Sunday, October 10, 2010
In Defence of John Dryden
It can only be a matter of time, but when I finally bow to the gravitational pull that comes over me in the newsagent every Sunday morning and transfer my loyalties from the Observer to the News of the World, one thing at least that won’t leap off the pages at me, in among the updates on Katie Price’s humongous knockers and Wayne Rooney’s continuing war with evolution, is a piece of gratuitous abuse heaped on someone who is only, for God’s sake, the best translator in the canon of English poetry and one of the two or three best political poets in the language.
‘Only a sadist would inflict Dryden on our schoolchildren’, screams the headline. It seems pouting Toryboy Michael Gove, MP for Dotheboys Hall, has been calling for the reintroduction of Dryden in schools (despite the fact that he still is on the syllabus, but that’s beside the point). ‘Where in the last half century have Dryden and Pope been routinely imposed on children? Even in the corporal punishment years, such abuse was rare’, screams Catherine Bennett. Em, in my school? Which wasn’t even in this sceptred isle, site of my current Babylonian captivity, but knew a good Papish rhymer when it saw one. I studied Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe, and the Rape of the Lock too (not the Rape of the Loch as Bennett chortlesomely calls it, though please, tell me more...) with something like enjoyment; and though Pres Bray may not have been the best of blahdy good public schools, such as Dryden readers should ideally be attending, my fellow minor baronets’ sons didn’t seem to mind the force-feeding of the ‘Augustan even other Augustans couldn’t stand’ down our pre-pubescent necks, as I was reminiscing to Lord Digby-O’Trumpington just the other day. Or not noticeably more than they minded the force-feeding of Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Another September’ or a spot of John Donne. At least it wasn’t Benjamin Zephaniah, we told ourselves as Brother Bosco gave us another six of the best. And that was just the boys he didn’t fancy.
A couple of points though: just as the school master who told Tony Harrison to stop garbling Keats with his horrible non-RP accent was somewhat misinformed about Keats’s own social class, Bennett too has allowed herself to be sadly sucker-punched by the political colours of Dryden’s latest fan. For (duh) Dryden makes a very poor example of a writer who saw ‘in the monarchy a source of benign, and necessary, authority, unpolluted by ambition and above the petty politicking of parliaments’, or Michael Gove’s idea of the monarchy at any rate. Dryden was a supporter of the House of Stuart. He refused to take the oath of allegiance in 1688, an action that lost him the laureateship. Absalom and Achitophel is saturated in the feverish atmosphere of the Monmouth Rebellion, the Popish Plot, and the Exclusion Crisis, this last hinging on the exclusion of Catholics from public life. Dryden was a convert. Pope was a Catholic. Read your English history, Catherine Bennett (and you too, Michael Gove). Do not tell me Dryden and Pope are pillars of the establishment you love or love to hate.
Still, Dryden knew a good dullard when he saw one:
Sh-- alone my own true image bears
Mature in dullness from his tend’rest years
Sh-- alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity
The others to some meaning make pretense
But Sh-- never deviates into sense.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye
As though foredoomed to thoughtless majesty.
But wait, we’re not done yet! Because why, I want to know, is a newspaper that achieved a certain standing for its interest in poetry in, I believe, the 1960s, publishing not just one but two articles on the same day insulting that art in ways the News of the World never manages (Who’s For a Phwoarward Prize?! Top Bard’s Terza Rima’n’ Hookers Shame: if only)? For just a few pages further on we find Robert McCrum salivating over a rejected poem by Ted Hughes that has had the misfortune to tumble out from behind the sofa and into print and whose subject is (oh God no) the suicide of Hughes’s first wife. You’re still a bit too caught up in the subject matter, you can hear yourself counselling the teenager who brought something like this along to a creative writing workshop. The poem’s failure comes down to its knowledge of this fact but simultaneous determination not to retreat from it either. It doesn’t work. But then neither does most of Birthday Letters, a piece of inveterate mythologizing which still finds time to attack the feminist harpies who turned the flesh and blood Plath into a... what is the word... myth. Hughes was a flawed genius one of whose tragedies is to have recruited fans who mistake for his best work poems that are in fact among his worst. Step forward Robert McCrum:
The question that feminist critics have endlessly debated is: was she so obsessed with her dead father that her suicide was almost predetermined, or did Hughes’s behaviour, particularly his decision to leave her for another woman after six years of marriage, push her over the edge?
I don’t know about Robert McCrum’s seminars, but in mine we apply not just feminist but but structuralist and Marxist readings too, which helped us to decide just the other week that it was the signifier-signified split or, no wait, the execution of the Rosenbergs that ‘pushed her over the edge’, or whatever you’re having yourself to keep you from mentioning a single poem Plath ever wrote, over the course of an entire page in a broadsheet newspaper. This is a sad shambles of a soap opera for readers of a paper that should know better. No poetry coverage at all would be better than idiocies of this wattage. Now, where’s my News of the World.