The Case for Dryden

John Dryden and His World

by James Anderson Winn
Yale University Press, 651 pp., $29.95

As long ago as 1921, T.S. Eliot, in reviewing a new book on Dryden by Mark Van Doren, remarked that “we cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden; and to enjoy Dryden means to pass beyond the limitations of the nineteenth century into a new freedom.” Van Doren’s book—quiet, eloquent, and thoughtful, like the man himself—provided a wonderful introductory appreciation of Dryden’s poetry. It emphasized qualities that admirers of the poet have never ceased to cherish—his energy of expression, elegant versification, the power to think in poetry. In 1934 another clean and cogent little book; Louis I. Bredvold’s Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden, undertook to erase the lingering smears on the poet’s memory left by the repeated charges of his contemporaries that he was a servile turncoat—the man who praised Cromwell, then celebrated the restoration of Charles II, and became a Catholic with the accession of James II.

Bredvold emphasized the tradition of skeptical thought on which Dryden’s acute and argumentative mind had fed. He showed how easily this skepticism could unite—as it did in Montaigne, Charron, Pascal, Sir Thomas Browne, and then Dryden—with its apparent opposite, an unquestioning and even authoritarian Christian faith. The argument that builds up faith by tearing down reason is known as fideism. Bredvold showed how Dryden’s intellectual development, when seen in the light of this developing skepticism, could be understood as a series of linked, if not inevitable, stages that led Dryden out of a Puritan background through Anglican conformity (though of a special kind as defined by a poem like Religio Laici) to the frankly Roman Catholic apologetics of The Hind and the Panther. In view of this logic, the assumption that he was a turncoat proved not only uncharitable, but unnecessary.

Thus commended, thus explained, Dryden (one might think) should have gained the sort of wide and devoted readership in the twentieth century that Milton, Donne, and Marvell have in fact commanded. Why he didn’t open the door to a new freedom is an interesting problem in itself. One looks to the big new biography by James Anderson Winn to shed some light. Since the extensive, inchoate researches of Edmund Malone (1800), on which Sir Walter Scott drew for his more shapely biography (1808), there has been just one major attempt to tell Dryden’s story, that of Charles E. Ward, about a quarter century ago. High time, then, that we had another look at this clearly important yet somehow less than triumphant man.

Mr. Winn has emulated Malone in looking at all the available data, and even outdone him in the measure that a lot more data is available now than was to be had two hundred years ago. The first answer to our original question is that Dryden didn’t have a symbolic or even a vigorously metaphorical mind. This is not to say that he wrote poetry of mere statement, but that he tended to think of his metaphors and…

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