Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Dryden, Milton, and Lucretius

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Dryden, Milton, and Lucretius

Article excerpt

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'The Poet an Atheist exceeding Lucretius', scribbled one irate reader on his copy of Absalom and Achitophel (1681).1 It is no surprise to find Lucretius invoked here as the epitome of unbelief, nor to find Dryden associated with the poet of Epicureanism. One does not have to look far in the theological and moralistic treatises of the Restoration to find Lucretius taken to exemplify the ultimate threat to Christian orthodoxy, or to find Epicureanism considered synonymous with libertinism.2 Of course, those who had looked at the classical sources with any care knew that for Epicurus 'pleasure' ... signified mental tranquillity rather than bodily indulgence: 'pleasure' is the absence of pain, especially the pain caused by fear and desire. As one of Dryden's contemporaries remarked: 'Those, who will take the pains accurately to consider and weigh his Writings and narrowly search into his thoughts, may observe that he had no other intention, when he spake so to the advantage of Pleasure, then to make his wise man happy, to loose his body from griefs and troubles, to fill up his mind with delight, and to render them both equally satisfied. Those who have thought otherwise, have scandalized his innocence.'3 But the reputation of Epicurus continued to be contested, and the two views of him are exemplified rather neatly in Paradise Regain'd, when Satan suggests to Jesus that Epicurean and Stoic philosophy 'will render thee a King compleat / Within thy self ', while Jesus scornfully replies that Epicurus was concerned only with 'corporal pleasure and careless ease'.4 I have argued elsewhere that Dryden was one of the period's most thoughtful students of the Epicurean philosophy as set out by Lucretius.5 In plays from the late 1660s and 1670s he turned to Lucretius to articulate a philosophy of disengagement from the cares of the world, defining that state of ... which Epicurus advocated - freedom from disturbance. He was particularly interested in distinguishing true Epicurean philosophy from the distorted libertine version of it which was current in Restoration literature: in his heroic dramas he presents us with characters who give voice to a crude form of Epicureanism, a hedonistic ethos, while in the prefaces to those plays he seeks for himself the tranquillity and peace of mind which retirement from public life would bring. This is particularly exemplified in Aureng-Zebe (1676), and its accompanying Dedication to the Earl of Mulgrave. Then in Sylvae (1685) he published his eloquent translations of extracts from De Rerum Natura, passages which highlight the two forms of disturbance which most commonly work against our peace of mind - sexual desire, and the fear of death. This reading of Dryden's engagement with Lucretius stresses the attractions which the Roman poet held for him philosophically, though this is not to claim that Dryden simply espoused Epicureanism as his personal creed: rather, the Epicurean philosophy (particularly as mediated by Lucretius) was one of the stances towards the world which Dryden was interested in trying - in the double sense of 'adopting' and 'testing'. (His nondramatic poetry is frequently characterized by a play of different voices: internally within a single poem, as in The Hind and the Panther; in his translations as a dialogue between Dryden and his original; and often between different poems in the same collection, such as Sylvae or Fables.) And we should also recognize that Lucretius' picture of the world as a collection of atoms in motion appealed strongly to Dryden's poetic imagination, to his vision of the universe as chaotic, and of order as precarious and temporary. Indeed, the starting point for his celebration of harmony in 'A Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687' is the Lucretian chaos when 'Nature underneath a heap / Of jarring Atomes lay' (ll. 3-4).

In this essay I propose to explore the ways in which Dryden's response to Lucretius was interwoven with his response to Milton. …

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