Dryden As Political Poet

John Dryden (1631-1700), as a political poet, was at the center of the debate concerning religion, society, and the political order of England during the Restoration regimes of Charles II and James II.  In this function, Dryden was, as Phillip Harth explains, an integral part of a series of coordinated Tory propaganda campaigns during the 1670s and 1680s designed to gain public favor for the monarchy and its political decisions.[1]  It was in this context that Dryden wrote the derisive mock-heroic epic Mac Flecknoe, which was meant as an attack upon the future Whig poet Thomas Shadwell, as well as those poets and writers with whom he was allied.  In the poem Shadwell is presented as the heir to the throne of bad taste and middle-class vulgarity[2] (lines 96-101), who, because of his arguments, and especially because of his plays,[3] has persuaded those of good taste “That for anointed dullness he was made” (lines 62-63).

However, Dryden was more than just the creator of agitprop plays and poems for the Stuarts, he played a far larger political and social role of his own choosing.  In fact, “he had an important political purpose,” which can best be described as an opposition to the so-called fanaticism[4] of the country party (the Whigs)[5] – with its attendant poets and writers, and the intellectual and aesthetic chaos they wrought – that to Dryden threatened to engulf England once again in civil war.  Importantly, this fear of a “return to barbarism” seemed justified to Dryden (and to many of his contemporaries), because the “political events in Restoration England,” especially after the Popish plot of 1678,[6] appeared to be repeating the “events of the 1640s with ominous fidelity.”[7]  Of course, the restoration of the Stuarts had from its earliest days been fraught with plots to oust the monarchy.  For example, exiled dissenters and parliamentarians like Algernon Sidney had preached from the continent from as early as 1660 the need to overthrow the “monster” and enemy of  “reason and justice” known as Charles II.[8]  However, this campaign was intensified, through the publication of pamphlets and other written material by Whig writers, to such a degree after the Popish Plot that real concerns for Charles II’s crown arose for the first time during his reign.  From this point onward, many a royalist felt that without Charles II in power, social chaos and anarchy were sure to follow.  Dryden used this popular impression about the historical currents of his time to inform and bring value to his poetry.

Thus it is Dryden’s opposition to this turn of events that is played out in Mac Flecknoe, along with his personal animosity toward Shadwell as a poet who slandered him.[9]  Specifically, Dryden builds a link between bad art, to which Shadwell and his followers have created a “monument of vanished minds” (line 82), and the decline of moral and political culture in England after the 1670s.  This focus on the decline of art is emphasized in lines 73-86 by describing the geography of the literary world, where an actors’ “Nursery” sits near an old “watch Tower” from which has risen a brothel.  Here, next to this site of corruption, “Queens are form’d and future hero’s bred; Where unfledg’d actors learn to laugh and cry, Where infant Punks their tender Voices try” (lines 75-79).  Further, as if anyone were left in doubt, in the lines following those directly above, “Dryden makes his intention for describing this acting school absolutely clear,” by depicting the school as no place for true dramatic tragedies and comedies such as Ben Johnson’s and John Fletcher’s.[10]  Accordingly, no one of taste or culture, those fit to rule or to write, would be found here.

But how does bad art lead to a political and moral decline that presages civil war?  Simply put, if the public prefers colorless, corrupt, and aesthetically flawed poets like Shadwell, this will demoralize and lead astray the body politic itself, thus causing chaos.  Shadwell, as the “hoary prince” of the kingdom of bad taste (line 106), is therefore only one of a multitude of poets who threaten to bring about intellectual and artistic chaos.  Shadwell’s proclamation in the poem reinforces this view, when he declares “That he till death true dullness would maintain; … Ne’er to have peace with wit, or truce with sense” (lines 115-117).  Thus, according to Dryden, popular culture was the real threat to the social order, because it could not recognize good from bad art due to its obsession with transitory fads.  Full of “fools” that stand in Shadwell’s defense, who “justify their authors want of sense,” popular culture cannot be but corrupted by its poor judgement in the art and artists it praises (lines 132-133, 144, 155-156).  In other words, popular culture cannot be trusted as an independent source of cultural criticism, nor could it be trusted as a political force.

What other events than the chaos of the 1640s, could the spectacle described in Mac Flecknoe remind its audience of?  Clearly, Dryden claims that there is some connection between the social chaos of the 1640s and that of the late Restoration era.  By describing a kingdom ruled by dullness, filled with a lack of wit and reason, and overrun by bad poets who have overthrown their betters, Dryden is in fact creating a historical bridge between the current turmoil he is involved in, and the social chaos that preceded the Restoration.  He is competing for the symbols of the past, in order to create a new future.

Thus while Dryden is concerned about the proliferation of bad literature, he is even more gravely concerned with the political activism of the masses, who, to him, seem to hitch their passions to the brightest cultural (as well as political) star, depending on their mood.  Of course, what is described above is a viewpoint that is highly suspicious of the masses (who were flexing their political muscle in the streets during the Exclusion Crisis), as well as largely the reverse of the Whig’s viewpoint on the period’s troubles.  For the country party, events like the Popish Plot brought “into the open the issues raised by the James’s conversion”[11] to Catholicism, and his succession.  This condition dovetailed with the common English vision of Catholicism (since the Marian terror) as a religion of despots and tyrants.[12]  Accordingly, during the Exclusion Crisis, the Whigs sought to profit by “the fears aroused by the revelations of the Popish Plot in order” to gain support for the Whig-dominated Parliament, and to, of course, force the king to withdraw the duke of Buckingham from the line of succession. [13]  They too attempted to capture the symbols of the past.

Dryden’s primary response was to meet these efforts with an appeal to another set of fears that concerned 1640s-style anarchy, while warning his readers that the proliferation of the new media and literature epitomized by Shadwell could get out of control.[14]  Therefore, Dryden was a political poet who, because of his “sustained use sense of history,” displayed “a continuous impulse to see in the figures and events of past ages [political or social] models with which he might praise, evaluate, and [compare with] his own time.”[15]  Dryden imported value and meaning to his poems by placing them within a historical context, in this case, covertly comparing the political and moral culture of the late Restoration with that of the 1640s.

But does this value and meaning have a universal context?  Yes, by using history as a touchstone upon which to ground his work, Dryden forged a link between the past, the present, and a possible future.  Specifically, his poem Mac Flecknoe, and perhaps his poetry in general, displayed a predictive quality that bridged time.  His thoughts in Mac Flecknoe are clear.  He asks his readers to beware the tumults of the period, for they may bring back the terrorism and barbarism thought left behind in 1660.  His warning is especially poignant given the royal succession that marks the end of his poem.  Though Flecknoe is dead, his heir lives, and thus so does bad art, and its ability to corrupt those least able to withstand its corruptive force.  Further, Shadwell is blessed “With double portion of his father’s art,” illustrating not only how critical a period Dryden felt his nation and king were in, but also the expanded extent of the threat of social anarchy (lines 216-217).

[1] Phillip Harth, Pen for a Party: Dryden’s Tory Propaganda in its Contexts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. ix-x, 269-271.

[2] A position which, as the poem says, had been held by execrable Irish poet Richard Flecknoe until his death 1678.

[3] Shadwell’s plays had done exceedingly well in the 1770s; in fact, they had outdrawn Dryden’s plays, who was financially pressed at the time.  Shivaji Sengupta, A Critical Edition of John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel (New Delhi: Konark Publishers LTD, 1990), pp. 14-15.

[4] Or at least the perceived fanaticism he saw in Whigs like the earl of Shaftsbury and Sir Nicholas Crew.

[5] While the terms Whig and Tory were not in common use until the 1680s, there were specific country and court factions that dueled over the future of the English polity during the whole period of the Restoration.  While each faction was hardly monolithic, the country party (Whigs) can typically be described as Protestant and parliamentarian, while the court party was largely made up of members who were Anglican and Monarchical.

[6] In August of 1678, Israel Tonge and Titus Oates revealed a plot to kill Charles II and eradicate Protestantism from the kingdom.  London was reputedly to be put to the torch, and the throats of Protestants in the city were to be slit by a mass of secret Catholics.  Also, it was insinuated that James, Charles II’s brother, and heir to the throne, was involved in the plot.  This insinuation, and the duke of Buckingham’s conversion, eroded support for his succession, and for the monarchy as a whole.  Thus the Popish Plot, which was largely a ruse, was born.   Miller, John, Popery and Politics in England 1660-1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 154.

[7] George McFadden, Dryden: The Public Writer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 12-13.

[8] Blair Wordon, “The Commonwealth Kidney of Algernon Sidney,” The Historical Journal (1985), p. 11.

[9] Dryden was also angry about the parody of him as a rich poet in Shadwell’s The Virtuoso.

[10] Shivaji Sengupta, A Critical Edition of John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, p. 13.

[11] John Miller, Popery and Politics in England 1660-1688, p. 154.

[12] Richard L. Greaves, British Radicals from the Popish Plot to the Revolution of 1688-1689 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 9-10.

[13] James R. Jones, The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis 1678-1683 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 129.

[14] Phillip Harth, Pen for a Party, pp. 62-137.

[15] Steven N. Zwicker, Dryden’s Political Poetry: The Typology of King and Nation (Providence: Brown University Press, 1972), p. IX.

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