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The Works of John Dryden, vol. 14, Plays: 'The Kind Keeper,' 'The Spanish Fryar,' 'The Duke of Guise,' and 'The Vindication.'

Phillip Harth is well known to students of seventeenth-century literature as the author of Contexts of Dryden's Thought (1968), a study of Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther which is generally acknowledged to have set new standards in its assemblage and analysis of a wide range of unfamiliar primary source-material to illuminate the controversial and doctrinal contexts of Dryden's religious poetry of the 1680s. His new book deals in a comparably scrupulous and learned way with the political circumstances surrounding the composition and reception of Dryden's `public' writing from 1681 to 1684.

The book's main argument is that Dryden's rhetorical and polemical objectives have been imperfectly understood because of commentators, failure to recognize the exact strategic role played by each of the poet's works in the three distinct Tory `propaganda offensives' of the early 1680s. Harth's objective is to locate the precise function of each of Dryden's works in an ever-changing political situation, by tracing similarities of rhetoric, sentiment, and vocabulary between the poet's writing and numerous contemporary pamphlets, broadsheets, sermons, newspapers, and proclamations. By this method, he seeks to illuminate significant local shifts in Dryden's polemical stance and tactics which have been obscured or lumped together in previous discussions of the poet's `Toryism'. Dryden's writings of the early 1680s, Harth maintains, were integral parts of a co-ordinated series of Tory propaganda campaigns, designed to gain public tolerance for political action (often dubious) by the King and his associates.

Harth demonstrates in his first chapter that from 1660 until the end of the 1670s the court had relied on the Church as its main source of propaganda: Anglican sermons (especially those commemorating the anniversaries of the Restoration and the `martyrdom' of Charles I) had regularly stressed the miraculous interventions of Divine Providence on behalf of the monarchy, and the consequent evils of civil disobedience and sedition. But from the winter of 1679-80, it is argued in Chapter 2, an untrammelled barrage of Whig pamphlets and journalism (including open accusations of absolutist ambition on Charles II's part) put the Tories in a new, defensive position. At this stage, Harth argues, Dryden was not a committed partisan, and Troilus and Cressida (performed, spring 1679) and The Spanish Fryar (March 1680) were, he maintains, designed to appeal to widely held sentiments and prejudices (anti-sedition, anti-Catholic) across party divisions. But with the King's theatrical dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of March 1681, his issuing of a Declaration calculated to appeal to popular fears of a 1640s-style anarchy, and his orchestrating of the Loyal Address Movement, pledging spontaneous, support for the Declaration, the royal party, Harth argues in Chapter 3, regained the propaganda advantage, and launched the first of the three Tory offensives of the early 1680s. Dryden, in the Prologues to The Unhappy Favourite and Mithridates, and in Absalom and Achitophel, now assumed an avowedly polemical stance, stressing the King's reasonableness and magnanimity, but also issuing carefully staged warnings, about the need for draconian royal action, should the Whig opposition prove intransigent.

The second Tory offensive, Harth argues in Chapter 4, began with the acquittal of Shaftesbury and was focused on the City of London and the Dissenters - now closely linked in royalist polemic as centres of sedition and potential mob violence. In this context, it is claimed, the harsh, contemptuous tone of The Medall should be seen not as a mark of personal alarm or defensiveness on Dryden's part, but as part of a shared Thory rhetoric of `indignant outrage'; and the political `parallel' of The Duke of Guise, with its covert allusions to Shaftesbury's exclusionist `Association', should be seen as an adroit updating, of some of the central concerns of Absalom and Achitophel in the light of the changed controversial circumstances of 1682.

Harth's final chapter concerns the third Tory propaganda offensive which followed the discovery of the Rye House Plot in June 1683, and which was characterized both by a `rhetoric of suspicion and fear', designed both to encourage and support resolute royal action, and by providential myth-making, in which Charles II was said to have been delivered from the plotters by the direct intervention of God in a `second Restoration'. Both elements, Harth argues, found expression in Dryden's work, the Dedication and Postscript to the poet's translation of Louis Maimbourg's History of the League advocating severity towards Dissenters and the Rye House plotters, and the masque-tableaux of Albion and Albanius stressing the element of divine intervention in post-Restoration politics.

The foregoing summary of the book's main contentions can give little sense of the dense texture of Harth's argument at the local level or of the formidable array of reading in little-known primary sources which the author brings to bear on his analyses of Dryden's texts. The volume is clearly the result of massive research and expert knowledge, and should immediately become required reading for specialist students of political discourse in the Restoration period. If its arguments are to be disputed on their own terms, this can only be effected by someone whose knowledge of the pamphlet literature of the period rivals Harth's own - and such a person will not easily be found.

It is, nevertheless, possible for more modestly informed readers to entertain reservations about Harth's book from a rather different perspective. Like many historicist commentators on Dryden, but to a more extreme degree, Harth constantly implies that the poet's work of the early 1680s can be explained and understood exclusively in terms of its polemical and propagandist functions, and of the contingent pressures and circumstances which brought it into being. Such an assumption, however, flies in the face of the long-standing recognition that a satirist or `public' writer can make discoveries in the act of composition which do not straightforwardly square with his ostensible strategic design. `Works of satire', wrote Emrys Jones in a famous essay on Pope's Dunciad, `can often seem more emotionally straightforward, the sources of their power less mysterious than they really are', and the testimony of critics as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Grigson, D. W. Jefferson, Michael Wilding, Irvin Ehrenpreis, Dustin Griffin, Ruth Salvaggio, and Christopher Purvis has suggested that Dryden's satire and political drama are often animated by creative energies and sympathies, and nourished by earlier literary traditions, in ways which cannot be adequately accounted for by pointing to the works' polemical strategies or propagandist intentions. For some readers, therefore, Harth's analyses - telling as they are in many respects - will seem too partial and exclusive in focus to explain fully the distinctively poetic power of the best works under consideration, and will need to be supplemented and qualified by different kinds of evidence and argument.

The lastest instalment of the California, Dryden brings the edition to within three volumes of completion, and includes two of the works discussed in detail by Harth. The editorial commentary in the new volume provides everything one has come to expect from the edition - full analyses of the early texts (including the deletions and restorations in the various editions of The Spanish Fryar published in Dryden's lifetime), plus extensive discussions of the sources and contexts, and substantial explanatory annotation - and the volume will constitute an obvious starting-point for all future considerations of this portion of Dryden's aure. Since none of the plays included is among Dryden's finest artistic achievements, the volume is more likely to be consulted by specialists than by the general reader, but no student of the period's drama should miss Alan Roper's excellent discussion (pp. 501-12) of the problem of political `parallels' in the Restoration theatre, a discussion which does much to untangle the conceptual confusions which have so often bedevilled treatments of the subject, and which manifests a sanity and judiciousness which will be much missed - Roper has, apparently (see p. vii), now ceased to be one of the General Editors of the edition.
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Author:Hopkins, David
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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