Collection Highlight: Dryden, Annus Mirabilis


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John Dryden (1631-1700)
Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666. An Historical Poem: Containing the Progress and various Successes of our Naval War with Holland, under the Conduct of His Highness Prince Rupert, and his Grace the Duke of Albemarl. And describing the Fire of London.
 London: Henry Herringman, 1667.

title page

In 1660, John Dryden began lodging in London with Sir Robert Howard (1626-1698), son of the earl of Berkshire. They soon became friends and started a fruitful literary collaboration whereby Dryden began contributing laudatory verses to Howard's poems. Moreover, they wrote together The Indian Queen (1665), which was first performed at the Theatre Royal in January 1664. On 1 December 1663, Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard (c. 1638-1714), Sir Robert Howard's sister. Shortly after the representation of the Indian Emperour (1667) at the Theatre Royal in the Spring of 1665, the theatres were closed due to the severity of the plague. Dryden then retired to the country to stay at his father-in-law's estate at Charlton in Wiltshire, where he wrote Annus Mirabilis (1667), An essay of Dramatick Poetry (1668), and Secret Love or the Maiden Queen (1668). 

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The dedication to the City of London is followed by a twelve-page letter called "An Account of the Ensuing Poem, in a Letter to the Honourable, Sir Robert Howard". Apart from being a formal dedication to his brother-in-law, who was then a stockholder in the Bridges Street Theatre, this piece also serves as an opportunity to apologize for past allegiances: " The former part of this Poem, relating to the War, is but a due expiation for my not serving my King and Country in it". Likely, after reading this encomium of Charles II's reign, the readers might have wondered about Dryden's enthusiastic praise of Cromwell! In this letter, we also learn that Howard corrected the poem and helped to see it through the press. Nevertheless, in the note "To the Readers" preceding the errata, Dryden admits that many errors were not detected by the printer.

Notwithstanding the diligence which has been used in my absence, some faults have escap'd the Press: and I have so many of my own to answer for, that I am not willing to be char'd with those of the Printer. I have onely noted the grossest of them, not such as by false stops have confounded the sense, but such as by mistaken words have corrupted it (a4r).

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Annus Mirabilis. The Year of Wonders, 1666 was conceived as a royalist panegyric designed to reunite the Crown and the City in a common visionary future. To be more specific, it is a long poem on the subject of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Great Fire that destroyed a large part of London in that same year. One of the aims of the piece is to promote the idea of a "benevolent" English expansion, in contrast with the economic monopoly derived from Dutch trade policies (Brown, 2004: 63-4). As a result of this economic strategy, argues Dryden, the wealth of the world was exclusively diverted to the Dutch:

For them alone the Heav'ns had kindly heat,
In Eastern Quarries ripening precious Dew:
For them the Idumaean Balm did sweat,
And in hot Ceilon Spicy Forrests grew.

The Sun but seem'd the Lab'rer of their Year;
Each wexing Moon suppli'd her watry store,
To swell those Tides, which from the Line did bear
Their brim-full Vessels to the Belg'an shore.

Then, Dryden enthusiastically anticipates a new British imperialism that, strenghtened by new geographical discoveries and empirical science, will be beneficial to other nations:

But what so long in vain, and yet unknown,
By poor man-kinds benighted wit is fought,
Shall in this Age to Britain first be shown,
And hence be to admiring Nations taught.

The Ebbs of Tydes, and their mysterious flow,
We, as Arts Elements shall understand:
And as by Line upon the Ocean go,
Whose paths shall be familiar as the Land.

Instructed ships shall fail to quick Commerce;
By which remotest Regions are alli'd:
Which makes one City of the Universe,
Where some may gain, and all may be suppli'd.

Then, we upon our Globes last verge shall go,
And view the Ocean leaning on the sky:
From thence our rolling Neighbours we shall know
And on the Lunar world securely pry.

Dryden clearly echoes the advances of the new science sponsored by the Royal Society—of which he became a fellow in 1662—particularly the studies on astronomy, chronometry, and navigation that made possible the exact calculation of latitude. Incidentally, one may also note that before Dryden composed this work there had been an iconographical tradition designed to establish an intimate connection between the limitless potential of human knowledge and the expansion of an empire. See for instance the rich imagery in the engraved title page of the 1627 edition of Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum.

In the concluding stanzas of Annus Mirabilis we learn that the capital of this new British empire will be London, a city rising from the ashes of the Great Fire. However, what Dryden omits in this poem is to mention the great sense of loss and desolation this catastrophe might have caused on those who, like Dryden himself, lived in London during those critical years. As Harold Love explains, the scope of the destruction was too overwhelming to be neglected!

During the later 1660s and early 1670s Dryden's experience of his immediate urban environment must have been similar to that of an inhabitant of Dresden or Hiroshima returning to the obliterated site in 1945: a huge area of built environment had disappeared for ever, along with the personal, cultural, and institutional associations aroused by its sights, sounds, and smells. Buildings and streetcapes had been tellers of stories, all of them now lost (Love, 2004: 114-5).

As with other works by Dryden, Samuel Pepys' diary is always an excellent source to appreciate a contemporary reader's reaction to the latest output of our author. Regarding Annus Mirabilis he wrote on 2 February 1667:

I am very pleased this night with reading a poem I brought home with me last night from Westminster hall, of Driden's upon the present war—a very good poem (Lathan & Matthews, vol. 8, 40).

There are three issues of the first edition of Annus Mirabilis, of which our copy is the third (Macdonald, 1939: 9a iii). In the third issue, two signatures were cancelled—technically known as cancellanda, to be replaced by new ones. In the original first issue, on signature C1v , stanza 67, line 3, reads as follows: "Berkeley alone, not making equal way," (Macdonald, 1939: 9a i). In the new leaf, or cancellans, this verse is changed to "Berkeley alone who neerest Danger lay,". As originally phrased, this line could have been seen as a criticism of Sir William Berkeley (1639-1666), whose performance at the battle of Lowestoft on 3 June 1665 was called into question—apparently, he withdrew after the death of his brother. And, again in the first issue, on signature C6r, stanza 105 reads as follows (Macdonald, 1939: 9a i):

For now brave Rupert's Navy did appear
Whose waving streamers from afar he knows:
As in his fate something divine there were,
Who dead and buried the third day arose.

As in the second issue (Macdonald, 1939: 9a ii; Pforzheimer, 1940: 316), the stanza is considerably altered in the third issue::

For now brave Rupert from afar appears,
Whose waving Streamers the glad General knows:
With full spread Sails his eager Navy steers,
And every Ship in Swift proportion grows.

Being a reference to the Resurrection, the verse "Who dead and buried the third day arose" might have looked blasphemous!

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Selected Bibliography

Brown, Laura. "Dryden and the Imperial Imagination." In The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden. Ed. Steven N. Zwicker. 59-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Jackson A. William and Emma Va Unger. The Carl H. Pforzheimer Library, English Literature, 1475-1700. 3 vols. New York: Privately Printed, 1940.

Love, Harold. "Dryden's London." In The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden. Ed. Steven N. Zwicker. 113-30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Macdonald, Hugh. John Dryden; A Bibliography of Early Editions and the Drydeniana. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Ed. Robert Lathan and William Matthews. 11 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970-83.

Pablo Alvarez