John Dryden – “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (fragments)

This starts a selection from Dryden’s critical writings. The essay has an interesting form, since this is a conversation between four friends who went on a rowboat to see a naval battle between the British and the Dutch. After they learn the British have won they sail back, but in the course of their conversation they start to worry about the amount of bad poetry this victory is going to inspire. In this excerpt they talk about the two principal kinds of bad poets: ones which are kind of epigons of the metaphysical poets, torturing words beyond their meanings. The other one is the one who is deliberately plain but he “affect plainness, to cover his want of imagination”; he writes dull, plodding poetry only because he’s unable to write any better.

John Dryden – “Alexander’s Feast” (the end)

Timotheus, noticing that Alexander got too excited by the Bacchean music, now tones it down and sings a sad song about King Darius (the one whom Alexander has just vanquished) dying alone, “with not a friend to close his eyes” (he was in fact murdered by his former supporters). Alexander reflects sadly upon the sudden changes of fortune. Timotheus notices his tears and realizing he’s worked Alexander well, he now sings a song about love, because “pity melts the mind to love”. He sings how all glory of war is “but an empty bubble” and if you are a victor, the best thing that can come out of it is winning love, so look at the lovely Thais at your side. The king sighs and looks at her, until drunk both with love and wine he falls asleep on her breast. I’m not sure why Alexander had to conform to the stereotype of unhappy lover, since Thais was a courtesan and surely would not behave towards him like a disdainful haughty lady of chivalric romances. Then Timotheus wakes him up with an angry song about the ghosts of killed Greek soldiers, rising up with torches in their hands and demanding revenge. The king seizes a torch and led by Thais, burns the palace of Persepolis down. (According to ancient historians, it was Thais who instigated the burning as a revenge for the Persians’ burning the temple of Athena in her home town of Athens.) After that, Dryden rapidly switches to Cecilia and her invention of the organs, which should make Timotheus give his crown to her or at least divide it, because while “he raised a mortal to the skies/she drew an angel down”.

This poem is not, in my opinion, as successful as the previous one. First of all, Cecilia seems to be tacked-on and comes almost as an afterthought. Also her position as the legendary inventor of sacred music does not sit well with the role music plays in the poem. Timotheus here is almost a puppet master, and Alexander acts less like an actual person and more like somebody hypnotized, switching from one emotional state to another in a matter of seconds. Music here is almost demonic, like in Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, having power to manipulate people and their emotional states. In view of that, I am not sure the claim that Timotheus’ music raises “a mortal to the skies” is justified, since it led Alexander to the barbaric act of destroying Persepolis.

John Dryden – “Epigram on Milton”, “Alexander’s Feast”

“Epigram on Milton” is, as befitting an epigram, a very short poem linking Milton to two great epic poets of the past, Homer and Virgil. The first is unsurpassed in loftiness of thought, the second in majesty, and since Nature could not go any further in any of these qualities, in creating Milton she combined the two.

“Alexander’s Feast” is another of these odes on St Cecilia’s Day, and again it has a musical setting by Handel. It’s a longer poem and so the resulting musical piece is a full-blown oratorio, so it’s more of a time commitment and for this reason I did the unpardonable thing – I broke it in two. So far it’s not as impressive as the previous one, IMHO, but maybe it’s precisely because I didn’t listen it properly from the start till the end. The poem is about Alexander celebrating with his mistress Thais his victory over Persians. There is a big party and the singer Timotheus sings a song about the legendary divine origin of Alexander, who according to an oracle was not the son of Philip but of Zeus himself, who visited his mother as a dragon. The listeners exclaim “A present deity!” and Alexander nods, pleased with the flattery. The next part of Timotheus’ song is about the god of wine Bacchus, who arrives greeted by the sounds of trumpets and hautboys (both instruments, I am sure, unknown in antiquity), but it gives the composer an opportunity for some fine musical effects. Wine-drinking is praised as “the soldier’s pleasure” because “sweet is pleasure after pain”.

John Dryden – “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day”

If you have about fifty minutes to spare, you can’t spend them in a better way than listening to Handel’s musical setting for this poem. This is one of the poems commissioned annually by the Musical Society in London for, yes, St Cecilia’s Day celebrations. The music was originally written by a guy called Dreghi, but Handel’s music really makes every word shine. Dryden starts with portraying music as the creative force that created order from the primordial chaos, cumulating in the creation of man. Then he goes through all the feelings which music can inspire in listeners and the respective instruments best suited for this (again, go to Handel’s piece to listen how wonderfully they match). Jubal, the biblical inventor of music, made such an impression on his brothers when he first struck the chords of his tortoise-shell lyre that they fell down on their faces, believing it comes from a divine being. Trumpets and drums are used for giving valour to soldiers; the plaintive flute expresses “the woes of hopeless lovers”; violins are used for expressing jealousy and the organ, of course, inspires religious awe. The mythical Orpheus could tame animals and move rocks, but St Cecilia goes one better, because her organ (of which she was believed to be the inventor) and her voice brought down an angel from above. The poem is bookended with the grand chorus, which again reminds us about the role of music in creation of the world – it was music which set the spheres in motion and it is music which shall be heard at the end of the world, when the trumpet of Last Judgement shall sound. I am not quite sure about the last line “and Music shall untune the sky”. Does it mean there will be no music in the thousand-year reign? Surely Dryden cannot mean that, because that’s not the world I would like to live in. Maybe he means only that’s the end of the music of the spheres, because the universe (as he imagined it) will be dismantled. But this minor quibble aside, I really loved this poem, although I am not sure if I would love it so much without Felicity Lott’s soaring soprano. In the post-post-modern ironic world we struggle with the notion of the sublime, but Dryden’s poem and Handel’s music make us feel what transcendence is.

John Dryden – “To the Memory of Mr Oldham”

This is going to be a short one, because tomorrow I am going to read a longer poem at one go. John Oldham was a poet who was very good friends with Dryden, despite his being a generation younger. Oldham died when he was only 30 of smallpox and this inspired Dryden to write this poem. It’s interesting to see how he tries to make sense of this tragedy: even though he doesn’t mention God explicitly, the poem’s undercurrent is the belief that the afterlife is the end of a Christian’s life – “the end” both meaning “the last stage” and also “the purpose”. Dryden writes that they were so much alike as poets, but the one who set out later arrived first. Alluding to The Aeneid (the poem is apparently full of allusions to it), he compares himself and Oldham to Nisus and Euryales: during a race, the former slipped and the latter outran him. He also finds solace in the belief that Oldham couldn’t possibly become more accomplished as a poet: maybe he could achieve more smoothness in his versification (which, as Dryden claims, “nature never gives the young), but since he was a satirist, he really didn’t need that, because Dryden adhered to the Renaissance idea that satire works best when its verses are “rough” and not too polished. The poem ends with the image of Oldham crowned with laurels, but surrounded by “fate and gloomy night”.

John Dryden – “Mac Flecknoe” (the end)

After crowning his heir, Flecknoe makes a speech. He imagines his son’s empire to stretch from Ireland to Barbados, which of course means it’s just mostly empty sea. Let George Etherege (another playwright, whom Dryden evidently admired) dominate the stage, Shadwell’s comedy fools are still going to be more foolish, because he finds them so easy to write, modelling them after himself. So he does not have to try being particularly good, he can create figures like Sir Formal (a foolish orator in Shadwell’s comedy The Virtuoso) without any effort. So don’t pretend to imitate Jonson, because he was so much better than you and his poetry to yours is like oil to water. Dryden makes also some jokes about Shadwell’s obesity (he’s a huge man but he doesn’t have enough sense to fill a thimble) and finally advises him through the mouth of Flecknoe to switch to poetry where he can do his puns and acrostics. He alludes probably to George Herbert, writing “There thou may at wings display and altars raise”, because Dryden really didn’t get metaphysical poets and considered image poems just purely superficial. Flecknoe is still declaiming when he is sent down through a trapdoor in a scene deliberately recalling one from The Virtuouso. He departs like Elijah in the Bible, with his mantle “borne upwards by a subterranean wind” (possibly a farting joke) resting on his disciple’s shoulders.

John Dryden – “Mac Flecknoe” (ctd.)

The next stage of the poem is going to take place near London’s Barbican, which was then, judging by Dryden’s description, in ruins and a major place for sex trade. At this place was located also the Nursery, not a pre-school but a kind of acting school, which is, however, described by Dryden in disparaging terms, as not the place where you can hear the great poetry of Jonson or Fletcher but bad puns and mediocre poetry. This is the spot which Flecknoe picked for the coronation of his heir, which is portrayed in mock-epic terms. Fame spread the renown of Shadwell all the way to Watling Street, which is actually not very far. The coronation is attended by other bad poets, whose works were used either for lining pie tins or as toilet paper, and by publishers who lost money on publishing them, including Herrington, Shadwell’s and Dryden’s own publisher. Shadwell is given a mug of ale instead of the orb and the script of Love’s Kingdom, Flecknoe’s own play (very bad, as the Helpful Footnote tells us) as his sceptre. He is crowned with poppies, which implies that his readers snooze, but also is apparently a sly hint at Shadwell’s opium addiction. As every notable event, this is also attended by omens: twelve owls fly over him, like twelve vultures flew during Romulus’s coronation.