The Cost of John Dryden's Catholicism

By Berry, Bryan | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cost of John Dryden's Catholicism


Berry, Bryan, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


THE HIND AND THE PANTHER is John Dryden's longest poem and the culmination of his poetic career--the poet laureate's final word on the religious and political issues he had addressed throughout his literary career. It also is the only major work in English literature devoted to the thesis that the Roman Catholic Church is the one holy catholic and apostolic church instituted by Christ.

Dryden paid a price for his profession of the Catholic faith. When the Catholic King James II was deposed in 1688, the year after Hind was published, Dryden (1631-1700) lost his position as poet laureate and suffered all the penalties imposed against Catholics by the new government. The new king, William of Orange, issued "an order to banish papists 10 miles from London"; Dryden's Catholic sons lost their government posts; and Dryden, like all Catholics, paid double the taxes levied on those who attended the Established Church. (1)

Dryden also paid a critical price for his poem--both during his lifetime and after. No one dared to publicly commend the apologia for the Catholic faith when it came out. Two months after the poem's publication, two wits burlesqued it in The Hind and the Panther Transvers'd to the Story of the Country-Mouse and the City-Mouse. (2) In A Tale of a Tub (1697), Anglican divine Jonathan Swift called Hind Dryden's "Master-piece" but satirized it as a rehashing of Catholic theologians: "a compleat Abstract of sixteen thousand Schoolmen from Scotus to Bellarmin," he wrote. (3) Later critics acknowledged elements of greatness in the poem but registered primarily two complaints: (1) The poem is a beast fable in which animals engage in theological controversy. The poem lacks dramatic action; its drama relies almost wholly on the movement of the theological argument. (2) In the third and final part, the Hind (the figure of the Catholic Church) and the Panther (the Protestant Church of England) themselves tell intentionally obscure animal fables that focus not on theology but on the political and religious strategies of James's government. And yet, as I will argue, some of the critics have a third, even greater problem with the poem: its very thesis, an apologia for the authority of the Catholic Church, a claim that has scandalized many over two millennia.

The Hind and the Panther really is two poems: The first (Parts I and II of the poem as well as sections of Part III) is the majestic apologia for the Catholic Church and an argument that England can find her true, full identity only by returning to the ancient faith displaced (as J.J. Scarisbrick and Eamon Duffy later demonstrated and as Dryden suggests) by a violent, top-down uprooting of Catholicism by Protestantism in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth in the century before. (4) Antiquam exquirite matrem (Seek out your ancient mother), taken from the Aeneid, thus is one of Dryden's epigrams for the poem. The poem's Parts I and II, combined, have nearly the same number of lines (1,294 lines) as Part III (1,298 lines).

The second poem within the poem comprises the two obscure animal fables in Part III in which Dryden argues that James II should ignore those hard-line Catholics (such as Fr. Edward Petre, vice-provincial of the English Jesuits) who were advising him to advance Catholics' worldly interests in England in a high-handed fashion. The hard-line pro-Catholic policies of James II, along with the decision of his French ally King Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes (which had provided toleration to French Protestants) in 1685, fueled Protestant fears of Catholic oppression--and provided a justification for the so-called Glorious Revolution, in which English nobles and the Anglican Bishop of London invited Mary, James's Anglican daughter, and her husband and cousin, William of Orange (grandson of Charles I), to take the throne. William finally defeated James on July 12, 1690, at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, celebrated by Orangemen to this day as a victory over papists. …

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