Miner - Dryden's Metaphor

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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. Each unit becomes a metaphor for the rest, since different as many of them are, all are bound together by the shared idea of a blessed past. Just as the idea controls the passage, so the rhetoric of alliteration joins the units from point to point, now saying the alliterated w/ords are alike in meaning, now that they are


    different. (I shall capitalize important words, italicize words of temporal significance, and break the passage into its constituent units.)

    In Pious times ere Priestcraft did begin before Polygamy was made a sin when Man on Many MIultiplied his kind ere One to One was Cursedly Confin'd when nature Prompted and no law denied Promiscuous

    use of concubine and bride.

    Each of the units begins with a temporal preposition or adverb, each advances in units of increasing length. The alliteration of Pious/Priestcraft follows the usual connotations, but the other words ironically deny the force of such sense (the metaphor is vwitty in that it is made to deny the "stock response"); for it is really Pious/Polygamy which are equated by the initial rhyme. The succeeding couplet is built upon the antithesis re- flected in the first of its lines by the alliteration of Man/Many/ Multiplied-words of increasing length; while the next, op- posed line is rigorously balanced by One/One . . . Cursedly/ Confin'd. The third couplet makes up one unit with Prompted/ Promiscuous joining halves of a brilliant subdued parallelism of ideas:

    nature concubine

    law bride The succeeding lines explore the logic of the initial temporal

    metaphors ("Then Israel's monarch . . . ") and are, if less schematic, even more complex. In their lack of images, the metaphors of the opening six lines are not characteristic of Dryden; they are an extreme case and must be presented as such, but their handling is in every other respect typical of the poet. I need not demonstrate the intellectual clarity of the lines: Dryden has something to say and says it. If he is at fault for saying something, then poetry has no business in em- ploying language. It cannot be that his poetry lacks complexity, or we should have understood him long ago. The truth of the matter is that he is in the highest (if also in a special) degree rich, complex and, in a word, difficult. The difficulty can be understood by considering what our austere, relatively simple



    passage Absalom does in addition to what has been described. At the outset we must understand that the witty opening is

    not founded on that erotic daydreaming with which our hypo- critically prurient age likes to dismiss the Restoration. Dryden's lines embody a concept taken from a long tradition of Biblical scholarship (the poem, after all, speaks of David, Absalom, and Achitophel: II Samuel) in which the figure of David was central. The concept-one related to "Christian liberty"-is that progressively since the Fall of Man mankind has lost a measure of its freedom. A crucial issue in this tradition was polygamy, for how else might scholars who read the Bible for its historical accuracy explain that the great patriarchs were allowed several wives and concubines although men of later ages were "cursedly confin'd" to one? The matter is very com- plex, but the debate over polygamy (as well as the many mis- tresses of Charles) inspired writers to renew the issue, and David-the second king of Israel, long after the age of the patriarchs-was carefully discussed. Dryden could count on his age to recognize the subject at once.

    It is not so much the subject which is significant, however, as its treatment. The rhetoricians from ancient to modern times were agreed that the function of metaphor is amplification (in- cluding diminution). Metaphor consequently raises questions of tone-of elevation or lowering, of praise or blame. The opening of Absalom raises the question of the metaphors' tonal function: what attitude toward Charles are we meant to take? Are we to take them as amplifying figures redounding to his credit? If so, he is strangely damned with very sly praise. Are we to take them as diminishing figures critical of his immorality? If so, then matters are even stranger in a poem designed, among other things, to support him and which repeatedly, as implicit- ly here, imputes Godlike qualities to him. Dryden has clearly produced a tonal masterpiece in which irony is the solvent of opposed attitudes. He blames Charles by pretending to praise his/David's promiscuity. But the ironic praise-become-blame turns once more to praise amidst the laughter: for David/ Charles is creative, imitative of God, as the contrast with Achi- tophel/Shaftesbury's near sterility shows (170-172). The pas- sage provides a well-nigh miraculous solution of the problem Dryden faced:-of allowing for Charles's faults in such a way that they almost seem virtues. Almost-because anything fur- ther would have been evasion or bombast. He finds his solution


    by translating the historical issues of polygamy into metaphors of temporal states with particular focus upon David.l

    To mention David again is to suggest the final function of the initial metaphors, as also to give Drydenic point to Col...