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Article - Miner - John Dryden - Metaphor - Literary Criticism - English Poetry - Augustan - 18th century


  • Rice University

    Some Characteristics of Dryden's Use of MetaphorAuthor(s): Earl MinerReviewed work(s):Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 2, No. 3, Restoration and EighteenthCentury (Summer, 1962), pp. 309-320Published by: Rice UniversityStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/449481 .Accessed: 23/11/2011 12:50

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  • Some Characteristics of Dryden's Use of Metaphor


    I used to seek and find out grand lines and stanzas; but my delight has been far greater since it has con- sisted more in tracing the leading thought thro'out the whole.

    (Coleridge, Lectures, 1818)

    IN DOING full justice for perhaps the first time to one of our major groups of poets, the revival of the Metaphysi- cal poets a generation ago also set the history of English litera- ture into better perspective. The events following this major change in our taste have made it impossible to regard English poetry as a tradition with the twin peaks of Elizabethan and Romantic accomplishment. The change in taste led to the challenging of Milton, the revaluation of Pope, and to renewed appreciation of seventeenth century poetry. We need not con- gratulate ourselves too heartily, however, for what has been primarily a Romantic rejection of Romanticism. If the change had been sounder-if it had not entailed a rejection of Roman- ticism-Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson would not have had to undergo the drubbing of recent times. (As many have observed, both the "classicism" and the anti-Romanticism of T. E. Hulme and others were less classical than Romantic.) Donne and the other Metaphysicals were first given justice be- cause they shared with the Romantic poets the essential charac- teristic of poetry since 1800: the private mode. The shift in taste was easy, from a private poetry rich in emotional texture to another private poetry tough in intellectual fiber.

    The subsequent events lead us toward the present renewed interest in Dryden. Obeying few laws but his own, Milton was certain to be questioned; and being Milton, he was equally certain to silence his accusers. Then F. R. Leavis and others set about to march forward toward the Romantics, to follow the "line of wit," the continuation of qualities esteemed in Donne on to Pope. Since Pope if any poet is witty, and since he often echoes Donne, it was easy to make out a case which raised him once again in general esteem. As more than one person


    has pointed out, however, appreciating Pope as another Donne does not take us very far. Yet when once Pope had been praised for labors not his own, it was easier to re-examine his real practice; and sooner or later Dryden was sure to benefit from the study of Pope-especially since T. S. Eliot's measured praise and Mark Van Doren's careful examination of Dryden had al- ready brought attention to him as the last of the great poets between the Elizabethans and the Romantics to have been dis- praised or ignored. Grierson wisely observed of Van Doren's book, however, that it only "writ large" Arnold's strictures against Dryden and Pope. Subtle and helpful as they are, Eliot and Van Doren leave us feeling that Dryden, if not Pope, is a classic of our prose rather than of our poetry.

    The notion is derived either from a lack of sympathy with, or understanding of, Dryden's values, his conception of the place of man in time and eternity, and the cast of his mind. Such large matters defy treatment in a short essay, but it is possible to analyze in brief some aspects of his style which have also been misunderstood, I feel, and which have certainly prevented appreciation. For if IDonne's private mode produced a poetry fundamentally like that of the Romantics, it has been possible to set aside the public mode Pope shares with Dryden and to turn attention rather to Pope's extraordinarily rich verse texture, which has its own resemblance to Romantic imagery: imagistically The Rape of the Lock is in some respects more like Tintern Abbey or The Wasteland than is Dryden's Anne Killigrew Ode. There is a danger, and an inherent injustice to both poets, in the expectation that Dryden's use of imagery should be the same as Pope's.

    There appear to be four characteristics assigned to Dryden's poetry today which are held to be detrimental. He mistakenly tries to say something; he sets too high a premium on clarity; he uses the heroic couplet too exclusively; and his Augustan rhetoric is somehow unpoetic. Now the fact is that such "faults" more nearly describe the poetry of Pope than that of Dryden; and of the last three it may be said that what Dryden made good Pope perfected. We must search for Dryden's special genius elsewhere. He is not primarily a poet of striking passages or of noble fragments, but a creator of poetic wholes articulated with great skill and beauty throughout many parts. To appre- ciate him, we must seek poetic delight-in a poet whose learn- ing is only now being appreciated-as Coleridge came to, by

  • E A R L M I N E R

    "tracing the leading thought thro'out the whole." One of his characteristic metaphors for poetry is music, another architec- ture; and in his poetry no more than in these arts can we under- stand the design of the whole by seeking to admire a single phrase or column. The way to appreciative understanding is through a poet's special strengths; since one of Dryden's great strengths is metaphor, albeit of a kind different in essential respects from most other poets', I shall use it as the center of discussion, beginning with the small and going on to larger wholes.

    Two isolated lines of striking application to our experience today provide a useful beginning-useful in allowing us to make distinctions, since one is but ordinary, the other superior Dryden.

    Yet still war seems on either side to sleep. (All for Love, I.i)

    And peace itself is war in masquerade. (Absalom and Achitophel, 1.752)

    Both lines do say something about specific situations in their contexts, as also about human experience. The first is weaker, however, because its rhetoric is misleading. There is little reason for the alliteration of "seems . . . side . . . sleep" or for the assonance of "seems . . . sleeps'-no inevitability of the kind which raises rhetoric into high poetry. An actor might make something of the line by bearing down on "still" or "seems," but I doubt that the audience would much notice. There is in addition a metaphoric fuzziness to the line. War is personi- fied, but can a personification sleep "on either side"? It may indeed do so in Elizabethan and other kinds of poetry where incantation is a major resource, but in the context of Dryden's style the metaphor is less pleasing. The second line gives us Dryden's true energy, that combination of strength in unob- trusive rhetoric and syntactic motion which carries us force- fully onward. The metaphor is a perfect example of discordia concors, since peace cannot possibly be war unless one of the two is somehow changed. The logic of the line is of course that war, or warlike men, artfully take on the disguise of peace; but the predication of the line is rather that peace is war: we have not a new war but a new, fearful kind of peace. The


  • 312 D RY D E N' S U SE OF ME T A P H O R

    metaphor is at once clear, rich, and striking-the clarity alone allowing for the exciting force.

    With the proper function of saying something and of clarity in mind, we must go on to longer passages and whole works. Since they are apt to present greater problems, it is advisable to avoid those we can by reminding ourselves of what we mean by "metaphor." The simplest definition to win agreement is "an assertion of likeness or identity." I. A. Richards' well- known analysis of the constituents of metaphor into the tenor and the vehicle betrays, however, certain subsidiary assumptions which must be brought into the open. In Burns's line "O my luve's like a red, red rose," the vehicle is "rose" which stands for (by assertion of likeness) "luve," or the woman loved. In practice the distinction has implied that the vehicle must be a single image or a phrase comprising an image ("war in mas- querade"). That the unspoken assumption is too limited can be understood by referring back to the definition, to a host of poems or, more to the purpose, to the opening of Absalom and Achitophel.

    In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, Before polygamy was made a sin; When man on many multiplied his kind, Ere one to one was cursedly confin'd; When nature prompted, and no law denied Promiscuous use of concubine and bride; Then Israel's monarch after Ileaven's own heart, His vigorous warmth did variously impart To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command, Scatter'd his Maker's image thro' the land.

    All would agree that the first six lines have few if any images, that they deal with ideas rather than with sensuous details. Yet they make up a tissue of temporal states likened to each other (and therefore metaphors) in a complex develop- ment. If the lines are diagrammed, we can see how Dryden wittily equates certain conditions at a specific historical moment. Eac