The latest LRB has a longish essay by Matthew Reynolds on Dryden, which begins quite engagingly with the question of why non-academic readers can’t be bothered to read him. I would add that most academic readers can’t be bothered to read him either, unless they are already Dryden scholars. For a number of reasons, Dryden has fallen off of that tacit list of canonicity, the list of writers we are ashamed to admit we have not read.
Reynolds quotes James Winn, his most recent biographer, as saying that ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.’ But perhaps Dryden would benefit from a different process of selection, one that worked harder to connect the different aspects of his writing and career.
So what should we do as teachers of eighteenth-century literature, especially if we believe, along with Eliot, that ‘We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden’? At this point in time, if Dryden is not taught, he will not be read, not even by the specialists. So what parts of Dryden are we teaching, if anything?
For me, the problem really centers upon selection, and what principles should underlie our choices and our priorities. How do we go about choosing the portions of a major writer that are at once a) representative and b) accessible to first-time readers.
And this is where I think Dryden presents two problems that we don’t have with other canonical figures: diffusion and variety. I think Dryden is really an argumentative rather than a narrative or a lyric poet, and so it becomes particularly important to know who he’s arguing with. This is most obvious in his satires, which is why these are usually considered his most accessible works, but I think the description fits across the board. It also accounts for the mediocrity of the plays: if we have any interest in them at all, it’s for their extravagantly rhetorical speeches, which seem to have little connection with the plot turns that motivated them.
Because of this eminently rhetorical quality, Dryden does not lend himself to the kinds of intensive, concentrated close reading or anthologization that have helped to build the reputations of other kinds of writers (think about Congreve or Behn, for example). Reynolds seems to acknowledge this when he points to the sheer range and difficulty of the genres Dryden excelled at during his long career:
The need for help in fully enjoying Dryden becomes clear as soon as one looks at a list of the genres in which he excelled. Most of them either need prior contextual knowledge (or annotation) to make them comprehensible, or are some distance from what, for the last couple of hundred years, have been the main concerns of poets; or both. There are the literary and political satires (Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel). There is panegyric: on Cromwell (Heroic Stanzas), on Charles II (Astraea Redux, To His Sacred Majesty), on the new baby heir to James II (Britannia Rediviva); though never on William and Mary. Theological disputation, first Anglican in complexion (Religio Laici), then Roman Catholic (The Hind and the Panther). Historical chronicle (Annus Mirabilis). Translation: from Homer, Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Chaucer and others; and of the complete works of Virgil. And then there are the massed and (except All for Love) rather mediocre plays which took up most of his time and earned much of his money: heroic tragedies (The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe), tragicomedies (Marriage à la Mode) and farce (An Evening’s Love); and many, many prologues and epilogues to other people’s plays as well as his own. Finally, there are the volumes of accompanying criticism (Of Dramatic Poesy, ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’).
As Reynolds points out, these are all genres that participated fully require intense scholarly mediation before they can be enjoyed, because they were so intensely topical and public at the moment of their first appearance. This need for mediation probably reduces the potential number of texts covered in a semester, even when it leaves us with the disjecta membra of a long and varied career.
But I also wonder if part of the problem is that we try so hard to give the holistic ‘overview’ of a particular writer, especially the major ones, that we lose sight of the most interesting aspects of their writing. Along these lines, Reynolds argues for Dryden’s translations as paradoxically the most authentic parts of his writing, an insight which I’d endorse and then extend to his critical prose. So why not feature these aspects of his writing in a course on translation or criticism, and not just tramp through the footnotes of Absalom and Achitophel?
PS: And just to show that someone is still reading Dryden, there’s a nice post about Annus Mirabilis going on at the Valve right now, courtesy of Adam Roberts.