Of politics and poetry - Dryden's universal `we'

John Dryden and his World, by James Anderson Winn. New Haven: Yale University Press. 651 pp. $29.95. John Dryden has disappeared behind his name. ``Dryden'' was England's poet laureate during the Restoration and master of all the significant literary forms - poetry, drama, criticism, satire, lyric. ``The Age of Dryden'' lasted from 1660 to 1700.

In ``John Dryden and his World'' James Anderson Winn rescues the man from the myth. Winn's Dryden is a ``professional'' - one of the first - driven by financial responsibilities (he had a growing family) and irregular income. And Dryden's world is an ever-changing set of tensions generated by religion, party, and class.

The poles of the tensions come with the labels ``Puritan'' and ``Royalist.'' As we read Winn, we gradually see that Dryden sought to forge a middle way between the extremes. In his best poems, he found a rational balance; he created a ``central of the imagination.''

To appreciate this, to experience the poems and thus begin to realize the possibilities of (in Russell Kirk's phrase) ``Dryden's politics,'' we have to understand the many contexts of Dryden's art. Winn has dedicated his long, authoritative, and ultimately exciting book to this timely end.

The Drydens had Puritan roots in a tiny village in Northamptonshire. John's early experience with ``the formal spoken word'' was the ``plain, powerful, spiritual, frequent, and laborious'' language of Presbyterian preaching. Dryden himself would later occasionally display different combinations of the qualities from ``plain'' to ``laborious.''

Puritanism, Winn shows, was not the emotional straitjacket of contemporary psychology. Within limits, Dryden's people, country gentry, had a complex and sometimes indulgent view of life.

They did not, for example, hate music! Dryden's musicality - epitomized in his great poem ``Alexander's Feast: or the Power of Music'' (1697) - goes back to the Puritan view (common in Renaissance humanism) that subordinated music to the word, but exalted the harmony expressed by music.

Royalist values caught up with Dryden in London in the 1640s and '50s. Westminster School, his first stop, was run by Royalist Richard Busby, put there by Charles I. A commanding presence and rigorously committed to excellence, Busby was a polymath who defied acts of Parliament. He survived several changes of government. He was also kind and made lifelong friends of his students. Dryden's feeling for the ancients owes much to Busby.

Between Northamptonshire and Westminster, John Dryden had experienced, in Winn's word, ``doubleness.'' Later he would learn to use his double perspective, Puritan and Royal, to cope with the successive regimes of the Puritan Cromwell, then Charles II.

Dryden's ``doubleness'' eventually made him the most popular dramatist of his time and one of the best satirists of all times. It allowed him to use the language of both sides, to allow a ``clash of genres'' to create an overall harmony.

Transcending all this, Dryden's ``we,'' editorial or royal, articulated a complex, durable point of view.

Dryden could make even his worst enemies look human. Sometimes that meant forgiving them! Aristocrats, once rankled, were not always polite. Dryden was unceremoniously mugged in a narrow passageway one night. Had he been a gentleman, Winn explains, his enemy would have challenged him to a duel; as it was, the Northamptonshire parvenue was taught a lesson.

The lesson - spare your betters - had ramifications. As poet laureate, Dryden continued the tradition of court fool, using poetry to comfort and criticize his king and the court. He was capable of refraining, for a while, from publishing his most devastating satire. Winn's Dryden is a true artist, and his greatest creations, regardless of the form, transcend politics - not by turning away from these realities, but by transforming them.

In the ode ``Alexander's Feast'' (1697) he shows the dangers of music in politics: ``Soothed with the sound the King grew vain,/ Fought all his battles o'er again.'' Here in Dryden's most musical creation, he critiques ``the power of music''!

In his greatest satire, ``Absalom and Achitophel'' (1681), Dryden criticized both sides. Here, from the inside, Dryden's ``we'' represented the view of reason, toleration, common sense. He used the story of King David's rebellious son Absalom as an allegory for the profligate Charles and his bastard son James. In the Bible, Absalom is finally killed, but Dryden left the story open-ended.

In the event, James did succeed Charles, tried to mix Catholicism and absolutism, and abdicated. The ``Glorious Revolution'' swept in the Protestant William of Orange and swept out Dryden. Now part of the opposition, Dryden had to sustain himself and his family by humor. Winn compares his position to that of writers under a modern military dictatorship.

Dryden turned to translation, less controversial than satire. His Virgil remains among the best in English; he translated most of the great Romans. Last, and too late, he turned to Homer. And just when it had become most unpopular, he converted to Roman Catholicism (his wife and sons had long been Catholics). Beyond the charmed circle of the court, Dryden expanded his ``we'' to include the universal ancients.

Winn's ``John Dryden and his World'' is more than a triumph of historical scholarship. It suggests that after almost three centuries of neglect, Dryden's time has come round again. We are tired of the writer's self-centered ``I.'' We need Dryden's hard-won ``we.''

To read Dryden today is a true liberal education.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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