Defining the public poet: towards a definition of Dryden's scepticism

2012-07-24T12:02:18Z (GMT) by Adam Hopley
Critics of seventeenth-century literature have long accepted that John Dryden was influenced by early-modern scepticism, but no consensus has been reached about which of the many varieties of sceptical ideas from this period inform his work. The early theory that Dryden displayed a predisposition to newly-revived ancient Greek scepticism was persuasively challenged by the claim that he was sceptical only insofar as his early critical writings show strong parallels with the sceptical method of the New Scientists. Subsequent to this, a small number of scholars have formulated new ways of interpreting scepticism in Dryden's poems and plays which are based on the use of literary strategies at the local or textual level rather than on demonstrable affinities with any one philosophically sceptical worldview. Though insightful, the work of these critics remains incomplete, and often considers Dryden in relation to writers who followed him in the eighteenth century when the intellectual climate had significantly changed. Expanding upon this research, this thesis argues that Dryden's scepticism can be identified with a number of sceptical impulses which emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With reference to Dryden's contemporaries, it concentrates on rereading largely canonical texts from across his career in the immediate historical context of their writing, demonstrating, as its primary theme, that Dryden's scepticism was informed by the political and philosophical concerns of the late seventeenth century, and, as its secondary theme, that the nature of Dryden's sceptical insight was bound up with the demands of genre and his ever-changing role as public poet. The thesis begins with an expositional chapter on existing critical responses to Dryden's scepticism. This clarifies the degree to which scepticism was the product of historical and political forces at play in Dryden's work. The second chapter, which focuses on the early part of the 1660s, argues that Dryden's interest in scepticism ostensibly reflects a belief about the value of the scientific mode of speculative inquiry in developing new ideas about literary creation, but that this was underlined by a sense of anxiety about the outcome of post-Restoration Stuart policy. The third chapter, dealing primarily with Dryden's plays, shows that Dryden expresses political anxiety through parallels of his own devising at a time when questions were being asked of the Stuart monarchy, and when political theories of a largely secular kind were beginning to receive serious consideration. The primary theoretical focus of this chapter is the reception of Thomas Hobbes in the late seventeenth century, and the importance of Hobbes's contract theory in Dryden's own political formulations. The fourth chapter evaluates Dryden's religious writings, and finds that Dryden embraces sceptical paradox as a legitimate method of theological argument until his conversion to Catholicism when he adopts a position closer to the fideism of early sixteenth-century sceptics. The fifth chapter explores how sceptical comment in his translations of Lucretius exemplify a new phase in Dryden's career, one in which he begins to renounce his role as a public poet. The subject of renouncing the public role is continued in the sixth chapter, which addresses Dryden's translations from Juvenal and Persius; keeping in mind the tightening of censorship laws, which forced Dryden and writers like him to seek the subterfuge of classical voices in this period, the sixth chapter also shows how the satirical complaints of Juvenal and Persius allowed the poet to express his own discontents about the social and cultural values of Britain after the Revolution of 1688.