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.

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“Everyman” – the end.

Strength, Five Wits and Discretion are the next to go. Knowledge and Good Deeds, however, stay faithfully by Everyman, but only Good Deeds are capable of going with him to the afterworld, while Knowledge remains on the brink of the grave. I wish I knew of a study which could explain the difference to me in theological terms. I have a feeling that Discretion in this play means a kind of worldly wisdom, while Knowledge is knowing the meaning of life, which from the standpoint of the author of this play is the quest for salvation and eternal life. That would explain why Discretion abandons Everyman, while Knowledge accompanies him until almost the end. She doesn’t have to follow him into heaven, because there his life’s purpose is achieved. At least that is the way I figured this out.

Everyman ascends into heaven where his soul is greeted by an angel. At the end of the play a Doctor enters (he’s a D.D, not a medical doctor) and expounds the meaning of the play; at the end of life everyone and everything is going to abandon you, except for you Good Deeds and Knowledge. But your Good Deeds are never so strong as to help you achieve salvation on their own merit (in line with Augustine’s doctrine), so you need contrition and penance before death, because after death it is too late.

And thus ends the section on the Middle Ages! Sometimes it was a bit of struggle (Chaucer’s philosophizing poultry), sometimes it was quite interesting. I got to revisit the texts I haven’t read for a long time and some which I haven’t read at all. I think the best moments are those when from under the difficult language, religious moralizing and unfamiliar allusions the reader gets a glimmer of something like shared human experience across the ages and continents. Julian’s of Norwich comparison of the drops of Christ’s blood to the raindrops falling from the eaves comes to my mind. I think Lanval was my favourite text. with the fairy queen choosing her lover and laying down the rules of her relationship.

Be back in a few days, kicking off the Sixteenth Century section.

“Everyman” ctd.

Knowledge and Five Wits encourage Everyman to go to a priest to receive last rites. Five Wits delivers a long tirade about how priests are the best, they are above kings, emperors and even angels etc. because they have the power to consecrate the host and administer the sacraments, of which there are seven and Five Wits enumerates them, rather unnecessarily, since at the moment Everyman is interested only in two. Everyman goes off stage to receive the communion and extreme unction, while Knowledge says that unfortunately, there are also wicked priests who receive money for the sacraments, father illegitimate children, have sex and so on. But Five Wits counteracts with “let’s hope we don’t meet such ones, let us honour the priests, they are our shepherds and we are their sheep”. This whole exchange is very illustrative, as it combines two voices, both reflecting the rumblings of the approaching Reformation. The conservative one, with all the rather overdone praises of priests, emphasizes the sacerdotal nature of the Church, as the careful enumeration of all seven sacraments shows (as opposed to the Protestant two). The disruptive one exposes the issues troubling the Church, but I guess it’s significant he does it out of Everyman’s earshot, so as not to trouble him too much before death oh, God forbid (heh) make him doubt the authority of the Church.

Everyman returns happy and ready for death. All his companions promise to follow him. However, he soon feels faint and is ready to lie down in his grave. Seeing this, Beauty is the first to take off, tucking his skirts behind his belt to more more swiftly.

“Everyman” ctd.

Everyman continues to scourge himself energetically, which makes Good Deeds stronger and she is able to walk again. Knowledge gives Everyman a new garment of contrition, wet with his tears. Now Everyman is ready to go on his pilgrimage. Knowledge and Good Deeds promise to accompany him, but he should call on four more trusted companions: Discretion, Strength, Five Wits and Beauty. (I thought Beauty leaves one usually much earlier than just before death.) Anyway, all these allegorical personages enter the stage and they also promise to go with Everyman, who is now very sanguine about his future. He makes his testament in their presence: he bequeaths half of his property to charity and half to “be returned there it ought to be”, which I assume means his next-of-kin, although taking into account how nobody in his family was willing to accompany him, he might have second thoughts about it.

“Everyman” ctd.

Good Deeds show Everyman his book of reckoning. Unfortunately it is blotted and completely illegible. Everyman asks for help, which Good Deeds, being too weak, cannot give, but her sister Knowledge will help. Knowledge enters, saying the words that became the motto of Everyman’s Library: “Everyman, I will go with thee and by thy guide, in thy most need to be by thy side.” Knowledge takes Everyman to Confession. Everyman asks Confession to be washed clean of his sins. Confession gives him Penance symbolized by a scourge. Everyman thanks Confession for his help. Knowledge reminds him that penance has to be done fully. Everyman prays to Jesus and Mary for mercy and begins enthusiastically his penance.

“Everyman” ctd.

Goods enter and Everyman repeats his request – can they go with him on hi last journey? “Well, actually, I’d only make the matters worse”, says Goods (I think I have to refer to them in the singular, as they were represented by one actor on stage). “You loved me too inordinately and I’m actually an obstruction to your salvation. If you had given away at least a bit of your money for the poor, you would fare much better”. Goods also repeats Death’s argument about life – just like life, Goods are not ours forever, they are just on a loan. Laughing ironically, Goods exits. Everyman again bemoans his fate and then has a bright idea – he needs to address his Good Deeds. But she (yes, this is the pronoun he uses) is too weak to move – she is so bound by Everyman’s sins. Everyman says he needs her help and Good Deeds she will help him if he does what she says. “Come with me”, says Everyman. “I can’t move”, says Good Deeds. “But why?” asks Everyman. She has just told you, you fool. Let’s say the snappy and logical dialogues are not this writer’s forte. But this play is starting to grow on me, nevertheless. There’s something Beckettian about Everyman’s gradual deprivation in face of Death.

The pronoun “she” used with reference to Good Deeds is unexpected and I wish I knew what to make of it. Allegorical figures tend to be feminine in fine arts, but Goods just a few verses ago was a “he”. Also another interesting feature of medieval language is that God at some point is referred to as Jupiter, although the characters are all the time talking about undoubtedly Christian God. It’s sometimes puzzling how classical learning seeped into medieval culture.

“Everyman” ctd.

Everyman tries to talk his Cousin and Kindred into going with him on the pilgrimage, but they, predictably enough, refuse: Cousin says he stubbed his toe and Kindred offers to lend him his maid servant – she is fond of dressing up and going to fairs, so she might be up for the journey into the unknown too. Beside, Cousin says, his own account book is not balanced, either, so he’d better deal with it. Left alone, Everyman laments again about the fickleness and general unreliability of people. But he has his goods and riches, perhaps they could help him? He calls on them. Goods say, they can’t come because they are piled in corners and packed up in chests and bags. But finally they pull themselves together into one allegorical figure who can, and does enter the stage.