Samuel Pepys – “The Diary” (fragments)

While at dinner, the Pepyses are briefly visited by a friend worrying about her relatives who live near the fire. After dinner Pepys and his guest walk through the city where they witness people again engaging in the pointless activity of carrying their goods to the houses which seem safer. Then he takes the boat to observe the fire from the water. On the river he meets the King and Duke of York in their barge, follows them to a harbour and brings Sir Richard Browne, a former Mayor, to them. He observes that in the boats carrying the goods from the evacuated houses there is a virginal (a small keyboard instrument) in at least one out of three, which tells us something about the affluence and cultural aspirations of the inhabitants of this district of London. Again, the only way to stop the fire is to pull down the houses which are not burning yet, but the fire is too fast. Pepys goes back to St James’s Park where he meets his wife and some friends. Together they watch the fire first from the boat, then from a small alehouse on the other bank. The ravages make him weep. They return home and they are visited by a friend who wants to store his things in their house. They invite him to spend the night, but it turns out to be of little use, as the fire gets dangerously close and they spend the night packing up their own things.

I’m not quite sure about the timeline here, because the next entry is dated September 5, so three days after the previous one. I’m not sure if the entries in the days between were left out by the editors here. Pepys himself notices that when the days are very eventful, they feel like weeks and he himself forgot the day of the week, so maybe he himself was not quite sure what happened on which day and he wrote a kind of condensed entry covering all three days. At 2 am, when the fire is already at the bottom of their lane, Pepys evacuates his wife accompanied by his clerk and their maid to Woolwich, a suburb of London, together with their money. When he goes back home, he fully expects to see it burnt to ashes, but much to his relief the demolition of houses in the path of fire finally gave results and helped to save his house. He goes up the steeple of Barking Church, which is only slightly damaged, with its clock destroyed, and looks with dismay at the desolate landscape around. He has some cold meat at Sir William Penn’s (the father of William Penn of Pennsylvania), the first proper meal he had since Sunday and then goes to the City again to see the destruction. He picks up a piece of molten glass from the windows of Mercer’s Chapel. The Exchange is totally destroyed but for the portrait of its founder Sir Thomas Gresham. A poor cat hiding in a chimney in the Exchange’s wall had all its hair singed off, but it’s still alive. A lot of people sought refuge in Mercerfields with everything they possessed; luckily for them the weather is good (although I guess if it had rained, the fire would have been over sooner), but the price of bread has already gone up. The ashes are still so hot they burn Pepys’s feet. He goes home and spends a restless night there with the workmen at the ready to evacuate his office. But in the end around midnight it seems like it’s safe and he goes to sleep. When he wakes up, he hears again rumours about how the fire is the work of the French or the Dutch or both and how invasion is going to happen any moment now, but of course it doesn’t.

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Samuel Pepys – “The Diary” (fragments)

Samuel Pepys wrote his diary for nearly a decade, until he left off because of his concerns with his failing eyesight. Maybe it’s just as well, because the diary as it is us 1.3 million words long and it’s quite daunting to imagine how long it would be had he gone on. He was uniquely positioned to depict the life of London in the Restoration era, since he rose from rather humble lower-middle-class origins to the post of a high-ranking official in the Navy. So while his family and most of his friends are middle-class, he mixes with aristocracy, visits the court and collects stories from all over London. I imagine it’s quite difficult to choose which fragments from this mass of text to choose, so the editors of the NAEL went for what was surely the most dramatic days not only in the period of Pepys’ life covered by the diary, but also the most dramatic days in London of this era – the Great Fire of 1666. As it is often the case with momentous events, it doesn’t begin with a loud bang but kind of sneaks on Pepys, and I’m sure on many of Londoners. Pepys’ maid wakes him up at 3 am to say there’s a fire nearby, but it doesn’t look very dangerous from his window, so he goes back to sleep. When he wakes up again at 7am, it looks even further away, so he goes to his office to put things in order as he planned. But then Jane comes with a report that above 300 houses have been burned and now it’s burning by the London Bridge, so Pepys dresses himself and goes to the top of the Tower. He sees fires on both ends of the Bridge, which concerns him, because some of his friends live there. The Lieutenant of the Tower tells him it started, as it is now generally assumed, in the bakery in Pudding Lane. Pepys goes down, rents a boat and with a random gentleman who joined him goes to the Bridge. His friend’s house is alrealy burned, people fling their goods out of the windows into the water or into the barges waiting nearby and the fire is spreading rapidly. A touching detail is that poor pigeons keep on hovering near their burning houses, so close that some of them have their wings singed and they fall down. After about an hour Pepys goes to the royal palace at Whitehall and there he explains the situation to the King and the Duke of York. They are very concerned and the King orders pulling down of the houses, as Pepys suggested, to stop the fire from spreading. They tell him to go to the Lord Mayor with this command and say they can send more soldiers if he needs them. Pepys goes now in a coach with several officials in search of the Lord Mayor. Everywhere around him is a mess, especially since nobody does anything to stop the fire and people seem to be mostly concerned to transport their goods safely to their friends’ houses or to churches, while they “themselves should have been there quietly at this time”, as Pepys piously observes. Anyway, all this moving of goods is of no use, since the houses previously thought safe in time also become endangered by fire. Finally they come across the Lord Mayor, who is dead tired. He says he’s been pulling houses all night but it’s no use, because the fire is so fast, and now he needs to go and have some rest. Pepys notices the houses are very dry (it’s 2 September, at the end of a hot and dry summer), full of pitch and tar and there are several houses full of oil and brandy tight in the fire’s direction. It’s now noon and so he comes back home, because they have some previously invited guests. He meant to show one of the gemtlemen some things in his office but they are not in the mood. Nevertheless, as a testimony to the resilience of human spirit (or human short-sightedness?) “we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry as at this time we could be.”

John Dryden – “The Preface to ‘Fables Ancient and Modern'” (fragment)

This is probably the last text written by Dryden, a preface to a collection which is exactly what it says on the tin, a collection of his translations from various authors, including Chaucer, and the fragment in the selection is his appraisal of Chaucer. Contrary to what one might think about Dryden about being all about starchy rules of Augustan poetics, he loves Chaucer. First of all, we the English have to love Chaucer because he is to us what Homer was to Greeks, the father of poetry. He followed Nature and was never overdoing it, but always knew where to stop. It is true some of his verses do not scan very rhythmically and they may seem a syllable short, but it has its kind of rude charm and the readers have to just accept that in Chaucer’s days poetry was just in its infancy. (As the Helpful Footnote reminds us, Dryden may be wrong because in his times people didn’t know very well how to read Middle English and Chaucer might have been a more accomplished versifier than Dryden gave him credit for.) And his characterisations are just wonderful, no two characters in The Canterbury Tales are the same, even those from a similar background, like the Reeve and the Miller.

Thus ends my reading of Dryden. I have to admit my preconceived notion of him was somewhat revised during it. He is capable of more irony and humour than I gave him credit for. He is also more open-minded when it comes to literary cricism than I thought, viz. the above praise of Chaucer. “A Song for St Cecilia’s Day” is quite impressive in its use of musical effects, although again half of the credit here maybe should go to Handel. On the other hand, Dryden as a critic has this irritating habit of referring constantly to “Nature” (always with the capital “N”) as the model to be followed. All the Augustan poets keep on talking about this and I honestly don’t have idea what the fuck they really mean. His satires require a truckload of footnotes to be deciphered, and when you have to explain a joke, it stops being funny. All in all, what really stops Dryden from being popular in our day and age is that, as the introduction to his section in the NAEL points out, he is totally a public poet, never personal. Paradoxically, the struggles and emotions of an individual prove to be a really timeless subject, while big and important historical subjects age very quickly.

John Dryden – “The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License”, “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Saatire” (fragments)

More of Dryden’s theoretical writings with very long titles (I can’t blame him since I am guilty of it myself; it’s only in belles-lettres where you can get away with a one-word title). Both of them are a bit self-aggrandizing, as you are going to see. The first one comes from an introduction to Dryden’s libretto to a never produced opera based on Paradise Lost. In this text Dryden defends himself against the charges of using too high-flown and bombastic style, saying that the most severe stylists such as Virgil and Horace sometimes also used bold metaphors when appropriate. So when you judge  a poet for using too colourful language, perhaps the problem is with you, not with the poet. And why should Virgil and Horace be our yardsticks? Because they were admired by countless readers from all the later generations, so by taking issue with their language you also implicitly accuse all these readers of the lack of discernment. The reason why Virgil and Homer were the authors of such effective texts is because they studied Nature. In another fragment Dryden defines “wit” as “thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject”, which means that high and noble subjects require elevated style.

The next fragments, from Dryden’s introduction to a collection of translation of Roman satires, is about the difference between two modes of satire, named after two Roman poets “Juvenalian” and “Horatian”, the former being a savage attack on human depravity and the latter more of gentle mocking. Even though, as the Helpful Footnote informs us, Dryden seemed elsewhere to favour the Juvenalian, here he rather praises the latter, rather immodestly quoting his own portrait of Buckingham as Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel. He thinks rather highly of it himself and he thinks it is “worth the whole poem”.The real art of satire, Dryden argues, is to make somebody appear like a fool and knave without ever calling him thus. It’s like early English miniaturists, who could create an illusion of three-dimensional face without using shadowing. This mode of satire is preferable and safer also for the author, because “a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.” It’s like a masterful execution, when the victim hardly notices his being dispatched, as opposed to clumsy hanging.

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

The last fragment in this selection is Dryden’s comparison of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, in his opinion, was a genius who can withstand even the charges of not having enough education because he was “naturally learned” and didn’t need book-learning. Of course even Shakespeare had his weaker moments, but whenever he had the subject great enough for his genius, he always rose up to the occasion. Even though other poets may be more fashionable nowadays, Shakespeare was considered always the best both in his lifetime and also later, by people of discerning tastes. Jonson, on the other hand, is “the most learned and judicious” of writers. He is not particularly good at writing about and inciting passion, but his real metier was comedy. When he stole from Roman poets, he did so like an invading monarch carrying off the spoils of war and in his Roman plays he in fact outdid Roman playwrights themselves. His weakness might also be his tendency to use too many latinisms in English. In short, Dryden considers him “the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit… I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.” He also praises Jonson’s work as a literary critic, saying his theoretical writings on the theatre are as good as written by any French critic.

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

The next fragment in the selection is the one about the essence of true wit, which, according to Dryden’s mouthpiece Eugenius, can be carried across through languages and cultures, even though it’s diminished in translation. But the example he gives – a supposedly funny come-back by a slave in a Terence’s comedy – shows that what he means rather is that somebody for whom Latin is not the first language (so, like, everybody alive now) can still enjoy the humour of something funny in Latin, even if they are unable to fully translate it into their native tongue. An uncultivated churl like me, who knows no Latin, would not still find the repartee funny without a translation and a footnote explaining why it is funny (and then I don’t find it funny, either, but that’s because too much explanation went into this joke). Plautus, Eugenius thinks, was too fond of bold metaphors and coining new meanings, and Horace justifiably gave him hard time for it. Eugenius quotes several other examples from ancient poets of their use of catachresis (unusual use of language), saying that it is not bad if it’s used in moderation. But the examples he gives are so tame I hardly notice anything unusual about them at all, like Vergil’s “the woods and waters wonder…” This is what John Cleveland does (a minor poet, whom Dryden criticised already in the previous fragment), when he cannot write a line without it, while “wit is best conveyed to us in most common language”. And the problem with Cleveland is that he uses this colourful language for some very shallow thoughts, while Donne “gives us deep thoughtss in common language”. But Cleveland is not without his merits, and Eugenius praises some funny lines of his, like if Cain had been a Scotsman, God would have punished him not by sentencing him to wander the world, but by making him stay at home, or that beauty is like white powder, destroying noiselessly.

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.