Annus Mirabilis John Dryden published his first major nondramatic poem, and his last major poem utilizing the heroic quatrain format. In addition to its subtitle, The Year of Wonders, 1666, the work contained an explanation beneath the title identifying those wonders: "AN HISTORICAL POEM: CONTAINING THE PROGRESS AND VARIOUS SUCCESSES OF OUR NAVAL WAR WITH HOLLAND, UNDER THE CONDUCT OF HIS HIGHNESS PRINCE RUPERT, AND HIS GRACE THE DUKE OF ALBEMARLE, AND DESCRIBING THE FIRE OF LONDON." Dryden labeled it a historical poem, explaining in his introductory material that written wit "is that which is well defin'd, the happy result of thought or product of that imagination." He continues, "But to proceed from wit in the general notion of it to the proper wit of an heroic or historical poem, I judge it chiefly to consist in the delightful imaging of persons, actions, passions, or things."
Critics have judged Dryden's critical material almost as valuable as the verses that follow, as he continues explaining his approach by comparing it to that of the classical writers Lucan, Virgil, and Ovid. He notes that description must be "dress'd in such colours of speech that it sets before your eyes the absent object as perfectly and more delightfully than nature." He next describes what he calls the three elements representing the "happiness of the poet's imagination." The first happiness is "invention, or finding of the thought," while the second "is fancy, or the variation, driving or moulding of that thought, as the judgment represents it proper to the subject." In his opinion, Ovid most famously accomplishes those happinesses. Virgil best accomplishes the third happiness, which is "elocution, or the art of clothing and adorning that thought so found and varied, in apt, significant, and sounding words." All three remain crucial to proper execution, as "quickness in the imagination" remains responsible for "invention, the fertility in the fancy, and the accuracy in the expression."
Dryden well exhibits all of these ideals in his 304 four-line stanzas. He explains that he selects the quatrain "in alternate rhyme, because I have ever judg'd them more noble and of greater dignity, both for the sound and number, than any other verse." Naturally in telling of miracles, a poet would select a format that imbued a dignified sense of pride. Acknowledging the simplicity of the couplet for easy rhyme, he explains that, by contrast, in the quatrain a poet is challenged to succeed. Poets correctly using this form "must needs acknowledge that the last line of the stanza is to be consider'd in the composition of the first."
As Earl Miner discusses, Dryden's purpose was to encourage readers that the source of England's woes lay in the past, in the country's enemies, and even in human nature. This proved important when speaking to a certain faction who blamed the war and the fire on divine retribution. They conceived history as a combination of God's acts and those of nature, and many believed a natural disaster, such as the fire that devastated London, was the result of God's displeasure with the restoration of the king to the throne. Portents also proved important, and Dryden combines these ideas in Stanza 16 to suggest that God approved of the English action against the Dutch. He used the figurative language of metaphor to compare two comets sighted in November and December of 1664 to candles, sent by angels to light the English way:
To see this fleet upon the oceans move Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies, And Heav'n, as if there wanted lights above, For tapers made two glaring comets rise.
Dryden alludes again in stanza 22 to the fact that God took the side of the English in battle, a fact admitted by the Dutch when they lose their commander, Sir John Lawson:
Their chief blown up, in air, not waves expir'd, To which his pride presum'd to give the law; The Dutch confess'd Heav'n present and retir'd, And all was Britain the wide ocean saw.
In stanza 192, however, Dryden seems to remind his readers that all sides in war may look to God as their guide, as he imagines the thoughts of the Dutch:
Their batter'd admiral too soon withdrew, unthank'd by ours for his unfinish'd fight, But he the minds of his Dutch Masters knew, Who call'd that Providence which we call'd flight.
As Dryden focused on four days of the second war with the Dutch, he praised Prince Rupert and James, duke of York, later to become King James II, for their part in settling it in England's favor. This aspect of the poem has caused critics also to categorize it as panegyric, a poem of praise, as Dryden writes in his introductory material of his two subjects, "it is no wonder if they inspir'd me with thoughts above my ordinary level." He devotes much praise to the duke of Albemarle as well, shaping powerful dialogue for the English:
Then, to the rest, "Rejoyce," said he, "today In you the fortune of Great Britain lies; Among so brave a people you are they Whom Heav'n has chose to fight for such a prize.
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