Saturday, June 20, 2009

John Dryden--All For Love (or, The World Well Lost) (1678)

This is the last of the Cleopatra plays. As I had read this one not too many years earlier I just skimmed over it, and did not take a lot of notes. The first time I had read it, I had liked it quite a bit, thought it reminiscent of Shakespeare, on whose own Cleopatra play it was modeled, perhaps even a sparer, cleaner version of it, or, at least, was my impression. Looking over it again just after having read the Shakespeare though, as well as the Daniel and the Shaw, I did not like it quite as much. For one thing his Antony struck me as perhaps overly romantic ("One look of hers should thaw me into tears,/And I should melt, till I were lost again...If I should hear she took another love,/The news would break my heart--now I must go;/For every time I have returned, I feel/My soul more tender..."). Shakespeare's Antony, it goes without saying, is much manlier than this. For that matter, his Lepidus is manlier than this too.

The poetry of the speeches I have marked in several places as "so-so" ("And while she speaks, night steals upon the day/Unmarked of those that hear: Then she's so charming/Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth...), "humorous" ("Even I, who hate her/With a malignant joy behold such beauty/And, while I curse, desire it") and "kind of silly" ("And then he grew familiar with her hand/Squeezed it, and worried it with ravenous kisses") .

There is some bawdiness thrown in for the Restoration crowd ("Your Cleopatra/Dolabella's Cleopatra; every man's Cleopatra...You know she's not much used to lonely nights...ANTONY: Though heaven and earth should witness it/I'll not believe her tainted. VENTIDIUS: I'll bring you then, a witness/From hell, to prove her so...")

Octavia (Antony's wife)'s pain gets more play in this version of the story than it usually does, though there still isn't a lot of sympathy for her.

"Sure that face/Was meant for honesty; but Heaven mismatched it/And furnished treason out with nature's pomp/To make its work more easy." This makes little sense, on the part of Heaven.

Antony does show stirrings of being a genuine man later on though, when he declares "I do not know how long I can be tame" and "my justice and revenge/Will cry so loud within me, that my pity/Will not be heard for either."

Overall not as impressive as I remembered; characters are not grand or even particularly interesting. Mirrors the age I suppose. Much too soppy-romantic. Images, poetic tension better elsewhere.

Of all the figures in English literary history who have been the dominant force in their own epoch, as Dryden was in the 1670s and 80s, he is really the only one whose works don't arouse much excitement in anybody nowadays. Pope doesn't seem to be read all that much, but most of his work is at least in print, while of the twenty or so plays Dryden wrote it is difficult to find more than 2 or 3 in a common edition (Pope is also still broadly considered to be a very good poet, I think). I am also not aware of any of these plays being revived theatrically, if ever. Dryden does not, compared to the other authors of this class, including his own rough contemporary Milton, seem to have either the same quality of ideas, or the same control over such ideas and other material he does have. He was a very shaky literary dictator, often in a defensive mode in his public political and philosophical disputes, and was even suffered to be beaten up in the street by thugs on account of a book review, all of which it is hard to imagine happening, or being allowed to happen to, the likes of Milton or Samuel Johnson or Dickens.

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