Dryden and the Problem of Freedom

Dryden and the Problem of Freedom: The Republican Aftermath, 1649-1680

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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    Dryden and the Problem of Freedom
    Book Description:

    In this revisionary study of Dryden's thought, David Haley argues that Dryden was the first English poet after Shakespeare to engage in historical reflection upon his own culture. Addressing an audience for whom literature was bound up with religion and politics, Dryden exercised the moral integrity of a public poet and brought home to his readers the meaning of their historical experience.Haley has made an original synthesis of literary and cultural history, examining Dryden's works beforeAbsalom and Achitopheland showing that throughout this period the Great Rebellion remained the matrix of Dryden's thought. Cromwell, who had inspired the regicides but then abolished the Commonwealth, was the one man able to control the army, and he became Dryden's model of authority. Cromwell's death, however, unleashed republican radicals who threatened to bring in tyranny by the people. At the Restoration, Dryden looked to Charles II and his brother to prove that their authority was no less providential and effective than Cromwell's had been.Dryden's religious and literary opinions evolved likewise out of his tumultuous early career. Haley finds that as late as 1682, Dryden, a Puritan who had yet to convert to Catholicism, failed to see that the radical freedom of the republicans was cousin to the freedom of thought he always championed against spiritual tyranny. Dryden's belief in private judgment drove him finally to reject the most subtle tyrant of all, the Restoration Church of England. In similar fashion, Dryden wrestled with the problem of freedom in his heroic plays, whose subjectivity reflects the morally irresponsible imagination. By 1680, the poet had grown alarmed at a moral relativism that promised, like republicanism, to lead to anarchy, and he took refuge in satire.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14624-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Public Poet
    (pp. 1-18)

    Twentieth-century criticism has restored John Dryden to his rightful status of public poet. The achievement is academic, though, because modern society rates poetry and rhetoric very low among civic pursuits. The two kinds of speech are no longer compared as classical genres, yet a poet giving a public reading is never mistaken for a political orator. Poetry and rhetoric have drifted apart with the steady professionalization of all civilized activity. The private nature of poetry has become its characteristic mark. Poetry has withdrawn from its commitment to politics because the public sphere in which human beings were wont to seek...

  5. 1 Praise and Deliberation under the Republic
    (pp. 19-45)

    Critics have long set forth the contradictory opinion that Dryden gained his status of public poet through the aesthetic freedom of his poetry. Until recently, they hailed Dryden’s ability to overcome the constraints of parties or of the times by raising his subjects to enduring art. Since at least the 1970s, scholars have noticed an alloy of satire in this artifact, and some have argued that aesthetic transcendence means the loss of political meaning. Before reading Dryden’s earliest poem, I propose to look at the public poet as an orator unaffected by the modern prejudice in favor of aesthetic autonomy...

  6. 2 Cromwell and the Millennium
    (pp. 46-78)

    John Pocock identifies the epochalkairosof England’s republic and Interregnum as a “Machiavellian moment.” Pocock’s book of that title alludes not to the cynical author ofThe Princebut to the fervent admirer of Rome’s republic. The classical republicanism that Machiavelli analyzes in hisDiscourses on Livywas first revived in quattrocento Italy, and it was rediscovered again under very different circumstances in seventeenth-century England and in revolutionary America. Long after his death, Machiavelli’s fertile study of the moment of civic renewal (rinnovazione) caught the imagination of legislators and actors on the historical scene. The origin of a free...

  7. 3 This Talking Trumpet: Dryden’s Hermeneutics
    (pp. 79-106)

    In contrast to Marvell’s Cromwell ode with its vivid scene on the scaffold of Regicide, Dryden’sHeroique Stanzasnever mention King Charles or England’s vanished monarchy. Instead, Dryden assimilates the Puritans’ godly “cause” to Cromwell’s half-accomplished mission as a Protestant emperor. He makes Cromwell the emulator of Alexander the Great and the nemesis of Pope Alexander VII:

    That old unquestion’d Pirate of the Land,

    ProudRome, with dread, the fate ofDunkirkhar’d;

    And trembling wish’t behind moreAlpesto stand,

    Although anAlexanderwere her guard.

    In the “Heroïque Vertue” that sustained Cromwell’s international conquests Dryden sees an omen...

  8. 4 False Freedom and Restoration
    (pp. 107-139)

    Many who were soberly bred up in religion as Dryden was may have turned away from the church, but few of those renegades were to undergo conversion in their sixth decade. In the preceding chapter, I have taken for granted the continuity of Dryden’s religious thought; extrapolating it by almost a quarter-century, I have tried to fix more precisely its relation to the apocalyptic moment of renewal in the 1650s. Dryden was slow to grasp the connection that Pocock has made easy for us between republican liberty and spiritual dissent. Otherwise, the poet might have seen fit to make his...

  9. 5 The Last Age
    (pp. 140-172)

    By imitating the literal event and letting its meaning emerge from the historical context, Dryden sought to make providence explicit. I characterize this hermeneutic approach to history as providential mimesis. Dryden’s purpose recalls Augustine’s insistence on the literal meaning of Scripture. Both writers regard the Bible as a consummate work ofmimesis, even in its prophetic passages. Speaking like a poet, the prophet records providential fact without interpretive comment. This motive to providential mimesis, deriving from his Puritan radicalism, only grew stronger over the course of Dryden’s career. It joins his poems to sober narratives like those of Bunyan and...

  10. 6 Masterless Men: The Heroic Plays
    (pp. 173-215)

    Replying to his brother-in-law’s attack the year afterAn Essay of Dramatic Poesyappeared, Dryden boasted that he could fit his genius to whatever humor was uppermost among audiences: “I confess my chief endeavours are to delight the Age in which I live.” His confession was not strictly true. Dryden had no more confidence than Howard did in the judgment of the crowd, and he certainly did not espouse his opponent’s antinomian view that “there can be no determination but by the Taste.” Each of the three debates in theEssayhinges on a judicious contrast of tastes, and all...

  11. 7 Our Author Swears It Not: Satire
    (pp. 216-244)

    Like the five heroic plays,All for Lovelocates the private passions in the midst of a disintegrating empire in which the growing power of Rome dismantles the legacy of Alexander. For sixteen years afterThe Indian Queen, Dryden portrayed fallible sovereigns. Whatever autarchy they have is enervated by love. Only by keeping in the background of the play, as Octavius does, can a true sovereign avoid the quagmire of thesaeculum. The chief political lesson to be gained from Dryden’s unsovereign princes is the exquisitely democratic moral that love and the passions level us all. As audiences grew more...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 245-276)
  13. Index
    (pp. 277-285)