Saturday, February 13, 2010

Penguins on Parade: The Selected Poems of Dryden!

Some Penguin Classics abridge their subjects, for necessity’s sake. Take the 2001 edition of the selected poems of John Dryden, for instance. In confronting the text of England’s greatest poet, editors Steven N. Zwicker and David Bywaters were faced with an insuperable problem: Dryden wrote for a living, and he wrote a lot.

This wasn’t always the case. In his comparative youth, he had a mortal horror of work, of making art into work – the usual imbecility of the young and talented. As a result, he came to writing relatively late – but he made up for lost time! Once dawn finally broke, once he was convinced that he would only be alive this one time, that everything in the history of the world that would ever be written by John Dryden would have to be written by him in a paltry handful of years, he began filling his days and nights with writing, and although he often complained about it (deadlines, money, wretched printers, heedless audiences, etc – the writer’s complaints never change), that daily overwhelming brought him a joy so deep and complicated that it’s evident in virtually every line he wrote.

But, as noted, he wrote a  lot of lines. The collected edition assembled by Sir Walter Scott (no stranger to productivity) ran to 18 volumes, and the super-scholarly (not to say nit-picky) University of California Press rounds out at 20. Our editors put it succinctly:
He wrote about politics and religion, about trade and empire; he wrote for the theatre and for public occasions; he composed songs, fables, odes and panegyrics, brilliant satire and savage polemic; he translated from many languages and formulated an idiomatic, familiar and fluent prose style. Dryden virtually invented the commercial literary career …

Given all that, a Penguin Classic of Dryden’s complete verse would be something of a logistical impossibility, especially since he would have to include not only his translations of Horace and Persius, not only his ‘adaptations’ of Chaucer, but also all 12,000 lines of his 1697 edition of the works of Virgil (which our editors rightly call “a resounding and rehabilitating commercial and artistic success”), a monstrous magnum opus that plagued Dryden with doubts and elicited a premature apology for its defects:
What Virgil wrote in the vigor of his age, in plenty and at ease, I have undertaken to translate in my declining years: struggling with wants, oppressed with sickness, curbed in my genius, liable to be misconstrued in all I write…

(Anyone who’s actually read the Dryden Virgil will know that it has very little in the way of defects, but then, Dryden was a worrier)

Even leaving out the longer translations, the tracts, the glorious plays, and most of the prose (our editors cannot bring themselves to exclude all the prose – they include a few choice specimens, even though the inclusions take precious space that could otherwise have been devoted to more verse), there’s still an overwhelming amount of immortal verse, so further selection is necessary – and for form’s sake, Dryden’s first published poem, “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings” (1649) has to be here, even though it’s … well, shall we say not good? Hastings died at age 20 of the smallpox, which gets a clinically accurate but poetically disastrous treatment:
Each little pimple had a tear in it
To wait the fault its rising did commit

And of course space must be made for Dryden’s hilarious and vicious satire "MacFlecknoe," in which he mercilessly sends up every single one of his literary rivals and quite a few literary innocent bystanders. It’s one of the most superb extended outpourings of pure bile ever written, and our editors are duly appreciative:
MacFlecknoe allowed Dryden to ridicule and crush his rivals, and without departing from the suave tones and manners of literary greatness. In the abuse of rivals, only Pope equals Dryden as a master of irony and mock-epic scorn.

Although readers might at times be hard pressed to detect suave manners in the poem itself, although they’ll have no trouble spotting the blood splatters, as when the aged bad poet Flecknoe is surveying the field of his literary descendants, intent on picking an heir. He’s drawn to Dryden’s chosen target Thomas Shadwell, who’s the main course of the poem:
Sh---- alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness, from his tender years.
Sh---- alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh--- never deviates into sense.

Most of Dryden’s first-rate poems are here – there’s "Annus Mirabilis," "Astraea Redux," "Absalom and Achitophel," "The Medal," "To the Memory of Mr. Oldham," "The Hind and the Panther," and many others. And the end notes manage to be both brisk and compactly informative. In short, this Selected volume does exactly what it should: it gives the curious reader an inviting taste of this one supreme writer. It’s one of literature’s great crimes that Dryden’s work is today almost as little known as Shadwell’s – his verse never read except by unwilling undergraduates, his plays never performed despite how much fun they are, his essays never read even though they were the intellectual primer for every generation of subsequent critics. Maybe the right introductory volume – the one to catch the public imagination – hasn’t arrived yet. When it finally does, my money’s on it being a Penguin.

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