409. (John Dryden)

            Years ago when a friend and I sat and foolishly debated whether Dryden was as great a poet as Stevens, he challenged be to read aloud a passage from Dryden that could compare to Stevens at his best. I don’t know what I chose, but on the measure of music, the hatred and contempt of Dryden’s satire is without equal, “Absalom and Achitophel” being the greatest of a kind of poem—public, political, satirical, propagandistic, mock- and genuinely heroic—that few others have managed with any degree of success, and that exemplifies the vitality of language as a force for play, parody, and judgment in the public sphere, at once echoing with the Biblical high style and rumbling with party politics, all of which make it also a distinct pleasure to read aloud. Here are the lines on Corah, the Biblical stand-in for Titus Oates, the debased defrocked priest whose testimony served as sufficient grounds to disgrace the coalition of Catholic peers who would, like Dryden, have stood by a line of succession to Charles II’s brother James:

This arch-attestor, for the public good,

By that one deed ennobles all his blood.

Who ever ask’d the witnesses’ high race,

Whose oath with martyrdom did Stephen grace?

Ours was a Levite, and as times went then,

His tribe were God-almighty’s gentlemen.

Sunk were his eyes, his voice was harsh and loud,

Sure signs he neither choleric was, nor proud:

His long chin prov’d his wit; his saint-like grace

A church vermilion, and a Moses’ face

His memory, miraculously great,

Could plots exceeding man’s belief, repeat;

Which therefore cannot be accounted lies,

For human wit could never such devise.

Some future truths are mingled in his book;

But, where the witness fail’d, the Prophet spoke:

Some things like visionary flights appear;

The spirit caught him up, the Lord knows where:

And gave him his rabbinical degree,

Unknown to foreign university.

His judgment yet his mem’ry did excel:

Which piec’d his wondrous evidence so well:

And suited to the temper of the times;

Then groaning under Jebusitic crimes.

Let Israel’s foes suspect his Heav’nly call,

And rashly judge his writ apocryphal;

Our laws for such affronts have forfeits made:

He takes his life, who takes away his trade.

Were I myself in witness Corah’s place,

The wretch who did me such a dire disgrace,

Should whet my memory, though once forgot,

To make him an appendix of my plot.

His zeal to Heav’n made him his prince despise,

And load his person with indignities:

But Zeal peculiar privilege affords,

Indulging latitude to deeds and words.

And Corah might for Agag’s murther call,

In terms as coarse as Samuel us’d to Saul.

What others in his evidence did join,

(The best that could be had for love or coin,)

In Corah’s own predicament will fall:

For Witness is a common name to all.

The language here is heavy, like mud, thickened by fraud and folly, so that each couplet, rather than springing from rhyme to rhyme, comes to a rest after exertion; and the effect of each couplet is of Dryden chewing over the degraded words and forcibly spitting them out: “arch-attestor,” “public good,” “God-almighty’s gentlemen,” and so on. But the effect is not sarcasm: Dryden does not disown the words, but writes in disgust at how they’ve been taken up; nor is he saying simply that the opposite is true, that it was not really for the public good, that this ‘arch-attestor’ was in fact the “arch-fiend,” that they were not true gentlemen at all, etc, but instead he is making visible (audible if we imagine them being performed) his disgust at the language Oates has gathered to himself and his cause. And some of the effect works because there is truth in what Dryden concedes—the irony does hold two valid perspectives in tension—as when he writes

His judgment yet his mem’ry did excel:

Which piec’d his wondrous evidence so well:

And suited to the temper of the times;

Then groaning under Jebusitic crimes.

For his memory was faulty and his judgment, in so far as he can construct destructive and sufficiently plausible lies, is not, at least in some sense of the word, lacking; “suited to the temper of the times” is an indictment of the pliability of Oates’ testimony but also the warped standards of judgment to which they appealed. Sometimes the effect is to place Oates within the vicinity of praise:

His memory, miraculously great,

Could plots exceeding man’s belief, repeat;

Which therefore cannot be accounted lies,

For human wit could never such devise.

Some future truths are mingled in his book;

But, where the witness fail’d, the Prophet spoke:

Much turns on the word “human,” which catches both at the failure of the public to appreciate the malleability and scope of human lies, but also at what is a hint throughout the passage: that Oates is inspired, albeit not by divinity; he is in the sway of something more damnable. Dryden means to mock those who would approve his testimony for containing “future truths,” but here also we might detect an ironic glance at how the corruption and crimes to which Oates testified are within the realm of possibility—albeit a possibility most likely realized by James’ enemies and Shaftesbury’s supporters.  It is Dryden who is arch in all of this, and not only in order to skewer his opponents; he is demonstrating, and diagnosing, the susceptibility of rhetoric and judgment to turn back on those who offer it, and to shift the ground beneath which it is offered. Elizabeth Bennet would appreciate these lines, which depend on Dryden’s simultaneously occupying and standing aloof from Oates and Oates’ supporters. It’s at this moment of the poem that Dryden boldly intrudes the first person, “I,” and he does so because his technique of what in a novel might be called “free indirect discourse,” but which is less sympathetically aligned here, more glaring (in both senses) in its satire, depends on Dryden’s holding in tension various first-person perspectives:

Were I myself in witness Corah’s place,

The wretch who did me such a dire disgrace,

Should whet my memory, though once forgot,

To make him an appendix of my plot.

The thought is both acerbically faux-naïve (as if Dryden could ever be as bad as Oates), and also animated by the same movement of sympathetic imagination that allows for Dryden to draw out just how vicious and fallacious the reasoning of Oates’ supporters is: that he can imagine their wickedness as effectively as he does, that he can feel their claims in the language beneath his pen, makes him all the more horrified, since it is so obvious a manipulation of language, so flagrant a violation against language and judgment. Sympathy strengthens his condemnation. I take the last two lines of the passage to be most ambiguous of all: “In Corah’s own predicament will fall: | For Witness is a common name to all.” The predicament might be the web that Corah has woven, destined eventually to bring down all around him; it might suggest that they will be in the same self-damning predicament as Corah himself, or that they share the predicament of Oates that is to be the object of Dryden’s satire. In other words, it might be that they will fall into the predicament or that they will fall as a consequence of it, and the nature of the predicament is left indeterminate, and the last line similarly judges with a menacing openness: everyone alive is a witness and can see what they are doing; they are all witnesses against one another, their testimonies cancelling; witness is a “common,” and vulgar, name, degraded by this entire affair, its commonness robbing it of dignity. Like other lines in this passage, there is a peculiar mixture of contempt, dignity, hatred, and haughtiness which make it difficult to know just how it would be read aloud.

Hypocrisy is the target of the poem, but hypocrisy not in name only, but in what a name permits: the names of virtues, conduct, and roles especially, which can be claimed and degraded, and which buttress and threaten judgment both. Dryden’s satire itself is buttressed by the potential such names possess, since they serve as measures of the rightness he would defend, and which he believes needs to be redeemed—they provide a measure of how far the hypocrites have fallen from the proper ideals. But Dryden’s satire comes about because of the threat such names pose, and he admits into the poem the grounds for anxiety, allowing the words not to get away from him, but also to stand forth as words that he cannot do without, there being no way to ensure or guarantee their good standing:

This moving court, that caught the people’s eyes,

And seem’d but pomp, did other ends disguise:

Achitophel had form’d it, with intent

To sound the depths, and fathom where it went,

The people’s hearts; distinguish friends from foes;

And try their strength, before they came to blows.

Yet all was colour’d with a smooth pretence

Of specious love, and duty to their prince.

Religion, and redress of grievances,

Two names, that always cheat and always please,

Are often urg’d; and good King David’s life

Endanger’d by a brother and a wife.

Thus, in a pageant show, a plot is made;

And peace itself is war in masquerade.

The specious pomp is no worry, but “Religion, and redress of grievances, | Two names, that always cheat and always praise” is another matter, since Dryden could not claim independence from either. And living in such times of masquerade as he does, what is he to do but to conduct war under the peaceful auspices of verse, or to disguise his war in cajoling tones?

The last stretch of the poem is dull when set against what comes before. In some patches, Dryden veers into an argument over sovereignty that resembles the religious defenses of The Hind and the Panther. But in praising those who remained steadfast to the king, he has recourse to a strong rhetoric that is a necessary concomitant to his indignation and contempt:

Sharp judging Adriel, the Muse’s friend,

Himself a Muse:—in Sanhedrin’s debate

True to his prince; but not a slave of state.

Whom David’s love with honours did adorn,

That from his disobedient son were torn.

Jotham of piercing wit and pregnant thought,

Endow’d by Nature, and by learning taught

To move assemblies, who but only tri’d

The worse awhile, then chose the better side;

Nor chose alone, but turn’d the balance too;

So much the weight of one brave man can do.

The plainness of these lines is apposite for the truth they honor; it is a truth that requires plain-speaking. Dryden permits himself qualification when he writes “who but only tri’d | The worse awhile,” and this might seem to sound a note of scorn, as if only trying it for a while were insufficient, until it is heard as a concession to human fallibility; the plain speaking does not seek to exaggerate virtues, which is why the side of the king is “better,” rather than “worse,” and not absolutely Good against absolutely “Bad.” Adriel, at the start, is accorded the status of a Muse, but whether this owes to a private pursuit or to the public parliamentary persuasive force he wielded (“A muse in Sanhedrin’s debate” we might hear) is undecided; the point does not seem to generate ambiguity, but instead to grant what might seem an inordinate title, and then to refuse to dwell on it, to recognize and move on. Both Adriel and Jothan are granted persuasive power, but their persuasive power is distinguished, by Dryden’s own style, from that of the party of Shaftesbury; temperance is the reigning virtue of these lines and of the cause the men represent; the wit they possess, and that Dryden would claim, is “piercing,” selective and deadly but also precise; and the “pregnant thought” allows there is more to be said, riches of argument unpursued, because to pursue them would be injudicious, risking enthusiasm or narcissism, or—what is most pertinent—a guileless openness in a world rife with betrayal.

Suitably for the poem’s politics, the king gets the last words; with them Dryden marries plain-speaking praise with rhetoric whose power is generated by simplicity. The suggestiveness and connotative force is not released, but it is regulated to give full weight to the denotative weight of the language:

Oh that my pow’r to saving were confin’d:

Why am I forc’d, like Heav’n, against my mind,

To make examples of another kind?

Must I at length the sword of justice draw?

Oh curst effects of necessary law!

How ill my fear they by my mercy scan,

Beware the fury of a patient man.

Law they require, let law then show her face;

They could not be content to look on grace,

Her hinder parts, but with a daring eye

To tempt the terror of her front, and die.

By their own arts ’tis righteously decreed,

Those dire artificers of death shall bleed.

In the first line “pow’r to saving were confined” is itself a figure for Dryden’s way with words, confining their power in order to save something that exists beyond words. But the real interest is generated by means of the cross-currents that run through the first three lines, for after imploring confinement and a limitation of power, he then deplores the force that turns him against his own mind: he wants to be acted on in one way, but not in the other, but in either case he is left without agency, an agent of necessity. This is not Racine, but it finds in the simplicity of language a redounding echo of judgment that would be disrupted in more metaphorically rich language; the burden is not the burden of the king against the medium of thought and speech, but is the burden of his position, his circumstance as king. He must punish his son. The lines are not without interiority either: “How ill my fear they by my mercy scan” clots their understanding with his conflict of feelings, and does so in a line that (at least in the phrase “they by my mercy scan”) is itself not smooth in its scansion. “Beware the fury of a patient man” is an instance of the sheer ordinary rightness of Dryden’s language: “fury” is the feeling but the furies both; it looks to a fury that is beyond the king, as well as within, and the warning is as much to him as it is to others; “fury” sits against “patient” not only as the mark of patience’s limit, but also as the test of patience, which is required to endure the fury. It is characteristic of Dryden that even here, in the heights of rhetoric and passion, the mundane corporeal object directs his thoughts: law is personified with a face and “hinder parts,” but the notion of the terror inspired by her front is implicitly opposed to the scatological comedy of the facing the hinder parts. “Those dire artificers of death shall bleed” introduces an ambiguity: they are artificers of death, but they will also bleed of death itself, as if death has become, accompanying the law, a personified figure bleeding them, both law and death under the sway of the sovereign who demonstrates the horror of his place.

            “MacFlecknoe” has transforms yet again Dryden’s solemn music, its distinct glory—unequalled also by any other satirical poet—into a style that makes the corporeal metaphysical and the metaphysical corporeal, where corporeality is both the materialist occupation of space by bodies and also the sweating, reproducing, execrating, consuming human form, working on and worked on by metaphysical properties

Let Cully, Cockwood, Fopling, charm the pit,

And in their folly show the writer’s wit.

Yet still thy fools shall stand in thy defence,

And justify their author’s want of sense.

Let ’em be all by thy own model made

Of dullness, and desire no foreign aid:

That they to future ages may be known,

Not copies drawn, but issue of thy own.

Nay let thy men of wit too be the same,

All full of thee, and differing but in name;

Not Platonic or artistic copies, but issue, offspring, but generated from one source alone, so as to be, grossly, in both senses of the word “All full of thee, and differing but in name.” The latter phrase testifies to Dryden’s willingness to be coarse and unrefined in drawing distinctions between individuals; they are become mere matter of dullness. The coarseness is somehow pure, and what intrudes is “alien”:

But let no alien Sedley interpose

To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom prose.

And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would’st cull,

Trust Nature, do not labour to be dull;

But write thy best, and top; and in each line,

Sir Formal’s oratory will be thine.

Sir Formal, though unsought, attends thy quill,

And does thy Northern Dedications fill.

Nor let false friends seduce thy mind to fame,

By arrogating Jonson’s hostile name.

Let Father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise,

And Uncle Ogleby thy envy raise.

Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part;

What share have we in Nature or in Art?

Where did his wit on learning fix a brand,

And rail at arts he did not understand?

There is hunger and greed in the verbs; they consume and take possession, a vile appropriation (the word “arrogate” so much more precise than our word, distinguishing as it does between those who would respectfully extend the work of another in their own, and those who would claim its honors for their own); even though Dryden is not usually a great poet of eros, he is a poet of hunger, but hunger for him is not on the scale of Platonic desire, but instead acts as a counterweight upon those who would ascend.  One word bears special strain in the passage: “nature” is both that in which Flecknoe implores Shadwell to trust, and then later, in “what share have we in Nature or in Art,” cautions him against claiming. It is tempting to see the confusion as symptomatic, of Flecknoe’s mind if not of Dryden’s, or to search for competing veins of meaning that run through the dense ore of “phusis.” One possibility, in this reading, is to see the first “nature” as describing a natural dullness that is on par with the false flowers of rhetoric, artificial but artificial without labor. But I prefer to see this as a symptom, and diagnosis, of Dryden’s means of praise and censure, which must appeal to nature, and which, because of the incoherence that is not just incidental to, but is instead the root of, dullness, cannot be collapse on itself. Dullness is opposed to wit and sense, and the sense of the word “Nature” is a confusion of the very nature of things apposite to the reign of dullness. Pope would have delighted in a paradox, but a paradox has the disadvantage of insisting that some resolution is possible, if the words are thought of aright; it is knowing, whereas this is slovenly. Dulness is a muddle that repels those authors—like Jonson—and that language, like Jonson’s—that would maintain distinctions:

Where made he love in Prince Nicander’s vein,

Or swept the dust in Psyche’s humble strain?

Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,

Promis’d a play and dwindled to a farce?

When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,

As thou whole Eth’ridge dost transfuse to thine?

But so transfus’d as oil on waters flow,

His always floats above, thine sinks below.

It might seem the water would be thought purer without the oil, but it is filled with waste and fecal matter; it is the oil that, the stuff of holy unction and clean living, does not mingle.

Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame

In keen iambics, but mild anagram:

Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command

Some peaceful province in acrostic land.

There thou may’st wings display and altars raise,

And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.

Or if thou would’st thy diff’rent talents suit,

Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.

He said, but his last words were scarcely heard,

For Bruce and Longvil had a trap prepar’d,

And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.

Sinking he left his drugget robe behind,

Born upwards by a subterranean wind.

The mantle fell to the young prophet’s part,

With double portion of his father’s art.

“Torture one poor word a thousand ways” glances at what has happened to “Nature.” One word is not tortured in the verse, though we are to hear it in the final rhyme, because it is not a word at all: “part” and “art” rhyme with the subterranean wind that is a “fart,” and it suitably has the final sound, but not word, in the poem.

This is the exuberant, angry, disgusted Dryden, grabbing foes by their collars. What makes his eulogistic verse so surprising is in in part how far it remains from excess and from touch, while admitting them sufficiently as possibilities for us to respect their exclusion and feel the strain to maintain the decorum of the verse. Decorum in and of itself is perhaps not interesting, but as a performance it reveals the circumstance of utterance, and even the depths of a mind, by the fault lines it shows. Too great and the effect is comedy, but in the Ode to Mistress Anne Killigrew, the excess is in the direction of moderation, all that is held back in language, as if the words are not forbidden to touch her. It is taut and controlled and precise without suggesting much beyond the discipline of its praise:


May we presume to say, that at thy birth,

New joy was sprung in Heav’n as well as here on earth.

For sure the milder planets did combine

On thy auspicious horoscope to shine,

And ev’n the most malicious were in trine.

Thy brother-angels at thy birth

Strung each his lyre, and tun’d it high,

That all the people of the sky

Might know a poetess was born on earth;

And then if ever, mortal ears

Had heard the music of the spheres!

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.


Dryden comes alive with “sweet mouth distll’d their golden dew,” but he does so only to reject it as “vulgar.” The tension is between the anodyne alabaster stillness of her memory and what he must fend off from her:

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!


The verse invites the accusation that it is frigid, but it is an accusation it would have us know it to recognize as praise:


Art she had none, yet wanted none:

For Nature did that want supply,

So rich in treasures of her own,

She might our boasted stores defy:

Such noble vigour did her verse adorn,

That it seem’d borrow’d, where ’twas only born.

Her morals too were in her bosom bred

By great examples daily fed,

What in the best of Books, her Father’s Life, she read.

And to be read her self she need not fear,

Each test, and ev’ry light, her Muse will bear,

Though Epictetus with his lamp were there.

Ev’n love (for love sometimes her Muse express’d)

Was but a lambent-flame which play’d about her breast:

Light as the vapours of a morning dream,

So cold herself, whilst she such warmth express’d,

‘Twas Cupid bathing in Diana’s stream.


The poem is more Diana’s stream than Cupid bathing, but it works only because it can imagine how Cupid would like to bathe. In the last two verses, it looks away from Killigrew to others, and the contrast is once more crucial to the entire feeling, where the brother, “streamers to the winds displayed” is buffered by the “winds,” whereas her light is “propitious.”

Meantime her warlike brother on the seas

His waving streamers to the winds displays,

And vows for his return, with vain devotion, pays.

Ah, generous youth, that wish forbear,

The winds too soon will waft thee here!

Slack all thy sails, and fear to come,

Alas, thou know’st not, thou art wreck’d at home!

No more shalt thou behold thy sister’s face,

Thou hast already had her last embrace.

But look aloft, and if thou ken’st from far,

Among the Pleiad’s, a new-kindl’d star,

If any sparkles, than the rest, more bright,

‘Tis she that shines in that propitious light.

Compared to either of the St. Cecilia’s Day poems, as a whole Ode feels too removed from its subject to come near to us as we read—unless its subject is not Anne Killigrew but the fact of decorum, a virtue that is alien to us, but that provides a measure of excess and deficiency that allows us to at least intellectually plot what Dryden achieves in this poem, and to see how, like a pristine chilled glacial lake, it provides a measure of the pure limpidity of water that we need to detect alongside Dryden’s satirical verse. At any rate, it too stands alone as an ideal of its type, a remarkable performance of language that few others are capable of equaling, and one that lives most fully in a voice elevated in dignified idealized public speech. We don’t believe in that; but it’s salutary to be reminded that others have.


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