A heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform.”1 While the solemnity of this pronouncement is certainly more characteristic of Rapin than of Dryden, the reverence for epic poetry is quite typical of the author of An Essay of Heroic Plays. As every reader of Dryden knows, the influence of Renaissance epic theory is all but omnipresent in his critical essays and prefaces.
It is equally well known that the epic manner which Dryden often adopted in his verse owes much in a general way to the idea of the heroic poem. But fewer readers, I believe, realize the extent to which Dryden’s epic style is directly indebted to his “master,” Virgil. When Dryden tried most consciously to follow the theories of heroic poetry, almost invariably he heightened his style by means of echoes and imitations of the “best poet.”Order now
In such passages we find the heroic convention revived and reenforced by an uncommon familiarity with Virgil and the Virgilian style. But the connection between Virgil and the Renaissance idea of the epic was not made by Dryden; in fact, from early in the sixteenth century Virgil played only too prominent a part in the voluminous speculations on the “truly heroic poem.” Naturally we must not hope to draw too fine a line between the influence of Virgil and that of Homer in shaping these tenuous theories, since with very few excep- tions the critics cite precedents in both poets.
Besides, there are some writers, such as Hobbes and Madame Dacier, who give Homer, and not Virgil, the first place in their observations. But in spite of references to Homer and Aristotle the theorists commonly betray an over-fondness for Virgil and “the pure idea of a Virgilian poem.” The Maronolatry of sixteenth-century Italian critics such as Vida and Scaliger needs no emphasizing, while among French critics of both the sixteenth and seven- teenth centuries the bias in favor of the Virgilian epic is more than evident. Le Bossu, the most famous of the French writers on the epic, does not praise Virgil at the expense of Homer; but the theories he sets forth find much more support in the /Erteid than in the Iliad or the Odyssey. In general, the Renaissance critics and poets alike were in their approach to the epic much nearer to Virgil than Homer.
They were able with some reason to cite Virgil’s example in justifying some of their most important doctrines, such as the insistence on a conscious moral or patriotic purpose in the epic, the demand that the hero be an exemplar of virtue, and the emphasis on the allegorical interpretation of the action. If we wish to see quite clearly the influence of the Virgilian tradition in such theorizing, wfe need only turn to Dryden himself. As will be remembered, Dryden long cherished the notion of writing a poem accord- ing to the heroic formula. In his remarks on this project he showed that he was as loyal to Virgil as many of the Continental theorists:
… I could not have wished a nobler occasion to do honour … to my king, ray country, and my friends; most of our ancient nobility being concerned in the action. ..
after Virgil and Spenser, I would have taken occasion to represent my living friends and patrons of the noblest families, and also shadowed the events of fu- ture ages, in the succession of our imperial line . . . The project shows clearly the influence of Virgil in the consciousness of purpose with which the poem is planned and more particularly in the patriotic nature of that purpose. For a seventeenth-century poet, as for Virgil, the heroic fable was not an end in itself, but a vehicle employed for a given object. Dryden further showed his kinship with Virgil in pre- ferring the Augustan age to the era of the Homeric bards: “The times of Virgil please me better, because he had an Augustus for his patron; and, to draw the allegory nearer you , I am sure I shall not want a Maecenas with him.” Despite the obvious effort to turn a compliment, Dryden was expressing an instinctive choice: he was well adapted to an age of patronage, and like Virgil was not averse to sug- gestions from above.
Dryden never wrote his Virgilian epic, but he was much influenced by the ideal and found other channels which offered him at least a partial fulfillment of it. At the beginning of his career, he found such an outlet in the rhymed heroic plays with w’hich he achieved such great success between 1664 and 1676. Like all of Dry den’s works in which he adopted the epic tone, these plays were indebted in a general way to the Renaissance heroic tradition. But they owed their epic quality more directly to a dramatic theory which had been gradually formed through the combined efforts of critics and playwrights. The importance of this application of epic theory to the drama has only recently been recognized by Mr. B. J. Pendlebury:
Since then the most striking characteristics of the heroic play, the epic con- struction, the unity of tone, and the predominance of the hero, cannot be re- garded as being inherited from Beaumont and Fletcher, it is obvious that their origin must be sought in that critical theory of heroic poetry which, though it had long been connected with dramatic theory in Italy and France, and had been adopted to some extent by Davenant, Dryden may be said to have been the first Englishman to apply consciously and thoroughly in the actual composi- tion of plays.
It was Davenant who introduced Dryden to the epic theories of Tasso; it was Davenant, too, who suggested to Dryden the notion of a genre which should combine both epic and drama. In the Preface to Gondibcrl10 Davenant had declared that he had constructed his poem on the outlines of a play; while Hobbes, in his Answer, went so far as to declare that “the heroique poem narrative is called an epique poem. The heroic poem dramatique is tragedy.” That Dryden’s conception of the heroic play was derived largely from Davenant and Hobbes is only too evident from the Essay of Heroic Plays. “For heroic Plays,” he wrote, “ . . . the first light we had of them, on the English theatre, was from the late Sir William D’Avenant.” Observing further that “what was wanting to the perfection” of Davenant’s Siege of Rhodes “ . . . was design, and variety of characters,” he went on after Hobbes to add that “ … an heroic play ought to be an imitation, in little, of an heroic poem.” Proceeding on this principle, he criticized Davenant for failing to attain the grandeur of style and spaciousness of design proper to the epic: “ … in the scant- ing of his images and design, he complied not enough with the greatness and majesty of an heroic poem.”
Such criticisms may imply a theory of drama and dramatic style which strikes us as absurd; but even a bad theory may be very influential, as the heroic plays go to prove. Seeking to give to these dramas “the maj- esty of an heroic poem,” Dryden borrowed heavily from the one epic style with which he was very familiar. The more epic the scene, the more certain he was to adopt a phrase from the ALneid or to imitate some Virgilian expression. As he gradually became convinced that his purpose in these plays was to dramatize heroic poetry, he made an increasing effort to give his style the epic tone. Accordingly we meet with many more rem- iniscences of Virgil in the two later heroic plays, The Conquest of Granada
and Aureng-Zebe than in the two earlier ones, The Indian Emperor and Tyrannic Love. Also, we find that Dryden used his Virgilian echoes for a more definite end in the later than in the earlier plays. In other words, he became more conscious of his epic manner when he undertook The Con- quest of Granada, the very play with which he published his theory of epic-drama, An Essay of Heroic Plays.
Most of the Virgilian echoes in The Indian Emperor are of the decorative type so common throughout Dryden’s poetry. Two fairly character- istic examples are the reference to the race of Nisus and Euryalus, and the echo of Virgil’s sequiturque sequentem. The first occurs in a passage of courtly love; the second, in a song. Two others, “drowned in his sleep” and “when all are buried in their sleep,” are simply reminiscences of a Virgilian metaphor which was a favorite of Dryden’s. But in three other passages the imitations play a rôle which is more than purely decorative:
Behind the covert, where this temple stands
Thick as the shades, there issue swarming bands
Of ambushed men……………………………..
As when, upon the sands, the traveller
Sees the high sea come rolling from afar,10
As callow birds—
Whose mother’s killed in seeking of the prey,
Cry in their nest, and think her long away;
And at each leaf that stirs, each blast of wind,
Gape for the food, which they must never find:
So cry the people in their misery.
While none of these examples have exact parallels in Virgil, all three sug- gest his manner; and the third, amusingly enough, Dryden has marked by a hemistich, which at this period he considered eminently Virgilian. All three occur in situations of martial excitement; the approach of Cortez’s troops, the pursuit of the defeated Montezuma, and the panic in the besieged city. In each case the simile is “turned on” to give the passage something like epic grandeur. Considering the Virgilian and Homeric tradition, this is good epic practice. For example, in the accounts of the fourth, fifth, and twelfth books of the Iliad} similes appear in much greater numbers than elsewhere. Virgil also makes freer use of figures (often imitated from Homer) in the martial scenes of the ninth and eleventh books of the Æneid.