Goodbye to All That

The first paragraph of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesie records the great imperial moment in what the English call the Second Dutch War, and what the Dutch call the Second English War. A naval battle is taking place off Lowestoft, more than a hundred miles from London, but the sound carries as far as the capital. Dryden recalls:

It was a memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our navy engag’d the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe. While these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our Country men, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, little by little into the line of our Enemies; the noise of the Cannon from both Navies reach’d our care about the City: so that all men, being alarm’d with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which they knew was then deciding, everyone went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the town almost empty, some took towards the park, some cross the river, others down it: all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.

That the battle of Lowestoft could be heard in London is confirmed by Pepys, whose diary for this day, June 3, 1665, records:

All this day, by all people upon the River and almost everywhere else hereabout, were heard the Guns, our two fleets for certain being engaged; which was confirmed by letters from Harwich, but nothing perticular; and all our hearts full of concernment for the Duke, and I perticularly for my Lord Sandwich and Mr. Coventry after his Royal Highness.

And Pepys’s editors tell us that the sound of the gunfire was probably reflected by the stratosphere—“hence it was possible for guns firing in a s.-w. gale 120 miles to the n.e. to be heard in London.” But the battle was heard not only in London and Cambridge. It was also heard in The Hague. This was one of those intimate wars. Dryden uses the event in order to give a familiar historical setting for his fictional dialogue, much in the same way that Boccaccio evokes the plague in Florence at the opening of the Decameron. In both cases, it is the specificity of the description that makes it so riveting, and makes one wish that both authors had written more in their vein.

At that period, the river Thames at low tide formed rapids under London Bridge (a detail confirmed by Pepys), and in order to pass down river the boats had to shoot these rapids, at some danger. This is what is meant by the expression “shooting the bridge” in the next passage.

Taking then a barge which a servant of …

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