Dryden: Cryptically Meant
DRYDEN’S POETIC TECHNIQUE HAS ALWAYS STRUCK ME AS FILLED WITH baroque disruption of neoclassical forms, from the grotesqueries of the Hastings ode at the beginning of his career to the exuberance of the odes and the Catholic baroque figures of The Hind and the Panther toward the end. I offer here readings of three of his best and most neoclassic poems, two of them utilizing techniques from classical epics and one modeling itself on classical, Horatian odes. All three have their baroque, cryptic meanings.
In the mid-1670s, before Dryden made the transition from the King’s to the Duke’s Company, from romance to neoclassical tragedy, from depression to renewed vigor as dramatist, he had some scores to settle.1 When his fortunes were sinking, he had appealed to John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, to patronize him, but, after some initial flirtation, Rochester proved inconstant, supported Dryden’s rival Thomas Shadwell instead, and lampooned Dryden in “An Allusion to Horace.” Dryden had been feuding with Shadwell over the theory of comedy for years in various prefaces and dedications, but the two had remained relatively conciliatory and had collaborated with John Crowne in an attack on Elkanah Settle’s Empress of Morocco early in the 1670s. In 1676, however, the same year Rochester’s satire was circulating in manuscript, Shadwell broke the façade of civility and degenerated into lampoon. He pilloried Dryden throughout his comedy The Virtuoso, especially in the dedication to the published text.
Dryden responded with a vengeance probably doubled by displaced anger at Rochester and compounded by his own poor fortunes, both literal and figurative, in the first half of the decade.