The Politics of the Panegyric in Selected Works of Dryden and Pope

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The words we use are a reflection of the zeitgeist of our times. One can’t talk of ‘Feminism’ today without being reminded of the ‘#HeForShe’ campaign and the ‘#metoo’ movement. Words, like their users are political and each word accrues a new charge from time to time. The Greek etymology of the word panegyric, as defined in the OED means, “fit for a public assembly or festival.” Today, panegyric is found synonymous to “encomium”, but in Dryden’s day, to say that they were synonymous or interchangeable would be oversimplifying a great tradition. In John Kersey’s seventeenth-century English Dictionary, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, a distinction between the two words were set; “encomium”, as “a Speech, or Song, in Commendation of a Person; Praise”, and “panegyrick”, being more detailed was: “a Speech deliver’d before a solemn and general Assembly of People, especially in Praise of a great Prince.” While encomium was a general term of “praise”, panegyrick/panegyric spoke of a specific kind of public occasion (a “general Assembly of People”), a specific mode (“a Speech”), and a specific subject of praise (“a great Prince”). Over the years, the definitions of the term encomium remained consistent in denotation and neutral in connotation while those that defined panegyric remained inconsistent and charged with emotion. As has always been the case, general praise as opposed to praise of/on a “great” person is oftentimes political and hence, subjective.

So through the years, this ‘emotion’ was manipulated by the poets and prose writers alike and the original, unstable term lost its earlier significance, acquiring a general meaning and a pejorative connotation that eventually made it unsuitable a designation for a serious poem. By the eighteenth-century, the original meaning all but disappeared. This is echoed by Fielding’s association of “panegyric” and “encomium” in an early passage of Tom Jones. When Dr. Blifil is attempting to deceive Squire Alworthy, Fielding tells us: “He then launched forth into a panegyric on Alworthy’s goodness; into the highest encomiums on his friendship… ” This equation between “panegyric” and “encomium”, implicit in the best prose of the eighteenth century, explicit in Fielding, extends to our own day. But Dryden’s and Pope’s treatment of the Panegyric as a thematic concept and genre cannot be equated to commonplace dull flattery. Neither poet’s treatment of the panegyric was a serious Renaissance appreciation or its comic inversion in the eighteenth century. Dryden and Pope, whose works this paper will focus on, understood the tradition of panegyric not only with the genre they most wanted to write, epic, but also with the genre they actually did write with most success, satire. To understand Dryden’s and Pope’s unique mix of panegyric, epic, and satire, this paper will consider the classical heritage of panegyric as an oration addressed to a monarch, or other figure of “conspicuous power”, on a public, ceremonial occasion. But careful study of their works show that its function went beyond mere celebration of its subject; elaborate praise was the subtly-erected framework for advice and even admonition offered to the monarch. This was the approach adopted by Dryden, more so than Pope. His responsibility, as poet, was to the nation as a whole; “panegyric” as including the people, [their] peace and well-being.

Despite living in different times, both Dryden’s and Pope’s literature were a mirror of life and society. One of the most striking social changes that took place between the age of Dryden and that of Pope was one in moral tone. The reaction from Puritan rigidity, which brought back from France Charles II and his satellites, engendered in the England of 1660 to 1688 a laxity of morals and levity of spirit which could not help influencing Dryden’s work. With the accession of William and Mary, the middle classes reasserted their influence, and once again Puritan ideals exercised their check upon the licentiousness of society. The coffeehouse had replaced the palace as the supreme court of criticism. The mode of the panegyric changed with the above-mentioned social changes, making Pope’s satires different from those of Dryden’s. For, had Dryden written in ridicule of Charles II as Pope felt free to write about his ‘Augustus,’ his reward would have been starvation; that Pope’s vaunted independence of spirit and castigation of the great, even including the Duchess of Marlborough and Walpole, may be opposed to Dryden’s servile flattery of those in power is, at least in part, due to the fact that the two men lived under different conditions of social, political, and economic life.

Dryden adopts the tradition of panegyric in order to perfect three of the most innovative poems of the seventeenth century; Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Hind and the Panther. In Mac Felcknoe, the subject of praise is satirized i.e. the panegyric is modeled to satirize. This mock-epic uses elevated themes for Shadwell, satirizing him for not possessing greatness, and also for aspiring towards such high standards. This lack of greatness is what Dryden uses to dismiss Shadwell’s claims to being a good writer. The mock heroic style serves to magnify all that Shadwell lacks, and at the same time infuses several themes in the poem. Upon close reading, one could surmise that Dryden’s use of the panegyric via the epic form heralded two basic functions: political education and political propaganda. As education, the epic poem forms a hero, and a prince, to whom Dryden ascribes certain specific virtues. And as political propaganda, the epic poem persuades the people to accept him. Of course, in Mac Flecknoe this is but the opposite. In Absalom and Achitophel, however, the poem is at once a piece of party-political propaganda (brought out to influence events in 1681) yet also a denunciation of party politics.

The central issue, from Dryden’s point of view, was the danger that renewed Civil War might overthrow the tenuous social order that had been established by the Restoration and leave the nation at the mercy of intolerant and power-hungry political factions. Dryden’s position is Tory conservative, demanding the retention of traditional monarchy while eschewing Shaftesbury’s desire for a ruler subject to the popular will. Dryden attempts to interpret events in the light of Hobbesian social contract theory; where people, growing weary of a state of nature where each person is an enemy to every other person had contracted to surrender the right of governing themselves to a king. In return, the king promised to secure peace at home and defense from enemies of the state. The contract was supposed to be irrevocable. It passed from king to king in succession and was reaffirmed in the coronation oath. In Dryden’s eyes, Shaftesbury was attempting to destroy the contract by investing more power in the people. In Absalom and Achitophel the theory of the contract is debated and the penalty of revoking it—no less than anarchy—is clearly stated (409-16; 759-80). The poem is both a satire against disvalue and a panegyric on value. Dryden’s use of the panegyric as political oratory voicing the convictions and aspirations of a nation is very much evident here. But as the seventeenth century comes to an end, the national orator is supplanted by the party polemicist. In place of traditional panegyric the eighteenth century offers a kind of public poetry that is factual and partisan. Dryden’s use of the ‘panegyric’ was to unite all (pan ) the people (gyris) behind an ideal monarch[footnoteRef:2]. The political poets who succeed Dryden have much more realistic and therefore much more limited ambitions.

By the time Alexander Pope comes into the picture, Hobbesian theory of nature/social contract was not in vogue. People began moving away from the pessimism of Hobbes and the religious orientation of poems like Paradise Lost toward the optimism of Shaftesbury and secular propositions of the likes of the Essay on Man. These things and more, like the increasing dislodgement of serious literature from a position near the value center of the culture, to a position in which it contended simply as a form of entertainment grew in prominence. It soon became what Johnson called “the Age of Authors.”[footnoteRef:3] One could say that the purpose of the panegyric was becoming more “for oneself” and hence, personal as the personal too is political. And this politicized persona was no more evident than in Pope’s works.

Where Pope scorns on all writers, motivated perhaps by purely personal reasons: desire for fame, obligation to friends, resentment of personal injury, or (less frequently) admiration of others, thereby betraying his own hurt and positioning himself, rather his eloquence over others as praise-worthy (self-referential panegyric), Dryden was impelled by a political crisis, playing ‘mouthpiece’ to the citizenry on a national level falling into the error of praising others upon the slightest provocation. His scorn of human foibles prevented a sympathetic treatment; and hence, the work drifts into the field of impersonal, moral satire: case in point, the Rape of the Lock. While the mock-heroic form was admirably suited to his purpose, an intangible difference between his use of it, as compared with Dryden’s remain. While Dryden laughs at (im)moral turpitude, Pope sneers at it. This can also be seen as an ironic and iconic manipulation of the panegyric into satire. Pope mocks the so-called ‘Royal Panegyrists’ whose untruthful panegyrics are often inadvertent satires of their kings. Evidently, Pope was noxious to the whole tradition of the panegyric dispensing them as “foolish rhyme”. Both were disturbers of peace in their own ways and both minced the “panegyrick” with satire to inform posterity, as well as to instruct those of the present age, who may be ignorant or misled; since facts, artfully interpreted, are the best applauses, or most lasting reproaches. Pope’s Windsor Forest is a key instance where he too wasn’t averse to the “panegyric”, producing panegyrical verse celebrating the powerful and the powers of the Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, who marked the end of the war with France through the Peace of Utrecht.

‘To put it in the crudest terms, those who supported the political establishment tend to write panegyrics, verse eulogies on affairs of state or public figures, while those who opposed it wrote poetic satires criticizing the regime and mocking its supporters.’ The panegyric was not only occasional but meant for wide public consumption, a form of advertising as it were, written to mark newsworthy events, to celebrate political and military heroes, or to praise or to mourn aristocrats and monarchs. As evident by both Dryden and Pope, a good deal of this verse is opportunistic as well as occasional, with two practical purposes: panegyrical, in an age when advancement depended often upon aristocratic and political patronage, written to curry favor with the great and the powerful; satirical, written to protest what poets saw as unjust or immoral and to attack the powerful and the corrupt (and thereby to please the powerful enemies of such targets and to earn patronage). Moving forward from Dryden to Pope, the dissolution of royally prescribed flattery giving way to a mock-flattery is evident as reflected in the zeitgeist of the times.


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