As I read Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, I am trying to keep my mind open to possible writing ideas. For this course, GF has provided two versions so far of the syllabus, neither of which specifies due dates for the two papers that I will have to produce. In fact, the revised syllabus includes more details regarding course work than the original, but the revised details deal with the specifics of the two presentations, and how they will lead to the two papers. Of course, since it’s only me in the course, the presentations are not happening. In a way, every meeting involves a presentation, or at least that’s how I am trying to approach things. But at no point has GF suggested when the papers are due. All he has said is that with so few people in the seminar, the marking is less time consuming, while the preparation is, of course, much more time consuming. For both of us. I think that no matter how much I prepare I will feel guilty of not preparing enough.
I realised last night that I am getting anxious to start writing, which feels unusual. It is apparent that I will effectively be setting my own deadlines for these papers, and the same is true for the paper that I owe to EC, and really for everything left to do to complete the MA. What is this whole “self-starter” thing? How does it work, exactly? Don’t answer, I already know.
So in the service of the above: ideas need a place to brew.
I’m interested in how time works in literature. Annus Mirabilis, meaning ‘year of miracles,’ or ‘year of wonders,’ is referred to as an epic poem, but it’s specifically about the events of one year (approximately–the first battle with the Dutch actually takes place in 1665), 1666. Note the significance of the numerals within the date: 666 was considered a potent number, and Dryden seems concerned with the possibility that God favours England and the monarchy, despite the fact that the events recorded in the poem constitute extreme trials to the people, the Commonwealth, and the monarchy together. Apparently, Dryden was the first to use the phrase to indicate a significant year, and it has been done since. As far as epics go, I don’t think it’s a main feature of them to cover such a brief period. In the poem, the events and how they take place in time are elevated to heroic (epic) status, and time–and its passing–seems to be treated as historical time, and, through the use of simile and classical references, even ancient-historical time, though the poem’s events have only recently taken place relative to Dryden as he writes. Would it be interesting to analyse the representation of time in the poem, and how this representation functions? I think it has to do with his careful consideration of God’s role in London and Charles II, and whether the king’s actions demonstrate realpolitik or ineffectiveness or what.
Here’s an excerpt from project gutenberg (on Dryden–includes full text of major works):
EDINBURGH PRINTED BY BALLANTYNE AND COMPANY, PAUL'S WORK. THE POETICAL WORKS OF JOHN DRYDEN. With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes BY THE REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN. VOL. I. M. DCCC. LV.THE LIFE OF JOHN DRYDEN.
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But now the university was to lose, and the world of London to receive, the poet. In the year 1657, when about six-and-twenty years of age, Dryden repaired to London, “clad in homely drugget,” and with more projects in his head than pence in his pocket. He was first employed by his relative, Sir Gilbert Pickering–called the “Fiery Pickering,” from his Roundhead zeal–as a clerk or secretary. Here he came in contact with Cromwell; and saw very clearly those great qualities of sagacity, determination, courage, statesmanship, insight and genuine godliness, which made him, next to Alfred the Great, the first monarch who ever sat on the English throne. Two years after Dryden came to London, Cromwell expired, and the poet wrote and published his Heroic Stanzas on the hero’s death, which we consider really his earliest poem. When Richard resigned, Dryden, in common with the majority of the nation, saw that the Roundhead cause was lost, and hastened to carry over his talents to the gaining side. For this we do not blame him very severely, although it certainly had been nobler if, like Milton, he had clung to his party. Sir Walter Scott remarks, that Dryden never retracted the praise he gave to Cromwell. In “Absalom and Achitophel” he sneers at Richard as Ishbosheth, but says nothing against the deceased giant Saul. It is clear, too, that at first his desertion of the Cromwell party was a loss to the poet. He lost the chance of their favour, in case a reaction should come, his situation as secretary, and the shelter of Pickering’s princely mansion. As might have been expected, his ancient friends were indignant at the change, and not less so at the alteration he thought proper at the same time to make in the spelling of his name–from Driden to Dryden.
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“5. One who trims between opposing parties in politics, etc.; hence, one who inclines to each of two opposite sides as interest dictates.” (OED Online)
Or, as defined by EM (professor of Restoration literature, and poet), in reference to certain Restoration poets (paraphrased): “one who trims his sails to the prevailing winds.” I believe he used the term during a lecture on Dryden and Astraea Redux (1660, on the occasion of the Restoration of Charles II). I have always liked this definition.
(I note, though, that according to the OED this usage first appeared around 1682.)
I wonder if there is an underlying threat or sneer within the lavish praise of this poem, marked especially by this verse:
To pardon willing, and to punish loath,
You strike with one hand, but you heal with both;
Lifting up all that prostrate lie, you grieve
You cannot make the dead again to live.
In other words, it seems to me, the difference between Cromwell and God is that Cromwell cannot grant life. According to the rest of the poem, he can do pretty much everything else, and is God-like, and every nation conquered is grateful for it, because it is for their own good.
It might be interesting to investigate, for a paper, Waller’s allegiances to the monarchy previous to his involvement with Cromwell’s court. According to the Wikipedia entry as it appears today (2 February 2011), he had participated in a plot to try to keep Charles I safe in London (1643? “Waller’s Plot”), and was arrested, but negotiated his way out of the death penalty, which would have been a significant challenge at the time.
In 1655 he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or two later, he followed this, in 1660, with a poem To the King, upon his Majesty’s Happy Return. Being challenged by Charles II to explain why this latter piece was inferior to the eulogy of Cromwell, the poet smartly replied, “Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction”.
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