Category Archives: poetry

Poetry has a right to children

William Empson wrote the following “pat little theory” in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) about the limitations of 19th century poetry, but it seems like it still might apply to contemporary “new sincerity” art, or any work seeking to evade cynicism on one side and elitism on the other.

For a variety of reasons, they found themselves living in an intellectual framework with which it was very difficult to write poetry, in which poetry was rather improper, or was irrelevant to business, especially the business of becoming Fit to Survive, or was an indulgence of one’s lower nature in beliefs the scientists knew were untrue. On the other hand, they had a large public which was as anxious to escape from this intellectual framework, on holiday, as they were themselves. Almost all of them, therefore, exploited a sort of tap-root into the world of their childhood, where they were able to conceive things poetically, and whatever they might be writing about they would suck up from this limited and perverted world an unvarying sap which was their poetical inspiration. …  An imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.

If you are trying to escape irony and phoniness and defensiveness, you have no choice to seek some original source of truth and warmth and goodness, which inevitably leads to the blankness of childhood, that golden era of one’s personal consciousness when hermeneutics were blessedly beyond and trust was an instinct rather than a choice. If this glorification of childhood is not to lead to the conclusion that is better to die a child than corrupt one’s innocence, youth has to be framed as a nostalgic tourist attraction, a place we can get away to when we can spare the time, and thereby remember what it is like to be before forgetting.

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Dryden and panegyric

So I can find this if for some reason I ever need to.

“The careful Devil:” Dryden’s Praise of Beauty

In the dedicatory epistle to the Duchess of York that prefaces The State of Innocence, Dryden provides a remarkable exposition of the divine power of beauty. He begins the epistle by reducing the poet’s active imagination to “a desire of Pleasing” those who can forward his fame, who can be divided into “the Beautiful and the Great.” Of poets he claims that “Beauty is their Deity to which they sacrifice, and Greatness is their Guardian-Angel which protects them” (81). Naturally, the Duchess of York embodies both, but in the epistle Dryden is primarily concerned with her beauty, which he claims is even rarer than Greatness. Her beauty, in its purity and perfection, resolves “the differing Judgements of Mankind” and renders language essentially useless (82). “Our sight is so intent on the Object of its Admiration, that our Tongues have not leisure even to praise you: for Language seems to low a thing to express your Excellence….” (83). Her beauty also has the power to transcend the power of the law. “You have subverted (may I dare to accuse you of it) even our Fundamental Laws; and Reign absolute over the hearts of a stubborn and Free-born people tenacious almost to madness of their Liberty” (83). Her husband, the incipient king, will have his divinely derived power augmented; for, as Dryden writes, God “has plac’d You so near a Crown, that You add a Lustre to it by Your Beauty” (82). But her beauty is not merely an adjunct to a King’s divine right. Her beauty, when cast upon an unsuspecting soul, “strikes an impression of awful reverence,” the “rapture which Anchorites find in Prayer,” and thus transforms “Admiration into Religion” (83-4). Indeed, this kind of beauty is a “Deity,” that not only inspires, but demands “sacrifice.”

It seems strange that poets should be confined to finding their inspiration in a Beauty that renders rhetoric and moral suasion impossible. If beauty such as that of the Duchess is beyond debate, and inspires a religious duty that supplants even the law, then what has a poet to say about such beauty? But just as God’s omnipotence certainly does not stifle preachers from endlessly delineating His power, beauty’s limitless power need not silence the poet. Instead, by thus exalting beauty, Dryden makes prophets out of poets, who are uniquely empowered to give voice to the awe and servile reverence such beauty inspires universally. So the poet has a motive to make of beauty an irresistible force, a divine restorative power, as Dryden admits in the dedicatory epistle’s first sentence. “Ambition is so far from being a Vice in Poets,” he confesses, “that ’tis almost impossible for them to succeed without it.” But what initially seems a servile and sycophantic reduction of the poet becomes finally an exaltation, by which the poet becomes the vessel for the otherwise inexpressible power of beauty. Panegyric prostration and obsequious humility only attempt to mask what seems an apparent grab for personal power.

In the Prologue to the Duchess on her Return from Scotland, and later, in the ode To Her Grace the Duchess of Ormond, we see the sort of poetry that is derived from such a motive. The Prologue to the Duchess translates the investment of beauty with political power seen in the dedicatory epistle into verse. The first eleven lines elucidate the consequences of the Duchess’s departure. In her absence “The Muses droop’d with their forsaken arts,/ And the sad cupids broke their useless darts” (ll. 3-4). Apparently she carries with her a portable paradise, for when she leaves England’s “fruitful plains to wilds and deserts turn’d,/ Like Eden’s face when banish’d man it mourn’d” (ll. 5-6). This mirrors the dedicatory epistle, where Dryden tells the Duchess, “your Person is a Paradice, and your Soul a Cherubin within to guard it” (84). Her beauty seems to simply embody the prerequisites for paradise, and her return to England then would appropriately signify the return of a Golden Age.

For her the ground is clad in cheerful green,
For her the nightingales are taught to sing,
And Nature has for her delay’d the spring.
The Muse resumes her long-forgotten lays,
And love, restor’d, his ancient realm surveys (ll. 27-31)

But a conundrum lies in her very departure. Her departure had been forced by “factious rage,” the disloyalty and ingratitude of which had toppled Love’s “awful throne” (ll. 1, 8). We must then unpack the ambiguous syntax of the following line, “Love cou’d no longer after beauty stay,” accordingly. In the wake of the disloyalty inherent in the Exclusion crisis, love is so undermined that it can no longer be attendant to beauty. Love is inspired by the beauty of the Duchess, yet love is impossible without loyalty despite that beauty. The matter is further complicated but the later assertion that “Far from her sight flew faction, strife, and pride” (l. 18). The poet’s eagerness to symbolically empower her beauty is belied by the history that occasions the poem. If her beauty was insufficient to prevent “factious rage,” then how can its return alone be enough to restore love, and assure that “Distempered zeal, sedition, canker’d hate,/ No more shall vex the Church and tear the State” (ll. 39-40)?

The answer to this question may be in the role of the panegyrical poet, who empowers such beauty through expression, who enumerates those “awful charms” that “on her fair forehead sit,/ Dispensing what she never will admit” (ll. 35-36). Her beauty is notably and naturally a passive force, an inspiration, a latency. Even the Duchess’s mind, in the dedicatory epistle, is regarded as “Ornament,” as an “object of Wonder” (85). The power dormant in her beauty depends ultimately on those who perceive it. Most are incapable of activating it. “Thus, MADAM,” Dryden writes in the epistle, “in the midst of Crouds you reign in Solitude; and are ador’d with the deepest Veneration, that of Silence” (83). When in the presence of her awesome beauty, the crowd “are speechless for the time that it continues, and prostrate and dead when it departs.” In the poem, her beauty is described as “Pleasing, yet cold, like Cynthia’s silver beam” (l. 37). In and of itself, her beauty is remote, and diffuse in its effect. It is the “people’s wonder,” but more importantly, it is the “poet’s theme” (l. 38). It is the labor of the poet to translate her beauty’s latent power into the harmonious “Discord like that of music’s various parts” (l. 43). In this way the mere flattery of the panegyrical poet is transformed into a more general power. For the audience for such poetry as this is not necessarily the Duchess herself but her future subjects. As James D. Garrison points out, “during the Exclusion crisis in particular, Dryden considers the theater audience as the representatives of the whole English nation” (144). Dryden longs to be able to articulate the effects of the beauty of the Duchess on themselves individually and collectively. Harnessing that power as his own, may focus it towards his own end, and use her beauty to exemplify ends and virtues of his own choosing.