This Old Poem #76:
John Dryden’s Hidden Flame
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/19/03

  John Dryden was the most famed English language poet of the 17th Century. During his lifetime he was held up as the veritable model of poetic excellence & aspiration. William Shakespeare? A scribbler of quasi-pornographic plays. John Donne? A lust-filled holy man. John Milton? A blind unknown. JD was a legend in his lifetime. His rather predictable poems about courtly intrigues were devoured not for their artistic merit, but because they were the de facto National Enquirers of the day. People loved trying to decode who was who in the very thinly-veiled romans a clef. Yet, time has not preserved his former status. JD’s stature has slipped to the point that he is basically known as just a formerly famous Dead White Male poet.
  Technically his verse is solid- as far as dull, old fashioned formal poetry can be. But, compared to that other JD- John Donne, whose poetry was vibrant & different from often the 1st 2 or 3 words in a poem- this JD is a snooze. His conceits, such as they are, are almost negligible. Here’s a dull snippet from 1 of his more famous poems:

from Mac Flecknoe

All human things are subject to decay,
And, when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was called to empire, and had governed long;
In prose and verse was found without dispute,
Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute.
This agèd prince, now flourished in peace,
And blessed with issue of a large increase,
Worn out with business, did at length debate
To settle the succession of the state;
And, pondering which of all his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit,
Cried,--"'Tis resolved! for nature pleads, that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me.
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dulness from his tender years;
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he,
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense;
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through, and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems designed for thoughtless majesty;
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.
Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee,
Thou last great prophet of tautology!
Even I, a dunce of more renown than they,
Was sent before but to prepare the way;
And, coarsely clad in Norwich drugget, came
To teach the nation in thy greater name."

  Ponderous couplets that declaim like some old MGM film from the 1930s- aren’t you enthralled? Where is the wit of a Swift, at least? Where is the insight of a Milton? Oh well- on to the obligatory bio:

  John Dryden, an English poet and dramatist who would dominate literary efforts of The Restoration, was born on August 19, 1631, in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England. He received a classical education at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, then moved to London in 1657 to commence his career as a professional writer. His first play, The Wild Gallant (1663), was a failure when first presented, but Dryden soon found more success with The Indian Queen (1664) which he co-authored with Sir Robert Howard and which served as his initial attempt to found a new theatrical genre, the heroic tragedy. Although George Villiers' The Rehearsal, a vicious satire of heroic tragedy, brought a quick end to the form, Dryden still managed to produce a number of successful works in this genre including The Indian Emperor (1665) and Secret Love (1667) which mixed heroic tragedy with contemporary comedy.
  The young playwright's reputation grew quickly, and in 1668, only ten years after his move to London, Dryden was appointed Poet Laureate of England. (He was later stripped of the title because of religious differences when William and Mary came into power.) That same year, he agreed to write exclusively for Thomas Killigrew's theatrical company and became a shareholder. Both his first offering, Tyrannick Love (1669), and his successful follow-up, The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards (1670), are examples of heroic tragedy. In 1672, however, perhaps sensing the demise of his short-lived genre, Dryden turned his hand to comedy and produced Marriage A-la-Mode, a brilliant battle of the sexes. Dryden's relationship with Killigrew's company continued until 1678 at which point he broke with the theatre (which was floundering in debt) and offered his latest play, Oedipus, a drama he had co-authored with Nathaniel Lee, to another company.
  In his later years, Dryden turned to poetry and solidified his reputation as the leading writer of the day with such masterpieces as Absalom and Achitophel. However, he continued to write for the theatre, producing such plays as Don Sebastian (1689), the story of a king who abdicates his throne after discovering that he has committed incest, and Amphitryon (1690), a brilliant retelling of the classic myth. He also adapted a number of Shakespeare's plays icluding The Tempest and All for Love (1677), a retelling of Antony and Cleopatra. In addition, he wrote the libretto for several operas including The State of Innocence (1677) (an adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost) and King Arthur (1691) with music by Purcell.
  John Dryden died in London on May 12, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer. He left behind almost 30 works for the stage as well as a major critical study (An Essay on Dramatic Poesy) and a number of translations including the works of Virgil.

  Uh, JD’s plays are held in even lower esteem than his poems are nowadays. But that’s never stopped a blurbist from gushing. On to the titular poem:

Hidden Flame


I feed a flame within, which so torments me
That it both pains my heart, and yet contains me:
'Tis such a pleasing smart, and I so love it,
That I had rather die than once remove it.

Yet he, for whom I grieve, shall never know it;
My tongue does not betray, nor my eyes show it.
Not a sigh, nor a tear, my pain discloses,
But they fall silently, like dew on roses.

Thus, to prevent my Love from being cruel,
My heart's the sacrifice, as 'tis the fuel;
And while I suffer this to give him quiet,
My faith rewards my love, though he deny it.

On his eyes will I gaze, and there delight me;
While I conceal my love no frown can fright me.
To be more happy I dare not aspire,
Nor can I fall more low, mounting no higher.

  From the title onward this is a disaster. The clichés infest. Not only are they clichés, but they are egregious love poem clichés. This from a Poet Laureate? Let’s twist some of the phrases & try to rescue this from ignominy.

Bidden Flame


I seed a flame that wins, as it torments me,
Yet never does my heart, as it constrains me:
'Tis such a pleasing smart, and I so love it,
That I had rather die than once remove it.

Yet he, for whom I grieve, shall never know it;
My tongue does not belay, nor my eyes sow it:
Not a sigh, nor a tear, my pain encloses,
As they fall silently on dewless roses.

On his eyes will I gaze, and there delight me;
While I conceal my love, no frown to fright me.
To be more happy I dare not aspire,
Nor can I fall more low, mounting no higher.

  OK- 1st off, JD was not gay- this was just typical role-playing. Is this a good poem? How can it be given what I started with? But, losing a stanza & changing some of the words makes the banality of the original have a little more texture. For example- the title & 1st line turn the speaker in to the agonal progenitor, rather than damnable love. The other word choices- go read’em- make equivocation itself possibly the culprit of the poem. I admit, this poem is irredeemable- & a good case study for why PC Elitists were able to gain power by pointing out the obvious failures of the DWM Canon. Anyway, I’ve other things to do than read & write about the dull verse of another dead man. Cheerio.

Final Score: (1-100):

John Dryden’s Hidden Flame: 10
TOP’s Bidden Flame: 45

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