If you were to come up to me and ask, without warning, who wrote “A Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” my first instinct would be to say, “John Dryden.”
Okay, no, my first instinct would be to step in front of my children, look for the camera crew, and put my thumb on the 911 button on my phone just in case, because it isn’t normal to approach strangers to hit them up for the names of dead poets.
But supposing I knew you, or you’d overheard me rambling about 17th Century poetry at Wal-Mart or something,** or you led in by asking me if I was the one doing those fabulous Poetry Wednesdays on that marvelous Earful of Something blog,* I’d mostly likely say John Dryden.***
And I’d be wrong.
I maintain that the reason I’d be wrong is that Christopher Marlowe, who actually wrote the thing, and Shakespeare were contemporaries, and Shakespeare wrote “Troilus and Cressida,” and then sixty or seventy years later, John Dryden rewrote “Troilus and Cressida” so it made more sense, at least to him, and somehow made Cressida more faithful, but sluttier—there’s no denying the man’s talent.
But really, if I were to be honest, it’s Sir Walter Raleigh’s fault.
Because he wrote a reply to Marlowe’s Shepherd from the young lady’s point of view that basically, and beautifully, says, “Yeah, that’s very pretty and all, but I know how you shepherds operate and living on love and roses is an idiot’s game.”
It’s so well-written that I tend to think of the two poems as a single poem—and that’s why I associate Dryden with it, or them, because a significant percentage of Dryden’s poetry about love and devotion can be summed up in four words: “That was last week.”
Why should a foolish marriage vow,
Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now,
When passion is decayed?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
Till our love was loved out in us both;
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
’Twas pleasure first made it an oath.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
And further love in store,
What wrong has he, whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
’Tis a madness that he should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain, is to give ourselves pain,
When neither can hinder the other.
See? So not my fault.
But does this really reflect Dryden’s attitude?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the assumption that a man who was crowned Poet Laureate in 1668—and who had such an influence on English Literature that some call the Restoration period the Age of Dryden—was making a scathingly sarcastic point about the lamentable state of fidelity in his time.
Or several of them, because while open marriages were probably open secrets in the 1600s,^ at least for a certain tax bracket, Dryden’s choice phrasing doesn’t seem to make him a proponent of free love:
Fair Iris I Love
Fair Iris I love and hourly I die,
But not for a lip nor a languishing eye:
She’s fickle and false, and there I agree;
For I am as false and as fickle as she:
We neither believe what either can say;
And, neither believing, we neither betray.
‘Tis civil to swear and say things, of course;
We mean not the taking for better or worse.
When present we love, when absent agree;
I think not of Iris, nor Iris of me:
The legend of love no couple can find
So easy to part, or so equally join’d.
Or of adultery for that matter:
You Charm’d Me Not
You charm’d me not with that fair face
Though it was all divine:
To be another’s is the grace,
That makes me wish you mine.
The Gods and Fortune take their part
Who like young monarchs fight;
And boldly dare invade that heart
Which is another’s right.
First mad with hope we undertake
To pull up every bar;
But once possess’d, we faintly make
A dull defensive war.
Now every friend is turn’d a foe
In hope to get our store:
And passion makes us cowards grow,
Which made us brave before.
In my opinion, this kind of clever, reverse moral outrage beats the outright condemnation hands—and other appendages—down. It isn’t boring, it isn’t cloying, and Dryden assumes we’re all intelligent enough to figure out the point all by ourselves.
Personally, I like that in a poem. And in a poet.
I’m sure I’ll still forget that Dryden had nothing to do with those simpering shepherds and sensible sweethearts—but it’s amazing how often people don’t ask me about it.
If anyone does, I’ll be ready with my phone—one thumb hovering over 911, and the other scrolling through to find this post . . .
*And there goes my thumb on that panic button again, because taking the time to track bloggers down face-to-face to ask them questions that Google would answer in less than two seconds is a bit . . . much.
**Happens a lot less than you might think.
***Except maybe not, because I’m prepared now.
^Remember children, there is nothing you can try that hasn’t been tried before, except perhaps for the first few years after the invention of latex.