Friday, August 31, 2007

Moving the sleeping images of things towards the light

My Lord,

This worthless present was designed you long before it was a play;
when it was only a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one
another in the dark; when the fancy was yet in its first work,
moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be
distinguished, and then either chosen or rejected by the judgment; it
was yours, my lord, before I could call it mine. And, I confess, in
that first tumult of my thoughts, there appeared a disorderly kind of
beauty in some of them, which gave me hope, something, worthy my lord
of Orrery, might be drawn from them: But I was then in that eagerness
of imagination, which, by overpleasing fanciful men, flatters them
into the danger of writing; so that, when I had moulded it into that
shape it now bears, I looked with such disgust upon it, that the
censures of our severest critics are charitable to what I thought
(and still think) of it myself: It is so far from me to believe this
perfect, that I am apt to conclude our best plays are scarcely so; for
the stage being the representation of the world, and the actions in
it, how can it be imagined, that the picture of human life can be more
exact than life itself is? He may be allowed sometimes to err, who
undertakes to move so many characters and humours, as are requisite in
a play, in those narrow channels which are proper to each of them; to
conduct his imaginary persons through so many various intrigues and
chances, as the labouring audience shall think them lost under every
billow; and then, at length, to work them so naturally out of their
distresses, that, when the whole plot is laid open, the spectators may
rest satisfied, that every cause was powerful enough to produce the
effect it had; and that the whole chain of them was with such due
order linked together, that the first accident would naturally beget
the second, till they all rendered the conclusion necessary.

These difficulties, my lord, may reasonably excuse the errors of
my undertaking; but for this confidence of my dedication, I have an
argument, which is too advantageous for me not to publish it to the
world. It is the kindness your lordship has continually shown to all
my writings. You have been pleased, my lord, they should sometimes
cross the Irish seas, to kiss your hands; which passage (contrary
to the experience of others) I have found the least dangerous in the
world. Your favour has shone upon me at a remote distance, without the
least knowledge of my person; and (like the influence of the heavenly
bodies) you have done good, without knowing to whom you did it. It is
this virtue in your lordship, which emboldens me to this attempt; for,
did I not consider you as my patron, I have little reason to desire
you for my judge; and should appear with as much awe before you in the
reading, as I had when the full theatre sat upon the action. For, who
could so severely judge of faults as he, who has given testimony he
commits none? Your excellent poems have afforded that knowledge of it
to the world, that your enemies are ready to upbraid you with it, as
a crime for a man of business to write so well. Neither durst I have
justified your lordship in it, if examples of it had not been in the
world before you; if Xenophon had not written a romance, and a certain
Roman, called Augustus Caesar, a tragedy, and epigrams. But their
writing was the entertainment of their pleasure; yours is only a
diversion of your pain. The muses have seldom employed your thoughts,
but when some violent fit of the gout has snatched you from affairs
of state; and, like the priestess of Apollo, you never come to deliver
his oracles, but unwillingly, and in torment. So that we are obliged
to your lordship's misery for our delight: You treat us with the cruel
pleasure of a Turkish triumph, where those, who cut and wound their
bodies, sing songs of victory as they pass, and divert others with
their own sufferings. Other men endure their diseases; your lordship
only can enjoy them. Plotting and writing in this kind are certainly
more troublesome employments than many which signify more, and are of
greater moment in the world: The fancy, memory, and judgment, are then
extended (like so many limbs) upon the rack; all of them reaching
with their utmost stress at nature; a thing so almost infinite and
boundless, as can never fully be comprehended, but where the images of
all things are always present. Yet I wonder not your lordship succeeds
so well in this attempt; the knowledge of men is your daily practice
in the world; to work and bend their stubborn minds, which go not all
after the same grain, but each of them so particular a way, that
the same common humours, in several persons, must be wrought upon by
several means. Thus, my lord, your sickness is but the imitation of
your health; the poet but subordinate to the statesman in you; you
still govern men with the same address, and manage business with the
same prudence; allowing it here (as in the world) the due increase and
growth, till it comes to the just height; and then turning it when it
is fully ripe, and nature calls out, as it were, to be delivered.
With this only advantage of ease to you in your poetry, that you
have fortune here at your command; with which wisdom does often
unsuccessfully struggle in the world. Here is no chance, which you
have not foreseen; all your heroes are more than your subjects, they
are your creatures; and though they seem to move freely in all the
sallies of their passions, yet you make destinies for them, which
they cannot shun. They are moved (if I may dare to say so) like the
rational creatures of the Almighty Poet, who walk at liberty, in their
own opinion, because their fetters are invisible; when, indeed, the
prison of their will is the more sure for being large; and, instead of
an absolute power over their actions, they have only a wretched desire
of doing that, which they cannot chuse but do.

John Dryden

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