My purpose in this book is to describe the rhetorical strategies by which John Dryden, in his published works between 1687 and 1700, sought to define contemporary politics and to stake out for himself a defensible place within them. Seeking to discover and explain their polemical and rhetorical concerns, I have tried to situate these works in political and literary contexts with which Dryden and his readers would have been demonstrably familiar. I have excluded from consideration all anachronistic political or literary information so that I may see these works as clearly as possible from their point of view. This methodology is hardly new to Dryden studies—it informs Edmond Malone's biography as well as james Winn's, Samuel Johnson's criticism as well as Steven Zwicker's. I have chosen it not because of its novelty but because of its explanatory power for this particular body of work.
However, I feel that such an approach also has some general advantages over other methods of literary study now in vogue. Traditional humanist criticism, which assumes that great works of literature embody universal truths, has been for two decades under sustained attack. Some object that the linguistic signs that make up literary works are not sufficiently stable to embody any coherent meaning, others find in canonical works not universal truths but expressions of elite ideology; I have rejected the humanist approach on practical rather than theoretical grounds. Any universal truth that a modern critic can claim to discover in a text must be either relatively plain and therefore in no need of reiteration, or dubiously embodied in the text, or dubiously universal. Humanist critics in this century have struggled mightily to avoid obviousness on the one hand and implausibility on the other; but the New Critical strategies for negotiating this terrain have come to seem increasingly worn and arbitrary. Historical criticism, on the other hand, while it may not claim to explain everything in a given text,
may at least claim to have a plausible basis for explaining something that modern readers, accustomed to the circumstances of their own time, have overlooked or misconstrued.
Traditional humanism has given way in recent years to a set of approaches—deconstructive, postfreudian, neomarxist—that turn literary works to uses that their authors and original audiences could not have imagined. Whereas the humanist critic may at least claim to serve the text—to display its structure or define its meaning—these new approaches serve theories about language, psychology, or political economy, which literary texts are made to illustrate and confirm. Such critics often feel obliged to disprove or disregard the text's apparent meaning in order to arrive at something deeper that reflects what the critics think is a universal truth about the relation between signifier and signified, or ego and id, or cultural dominance and subversion. I have no quarrel here with deconstruction, postfreudianism, or neomarxism. But the exclusive application of these and similar theories to past literature has the unfortunate effect of drawing us into a kind of historical solipsism that allows us to see nothing in the past but our own reflection.
In undertaking such a project as this I am, I concede, forced to begin by making a number of assumptions the validity of which is now often contested—that language can refer to something outside itself, that the meaning a careful reader draws from a text may approximate that which a careful writer embodied in the text or which another careful reader may find in it, that we may escape the habits of thought and expression that prevail in our own age sufficiently to understand those that prevailed in another. I cannot prove the validity of these assumptions, any more than I can prove that the pen I use has an existence independent of me. I embrace them because they seem to me valid, just as my pen seems to exist; and because if they are false, the purpose of all literary and historical study seems to me obscure.
Aside from these, I have sought to avoid making any assumptions or drawing any conclusions about Dryden's work or seventeenth-century politics that cannot be verified by evidence drawn from the writings of the period. I include in my analysis only the contingent political phenomena of that period in which both author and audience were demonstrably interested. The English political nation in these years may or may not have been en-
gaged in a centuries-long struggle to bring forth a liberal democracy, or to justify and maintain an inequitable distribution of material goods; it was verifiably divided on the immediate question of who should govern, how much power the government should have, and how it should use that power, and I have restricted myself to this relatively narrow range of issues. Dryden's work in the period may or may not embody moral truths. It certainly contains general precepts on human behavior, but whether these are noble ideals or insidious pronouncements of a classicist, patriarchal elite is a question that must be decided with reference to abstract values rather than textual and historical evidence, and therefore I have let it alone. Whatever Dryden's commitment to Christian humanism or patriarchal elitism, he was quite demonstrably committed to his own survival as a poet at a time when the conflict between his known principles and those of the majority of his audience left him publicly discredited. I have therefore confined my study to the means by which he sought to achieve this end.
I am not blind to the disadvantages inherent in this method. It would be pleasant, for example, if Dryden's political ideals were such as we might ourselves unequivocally endorse—if Dryden could be shown to have made a brave stand against the political dragons that we ourselves detest. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While Dryden's loathing of war seems admirable, his regret at the interruption of the lineal succession, and at James's failure to maintain and increase the power of the monarch, is difficult to share. There is something attractive in Dryden's contempt for the equivocations by which the old Tories justified their desertion of James; but there is little to recommend their motives or Dryden's for having adhered to him in the first place. The most apparently persuasive argument Dryden advanced before 1688 for preserving the lineal succession—that its interruption would bring violence and anarchy—turned out to be quite simply wrong. If, however, Dryden's example does not invite direct imitation, it requires us at least to imagine a society that operated under ideological pressures very different from our own, and so reminds us that our own are not perhaps any more natural or inevitable than those of the seventeenth century. The nature of the Revolution and Dryden's response to it shows us with striking clarity that entire nations may strive to preserve the most obviously pernicious institutions even
against their own interest simply because those institutions are embedded in conventional ways of imagining the distribution of power and authority. The English political nation had every reason in 1688 to discard the monarchy as well as the monarch, or at least to make the throne elective rather than hereditary. However, the Convention Parliament not only failed even to discuss this possibility (except insofar as the more conservative members attempted to blacken their opponents by complaining that their policies advanced it), but in order to avoid it they were forced upon obvious fictions of abdication that supplied the Jacobites with a talking point for years after. Dryden was no political hero—his principles were not necessarily admirable, and he was capable of bending them for polemical and perhaps personal advantage—but his story can tell us a good deal about political institutions and about the relation between politics, polemic, and art. The method I have employed in the following study must, however, find its ultimate justification in its ability to explain not the general nature of history, psychology, or language, but the specific nature of Dryden's works from 1687 to 1700.