November 10, 2021

Discovering John Dryden at the Friends of the Library Book Sale

By Stuart Mitchner

What passion cannot music raise and quell!

—John Dryden (1631-1700)

Driving toward the lake listening to Bob Dylan sing “Mother of Muses” (“sing your hearts out, all you women of the chorus / Sing of honor and fame and of glory be”), I’m brainstorming a column on the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale that would feature John Dryden, whose “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” (1687) closes with a Grand Chorus that moves the Spheres:

“So when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour, / The trumpet shall be heard on high, / The dead shall live, the living die, / And music shall untune the sky.”

Dryden and Dylan? A rhyming made in heaven? Stranger things have happened. The Dylan of last year’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways would relate to the idea of music powerful enough to raise the dead, bring down the living, and untune the sky. His mother of muses isn’t all sweetness and light. “Unleash your wrath!” he tells her. “Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path.”

Dryden knew about blocked paths. England’s first poet laureate “attained his celebrity at the cost of gossip and scandal and, in the last decade of his life (after the Glorious Revolution and his removal from the laureateship), of suspicion and scorn.” According to the introduction to the Penguin edition of Selected Poems, “He wrote about politics and religion, about trade and empire; he wrote for the theatre and for public occasion; he composed songs, fables, odes and panegyrics, brilliant satire and savage polemic; he translated from many languages and formulated an idiomatic, familiar and fluent prose style,” virtually inventing “the commercial literary career.” And having created a commercial career in music, Dylan might identify with Dryden’s “difficult public life, fashioned from his own unlikely personality — from his privacy, self-doubts, even verbal hesitation (qualities mocked by his enemies)” on his way to becoming “a public figure of literary distinction.”

While you may not immediately associate Dylan with “verbal hesitation” or “self-doubts,” the winner of the 2016 Nobel prize can definitely claim “literary distinction.” In “False Prophet,” he “opened his heart and the world came in,” and surely there’s room for Dryden’s rising, quelling music in there along with Walt Whitman’s “multitudes” and Stephen Crane’s Black Riders (“Black rider, black rider, you’ve been living too hard”). Like Dryden, Dylan’s “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods.” In “Key West,” the most haunting song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, he says “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there / Key West is on the horizon line.”

Last week my subject was Crane, who died at 28 in 1900, and now it’s Dryden, who died at 68 in 1700, both on the  horizon line of  new centuries.

Dryden in Princeton

Named in Dryden’s honor, his poetry having inspired Baroque composers like Purcell and Handel, Princeton’s Dryden Ensemble performs music of the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments. The group bases its philosophy on the line, “What passion cannot music raise and quell!” from “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.” Purcell composed the music for, among others, Dryden’s plays Amphitryon and King Arthur. In the opening stanza of his “Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell,” who died on November 21, 1695 (the eve of the St. Cecilia’s Day celebrations), Dryden crafted a repetitive turn comparable to a trumpet fanfare in verse, wherein the “lark and the linnet cease their musical spite …. And list’ning and silent, and silent and list’ning, and list’ning and silent obey.” I know nothing of the conventions of Baroque music, all I know is Dryden’s poem reads melodiously. Again, in the last of the three stanzas, where Purcell becomes Orpheus:

The heav’nly choir, who heard his notes from high,
Let down the scale of music from the sky;
They handed him along,
And all the way he taught, and all the way they sung.

Dryden at the Sale

Ask me about John Dryden a week ago, and I couldn’t have named a single work of his, except maybe Mac Flecknoe, the first piece in Dryden’s Miscellany Poems, one of the rarest items at Friday’s book sale, which runs through Sunday (for details, see page 15). Besides containing a variety of “New Translations of the Ancient Poets” along with “Several Original Poems by the Most Eminent Hands,” this is the fourth (1716) edition of a work originally published by Mr. Dryden himself and printed for Jacob Tonson “at Shakespeare’s Head over-against Katherine Street in the Strand,” the storied London thoroughfare close by the house William Blake died in and the alley where Bob Dylan was filmed singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Penguin’s Selected Poems includes Dryden’s salty caricature of Tonson, “with whom his relations were cool and often querulous,” which explains the reference to Jacob’s “leering looks,” “two left legs, … Judas-coloured hair” and “frowzy pores that taint the ambient air.”

Having Fun

The Dryden who bored me blind in a college Senior Survey of English Lit doesn’t jibe with the spirited figure described in T.S. Eliot’s 1921 essay alerting the 20th century to Dryden’s greatness. Taking a refreshingly informal approach, Eliot singles out Mac Flecknoe as “the most fun” with “the most sustained display of surprise after surprise of wit from line to line.” Instead of merely belittling his enemy, Dryden “makes his object great, in a way contrary to expectation; and the total effect is due to the transformation of the ridiculous into poetry.”

The 9/11 Sale

Twenty years ago the 2001 Friends of the Library Book Sale coincided with the week of the September 11 attack. It was also the last sale at the “old” library building before we moved to a temporary location in the Princeton Shopping Center. I say “we” because I was in charge of that year’s sale, except that in the days following the trauma of 9/11, “we” was what it was all about. Everyone in the Community Room was “we” during the sorting out and displaying and then buying and selling of a world of books while the real world was still shaking.

Setting up the signs for each table — Biography, History, Politics, Philosophy, Theology, Literature, Science, Poetry, Childrens/Young Adult, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Old and Unusual, with a special section for beloved, wounded New York City — I was more than ever before aware of the sale as a microcosm of civilization. The crowd that packed the Community Room during that unreal span of time seemed to be thinking the same thing whenever they looked up from the book-laden tables to the busy scene around them. Book sale browsers and buyers inevitably create the impression of  people in a state of obsessive attentiveness, focus taken to the max, but this time there was a life-goes-on intensity in the room. This was more than browsing for a bargain. This was “we,” all of us, dealing with the shock of the attack, whether or not we knew it or would admit it. Whatever that memorable sale signified, it was a huge success for the library. Sunday’s $2 a bag day had the desired result. People were sweeping the tables, buying the books almost before we could unload them on the tables after trucking them upstairs (the Community Room was on the second floor in the old building). Every single paperback, cookbook, children’s’ book, out of the thousands we put out — gone! After the cleanup I went over to the prayer vigil on Palmer Square. The weather was beautiful, just as it had been on that Tuesday morning five days before.

The Year of Wonders

The work that helped earn John Dryden the laureateship was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666, “An Historical Poem” dedicated to the “Metropolis of Great Britain, the Most Renowned and Late Flourishing City of London,” which Dryden celebrated for setting “a pattern to all others of true loyalty, invincible courage, and unshaken constancy. Other cities have been praised for the same virtues, but I am much deceived if any have so dearly purchased their reputation: their fame has been won them by cheaper trials than an expensive though necessary war, a consuming pestilence, and a more consuming fire. To submit yourselves with that humility to the judgements of heaven and at the same time to raise yourselves with that vigour above all human enemies, to be combated at once from above and from below, to be struck down and to triumph — I know not whether such trials have been ever paralleled in any nation….”

Now here we are, 355 years from 1666, 20 years and four presidents from September 11, 2001, and Dylan’s Mother of Muses sings on, “of honor and fame and of glory be,” “of the Heroes who stood alone …. Who struggled with pain so the world could go free …. Who did what they did and then went on their way….”


Thanks to Labyrinth Books, where I found Paul Auster’s new biography of Stephen Crane just in time for last week’s column, and, better still, John Dryden/Selected Poems, brilliantly arranged, explained, and edited by Steven N. Zwicker and David Bywaters.