Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dryden: Religio Laici

To conclude my brief series on Dryden, here’s Religio Laici. My Selected Poems only has an extract from this of the first 167 lines. The poem is essentially an argument for Religion over Reason. It was, I suspect, quite a counter-cultural poem. It was the Age of Reason and the Church of England was spending (wasting?) a great deal of its time in dialogue with a rapidly changing culture and felt the need to show how religious truths could be proved by human reason. Dryden wasn’t impressed by this:

Dim, as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wand'ring travellers,
Is reason to the soul; and as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere
So pale grows reason at religion's sight;
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light

When I first read this, I assumed this was a conservative stance. He is, after all, defending religion against the claims of human knowledge, and there is, clearly, a conservative strain in his ideas. However, in doing so, he was arguing against the accepted mode of thinking in his day, even within the church. So Dryden is both conservative and radical and the poem may have been an attempt to find out what he really thought rather than a setting-down of prior certainties. Many people write poetry to find out what they think - it's as good a reason as any. These days, when I hear of an anti-Christianity book or poem being described as ‘radical’ or ‘daring’ or even (laughably) ‘blasphemous’, I wonder why a stance that accords perfectly with contemporary intellectual/media opinion is considered at all radical. Today, it is far more radical to offer intelligent reflections that stem from belief in God, however tenuous or questioning, than from disbelief.

In any case, those opening lines offer a superb extended metaphor and you don’t need to agree with Dryden’s conclusions to appreciate that. Dryden’s couplets often constitute complete phrases, so when he uses enjambment (i.e. when one line spills over into the next without a syntactical break), you really notice it. Here, he delays ‘Is reason to the soul’ until the third line after the slow second line, which gives the clincher maximum impact. There’s a lot for contemporary poets to learn from Dryden, and the clever manipulation of syntax would be one area worth taking a close look at.

Dryden had his own assumptions, probably held without much question. For example, on the subject of the Bible, he writes:

Whence, but from Heav'n, could men unskill'd in arts,
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths?

I know some people can still talk away more or less every set of contradictory verses in the Bible, but I prefer to live with the contradictions and find them fruitful to explore. That is, in itself, a way of thinking popular with my era, as I’m well aware. We all live with assumptions, consciously and unconsciously, and may be confronted with them in reading Dryden’s poem. That’s got to be a good thing.

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