Friday, November 13, 2009

Dryden and the Contemporary Reader

In the mid-eighties, John Peel asked listeners to his alternative music radio show who they felt was the least trendy band in the world. Peel’s answer was Status Quo, and he played track after track by them for weeks to prove it. In poetic terms, who is the least trendy poet? I’d guess John Dryden (1631-1700) would come far up many lists. Even the name, Dry-den, is enough to confirm the prejudices of many.

I’ve been reading the introduction by Roger Sharrock to an old Selected Poems of John Dryden (Heinnemann, 1963, 1968), which I must have picked up secondhand some years ago. The former owner has written on the book only once, on the inside title page – “Is Gulliver’s Travels a Novel?” – so his/her mind may not quite have extended as far as the contents. This is a shame, as it’s a splendid introduction to the predominant ideas of the 17th century, how they influenced Dryden, what he himself questioned, and what made him stand out from the pack. Sharrock certainly demonstrates how easy it is to nod assent to contemporary fashions as if they possess innate truths rather than simply being products of an age, which ages to come will pull apart under their own microscope:

“The modern reader, whether consciously or not, is usually guided by notions of what a poem should be which derive from symbolism. It should be, not do; it should not state something, but offer a unified experience not definable in any other terms, so that its operation may be better compared to that of a flower or a musical phrase or to a dance movement than to the non-poetic use of words in discourse. Dryden’s poems emphatically do things; they point to purposes outside the poems, they make statements which can be paraphrased as political manifestos or logical arguments.” (p.15)

I can see some of my assumptions in there, and assumptions are always worth questioning – both at an intellectual level and in the practice of writing and evaluating poetry. Anyway, I’m going to read a little Dryden over the next week or so. He has a reputation for ordered reason and neo-classicism. The Romantics disliked his work, feeling that there was too much mind and not enough heart in it, but Eliot spoke out in his favour, as did (perhaps even more commendably) Hopkins before it had become trendy to do so. Sharrock says of Dryden’s work that “its predominant qualities are energy and exuberance,” and also that “absurdity is given a certain poetic grandeur and even beauty in his humorous passages.” I’ve read Dryden before, but never with a great deal of attention, and I’m looking forward to the experience.

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