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 analogies as rhetorical decorations applied to the body of his poetic arguments. Especially in his dramas he believed devoutly in the value of emotional vehemence and the poetic “sublime,” but this mode did not come naturally to him; stiffness is his major fault, whether on stage or off. In a funeral elegy like “Eleanora,” for which he claimed the authoritative precedent of Donne’s “Anniversaries,” the difference between his measured pace and Donne’s erratic intellectual brilliance is the difference between a mausoleum and a fire-works display.

Eulogies, especially of public figures (to which his office as laureate—he was appointed in 1668—partially compelled him), tend to bring out the pompous and ponderous side of Dryden; Threnodia Augustalis and Britannia Rediviva are particularly heavy examples. His best work was done under the stimulus of argument or in the zest of an attack. But these two activities involved Dryden closely in particular events, disputes, and personalities of his own time. Though he was rather a solitary than a sociable figure—not enough of a gentleman, apparently, to mingle readily with the real gentlemen among whom his politics and his profession obliged him to move—there was never a time in the last thirty years of his life when he was not embroiled.

Literary disputes, political and religious wars both civil and international, disputes over the succession, plots and counterplots, theatrical conflicts, personal animosities—in all these squabbles Dryden took sides, and to understand much of his poetry, one needs factual details, which in large quantities tend to be dry. Even a historical poem like Annus Mirabilis, which seems to be a factual account of a limited period of recent history, is built around a scaffolding of largely unspoken argumentation that has to be studied apart from the gaunt, ungainly, yet often impressive poem that Dryden built over it.


For Dryden was the first master of a craft that has only recently acquired a proper name; he was adept at putting “spin” on an apparently neutral recital of facts. Annus Mirabilis, for example, describes the crowded events of 1665 and 1666, when a terrible epidemic of plague, major episodes of the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London occurred in quick succession. What Dryden’s poem on these events takes for granted but doesn’t directly mention is that for some time a strain of prophetic thought, basing itself on that verse in the book of Revelations (13:18) where the Number of the Beast is given as 666, had flourished among visionary preachers of the Puritan persuasion. The outrageous misfortunes they predicted for the fatal date were prefigured—so they argued—by the scandalous profligacy of Charles II; and the events, mostly unfortunate, of 1665 and 1666, proved the rightness of the prophecy.

Dryden’s poem set out to counter this mythology. The Dutch war, he argued, was a sort of success (and by good luck he could not foresee the events of summer, 1667, which were an unprecedented disaster); the plague, which couldn’t very well be whitewashed, he ignored entirely; and the fire, he declared, might have been much worse if Charles had not, by a pious (and wholly imaginary) prayer, invoked the mercy of heaven in the form of a timely (and wholly imaginary) shower of rain. About the king’s covey of mistresses not much was to be done except to keep quiet about them, and have the king confess in his prayer some remote and very vague faults of youth. In the way of positive prophecy, Dryden undertook to foresee the triumphant progress of the Royal Society and a renascent London at the hub of a mighty British trading empire—a promissory note to placate the commercial classes among whom Puritanism had traditionally struck deep roots.

Managing materials according to an unavowed program, putting a face on things without actually lying about them (a good deal of suppressio veri but not too much commissio falsi), is characteristic of Dryden much of the time; with practice he got to be extremely good at it. But it doesn’t make him a sympathetic figure or the exploration of his poetry an exciting exercise when, looking beneath its often imposing surface, one finds repeated instances of the same calculated indirection and innuendo.

It is of course desirable, even necessary, for a biographer to enter sympathetically into the mind of his subject; and the experience of twentieth-century criticism in exploring poetry for ironic duplicities and ambiguities has encouraged Dryden’s latest biographer to put some Jacobite spin of his own not only on the poetry but on his account of English history in Dryden’s times. For most readers, those days, when civil war was gradually leveling off into mere partisan politics, contain few clear-cut heroes or villains, but for Professor Winn there is no middle ground.

An interesting episode of 1681, when Charles II, in order to remove Parliament from the influence of the London mobs supporting the Earl of Shaftesbury, convoked it in more dutiful Oxford, makes the point. On that occasion a noisy, lower-class crackpot named Stephen College, who was indiscreet enough to admire Shaftesbury, went so far as to provide blue ribbons for the earl’s supporters to wear, and to “write an obscure broadside that may glance at Dryden.” Nothing daunted (the expression is the biographer’s and it is appalling; what in the world did Charles have to be daunted at?), the offended monarch had this audacious wretch hanged, drawn, and quartered; and Professor Winn goes out of his way to interpret a few lines of an epilogue written by Dryden a year later as a sneer at the miserable victim. There is in fact no reason to think Dryden had poor harmless College in mind when he wrote the epilogue to Southerne’s The Loyal Brother, or that he would have wanted to insult over the grave of one who had died so agonizing a death. And if Winn, who repeatedly emphasizes his desire to make Dryden a more popular poet, thinks this is the way to go about it, perhaps some rethinking is in order.

A less gross but just as revealing miscalculation has to do with Dryden’s opposition to a much-mooted bill excluding James Stuart, as a Catholic, from succession to his brother Charles. No special reason is required to explain Dryden’s support of James; he had written panegyrics of the Stuarts since the Restoration, and especially of James, whom he had presented (in Annus Mirabilis) as a hero of the Dutch war—by ignoring the fact that he had to be relieved of his command after Lowestoft. Winn not only applauds Dryden’s devotion, but finds a second reason for the poet’s defense of James. Dryden, it seems, was a first son, with a first son’s privileges, i.e., he had inherited after his mother’s death a bit of Northants property. In the exclusion crisis “he correctly perceived that the continuation of primogeniture, to which he owed these privileges, depended on the preservation of the laws of monarchial succession.” So, it seems, when Dryden stood up for James, he was in his secret heart trying to avoid sharing with his younger brothers a bit of inherited money. Some might call it the motive of a selfish hypocrite. But again, there’s no evidence, apart from the biographer’s imagination, that Dryden harbored any such ideas; and if he had, the fantasy that primogeniture depended on monarchial succession was not only wrong, it self-destructed in 1688 when the laws of royal succession were openly fractured and primogeniture no more collapsed than the sky fell down. Inventing for Dryden motives that are simultaneously mean and patently foolish is surely a biographer’s triumph of sorts.


Where Dryden may need help is in the project of presenting his poetry in its own best light. Some of this work takes us over well-trodden ground that used to be familiar to American sophomores from introductory surveys of English literature. The lambent wit that plays around the stupid, heroic block of Shadwell in MacFlecknoe has been amply appreciated; so have the sly, insinuating lines that open Absalom and Achitophel; so have the slashing rapier passes that seem to weave a circle of glittering steel around the fated Zimri in the body of the poem:

A man so various, that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and noth- ing long;
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon:
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
Blest madman, who could every hour employ,
With something new to wish, or to enjoy!

All for Love is not only a strong and dignified play in itself (pewter, not platinum, but solid pewter); it provides the special fascination of sometimes conniving, sometimes contrasting, with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Tightening the action, making more explicit and rhetorical the motivation of the main characters, building up the part of Octavia (a licensed Roman matron who directly attacks and discomfits that shameless wanton, Cleopatra), and eliminating the wonderful Cleopatra vision of Anthony as a man beyond mortal stature (Act 5, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play), Dryden yet accomplishes a compact, correct, neoclassical drama—so solid that we never for a moment forget that it is a play we are watching. In their grave simplicity the lines on Mr. Oldham escape for once the marmoreal weight of elegy and walk on charmed feet.

But after these showpieces, there are many other places to search for poetry in Dryden. In most of the dramas a seeker must be content with fragments and moments. The heroic plays contain much claptrap, but the prologues and epilogues are often delightful, as when Nell Gwyn rises from her stage death in Tyrannick Love to address the bearers carrying her off to her funeral:

Hold! are you mad? you damned, confounded dog!
I am to rise and speak the epilogue.

Some of the songs are memorable too, especially (it must be confessed) the obscene ones, like that which begins, “Whilst Alexis lay prest.”

The translations, of which the complete Virgil, if only by virtue of its dimensions, forms the centerpiece, include some fine stretches of poetry. One is now likely to consult the English Aeneid more for Dryden than for Virgil; Dryden did not feel obliged to translate very closely, and often used the second line of his couplet to make the rhyme, at the cost of the sense. (But I think Mr. Winn is obsessive to read the opening lines of Book I as an allusion to King James, whose pretensions to epic heroism evaporated forever in the course of his ignoble flight from the Battle of the Boyne.)

Dryden’s verses of flattery, adulation, and formal compliment are not usually good places to look for his poetry. The political part of his address “To My Honour’d Kinsman, John Driden of Chesterton” comes much closer to the balanced, dignified style of Jonsonian compliment, and, being unstrained, is easier to read with pleasure. That Dryden never got to write the epic poem that he was always lobbying for money to compose is not a great loss to English literature. He tended to be uneasy on the peaks of the sublime, and a frank showpiece of moderate ambition like “Alexander’s Feast” is the best one can expect from him in this vein. When his feet are solidly planted on the ground, when he develops, for example, sinewy, subtle arguments on polemical themes, he writes more within himself. Such a poem, to which I think Mr. Winn does less than justice, is Religio Laici (“A Layman’s Faith”), dated 1682 and written on spontaneous impulse. Even if Religio Laici were as simple a poem as the formula by which Winn characterizes it (moderate Anglican), the elements he distinguishes in its making—anti-Puritan common-places, Catholic apologetics, and four other alleged influences of whom we learn no more than their names—leave the poem’s process of composition as confused as its logical shape. In fact Dryden’s poem is tight, hard, peculiar.

Religio Laici clearly owes a good deal more than its title to Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, published forty years earlier. A central part of the poem draws—as it openly declares—on the great Critical History of the Old Testament by Father Richard Simon; and the preface tells us the argument owes much to “the works of our own reverend divines of the Church of England.” The intellectual ground of the poem (as of almost all skeptical arguments) is laid down as the fact of human uncertainty, the fallibility of the senses, and the dimness of reason as a guide, or even a rule, for the conduct of life. The opening lines, pitched in a tone of low, devout melancholy, are among the poem’s most impressive, but their deprecation of reason must startle anyone who recalls the positive value that Richard Hooker—that cornerstone of Anglican thinking—placed on reason in the first book of his treatise, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Even more striking is the poem’s endorsement of Father Simon’s devastating demonstration that the text of the Old Testament is deeply corrupted—is not, in places, original work at all—that manuscripts of it are imperfect, that there is no trustworthy tradition for interpreting it, and that, accordingly, all translations are faulty. Amid such a morass, Dryden asks, where is religious conviction to be found?

Dryden’s answer, several times repeated in the poem, is that saving truth lies in faith, but in faith remarkably circumscribed and limited. It is faith in the Bible, but not the entire Bible, just the plain, clear parts of it that are immediately convincing without the need of ecclesiastical explanation:

The welcome news is in the letter found;
The carrier’s not commissioned to expound.
It speaks itself, and what it does contain,
In all things needful to be known, is plain.


‘Tis some relief that points not clearly known
Without much hazard may be let alone.

And yet again:

For points obscure are of small use to learn;
But common quiet is mankind’s concern.

Whether it is proper to describe as “faith” belief in what is self-evident may be a passing question. The position looks forward to John Locke’s “way of ideas,” which declares bluntly that we have no business believing anything of which we cannot form a clear and distinct idea (the Trinity, for example, or transubstantiation). But the view looks back, more interestingly, to the work of an unusually independent-minded Laudian, William Chillingworth, and his little group of informal associates, known to history as liberal Anglicans. They too declared that in all things needful the Scriptures were plain, and, by consequence, where they were not plain they were not needful. Chillingworth, who was one of the first to see how liberal theological ideas could be turned to conservative political ends, may well have been one of the “reverend divines of the church of England” to whom Dryden expressed indebtedness. His powerful book The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1637) concludes that saving faith need include no more than the belief “that God is and is a rewarder of them that seek him”—an umbrella that would cover Socrates, Buddha, and a great many virtuous pagans besides.

But this argument, like that relating Dryden’s thought to that of Sir Thomas Browne, is too long to be made here. One can only note how little of the Anglican doctrine and discipline is included in the faith for which Religio Laici argues. There is nothing in the poem about the issues on which the English Church distinguishes itself from the Church of Rome, or from other Protestant sects—nothing about royal supremacy, the Thirty-nine Articles, bishops, tithes, Prayer Book, nothing about the substance of faith, the forms of worship, or a conceivable function for the clergy. (There is no need for them to recite what is perfectly plain, and everything else can be safely let alone.) This is not, needless to say, the actual C of E., though it is the church that Chillingworth defended against the Jesuit Edward Knott, and the church that skeptical defenders of Protestant churches all tend to fall back on when pressed by clerical disciplinarians. It is the church of a solitary believer, alone with his conscience and the Bible—or as much of it as he wants, i.e., feels he needs. This is the layman’s religion of Dryden’s poem, and to call it “moderate Anglicanism” eliminates at a stroke a great many hard questions, though it doesn’t do much to clarify Dryden’s intellectual life.

In matters of concrete fact Winn’s new biography is more detailed and thorough by far than any previously attempted; after making due allowance for the biographer’s exceptional bias, students will find it minute and scrupulous in recounting the particulars of Dryden’s life. Winn’s taste in poetry is less certain; he doesn’t have much eye for the poem as a whole, and the ingenuities of allusion and indirection that he seeks out may make the sensitive reader cringe. In recounting the history of the age, he is not above following the lead of his subject, and omitting entirely what he cannot prettify. One example stands out: Among the chief reasons for the ejection of James Stuart in 1688—a turning point in Dryden’s life—was Louis XIV’s revocation in 1685 of the limited toleration of Huguenots that had been allowed for the previous eighty-seven years by the Edict of Nantes. As a result of this autocratic action of Louis, thousands of Huguenots were deprived of their schools, churches, and hospitals, eliminated from all government posts, dragooned into attending mass, condemned to the galleys, and frequently executed. Despite strict laws to the contrary, hundreds of thousands managed to emigrate to Holland, Ireland, and England, bringing with them—along with extremely valuable industrial skills—horror stories about Catholic persecution on the Continent. Englishmen, who had good reason to suspect that James shared the absolutist ideas of his paymaster Louis, naturally took alarm. The revolution of 1688, which sent the house of Stuart on its European travels, was “glorious” because it was bloodless, and it was bloodless because practically everyone in England had learned something about autocracy from the experience of France. One can understand Mr. Winn’s not wanting to dwell on these events and their immediate consequences in England; but to find the very events themselves erased entirely from the record can only make the judicious grieve.

This Issue

March 17, 1988