Art in a Time of Burning
When politics becomes dangerous, writers must be both careful and brave
If the Restoration dramatists were on Twitter today, their subtweet game would turn the entire platform into a smoking ruin. Compared to these literary rivals and sometime political foes, we are all rank amateurs. They wrote quickly, they wrote smartly, they wrote for politically powerful patrons as well as for an unpredictable and increasingly fearsome “publick,” and they made hay and made bank out of their personal rivalries, grievances, and squabbles with one another.
This vanished world is newly alive to me as I read John Dryden and His World, James Anderson Winn’s inelegant but serviceable biography of the great dramatist and critic. Indeed, through his prefaces and epilogues to his plays as performed and later as published, as well as through essays dedicated to various aspects of writing poetry, drama, prose, and translation, Dryden almost singlehandedly invented criticism — both literary criticism and cultural criticism — as both a genre and a paying job.
Dryden’s works — his poetry, his plays, and his reflections on them — made the case and argued the case for the writer as cultural critic, responsibly and deftly wielding his pen to tell his age the truth about itself. “Using the epic past and his own poetic imagination to illuminate present realities was Dryden’s special gift,” Winn writes. “It sets him apart not only from the smoothly empty Waler and the pungently specific Marvell of the ‘Painter’ poems, but from the greatest poet of his century as well” — that is, unquestionably, Milton (177).
While Milton made “glancing references” to recent inventions and current events here and there in Paradise Lost, “Milton’s choice of an epic mode deliberately limits such direct commentary on his own times.” Dryden, by contrast, preferred a “heroic” to an “epic” mode of poetry, “In Annus Mirabilis,” Dryden’s stirring poem about the disastrous year of plague, war, and fire, “he teaches us how to see the events of 1666 as both ‘Epick’ and ‘Historical’; his poem is both effective propaganda for the court and a moving vision of human suffering and triumph.” (177–178)
Throughout his career, Dryden straddled the shifting line between poet and pamphleteer, between…