Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Politics of Eschatological Prophecy and Dryden's 1700 the Secular Masque

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Politics of Eschatological Prophecy and Dryden's 1700 the Secular Masque

Article excerpt

Momus: All, all of a piece throughout;

Thy chase had a beast in view; [pointing to Diana

Thy wars brought nothing about; [To Mars

Thy lovers were all untrue. [To Venus

Janus: 'Tis well an old age is out,

Chronos: And time to begin a new.

Chorus of all:

All, all of a piece throughout;

Thy chase had a beast in view;

Thy wars brought nothing about;

Thy lovers were all untrue.

'Tis well an old age is out,

And time to begin a new. (1)

From Bruce Dearing's admission that he is "always slightly uneasy" with the metaphor of the chase that "had a beast in view" (2) to Steven Zwicker's fascination with "that enigmatic lyric," (3) Dryden's The Secular Masque continues to puzzle its readers. The "canonical" interpretation of the Masque, offered by Walter Scott in 1808 and often evoked by modern scholars, is problematic. Scott suggests that Diana is the hunt-loving James I, links Mars to the stormy reign of Charles I, and Venus to the libidinous exuberance of the post-Restoration Stuart courts. (4) Such an explication of Dryden's deities is not at all historically obvious; as Alan Roper points out, "Charles I was also a hunter, Charles II engaged in the Dutch war, and James II's unhappy rule was hardly peaceful." (5) Still, Scott's identification has never been explicitly challenged by critics; Roper continues to rely on it in his 1962 article, and James Winn, referring to Scott via Roper in his important 1988 biography of the poet observes that "the main lines of historical allegory in this masque are clear." (6) Not convinced by Scott's exegesis, I suggest that its longevity is due to a peculiar confluence of private and public circumstances surrounding the genesis of the Masque. Dryden died upon finishing it in the spring of 1700--the coincidence that encourages interpretations that conjure up an image of the expiring poet summing up the passing century and coming to terms with his life and times. Commenting on Janus's "'Tis well an old age is out," Winn points out that "Dryden's own age was out" and sees the Masque as "Dryden's farewell to the century." (7) Zwicker thinks that in the closing of the Masque, Dryden "reflects on the particulars of his age but he also rises above them to see in the futility and change and disappointment of his own life a pattern more beautiful than its frustrations," and notes that "it would be pleasant" to hope that these lines express "the reconciliation to which Dryden had come in this last years." (8) Douglas Ca nfield suggests that in the final stanza of the Masque, bidding farewell to the Old Age, one "can hear the voice of the exlaureate himself in the year of his death." (9) The spell of "1700" continues to influence the contemporary analysis of the Masque.

My reading of The Secular Masque is also informed by its millennial context, though I do not see it as representing a tidying-up of Dryden's imaginative universe, an articulation of a personal closure through the transcendence of the particulars of his age. I posit that the Masque is steeped in the eschatological iconography of the second part of the seventeenth century and that its politics hinge on Dryden's ambiguous use of this iconography and not on his review of the English kings of the past. For most of his career as a poet, Dryden mobilized the imagery of the eschaton to promote the case of the Stuarts; after 1688, it meant interpreting the "signs of the times" as pointing toward a hoped-for removal of William III from the throne of England and the restoration of James II. The ostensibly public character of The Secular Masque--it was written to be performed at Drury Lane as part of the newly mounted revision of John Fletcher's play The Pilgrim--made it inadvisable for Dryden to flaunt his animosity to ward William by spelling out the political meaning of its millenarian gestures. The Masque is still full of such gestures, but because their interpretation is consciously muffled, the resulting imagery is often contradictory and ambiguous. …

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