Dryden’s Hexastich by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

It is a remarkable fact, that the very finest epigram in the English language happens also to be the worst. Epigram I call it in the austere Greek sense; which thus far resembled our modern idea of an epigram, that something pointed and allied to wit was demanded in the management of the leading thought at its close, but otherwise nothing tending towards the comic or the ludicrous. The epigram I speak of is the well-known one of Dryden dedicated to the glorification of Milton. It is irreproachable as regards its severe brevity. Not one word is there that could be spared; nor could the wit of man have cast the movement of the thought into a better mould. There are three couplets. In the first couplet we are reminded of the fact that this earth had, in three different stages of its development, given birth to a trinity of transcendent poets; meaning narrative poets, or, even more narrowly, epic poets. The duty thrown upon the second couplet is to characterize these three poets, and to value them against each other, but in such terms as that, whilst nothing less than the very highest praise should be assigned to the two elder poets in this trinity–the Greek and the Roman– nevertheless, by some dexterous artifice, a higher praise than the highest should suddenly unmask itself, and drop, as it were, like a diadem from the clouds upon the brows of their English competitor. In the kind of expectation raised, and in the extreme difficulty of adequately meeting this expectation, there was pretty much the same challenge offered to Dryden as was offered, somewhere about the same time, to a British ambassador when dining with his political antagonists. One of these–the ambassador of France–had proposed to drink his master, Louis XIV., under the character of the sun, who dispensed life and light to the whole political system. To this there was no objection; and immediately, by way of intercepting any further draughts upon the rest of the solar system, the Dutch ambassador rose, and proposed the health of their high mightinesses the Seven United States, as the moon and six [1] planets, who gave light in the absence of the sun. The two foreign ambassadors, Monsieur and Mynheer, secretly enjoyed the mortification of their English brother, who seemed to be thus left in a state of bankruptcy, ‘no funds’ being available for retaliation, or so they fancied. But suddenly our British representative toasted his master as Joshua, the son of Nun, that made the sun and moon stand still. All had seemed lost for England, when in an instant of time both her antagonists were checkmated. Dryden assumed something of the same position. He gave away the supreme jewels in his exchequer; apparently nothing remained behind; all was exhausted. To Homer he gave A; to Virgil he gave B; and, behold! after these were given away, there remained nothing at all that would not have been a secondary praise. But, in a moment of time, by giving A and B to Milton, at one sling of his victorious arm he raised him above Homer by the whole extent of B, and above Virgil by the whole extent of A. This felicitous evasion of the embarrassment is accomplished in the second couplet; and, finally, the third couplet winds up with graceful effect, by making a resume, or recapitulation of the logic concerned in the distribution of prizes just announced. Nature, he says, had it not in her power to provide a third prize separate from the first and second; her resource was, to join the first and second in combination: ‘To make a third, she joined the former two.’

Such is the abstract of this famous epigram; and, judged simply by the outline and tendency of the thought, it merits all the vast popularity which it has earned. But in the meantime, it is radically vicious as regards the filling in of this outline; for the particular quality in which Homer is accredited with the pre-eminence, viz., loftiness of thought, happens to be a mere variety of expression for that quality, viz. majesty, in which the pre-eminence is awarded to Virgil. Homer excels Virgil in the very point in which lies Virgil’s superiority to Homer; and that synthesis, by means of which a great triumph is reserved to Milton, becomes obviously impossible, when it is perceived that the supposed analytic elements of this synthesis are blank reiterations of each other.

Exceedingly striking it is, that a thought should have prospered for one hundred and seventy years, which, on the slightest steadiness of examination, turns out to be no thought at all, but mere blank vacuity. There is, however, this justification of the case, that the mould, the set of channels, into which the metal of the thought is meant to run, really has the felicity which it appears to have: the form is perfect; and it is merely in the matter, in the accidental filling up of the mould, that a fault has been committed. Had the Virgilian point of excellence been loveliness instead of majesty, or any word whatever suggesting the common antithesis of sublimity and beauty; or had it been power on the one side, matched against grace on the other, the true lurking tendency of the thought would have been developed, and the sub-conscious purpose of the epigram would have fulfilled itself to the letter.

N.B.–It is not meant that loftiness of thought and majesty are expressions so entirely interchangeable, as that no shades of difference could be suggested; it is enough that these ‘shades’ are not substantial enough, or broad enough, to support the weight of opposition which the epigram assigns to them. Grace and elegance, for instance, are far from being in all relations synonymous; but they are so to the full extent of any purposes concerned in this epigram. Nevertheless, it is probable enough that Dryden had moving in his thoughts a relation of the word majesty, which, if developed, would have done justice to his meaning. It was, perhaps, the decorum and sustained dignity of the composition–the workmanship apart from the native grandeur of the materials–the majestic style of the artistic treatment as distinguished from the original creative power–which Dryden, the translator of the Roman poet, familiar therefore with his weakness and with his strength, meant in this place to predicate as characteristically observable in Virgil.

FOOTNOTE

[1] ‘Six planets;’–No more had then been discovered.

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