowe essay, and the foreground of the Jonson essay, and somewhere in the middle distance of the Dryden essay, is an accompanying insight that caricature asks the surfaces of individuals to convey meanings that would otherwise be located in the depths of psychology, and suggests the caricatured human action to involve a simplicity that is not merely (Eliot is sharp on this point in the essay on Jonson) that of the humors or ruling passions, but instead a consequence of a caricaturing of the self, by the self, the tendency to act running in narrower passages, with more focused turbulence and fervor that, like a feedback loop, redoubles the caricaturing force. Eliot discerns the effect throughout Marlowe, with special and isolated clarity in Dido, where the destruction of Troy reduces humans to brutes in their impulsivity, and he sees it also giving formal unity to The Jew of Malta, which he reads as a farce; the element of farce meets with satire in the comedy of Jonson; and Dryden develops this most fully in his satires, though it also permeates Dryden’s tragic dramas, as it did Jonson’s, and it might be seen also in The Feast of Alexander, in lines such as “Sooth’d with the sound the king grew vain;/Fought all his battles o’er again;/And thrice he routed all his foes, and thrice he slew the slain.” Eliot does not offer analysis, but the action combines the heroic, the farcical, and the pathetic, with “thrice he slew the slain” laughably absurd but also horrifying in its excess of violence.
Second, and relatedly, Eliot distinguishes Dryden from Pope, lumped together in both Hazlitt (admirer) and Arnold (detractor), though Samuel Johnson, his ear tuned to the variations of the couplet, does not seem tempted:
The genius of Pope is not for caricature. But the effect of the portraits of Dryden is to transform the object into something greater, as were transformed the verses of Cowley quoted above.
A fiery soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay:
And o’er informed the tenement of clay.
These lines are not merely a magnificent tribute. They create an object which they contemplate. Dryden is, in fact, much nearer to the master of comic creation than Pope. As in Jonson, the effect is far from laughter: the comic is the material, the result is poetry.
In this passage, Eliot provides a crucial—maybe the crucial—touchstone of Dryden, the lines we could hold in mind to distinguish Dryden against any other poet, dwelling as they do on the corporeal; finding depth in, and not beyond, the flesh; intimating a sublime power in “fiery” but declining any invitation to ascend to a sublime atmosphere of suggestion in the language itself;. At the same time, Eliot provides terms for us to suggest what goes wrong in the long religious defenses, Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther: there is not enough caricature; nothing is transformed into something greater but is instead transformed into a sylvan scene. What’s more Eliot’s quotations come from those poems where Dryden creates people—caricatures as well as characters—which are absent from the religious poems.
Third, Eliot suggests the limitations of Dryden’s art: “In general, he is best in his plays when dealing with situations which do not demand great emotional concentrations; when his situation is more trivial, and he can practice his art of making the small great.” This is praise, but it is praise that recognizes a price: what of the art—Milton’s, Shakespeare’s, Marlowe’s even—that can make the great even greater. And what cost might this exert on Dryden’s Virgil? Eliot instead looks to another limit: “Corneille and Racine do not attain their triumphs by magnificence of this sort; they have concentration also, and, in the midst of their phrases, an undisturbed attention to the human soul as they have it.” Without that “undisturbed attention to the human soul”—undisturbed that is by the magnificence of their language—hey do more than “achieve a play by the single force of the word.”
And here, fourth, is the telling limit to Eliot’s praise: “Dryden, with all his intellect, had a commonplace mind.” Samuel Johnson says something very similar; this is not Eliot being perverse. Nor is it what Eliot ultimately means to say, for there are many varieties of commonplace minds, and the consequence can vary for poetry. Instead, Eliot cinches his argument with a superb and surprising comparison:
He bears a curious antithetical resemblance to Swinburne. Swinburne was also a master of words, but Swinburne’s words are all suggestions and no denotation; if they suggest nothing, it is because they suggest too much. Dryden’s words, on the other hand, are precise, they state immensely, but their suggestiveness is often nothing:
That short dark passage to a future state;
That melancholy riddle of a breath,
That something, or that nothing, after death.
is a riddle, but not melancholy enough, in Dryden’s splendid verse. The question, which has certainly been waiting, may justly be asked: whether, without this which Dryden’s lacks, verse can be poetry? What is man to decide what poetry is?
Curiously, Eliot’s criticism takes up the burden from Dryden, with a final question in the wording of which tones of plangency, resistance, and helplessness can all be found in whatever proportions; Eliot is himself suggestive in his defense of, and worrying over, precision. But it seems to be that Eliot has also stumbled into that commonplace experience for a reader of Dryden: the verse seems right, but not extraordinary. Being right in Dryden is itself commonplace—though not universal—and it is fairly easy to see when Dryden is doing something that is right. It is harder, though, to say when it is extra-ordinary and right, or when its rightness runs ahead of analysis, challenging us to imagine anew what it answers to. This, I think, does happen in many of the quotations that Eliot quotes prior to these lines that riddle with their lack of melancholy, but it might be said that even in these instances—in the words “fretted” or “o’er informed”—the suggestiveness is not what it would be in other poets.
Eliot’s essay appeared in 1924 in the three-piece Homage to John Dryden, alongside the essay on Marvell and the essay on the Metaphysical Poets. Six years later Empson silently took up Eliot’s argument in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Now it was his turn to wrestle both with the ordinary rightness of Dryden’s verse, as well as Eliot’s assessment of Dryden; though Empson does not mention the latter, it is evident, I think, from what he says, that he has Eliot in mind, and that he is slyly polemical, arguing not so much about Eliot’s sense of Dryden, with which he agrees to a large extent, but that he is arguing with Eliot as a reader.
First, Empson uses Dryden to make a point about English: it will have its way, and its way is ambiguity and suggestiveness, whatever the efforts at subduing these:
Again, this is a translation; it seems likely that Dryden in his original writing was anxious to keep English syntax out of its natural condition of ambiguity and squalor, but when he was translating there were too any other things to think of, and he slipped back into the loose forms of syntax to which his instrument was accustomed.
“Natural condition of ambiguity and squalor” stands upon on behalf of a native English propensity to generate thought that cannot be neatly contained (exemplified in Shakespeare); the word “squalor” is a sarcastic paraphrase of Dryden’s perspective, but also a point of pride for Empson whose own domesticity was neither tidy nor, by all accounts, zealously hygienic. But the other argument is against Eliot’s insistence that Milton be seen as the more artificial of the two: Milton might be artificial, but Empson suggests Dryden is no less so, asking the instrument of English syntax to turn against its customary uses. Here Empson has suggested that translation allows the language to get the better of Dryden, but elsewhere, it is Dryden’s poetic genius that lets English run away; not coincidentally, Empson, like Eliot, turns to the satires as a demonstration of what Dryden’s English can do, though for Empson, it is perhaps despite Dryden’s efforts:
The heroic couplet is rich in a peculiar ambiguity of syntax of the second type, which gives fluidity of thought and several superimposed rhythms, and may partly explain why this metre is not as monotonous as it has so often been said to be. For instance, at the climax of ‘Absalom and Achitophel,’ David breaks silence with
Thus long have I by Native Mercy sway’d,
My Wrongs dissembl’d, my Revenge delay’d;
So willing to forgive th’Offending Age;
So much the Father did the King assuage.
‘Sway’d’, ‘dissembl’d,’ ‘delay’d’ may each be either verb or participle independently. Granting that at least one must be a verb, there are seven rhythms in all, seven sets of evidence for deciding exactly how strongly David is feeling, how harshly he is likely to punish.
Empson the arch-intentionalist is no less the dedicated to the notion that language possesses an agency in and of itself; it is for the poet to set that agency at rights with the subject matter. Semantic energies cannot be contained, and need not be, if we are to appreciate the power of language that is, on its surface, quite ordinary:
In the resounding intensity of Dryden’s brief and clear statements of detail, in this Roman use of language, one would not look for a sensuous richness of meaning. But ‘pitched’ means both ‘blackened as with pitch by the thunderclouds’ and ‘pitched like a tent,’ so that the ‘Welkin’ seems at once muffled and to have come lower; perhaps even the two meanings act upon one another, and the material of the tent has been tarred and blackened in a forlorn attempt to keep out the rain.
Empson is making a plea for the capacity of ordinary language to unleash extraordinary effects; Dryden, for Empson, sought the orderly and attempted to make English do something that, ordinary in one sense, was unnatural in another; and in the process, he revealed just how extraordinary the language’s yearning to mean could be.
But the coup de grace in Empson’s discussions of Dryden (for they are scattered throughout Seven Types) comes in a discussion that glances at what Empson recognizes to be “a much more universal characteristic of good poetry, by the way, than most we have considered so far. It is not, for instance, due to the habits of the English language.” And that is what Empson calls “echoes and recesses of human judgment” that emanate from, and are given distinct pitch and shape by, the contexts of human action and deliberation:
Thus the seventh type of ambiguity involves both the anthropological idea of opposite and the psychological idea of context, so that it must be approached warily…At any rate, the conditions for this verbal effect are not those of a breakdown of rationality; I should take as an example, for instance (of the conditions, though not of the effect), these very straightforward and martial words of Dryden:
The trumpet’s loud clangour
Invites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries, hark the Foes come;
Charge, charge, ‘tis too late for retreat. (“Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”)
It is curious on the face of it that one should represent, in a mood of such heroic simplicity, a reckless excitement, a feverish and exalted eagerness for battle, by saying (in the most prominent part of the stanza from the point of view of final effect) that we can’t get out of the battle now and must go through with it as best we can. Yet that is what has happened, and it is not a cynical by-blow on the part of Dryden; the last line is entirely rousing and single-hearted. Evidently the thought that it is no good running away is an important ingredient of military enthusiasm; at any rate in the form of consciousness of unity with comrades, who ought to be encouraged not to retreat (even if they are not going to, they cannot have not thought of it, so that this encouragement is a sort of recognition of their merits), and of consciousness of the terror one should be exciting in the foe; so that all the elements of the affair, including terror, must be part of the judgment of the most normally heroic mind, and that, since it is too late for him to retreat, the Lord has delivered him into your hands. Horses, in a way very like this, display mettle by a continual expression of timidity. This extremely refreshing way of understanding the elements of a situation, and putting them down flatly to act as a measure of excitement, is a characteristic of Dryden; and a much more universal characteristic of good poetry, by the way, than most we have considered so far. It is not, for instance, due to the habits of the English language; and Dryden’s use of it is connected with the Restoration wish to tidy language up, make it more rational, and produce something transferable which would be respected on the Continent. Dryden is not interested in the echoes and recesses of words; he uses them flatly; he is interested in the echoes and recesses of human judgment.
This takes hold of Dryden at the same point as Eliot, and it strikes at the comparison not to Swinburne but to Racine and Corneille. In that comparison, Eliot asserts that Dryden achieves less than them because, though their precise deployment of forceful language is similar, he lacks insight into the human soul. Empson might—probably would—agree that Dryden does not have the simple sublimity and sublime simplicity that Racine summons in his portrayals of humans in the grip of passions. But in his defense of Dryden’s flat and fairly ordinary language of “Song for St Cecilia’s Day,” Empson suggests that the echoes and recesses of judgment does not require “undisturbed attention to the soul,” but may proceed instead from “understanding the elements of a situation.” The echoes and recesses of human judgment are as social and political as they are psychological; judgment does not echo in the cave of the soul but in the rafters of the civic hall. Empson, no less than Eliot, comes up against what is ordinary and right in Dryden, but Empson attempts to salvage suggest that the right ordinary thing to say may depend on an extraordinary attunement to context.
Against Empson, Eliot might rejoin that the lines in “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” involve a somewhat flat calculation about how best to muster enthusiasm; Empson’s own comparison of horses does not suggest the recesses and echoes of human judgment. But if we step back from Eliot’s chosen lines on Shaftesbury, we find a truer example of Dryden taking the “echoes and recesses of human judgment” as his subject and not merely the occasion for his utterance:
For close Designs and crooked Counsels fit,
Sagacious, Bold, and Turbulent of wit,
Restless, unfixt in Principles and Place,
In Pow’r unpleased, impatient of Disgrace;
A fiery Soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the Pigmy Body to decay;
And o’er informed the Tenement of Clay.
Dryden is not here interested in the connotative suggestiveness of his words, but in these lines, Dryden creates the judgment that he describes, and so his words tremble, and blur, on account of his interest in the duplicity of Shaftesbury’s judgment: “Sagacious” and “Bold” might stand alone, or might be attached to wit, “Turbulent” suggests both the effect on those around him, but also the strained coherence of Shaftesbury’s mind; “close” and “crooked” might be swapped, the joke being that they “fit” either way, that the “fit” is itself arbitrary, as “unfixt” as Shaftesbury himself; “unfixt” picks up the sound of “fit” and “wit,” and crosses the rhyme mid-line, itself crossed with a hissing “x” sibilantly alliterative alongside “restless” and “principles” and “place.” “In Pow’r unpleased” means both unpleased when in a position of power, but also unpleased with power itself; and, with deceit, allowing himself only to reveal displeasure in power; “impatient of Disgrace” is the unconscious chomping at his own disgrace, his fiery soul bringing about its own downfall; but it is also impatience for and at the disgrace of others. Christopher Ricks points out that, with the triplet, “the soul of the lines can be heard and felt to be working out its way, out through the acknowledged restraint, fretting to decay the body of the couplet and o’er informing the tenement that is the couplet-form itself.” But it is not only a triplet, since the rhyme on “way” and “decay” and “Clay” has been anticipated, primed, and set by “place” and “disgrace,” which themselves refuse to cede their place entirely, and instead transform into the new rhyme. The fiery Soul of English works outs its way in these lines, but the way it works out is to create a caricature in language and character alike: the attempt at conforming to something regular, something precise and flat, is essential for the effect, and the extraordinary buckling of Dryden’s control under the strain of the Shaftesbury he has imagined is a warping that creates the caricature. Caricature usually coincides with clear lines, etchings, drawings, and order; the disorder depends on that clarity. It gives outward expression to what we assume to be a perversion or corruption of the mind, soul, or self; but that perversion or corruption is not, as in Racine’s tragedies, a consequence of Eros, Nemesis, or psychological fracture, but instead depend on circumstance, and the echoes and recesses of judgments that most impress are those of the artist, capable of making visible just how damaged and demented a person has become. Such is Dryden’s satirical art, an art that exceeds satire and finds its way even into poems that are not satire, though it does not become itself most fully then. It is an art that lives in effects which we Empson and Eliot together illuminate, in their enlivening opposition on the flat plains of Dryden’s verse.