May 02, 2007

Forgive me, awful poet

In this era of bardolotry, it was shocking to learn that John Dryden felt himself to be qualitatively superior to Shakespeare, Jonson and Fletcher: "Those who call theirs the Golden Age of Poetry, have only this reason for it, that they were then content with acorns, before they knew the use of bread ..." A bit more reading uncovered that fact that Dryden also believed himself to be so much superior in talent and taste to John Milton, his older contemporary, that he felt compelled to re-write Paradise Lost in dramatic form.

Not all of Dryden's contemporaries agreed with his assessment of his own abilities and accomplishments. One prominent dissenter was Andrew Marvell, who, according this page, "worked with Milton (and Dryden) in the Office of the Secretary for Foreign Tongues in Cromwell's government". Paradise Lost was first published in 1667, and the second edition, published in 1674, began with a poem by Marvell, "On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost", which included these lines:

18 Jealous I was that some less skilful hand
19 (Such as disquiet alwayes what is well,
20 And by ill imitating would excell)
21 Might hence presume the whole Creations day
22 To change in Scenes, and show it in a Play.

The "less skilful hand" was apparently a reference to Dryden, and the play in which Dryden "presume[d] the whole Creations day / To change in Scenes" was his opera The state of innocence, and fall of man, which was written (and performed) in 1674 and published in 1677.

The published version of Dryden's dramatization of Paradise Lost opens (after a long, servile "Epistle Dedicatory" from Dryden "To Her Royal Highness, the Dutchess") with a dedicatory poem, addressed "To Mr. DRYDEN, on his Poem of Paradice", by some 17-century groupie identified only as "Nat. Lee". Lee argues at length that Dryden is as much an improvement on Milton as Dryden felt himself to be on Shakespeare. It begins:

Forgive me, awful Poet, if a Muse,
Whom artless Nature did for plainness chuse,
In loose attire presents her humble thought,
Of this best POEM, that you ever wrought.
This fairest labor of your teeming brain
I wou'd embrace, but not with flatt'ry stain;
Something I wou'd to your vast Virtue raise,
But scorn to dawb it with a fulsome praise;
That wou'd but blot the Work I wou'd commend,
And shew a Court-Admirer, not a Friend.
To the dead Bard, your fame a little owes,
For Milton did the Wealthy Mine disclose,
And rudely cast what you cou'd well dispose:
He roughly drew, on an old fashion'd ground,
A Chaos, for no perfect World was found,
Till through the heap, your mighty Genius shin'd;
His was the Golden Ore which you refin'd.
He first beheld the beauteous rustic Maid,
And to a place of strength the prize convey'd;
You took her thence: to Court this Virgin brought
Drest her with gemms, new weav'd her hard spun thought
And softest language, sweetest manners taught.
Till from a Comet she a star did rise,
Not to affright, but please our wondring eyes.

Of course, Lee means awful in the sense of "inspiring awe", which Dryden no longer does, if he ever really did. And as a poet, he's not exactly awful in the modern sense of "extremely bad or unpleasant" either. (And see "Terrific is even creepier than uncanny", 10/20/2006, for a discussion of the semantic shift involved.) But if Shakespeare was a bowl of acorns, Dryden is a sack of pebbles. If Milton was a miner of precious-metal ore, then Dryden in comparison is a gravel pit.

Today, not even one phrase by Dryden makes it in to Wikiquote, and in the lists of quotes attributed to him in other places, I can't find any that seem familiar to me.

Poor John Dryden: his legacy is not a well-loved poem, or a set of phrases embedded in everyday language, but a freakish grammatical superstition.

[Arnold Zwicky writes:

Dryden seems to have fit his time superbly, but then that time passed. Probably most people know his poetry now through the wonderful settings by Handel -- Alexander's Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, in particular. (Some of his translation of Ovid found its way into Acis and Galatea, which is not particularly well-known, though it's a favorite of mine.)


[Alan Wechsler observes that "Nat. Lee" is probably Nathaniel Lee. After reading his wikipedia entry, I can only say, wow, I wish I had the movie rights.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2007 11:49 AM