Posts tagged ‘poetry’

20/10/2013

Great Cesar’s ghost

mary1One of the most uncomfortable periods in English history was surely the interval between the departure of James in December 1688 and the arrival in England of Mary a few weeks into the New Year – during which time, the convocation that had made use of William but didn’t really want him as their monarch and the bad-tempered, understandably resentful Dutchman were left to glare at one another across the negotiating table.

However, even when Mary did reach England, it wasn’t all beer and skittles. She certainly disappointed the faction who wanted her as sole monarch when she declined to be placed in authority over her husband – although this piece of wifely submission seems to have engendered in William a greater willingness to make concessions.

Mary’s relationship with her soon-to-be subjects likewise got off to a distinctly rocky start. Advised both by her husband and her future Parliament not to show any consciousness of her anomalous position or to display any guilt over her father’s removal, Mary succeeded so well in appearing indifferent that she was branded heartless in many quarters. She certainly convinced her father on that head, receiving from him a flood of angry letters in which she was accused of treachery and selfish disloyalty.

Nevertheless, on the whole Mary’s presence in England was an enormous relief. While there were of course those who held to a hard line with regard to James, the majority either welcomed his deposing or were pragmatic enough to make the best of it. In this respect, Mary was the best possible compromise candidate. She was a Stuart and a Protestant, and had been heir to the English throne for twenty-six years. She was also James’ daughter, so that the proper “line” was maintained, albeit not in the usual way. In short, a case could be made for her.

And a case was made for her. As we have seen, very little fiction was published in England during 1689, with heavily politicised writing full of justification and retconning dominating the marketplace. Enormous efforts went into “selling” and William and Mary to England, often by twisting the usual monarchist stance and positioning them as defenders of the true faith, with the removal of James being, consequently, God’s will.

Meanwhile, though the fiction writers were quiescent, the poets were not; and the political arguments were bolstered by laudatory works celebrating the new monarchy. It is noticeable, however, the William rarely appears in these poems as anything other than a symbol, or a generalised “power”; whereas a whole body of literature eventually built up around Mary.

An entirely representative effort is A Congratulatory Poem To Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival In England – by none other than Aphra Behn. To an extent, we find Aphra amongst the pragmatists—but only to an extent. While refusing utterly to so much as acknowledge William’s existence, Aphra shows herself prepared to welcome Mary—not in her own right, but as her father’s daughter.

Although we have seen how far over the top Aphra could go in her royalist poetry, her depression and disappointment over James’ fate makes this a much more muted piece of work, closer in tone to the wry resignation that marked A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse than to the over-insistence of A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales and similar efforts.

It is worth noting in this context that this poem was composed after Aphra rejected the monetary overtures made to her by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet on behalf of the William-ites, who wanted her to join the faction being paid to sell the new monarchy. Aphra’s “Muse”, which she somewhat mockingly accuses Dr Burnet of “enquiring after” in the earlier poem, plays an appropriately prominent role in this one.

Fittingly, the opening of the poem finds Aphra openly mourning the fate of James:

    While my sad Muse the darkest Covert Sought
    To give a loose to Melancholy Thought;
    Opprest, and sighing with the Heavy Weight
    Of an Unhappy dear lov’d Monarch’s Fate…

But even as Aphra (and her Muse) give way to despair, new cause for hope appears:

    While thus She lay resolv’d to tune no more
    Her fruitless Songs on Brittains Faithless Shore,
    All on a suddain thro’ the Woods there Rung,
    Loud Sounds of Joy that Jo Peans Sung.
    Maria! Blest Maria! was the Theam,
    Great Brittains happy Genius, and her Queen…

However, Aphra’s Muse is not to be won over so easily, and resists the lure of this newcomer, this replacement for James:

    The Muses all upon this Theam Divine,
    Tun’d their best Lays, the Muses all, but mine,
    Sullen with Stubborn Loyalty she lay…

But then, Mary is James’s daughter and therefore a “deity” like her father before her – to whom, before bowing down to Mary, the Muse pays homage:

    But Oh! What Human Fortitude can be
    Sufficient to Resist a Deity?
    Even our Allegiance here, too feebly pleads,
    The Change in so Divine a Form perswades;
    Maria with the Sun has equal Force…

    From every thought a New-born Reason came
    Which fortifyed by bright Maria’s Fame,
    Inspir’d My Genious with new Life and Flame,
    And thou, Great Lord, of all my Vows, permit
    My Muse who never fail’d Obedience yet,
    To pay her Tribute at Marias Feet,
    Maria so Divine a part of You,
    Let me be Just — but Just with Honour too…

That done, the floodgates open:

    Maria all Inchanting, Gay, and Young,
    All Hail Illustrious Daughter of a King,
    Shining without, and Glorious all within,
    Whose Eyes beyond your scantier Power give Laws,
    Command the Word, and justifie the Cause;
    Nor to secure your Empire needs more Arms
    Than your resistless, and all Conquering Charms…

    All Natures Charms are open’d in your Face,
    You Look, you Talk, with more than Human Grace;

    All that is Wit, all that is Eloquence.
    Easie and Natural from your Language break,

    And ’tis Eternal Musick when you speak;
    Thro’ all no formal Nicety is seen,
    But Free and Generous your Majestick Meen,
    In every Motion, every Part a Queen…

However, we are not left long without a stern reminder of where Mary derives all these wondrous gifts, nor of the events that have placed her on the throne:

    Yet if with Sighs we View that Lovely Face,
    And all the Lines of your great Father’s Trace,

    Your Vertues should forgive, while we adore
    That Face that Awes, and Charms our Hearts the more;
    But if the Monarch in your Looks we find,
    Behold him yet more glorious in your Mind;
    ‘Tis there His God-like Attributes we see.
    A Gratious Sweetness, Affability,
    A Tender Mercy and True Piety;
    And Vertues even sufficient to Attone
    For all the Ills the Ungrateful World has done…

And as the poem moves towards its climax, the biblical imagery that always marked Aphra’s royalist works comes roaring back:

    The Murmering World till now divided lay,
    Vainly debating whom they shou’d Obey,
    Till You Great Cesar’s Off-spring blest our Isle,
    The differing Multitudes to Reconcile;
    Thus Stiff-neckt Israel in defiance stood,
    Till they beheld the Prophet of their God;

    Who from the Mount with dazling brightness came,
    And Eyes all shining with Celestial Flame;
    Whose Awful Looks, dispel’d each Rebel Thought,
    And to a Just Compliance, the wilde Nations brought…

25/04/2012

The case for the defence…

There seems little doubt that Aphra Behn’s first love was poetry and that, had it been possible, she would have confined herself to this acceptably dignified form of literary expression. However, it was no easier in the 1670s and 1680s to support yourself by writing poetry alone than it is in 2012, and in order to earn a living Behn was compelled to write plays and, eventually, fiction. Though they paid much better, these “lower” forms of writing also laid their author open to vicious personal attacks.

But Behn never stopped writing poetry, gradually producing an impressive body of work that, at its best, is notable for its wit, its deft command of language and imagery, and its daring sexuality – as we have already seen. There is, however, a subset of Behn’s poetry that can make even her most devoted admirers squirm: the frankly political poems through which she declared her ongoing allegiance to the Stuart cause and (unavailingly, it need hardly be said) tried to win royal notice and, more importantly, patronage.

Although political themes became more common in Behn’s writing from the time of the Popish Plot onwards, the death of Charles II in February 1685 prompted Behn to write the first of a series of royalist poems that continued through – and past – the reign of James. Completely without subtlety in their imagery and politically embarrassing, the only redeeming feature of these lengthy odes and “pindaricks” is a sense that Behn herself did not take them entirely seriously—or at least, had accepted that if she was to have any hope of being recognised for her work, it would be necessary to shout. Lurking in most of these poems is a moment of self-portraiture, in which we glimpse Behn jumping up and down, waving her arms and calling out, “HELL-OOO, LOYAL STARVING ARTIST OVER HERE!!”

Behn’s first royalist poem was A Pindarick On Death Of Our Late Sovereign; With An Ancient Prophecy On His Present Majesty; and if, in Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we winced at her references to Charles as “…this god-like King…”, we can only cringe at her recasting of him, in the wake of his death, as nothing less than Jesus on the cross:

    Again I heard, and yet I thought it Dream;
              Impossible! (I raving cry)
    That such a Monarch! such a God should die!…

    They did the Deity, and Man adore;
    What must they pay, when He confirm’d the God;
    Who having finisht all His wonders here,
              And full Instructions given,
    To make His Bright Divinity more Clear;
    Transfigur’d all to Glory, Mounts to Heav’n!

    So fell our Earthy God! so Lov’d, so Mourn’d,
              So like a God again return’d…

Behn then goes on to give us her version of, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – before taking consolation (as did Charles, we gather) in the fact that this “Earthly God” will be immediately succeeded by another:

    And blest His Stars that in an Age so Vain,
    Where Zealous Mischiefs, Frauds, Rebellions, Reign:
    Like Moses, he had led the Murm’ring Crowd,
Beneath the Peaceful Rule of his Almighty Wand;
    Pull’d down the Golden Calf to which they bow’d,
    And left ’em safe, entr’ing the Promised Land;
    And to good JOSHUA, now resigns his sway;
JOSHUA, by Heaven and Nature pointed out to lead the way.

    Full of the Wisdom and the Pow’r of God;
    The Royal PROPHET now before him stood
    On whom his Hands the Dying MONARCH laid
   And wept with tender Joy and Blest…

This poem was accompanied by another addressed to Catherine of Braganza, A Poem Humbly Dedicated To The Great Pattern Of Piety And Virtue Catherine Queen Dowager. On The Death Of Her Dear Lord And Husband King Charles II, which, although paying due tribute to Catherine’s loyalty and steadfastness through the accusations and humiliations of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, unfortunately does so by a continuance of the uncomfortable religious imagery:

    Witness the Steddy Graces of your Soul
    When charg’d by Perjuries so black and foul,
    As did all Laws, both Humane and Divine controul.
    When Heaven (to make the Heroin understood;
    And Hell it self permitted loose abroad)
    Gave you the Patience of a Suffering God.
    So our blest Saviour his Reproaches bore
    When Piercing Thorns His Sacred Temples wore;
    And stripes compell’d the Rich Redeeming Gore.
   
Your precious Life alone the fiends disdain’d
    To murder home; your Vertue they prophan’d;
    By Plots so rude; so Hellish a Pretence
    As ev’n would call in question Providence…

Although Catherine does indeed seem to have grieved more for Charles than we might feel he deserved, Behn’s casting of her as the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross does seem just a tad over the top:

    Princes we more than Humane do allow,
    You must have been above an Angel too;
    Had You resisted this sad Scene of Woe;
    So the Blest Virgin at the Worlds great loss,
    Came, and beheld, then Fainted at the Cross…

    So She bewail’d Her God! so sigh’d, so Mourn’d;
    So His blest Image in Her Heart remain’d,
    So His blest Memory o’re Her Soul still Reign’d!…

(It is perhaps worth mentioning that the actual parting between Charles and Catherine was much more dignified and, I think, much more touching than this. Although she did not enter his death chamber, Catherine sent her husband a final message begging for his pardon if she had ever offended him, to which he responded: “Alas, poor woman! She asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.”)

But Behn was only getting warmed up. Although her loyalty to Charles and the Stuart cause was real and profound, her deepest devotion, as we have seen, was to James; and she greeted his accession with A Pindarick Poem On The Happy Coronation Of His Most Sacred Majesty King James II. And His Illustrious Consort Queen Mary, a work of almost 1000 lines in length.

The gap between theory and reality in this poem is, if anything, even wider than that in its predecessors:

    So on Olympus top the GOD appears,
          When of his Thunder he disarms,
    And all his attributes of mercy wears
    The sweetness of Divine forgiving Charms.
    With Smiles he casts His Gracious Eyes around,
    Inspiring FAITH from ev’ry look and Grace,
           No Soul so dull to humane sense was found
    As not to read its safety in His Face.
           Where FORTITUDE and BRAVERY sate
          In solemn Triumph over Fate,
    Where TRUTH in all her honest Glory shin’d,
    That darling vertue of His Godlike mind…

We eventually get all sorts of James-es in this poem – an earthly god, a military hero, a stern but just ruler, a passionate lover and a thoroughly domesticated husband and father – along with an amusingly unrecognisable Mary of Modena:

    And no soft Venus could his Soul subdue;
    All bent for nobler spoil than Beauties Charms,
    And loos’d a while from Sacred LAURA’S Arms.
    LAURA! the Chast! the Pious! and the Fair!
    Glorious, and kind as Guardian-Angels are,
    Earths darling Goddess! and Heav’ns tend’rest care!

James’ rise to the throne is seen as the decisive blow to the traitorous Whigs and their collaborators:

    None bow beneath the Pressure of a thought,
    Unless where ENVY has her vipers hurl’d,
    And raging MALICE even to MADNESS wrought,
    They hate the Light that guides the work Divine;
And how’l and gnash their Teeth, and suffer Hell before their time.
    The Brave are glad, and gay, the young rejoyce,
    The old in Prayers and Blessings lift the Voice…

The second half of the poem describes the coronation processions, and pays tribute by name to those men who stayed loyal to James and the Stuart line through the upheavals of Charles’ reign:

    And now the ravisht People shout a new!
    Their KING! their dear-lov’d MONARCH is in view;
    The constant AYLESBURY and the Loyal GRAY,
          Prepare the mighy Way.

Yes—she does mean THAT Lord Grey.

Aphra herself is more visible in this poem than the earlier ones, openly mourning the unkind fate that has excluded her from the privileged circle of her beloved royals:

    Oh Blest are they that may at distance gaze,
    And Inspirations from Your looks may take,
    But how much more their happier Stars they Praise,
          Who wait, and listen when you speak!
    Mine for no scanted bliss so much I blame,
    (Though they the humblest Portion destin’d me)
          As when they stint my noblest Aim,
          And by a silent dull obscurity
          Set me at distance, much too far
The Deity to view, or Divine Oracle to hear!

It is uncomfortably clear in this poem that Aphra had real hope that James might finally recognise her efforts for the cause in a concrete way—but she was, as always, doomed to disappointment. Her loyalty remained unshaken, nevertheless; although possibly it would have been better for almost all concerned if at this point she had given up on the Stuarts in disgust.

When Mary of Modena’s pregnancy was publicly announced in January 1688 there was, as we have seen, a rush on the part of the loyalists to voice their belief that the child would be a boy, a mark of Divine favour, a sign that God was on James’ side. One of those who prepared to put their faith on paper was Aphra Behn, who early in the year published A Congratulatory Poem To Her Most Sacred Majesty, On The Universal Hopes Of All Loyal Persons For A Prince Of Wales; and while the poem’s title spoke of “hopes” that the baby would be a boy, the text declared it to be a certainty—a godlike son born to godlike parents, whose coming would defeat James’ enemies once and for all, and bring about a unified Britain:

    Like the first sacred Infant, this will come
    With Promise laden from the Blessed Womb,
    To call the wand’ring, scatter’d Nations home.
    Adoring PRINCES shall arrive from far,
    Inform’d by ANGELS, guided by his Star,
    The new-born Wonder to behold, and greet;
    And Kings shall offer Incense at his Feet.
          Hail, Royal BOY!…

    O Happy KING! to whom a Son is born!
    What more can Fortune, Heaven, and You perform?

    Behold, with Joy three prostrate Nations come:
    ALBION, HIBERNIA and old CALEDON
    Now join their Int’rests, and no more dispute
    With sawcy Murmurs, who is Absolute;
    Since, from the wonders of your Life, ’tis plain,
   You will, you shall, you must for ever reign.

The lady protesting too much? It’s hard to know how seriously we are to take these effusions. Certainly, at a time when James’ grip on his throne was already shaky, those “universal hopes” of the poem’s title look like irony; although perhaps the operative word is “loyal”.

And while you may think that after this outpouring there was nothing left for Aphra to say on the subject, when the child in question did turn out to be a boy, she took up her pen once more, with A Congratulatory Poem To The Kings Most Sacred Majesty On The Happy Birth Of The Prince Of Wales, which goes even further over the top in its religious imagery, being peppered with biblical allusions, and then dwells with unabashed Schadenfreude on the disappointment of William of Orange:

    No MONARCH’s birth was ever Usher’d in
    With Signs so Fortunate as this has been.
    The Holy Trinity his BIRTH-DAY claims,
    Who to the World their best Lov’d Blessing sends.
    Guarded he comes, in Triumph over FATE,
    And all the Shining HOST around him wait.
    Angels and Saints, that do his Train Adorn,
    In Hallelujahs Sing, A KING IS BORN!…

    Methinks I hear the Belgick LION Roar,
    And Lash his Angry Tail against the Shoar.
    Inrag’d to hear A PRINCE OF WALES is Born:
    Whose BROWS his Boasted Laurels shall Adorn.
    Whose Angel FACE already does express
    His Foreign CONQUESTS , and Domestick PEACE.
    While in his Awful little EYES we Fin’d
    He’s of the Brave, and the Forgiving KIND.

Or not.

Originally released separately, these two poems were bundled together and reissued quite late in 1688; during the time, as it happened, that William of Orange was waiting for a break in the weather; and, well, we all know how that story ended…

While these poems hardly represent Aphra Behn at her best, the painful mix of devotion and desperation that they express is terribly moving, particularly when we reflect that they were written at a time of great personal hardship and failing health. Although, also in 1688, James overcame his previous scorn of the literary support that Charles had encouraged and began commissioning plays in support of his cause, he never did deign to notice the efforts of one of the few people in England whose loyalty to him was unwavering.

And don’t think that Aphra’s writing didn’t have an impact at the time, or that efforts weren’t made to shake her loyalty. On the contrary: almost at the last, an open effort to buy her services was made on behalf of the pro-Williamites by the Reverend Gilbert Burnet.

Famous as an historian and a linguist as well as a theologian, Burnet managed to stay in favour with Charles II in spite of his association with the Whigs. He earned notoriety in 1680 by attending the deathbed of the Earl of Rochester at his mother’s request, and later publishing an account of Rochester’s last-minute denunciation of libertinism and religious conversion: an account vigorously disputed by those who knew the Earl best, although certain of his papers seem to confirm his conversion, at least.

After the death of her close friend, Aphra Behn published On The Death Of The Late Earl Of Rochester, which caught the attention of Anne Lee Wharton, Rochester’s niece and a member of his household. Wharton had herself gained some fame as a writer of verse-dramas and poetry, and she expressed her gratitude to Behn in a poem entitled To Mrs A. Behn, On What She Writ Of The Earl Of Rochester.  Behn, who genuinely admired Wharton’s writing, was pleased and touched, and responded in turn with To Mrs W., On Her Excellent Verses. A real friendship began to grow between the two women, one doubly important to Aphra because she had so few female friends, and none who were conventionally respectable. However, before it could blossom, the friendship died—or rather, was killed off by Doctor Burnet. 

Behn and Burnet had already crossed paths, and swords, Burnet denouncing Behn publicly for the “bawdiness” of her writing. When he got wind of Anne Wharton’s friendly reception of Behn’s overtures Burnet immediately intervened, writing her a letter in which he warned her that associating with Behn would damage her reputation, and insisting that she sever the connection at once:

“…She is so abominably vile a woman, that I am as heartily sorry she has writ any thing in your commendation as I am glad, (I had almost said proud) that you have honoured me as you have done…”

Albeit reluctantly, Wharton obeyed. It was a blow Behn never forgot or forgave.

By the end of 1688, Aphra Behn was in debt and seriously ill, and no-one could have blamed her if, in this extremity, she had allowed pragmatism to override loyalty and sold her pen to the faction trying to build up support for William and excusing the removal of James. If nothing else, the Whigs always paid well for the services they bought—unlike the Tories, who considered that the honour of serving ought to be enough. And perhaps, at the last, Behn might have given in and served her enemies for the money, if only their agent had not been Gilbert Burnet, who courted her with praise of the very literary powers which before he had reviled and condemned. As it was, Behn rejected the Whigs’ overtures and set her pen to paper one last time, publishing early in 1689 A Pindaric Poem To The Reverend Doctor Burnet, On The Honour He Did Me Of Enquiring After Me And My Muse.

Much superior to the royalist poems that preceded it, this work is one of many moods. There is a great deal of sadness, as well as understandable regret for what its author is passing up; an acknowledgement that she would be personally better off if she did sell out, as many others had done, mixed with condemnation of the rats that had deserted the sinking ship; while towards Gilbert Burnet himself we detect more than a little sarcasm. It was, in any event, her parting shot: within weeks of its publication, William and Mary had been crowned, and Aphra was dead.

        But oh! if from your Praise I feel
        A Joy that has no Parallel!
    What must I suffer when I cannot pay
        Your Goodness, your own generous way?
And make my stubborn Muse your Just Commands obey.
        My Muse that would endeavour fain to glide
With the fair prosperous Gale, and the full driving Tide.
But Loyalty Commands with Pious Force,
        That stops me in the thriving Course,
The Brieze that wafts the Crowding Nations o’re,
        Leaves me unpity’d far behind
        On the forsaken barren shore,
To sigh with Echo, and the Murmuring Wind,
While all the Inviting Prospect I survey,
With melancholy eyes I view the Plains,
Where all I see is Ravishing and Gay,
And all I hear is Mirth in loudest Strains;
Thus while the Chosen Seed possess the Promis’d Land
        I like the Excluded Prophet stand,
        The Fruitful Happy Soil can only see,
        But am forbid by Fates Decree
To share the Triumph of the joyful Victory…


 

12/12/2010

Thomas Shadwell, superstar

I wonder what odds the Las Vegas bookies were offering last January, about there being two unrelated blog-posts on Thomas Shadwell during the same calendar year?

I suppose that’s unfair. There’s no more reason why people shouldn’t write about Shadwell than that they should write about, oh, I don’t know –  Alexander Oldys? –  to whose legacy I have just contributed 3000 words. Still, I couldn’t suppress a surprised yelp of laughter when I stumbled across this post…nor a sigh of admiration as I explored more thoroughly the blog that contained it.

As you might recall, my own mention of Thomas Shadwell was a rumination over whether he might have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince. Professor Robin Bates, blog-master of Better Living Through Beowulf, chose to draw comparisons between Shadwell and today’s more irresponsible political commentators, making outrageous remarks merely to get themselves noticed. Both of us alluded to John Dryden’s attack on Shadwell in the satirical smackdown, Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell may at length have won the political war against Dryden, but in the artistic one he crashed to bloody, humiliating defeat:

      Now Empress Fame had published the renown,

      Of Sh——’s coronation through the town.
      Roused by report of fame, the nations meet,
      From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling Street.

      No Persian Carpets spread th’imperial way,

      But scattered limbs of mangled poets lay:
      From dusty shops neglected authors come,
      Martyrs of Pies, and Relics of the Bum.
      Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,

      But loads of Sh—— almost choked the way.

As for Better Living Through Beowulf, it’s a heady mixture of literature, film, poetry, politics, religion and social issues. And if that doesn’t grab you, there’s tennis, ice hockey and (American) football. Off you go.

02/12/2010

Well, T.S.

To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever attempted to assign an author to the initials appended to The Perplex’d Prince – “T.S.” – but I do rather wonder…

I pointed out the reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there’s a second Dryden poem mentioned there: The Medal. This was a reaction to the reaction to the dismissal of the charges against the Earl of Shaftesbury (if you follow me), after he was accused of high treason in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. His supporters marked the occasion by pressing a medal that showed a symbolic Shaftesbury, in the form of a sun, emerging from behind black clouds.

Dryden’s response was The Medal, or A Satyr Against Sedition, a poem it is said was [*cough, cough*] suggested by Charles himself. This bitter attack upon Shaftesbury and his followers brought Dryden still more into the public eye, and not everyone was happy about it.

One of those who responded in print was Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright – and fervent Protestant. Shadwell and Dryden had once been friends and collaborators, but Dryden’s acceptance of a position at Charles’s court put an end to that. After the publication of The Medal, Shadwell retaliated with The Medal Of John Bayes: A Satyr Against Folly And Knavery, a brutal attack on Dryden himself. Nothing loath, Dryden hit right back with Mac Flecknoe: A Satyr On The Trew-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S., and then took another swing in the second part of Absalom And Achitopel, in which Shadwell appears – unflatteringly, I need hardly say – in the character of Og.

It was Dryden’s use of Shadwell’s initials in Mac Flecknoe, and his assumption that the reading public would know who “T.S.” was, that made me wonder whether Shadwell could possibly have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince – and whether Dryden even meant to imply that it was so. The pamphlet fits with Shadwell’s declared politics, certainly, but what interests me more is the dismissive way in which Dryden’s hugely successful poems are mentioned in the preface, being ranked alongside the mere disposable detritus of the literary world.

Then again, such a manoeuvre may have been too subtle for Shadwell, who apparently preferred the fist to the sword. Perhaps a third party, the true author, made use of Shadwell’s initials, either to hide behind them or just as a joke. Or perhaps it was another T.S. altogether: there was a Thomas Sprat writing at the time, but he seems to have been a straightforward royalist, so that makes it improbable. Anyway, I like to think it was Shadwell.

John Dryden remained Poet Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, but when James went, so did he – to be succeeded by his arch-rival. Thomas Shadwell may have lost the literary war against John Dryden, but with his own appointment to the position of Poet Laureate under William, he certainly had the last laugh.

25/11/2010

Absalom And Achitophel

I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.

Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.

Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.

Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.

Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:

      The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
      As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
      God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
      No king could govern, nor no God could please;
      (Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
      That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
      These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
      Began to dream they wanted liberty…

David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:

      Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
      A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
      Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
      To god-like David, several sons before.
      But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
      No true succession could their seed attend.
      Of all this numerous progeny was none
      So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…

And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:

      Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
      Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
      Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
      From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
      Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
      Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.

      Of these the false Achitophel was first:
      A name to all succeeding ages curst.
      For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
      Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
      Restless, unfixt in principles and place…

And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:

      His favour leaves me nothing to require;
      Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
      What more can I expect while David lives?
      All but his kingly diadem he gives:
      And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
      Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…

Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:

      Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
      My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
      And made for empire, whispers me within;
      Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.

      Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
      While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
      He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:

      Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
      Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
      What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
      Against your will your arguments have shown,
      Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
      Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
      But manly force becomes the diadem…

And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:

      To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
      Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
      Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
      Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
      High as the serpent of thy metal made,
      While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…

Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.

Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.

Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…

14/08/2010

Tabloid journalism, circa 1640

Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions differs from most of the other studies of the rise of the novel that I have read in being much more interested in form than content. It asks, in essence, how did the novel get to be the novel? In one chapter, Davis deals with the role played by ballads in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting them as an early form of news broadcast, a way in which word of various events was disseminated amongst the population at large with unprecedented rapidity and immediacy. Criminal lives and deaths were a particularly popular subject, and the more gruesome the details, the better. Here* is an account of the execution of a man convicted of treason:

    His Belly ripped open wide, his Bowel all he gat.
    And to the fire he straight
         them threwe which ready there was made:
    And there consumed all to dust, as is the fire’s trade.
    His head cut off, the Hangman then, did take it up
        in hand:
    And up alofte he did showe, to all that there did stand.
    And then his body in four parts was quartered in that
      place:
    More pity that his traitorous heart, could take no
      better grace.

It doesn’t seem that this particular branch of journalism has changed much in the last 400 years. You can almost hear the ballad-seller, can’t you? “Our ballads get you closer than ever before! As if YOU were one of those that there did stand!”

(*Davis reproduces this ballad from Ballads And Broadsides, edited by Herbert Collman [1912])

06/08/2010

Walks like a woman, talks like a man

I did a thorough reading of Aphra Behn’s fiction some years back (which is why I may not repeat the process in this particular course), but I had never read any of her poetry before coming across To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin’d more than Woman. If this wickedly ambiguous effort is representative of Behn’s work, I need to read more of it.

      Fair lovely Maid, of if that Title be
      Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
      Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
      And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
      This last will justifie my soft complaint;
      While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
      And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
      When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
      Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
      With thy deluding Form thou giv’st us pain,
      While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
      In pity to our Sex sure thou wer’t sent,
      That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
      For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
      Or if we shou’d—thy Form excuses it.
      For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
      A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant leaves.

      Thou beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
      Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join’d;
      When e’er the Manly part of thee, wou’d plead
      Thou tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
      While we the noblest Passions do extend
      The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.