Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Translating toward Eternity: Dryden's Final Aspiration

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Translating toward Eternity: Dryden's Final Aspiration

Article excerpt

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Of all John Dryden's prefatorial disclosures, it would be difficult to find a better example of the poet's genius and temperament than his last opening sally, made in his Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern (1700): "I have built a House, where I intended but a lodge." (1) This statement, as so many others, embodies the best and the worst of Dryden. Those fond of his wit will have already been taken with the inspired comparison of a miscellany to a construction project gone over budget--"[The poet] alters his Mind as the Work proceeds, and will have this or that Convenience more, of which he had not thought when he began"--and will relish the deft resolution of the conceit. Those quick to tire of his pride will wince at the tone of self-satisfaction. Many readers will experience both of these sentiments at once. (2)

Complicated as this reaction is, it distracts from the remarkable complexity of Dryden's statement. Today's readers in particular will be more likely than Dryden's contemporaries to accept the construction metaphor at "face" value, not being attuned to the theological underpinnings more evident at the turn of the eighteenth century. For most readers of that time, Dryden's comparison of building a house rather than a lodge would have connoted Solomon's temple, a reference in perfect harmony with Dryden's play on improvements. A "lodge" connotes a small temporary dwelling; the OED suggests "a hut or booth; a tent, arbour, or the like"--in other words, a temporary sanctuary, as was the tabernacle, a word whose Latin root means "tent." According to the well-known Biblical tale, David was forbidden by God from replacing the tabernacle with what was intended to be a permanent structure: "Thus saith the LORD, Shalt thou build me an house for me to dwell in? Whereas I have not dwelt in any house since the time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle" (2 Sam. 7:5, 6, AV). God then tells David that it will be his "seed" who "shall build an house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever" (13). Thus David sets out accordingly, making plans for the structure and collecting materials--"an hundred thousand talents of gold, and a thousand thousand talents of silver; and of brass and iron without weight"--to be used by his son, Solomon (1 Chron. 22:14). The original plan of the Temple was to reproduce, in larger order, the dimensions of the tabernacle. (3) During the seven years of construction, Solomon "overlaid the house within with pure gold; and he made a partition by the chains of gold before the oracle; and he overlaid it with gold. And the whole house he overlaid with gold ... also the whole altar that was by the oracle he overlaid with gold," and he later enlarged it--surely the sacramental equivalent of "this or that Convenience more." (4)

Thus Dryden, who two decades earlier had fashioned Charles II as the "Godlike David" and closed one of the most powerful political satires in history with the (too) hopeful projection, "Henceforth a Series of new time began / The mighty Years in long Procession ran," commences his final preface by subtly figuring himself as David's son, aligning himself one last time with the waning Jacobite cause. (5) Enveloped in the apparent modesty topos of Dryden's poetic "house" as mere accident is a mellowed sincerity; one senses Dryden making peace with his own failure to author "a Work which wou'd have taken up my Life in the performance of it." (16) If Solomon's house could be twice destroyed, there was no guarantee that Dryden's poetical edifice would endure, particularly since he had fallen out of favor and been stripped of his laureateship after the Glorious Revolution. Always concerned with posterity, his confidence had publicly dipped to its nadir in his dedication of the Examen Poeticum, the Third Miscellany (1693). …

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