Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'Thy Wars Brought Nothing About': Dryden's Critique of Military Heroism

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'Thy Wars Brought Nothing About': Dryden's Critique of Military Heroism

Article excerpt

Some excellent recent scholarship has alerted us to the political dimensions of the drama, prose, translations, and original poetry that John Dryden wrote after the Revolution of 1688.1 In keeping with his Jacobite principles, the old Dryden frequently seized and sometimes created opportunities to criticize usurpation, conscription, standing armies, and the belief that warfare might actually achieve its goals - all recognizable features of King William's regime. In an era when printers of Jacobite propaganda were regularly arrested and sometimes hanged,2 the expression of such sentiments required some form of disguise, which Dryden often achieved - and exploited - by appearing to describe the past, but using language that unmistakably pointed to the present. In his poem to the court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1694), for example, he traces the development of painting from the cave men to the Renaissance, but pauses significantly at the fall of Rome, describing the destruction in language designed to suggest William's England:

Rome rais'd not Art, but barely kept alive;

And with Old Greece, unequally did strive:

Till Goths and Vandals, a rude Northern Race,

Did all the matchless Monuments deface.

Then all the Muses in one ruine lye;

And Rhyme began t'enervate Poetry.

Thus in a stupid Military State,

The Pen and Pencil find an equal fate.3

When the real Goths and Vandals sacked Rome, they destroyed temples and statues, but the verb deface slyly links those barbarians with the iconoclasts of the English Civil Wars, so that the Calvinist William becomes a descendant not only of the ancient Vandals but of the more recent 'enthusiasts' or 'fanatics' in the Parliamentary Army. Although Kneller was actually finding plenty of sitters for portraits, it suited Dryden to argue that poets and painters in any era would lose appreciation and support when rude Northerners created stupid military states. Here as elsewhere, he portrays war as the enemy of art, culture, and poetry. The acknowledgement that rhyme, which first appeared in medieval poetry, actually enervated the power of verse looks like an odd concession from a poet who was not only a great rhymer but a spirited defender of rhyme. Properly understood, however, it is part of Dryden's criticism of the debased culture in which he and Kneller must try to function as artists, an idea he develops more generally later in the poem:

Thy Genius bounded by the Times like mine,

Drudges on petty Draughts, nor dare design

A more Exalted Work, and more Divine. (lines 147-9)

The deepest implication, available if we link the limiting of genius by 'the Times' to the values of 'a stupid Military State', is that a culture focused on warfare cannot support 'Exalted' or 'Divine' works of art. Dryden will be forced to write 'a Song, or senceless Opera' when he would prefer 'the Living Labour of a Play' (lines 150-1). Kneller, with no commissions for grand history paintings, will make his living as a portrait painter, condemned to try to make stupid sitters look intelligent:

But we who Life bestow, our selves must live;

Kings cannot reign, unless their Subjects give.

And they who pay the Taxes, bear the Rule:

Thus thou sometimes art forc'd to draw a Fool:

But so his Follies in thy Posture sink,

The senceless Ideot seems at least to think. (lines 154-9)

The repetition of senceless as an adjective modifying both operas and idiots is striking, but the word Ideot has more ominous implications. Dryden uses this dismissive epithet only six times, and in four other instances he applies it to brave but stupid military men. Although his version of Troilus and Cressida, staged in 1679, is heavily revised from the Shakespearean original, Dryden repeats verbatim a speech in which the cynical Thersites addresses Achilles as 'thou Idoll of Ideot worshippers' (IV.ii.191; cf. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, V. …

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