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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.1

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.2

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 Lisideius had provided for them, they made haste to shoot the Bridge, and left behind them that great fall of waters which hindred them from hearing what they desired: after which, having disengag’d themselves from many Vessels which rode at Anchor in the Thames, and almost blockt up the passage toward Greenwich, they order’d the Watermen to let fall their Oares more gently; and then every one favouring his own curiosity with a strict silence, it was not long ere they perceiv’d the Air to break about them like the noise of distant Thunder, or of Swallows in a Chimney: those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reach’d them, yet seeming to retain somewhat of their first horrour which they had betwixt the Fleets….

It has been argued that what people were hearing in London on that day was indeed distant thunder, that they were victims of a mass delusion. But I have to say that I don’t believe this. Dryden seems quite right about the acoustics—one had to get away from the narrow streets of pre-Fire London, out onto the river or into the park; one had to get away from any other noise, one had to stop talking, and then one might begin to hear it, and it sounded like thunder but it didn’t only sound like thunder—it sounded “like swallows in a chimney,” that beautiful image which almost forces our assent.

We are reminded that in times of war, when life depends on it, the ear very quickly learns to make the most astonishingly fine distinctions between noises made by friend and foe, between types of weaponry, between warlike and unwarlike bangs. The people of London go out to listen to the noises, because their prosperity depends on it. If the noises get louder, that could spell defeat. But even if the Dutch retreat, as Pepys noted, it might be by cunning. Pepys is so cautious it takes him five days to believe that the Dutch have indeed been defeated. Then he gets a full report:

The earl of Falmouth, Muskery, and Mr. Rd. Boyle killed on board of the Dukes ship, the Royall Charles, with one shot. Their blood and brains flying into the Duke’s face—and the head of Mr. Boyle striking down the Duke, as some say.3

The last incident, the flying head of the son of the Earl of Cork hitting the future James II, found its way into a poem formerly attributed to Marvell, called “Second advice to a painter”:

His shatter’d head the fearless Duke distains
And gave the last first proof that he had Brains.4

But to return to Dryden and his wits on the river at Greenwich. They hear the noise receding and conclude that the English have won, which in turn is the cue for their dialogue to begin, which it does with the observation that the price of military victory is the amount of bad verse that will be written about it, that “no Argument could scape some of those eternal Rhimers, who watch a Battel with more diligence than the Ravens and birds of Prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry, while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their Poems, as to let them be often desired and long expected!”

The last remark seems to cover the case of Dryden himself, who, with admirable forbearance, waited more than a year before publishing his account of the Battle of Lowestoft in Annus Mirabilis. And here is how it begins, the same imperial moment evoked in poetry, after the vivid anxiety of the prose:

In thriving Arts long time had Holland grown,
Crouching at home, and cruel when abroad:
Scarce leaving us the means to claim our own.
Our King they courted, & our Merchants aw’d.

Trade, which like blood should circularly flow,
Stop’d in their Channels, found its freedom lost:
Thither the wealth of all the world did go,
And seem’d but shipwrack’d on so base a Coast.

For them alone the heav’ns had kindly heat
In Eastern Quarries ripening precious Dew:5
For them the Idumaean Balm did sweat,
And in hot Ceilon Spicy Forrests grew.

The sun but seem’d the Lab’ror of their Year;
Each wexing Moon suppli’d her watry store,
To swell those Tides, which from the Line did bear
Their brim-full Vessels to the Bel’an shore.

Thus mighty in her Ships stood Carthage long,
And swept the riches of the world from far:
Yet stoop’d to Rome, less wealthy, but more strong:
And this may prove our second Punick War.

Imperialist poetry was never clearer than this, never less drawn to circumlocution. Holland is doing very well, says Dryden, and therefore, like Carthage, it must be destroyed. And he goes on to give an account of that same battle of Lowestoft—excepting that the word “description” means something else, in the context of this kind of poetry:

Lawson amongst the formost met his fate,
Whom Sea-green Syrens from the Rocks lament:
Thus as an offering for the Grecian State,
He first was kill’d who first to Battel went.6

This from the same pen that brought us those swallows in a chimney! Sea-green Syrens on the rocks off Lowestoft! And what makes this description so impressively distinct from the facts as known is that Sir John Lawson didn’t even die in the battle—didn’t even earn that Homeric distinction of dying like Protesilaus, the first Greek to step onto the Trojan shore. He was wounded in the leg, and died a couple of weeks later in Greenwich. And he died, rather unpoetically, of gangrene. But since he was “vice-admiral of the Red,” and the senior officer to be killed in the engagement, Dryden drags him back through history to be the “precious thing” that is thrown into the sea when Britain, in the style of Venice, weds the Main.

The Dutch commander, Opdam as he is known in English (Jacob Obdam, Heer van Wassenaer), gets his in the next stanza:

Their Chief blown up, in air, not waves expir’d,
To which his pride presum’d to give the Law:
The Dutch confess’d Heav’n present, and retir’d,
And all was Britain the wide Ocean saw.

This is the imperial moment—it’s like lining up the three oranges. The money pours out of the machine and it’s all for me. Opdam is blown up. The Dutch see the hand of God in this and call it a day. Britain gains control of everything, the whole Ocean becomes Britain, and with it all the jewels ripening in the east, all the aromatics, and the teacups that survive the attempt at Bergen when

Amidst whole heaps of Spices lights a Ball,
And now their Odours arm’d against them flie:
Some preciously by shatter’d Porc’lain fall,
And some by Aromatick splinters die.7

In this kind of poetry, everything is at the disposal of the imperial purpose: teacups, chronology, spices, mythology. Reason itself lies down to have its tummy tickled.

And I think that in any company, even in Holland and even with descendants of Admiral Opdam in the audience, I could bring all this up without offense. It is baroque. It is preposterous. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination controversial. These barges shooting the rapids under London bridge, these men in wigs straining for sounds of war, these square-rigged ships all belong to another age. To the extent that they arouse our sentiments, they do so irrespective of national or imperial aspiration. I do not experience a flutter of the heart at the news of the success of the Duke of York at Lowestoft, any more than I feel outrage or shame or loss of honor at the sight of one of our ships’ prows, displayed as a trophy in the Rijksmuseum. The relics of these wars are part of a heritage we share with the Dutch.

  1. 1

    Samuel Holt Monk, editor, The Works of John Dryden, Volume XVII (University of California Press, 1971), pp. 8-9.

  2. 2

    Robert Latham and William Matthews, editors, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volume VI (University of California Press, 1972).

  3. 3

    The Diary of Samuel Pepys, June 8, 1665.

  4. 4

    The Diary of Samuel Pepys, June 8, 1665.

  5. 5

    Edward Niles Hooker and H.T. Swedenborg, Jr., editors, The Works of John Dryden, Volume I (University of California Press, 1961), p. 59. Dryden’s own note reads: “In Eastern Quarries, &c. Precious stones at first are Dew, condens’d and harden’d by the warmth of the Sun, or subterranean Fires.”

  6. 6

    The Works of John Dryden, Volume I, p. 62.

  7. 7

    The Works of John Dryden, Volume I, p. 64.

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