Friday, November 08, 2013

`Events and Persons that Really Matter to the Reader'

Who might W.H. Auden be referring to in this passage? 

“He is the ideal poet to read when one is weary, as I often am, of Poetry with a capital P, the mannerisms and obscurities of the symbolists, the surrealists and their ilk.” 

My first thought would be Ben Jonson, followed by one of Jonson’s progeny, J.V. Cunningham. Perhaps Swift, another writer with something to say and an economical way of saying it. Other likely candidates: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yvor Winters, Edgar Bowers or Richard Wilbur. We know what Auden means about the “capital P.” So much that passes for poetry is posturing, not poems but poetic gestures written to be greeted with approval by other posturing poets. Auden’s suggested palate-cleanser between over-seasoned courses is John Dryden. 

When I first read Dryden in a freshman survey course, I found his poems dull and overly “occasional.” After Donne and Milton he seemed “unpoetic.” I wanted footnotes and annotations for the many historical references I didn’t recognize. A professor noted that Dryden’s most attentive pupil was Pope, a poet I already loved, who wrote of his master: “Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join / The varying verse, the full resounding line, / The long majestic March, and Energy divine.” Slowly, reluctantly, with the encouragement of Mark Van Doren’s The Poetry of John Dryden (1920), I came to rank Dryden high in the second tier of my private pantheon. 

Among Auden’s final services to literature was editing A Choice of Dryden’s Verse for Faber and Faber, published in 1973, the year of his death. The passage above is from Auden’s introduction, in which he describes Dryden as “the greatest Occasional Poet in English,” and adds: 

“He does not `rise’ to the occasion: he elevates it. Whether he is eulogizing or satirizing, events and persons that in real life may have been unimportant are transfigured by his verse into events and persons that really matter to the reader. Dryden is also the master of argument.” 

In illustration of his final point, Auden includes excerpts from two favorites, “Religio Laici” (1682) and “The Hind and the Panther” (1687). I love the opening lines of the former, Dryden’s rejection of Deism and his embrace of faith after his conversion to Roman Catholicism: 

“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.” 

Near the end of the poem, in lines not included by Auden, Dryden writes a sort of poetic credo to accompany the preceding religious credo: “And this unpolish’d, rugged Verse I chose; / As fittest for Discourse, and nearest prose.” 

Technically, Auden ranks Dryden very high, praising his sparing use of enjambment and virtual patent on the end-stopped couplet. He observes that Dryden is “much freer [than Pope] in his distribution of accents,” and he praises Dryden’s use, contra Pope, of alexandrines to make a triplet “with discretion and always to good effect.” As an example, Auden cites lines from “To My Dear Friend, Mr. Congreve, on His Comedy Call’d The Double-Dealer”: 

“Firm Dorique Pillars found Your solid Base,
The fair Corinthian crowns the higher Space;
Thus all below is Strength, and all above is Grace.” 

What a gratifying treat to hear one master celebrate another. Auden closes his introduction like this: 

“Had I been compiling this selection simply for my own amusement, I might well have printed all of the Prologues and Epilogues and nothing else. In them, as in few poems, one hears the speaking voice, neither too soft nor too loud, of a civilized man, defending the cause of civilisation both in social manners and in the Arts. I suspect that those who deny that Dryden is a poet believe that all poets should `sing’. I don’t agree.” 

[Read Johnson’s “Life of Dryden,” especially for his amusing account of the poet’s funeral. Also see Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” and Brooke Allen’s “Augustan Satire Reconsidered.”]

1 comment:

Buce said...

I think we can forgive Dryden a lot in exchange for this: