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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

I. Dryden

§ 5. Annus Mirabilis

The whole of the first group of Dryden’s poems may be said to be brought to a close by Annus Mirabilis, or The Year of Wonders (1666); but, before the production of this work, he had already brought out several plays. It was, not improbably, in this way that he was brought into contact with Sir Robert Howard, a younger son of the earl of Berkshire, who had long been connected with the Stewart court and whose wife was a daughter of the great lord Burghley. On 1 December, 1663, Dryden married lord Berkshire’s daughter Elizabeth, then twenty-five years of age. The marriage took place with her father’s consent, and lady Elizabeth seems, sooner or later, to have brought her husband some addition to his estate. She was, no doubt, his superior in rank, but not in any unusual measure. That Dryden was not, at this time, leading the life of a bookseller’s hack is shown, inter alia, by his election, in November, 1662, as a fellow of the Royal Society, in its early days often as much of a social as of a scientific honour. The circumstances of Dryden’s marriage and wedded life, whether actual or fictitious, were an inexhaustible fund of scandal to the malevolent. One story ran that lady Elizabeth’s brothers had bullied Dryden into the match; another, that it was made up to cover a faux pas on the part of the lady with another man. It is clear that she had led no cloistered life; but Dryden seems to have been throughout on easy terms with Sir Robert Howard, even during their literary controversy, and sufficiently acknowledges his personal goodwill. The general character of Dryden’s long married life remains obscure; it has been freely described as unhappy, and, in its last period, cannot but have been darkened by his wife’s mental decay; on the other hand, there are indications in their correspondence of pleasant relations between them. That the husband provoked or requited the wife’s infirmities of mind or temper by infidelities is a conjecture resting on an assumption; for the assertion that “Dryden was a libertine” remains unproved.

Annus Mirabilis, though not written in the heroic couplet with which Dryden had already familiarised himself in both dramatic and non-dramatic composition, offers unmistakable proof of the ease and self-confidence which by this time he had already acquired as a writer of verse. The stanza form of decasyllabic quatrains here adopted had already been used by Sir John Davies in his philosophical poem Nosce Teipsum (1599), where it well suits both theme and treatment, and had been revived by D’Avenant in Gondibert (1656), where the poet, in order to satisfy his principle that each quatrain “should contain a period,” often becomes prosy in consequence. For the rest, Gondibert, though composed under the critical eye of Hobbes, and compared by him to the Aeneid and the Iliad, notwithstanding the advantage which accrued to these as dating from “what is called old time, but is young time,” contained little that invited imitation; while the long and not uninteresting critical Preface, though it may have helped to suggest the writing of those critical essays of which Dryden composed the earliest in the year before that in which Annus Mirabilis appeared, clearly did not serve as a model for them.

Like Gondibert, Annus Mirabilis was the fruit of exile; but, while part of the former was written at the Louvre, Dryden had been driven from London, by the great plague and the great fire commemorated in his poem to take refuge at his father-in-law’s country seat at Charlton in Wiltshire. In An Account of the Ensuing Poem, in a letter to Sir Robert Howard, dated November, 1666, Dryden, although he utters some heterodox opinions about Vergil, declares that “he has been my master in this poem,” which, indeed, is distinguished by a masculinity of tone and a richness of imagery which lend force to the assertion. The admirably chosen title was not original, though the application seems to have been new. Dryden describes Annus Mirabilis as a historical poem, apparently implying that it does not make any pretensions to being an epos, for which it lacks both the requisite unity and the requisite length of action. On the other hand, it treats its twofold theme, the Dutch war and the fire of London, with great skill, both in the selection of topics, and in the management of the transitions which give coherency to the whole. As for the war, its final cause lay in the commercial jealousy between the two nations, which made itself felt wherever English mercantile enterprise was seeking to compete with that of a more successful rival, and which, of course, came home most nearly to the city of London. But it was also due to a general antipathy on the part of the English against the Dutch, as of the naturally stronger, to the actually wealthier, community. Dryden, accordingly, takes care to dwell on the strength of England, as contrasted with the meanness, baseness and so forth, of Holland. Moreover, the upper class of English society was offended by Dutch burgherism and republicanism, while the court resented the act excluding the house of Orange from the stadholdership. When, therefore, war was declared, a good deal of enthusiasm (of a kind), especially among the gentry, hailed the event; and Evelyn gives an amusing description of the outbreak of a universal passion for taking service in the fleet. Dryden, in his preface, describes that part of his poem which treats of the war as “but a due expiation” on his part for “not serving his King and country in it.” The navy, as the favourite service of both the king and his brother the duke of York, was, at this time, extremely popular; and Dryden’s confessed anxiety to have his sea terms correct was pedantry in season.

Altogether, his account of the progress of the war—from the dearly-bought victory of Solebay to the barren triumph off the North Foreland—is full of fire and spirit; and it was not any part of the poet’s business to expound how, when the campaign of 1666 came to an end, the feeling began to spread that, with or without further naval victories, the situation of the country, against which France was intriguing in every part of the king’s dominions, would, before long, become untenable. Thus, when Dryden represents the terrible visitation of September, 1666,—the destruction of the far greater part of London by fire,—as having befallen England at a season of undiminished confidence, and as a nemesis of this national pride—he is putting a gloss of his own upon the actual sequence of affairs. He had, moreover, omitted any account of the plague, whose ravages were at their height at a date considerably earlier than that of the events described in the introductory part of his poem, and had thus made it easier to represent the fire as a calamity which overtook the nation when “palled” with the long succession of its “joys.” The fury of the fire at its height is depicted with splendid energy, and the daring figure of the witches’ sabbath, danced by the ghosts of traitors who have descended from London Bridge, is not less apposite to the wild scene than that of the divine extinguisher by which the fire is put out is preposterous. The poet’s prophecy that a “greater and more august” London would arise “from her fires” was fulfilled; but the companion political prophecy had a lamer ending in the peace of 1667, which was all that England gained from the glories of the “wonderful” year. Yet the literary achievement itself was wonderful. Without the assurance to be derived from any great previous success, Dryden had undertaken a task so full of pitfalls that nothing but a most extraordinary impetus could have carried his course past these to its goal—and this, though he had hampered himself with a metrical form which, as he knew and confessed, had made a far more exacting claim upon his ingenuity and skill than the couplet already familiar to him. The courage and dash of the whole performance, which cast into the shade its lesser features, its far-fetched conceits and other reminiscences of poetic schools that were nearing their end, could not but apprise the critical world, including king and court, that a combatant had descended into the arena who was unlikely to find an equal there.