Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Alexander’s Feast – writing poetry while old

I had the occasion recently to read several people, presumably in their fifties or sixties, bemoaning their fate, especially that they would never achieve the poetic greatness they once aspired to. Perhaps I misunderstood them and they were writing hypothetically, but the complaints (if such they were) stuck.

John Dryden was born in 1631 and died in 1700. Here is his Alexander's Feast: or, The Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia's Day" written in 1697 when he was 67:

It is difficult for me to read Couplets. Enjambments ease this difficulty, but I have to work at it. I'm reminded of a recent article I read about dogs. Scientists have discovered that short-muzzled dogs have their brains in different positions than dogs with longer, traditional muzzles. They commented that all dogs live in a "world of smell" but they are almost certainly not living in the same world. I am definitely not living in the same world as Pope and Dryden. Even so, I work at it from time to time and seem to have come very close to liking this poem.

In an essay entitled "John Dryden: The Lyric Poet," Mark Van Doren quotes Dryden as writing, "'I am glad to hear from all hands,' he wrote to Tonson in December [1697], 'that my Ode is esteemed the best of all my poetry, by all the town: I thought so myself when I writ it; but being old I mistrusted my own judgment.'"

Van Doren then writes, "It is a question whether Absalom and Achitophel and the Oldham are not better poetry than Alexander's Feast, which perhaps is only immortal ragtime. . . few poems of equal length anywhere have been brought to a finish on so consistently proud a level and in such bounding spirits. . . The enormous vitality of this ode not only has insured its own long life; for a century it inspired ambitious imitators and nameless parodists. . . ."

Hmmm. Van Doren would have us believe Alexander's Feast is among the three best of best of Dryden's poems and that its excellence has insured its "long life." But notice the clause that qualifies this "long life": "for a century . . ." Is a century a long life for an excellent poem? I began this post intending to provide hope to the poets in their sixties who had not yet written their great poem. If Dryden could write a poem he and many of his contemporaries thought his best at age 67 surely there is hope for other poets in their sixties. However, if such an excellent poem as Alexander's Feast had a "long life" of only a century, then I might suggest to these mourning and disillusioned (if not suicidal) poets in their sixties, leave off trying to achieve something that has all these years escaped you and take up something soothing instead. Get a dog. These agreeable animals will treat you better than any critic and will add years to your lives. As to your poetry? Wait. In a hundred years it will all be over.


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