Patrick Vaz is a Bay Area blogger who attends ABS concerts in Berkeley and writes about poetry and performances at The Reverberate Hills. With ABS’s performances of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast coming up February 26-29, I asked for Patrick’s perspective on the poem and the poet that inspired Handel to such great heights. Our conversation follows:
Have you heard Handel’s setting of the Dryden poem, Alexander’s Feast; or the Power of Music?
Yes! In my 20s I was sort of obsessed with Handel’s oratorios. When CDs were introduced I started collecting them and I still have my early John Eliot Gardiner recording of Alexander’s Feast. I lived in Boston then, which, like the Bay Area, is a center for early and baroque music. Performers were starting to use original instruments and historically informed performance practices at that time and that was sort of controversial but fascinating. There was a lot of ferment and excitement in a field (baroque oratorio) that had seemed stuffy and distant to many audiences. I used to go regularly to hear the Handel & Haydn Society and Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque) and other groups and Alexander’s Feast would show up fairly often, probably because it’s a terrific piece but also because it gives such great opportunities not only to soloists and chorus but for the orchestra as well, particularly given the practice started by Handel himself of inserting a purely instrumental work in order to make a full evening’s entertainment [ABS will perform the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major]. The piece is about the power of music, so it figures that all the performers get several generous chances to shine. I think Handel’s oratorios gain immediacy for American audiences because they’re in English and we can understand them directly, while so many other great musical works of the period are in Italian or German.
Is Dryden read much nowadays? It seems he and his generation, which might be expanded to include Alexander Pope, are only read by English majors as course requirements.
That’s an interesting question – I remember reading Pope when I was an English major, and I still love him – I think The Rape of the Lock is one of the funniest things ever written, and it’s one of the poems, like Eliot’s Waste Land, that I sometimes just pick up and read at random. That may seem like an odd duo, but in a way both works deal to some extent with how older forms of art shape our experience (in Pope’s case, the classical epic, and in Eliot’s, the whole range of literary works that the moderns felt pressing down on them) and with how we try to negotiate our troublesome, often trivial lives despite the awareness, brought to us by art, of a greater and grander potential world. I think these are concerns that are very relevant to Dryden, as well as to audiences who listen to older music.
But back to Dryden – when you asked me this question, my first thought was that I hadn’t read much of him; then I realized that I had read a little brick of a Modern Library edition of his poetry and prose as well as his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. So I’ve actually read quite a lot of him, as well as hearing performances of Alexander’s Feast and Purcell’s King Arthur, which also has a text by Dryden. But I’m not sure how many people read him for pleasure, or even how much he’s still studied in undergraduate literature courses. He is often joined with Pope, but in fact Pope was not yet a teenager when Dryden died, and though there are similarities Pope feels like a later generation to me – his vocabulary and phrasing, though clearly of the eighteenth century, have a kind of modern sense about them, there’s a certain clarity for contemporary readers, whereas while reading Dryden I tend to feel his roots in the more elaborate style and vocabulary of earlier poets of the Metaphysical school (like John Donne) or the Jacobean and Elizabethan eras. He was, in his own time, considered the major living English writer. His time was the seventeenth century, though, not the eighteenth. He was already an adult and a writer during Cromwell’s Protectorate, and though when we think of Restoration literature we tend to think of bawdy works featuring dainty fops and witty ladies, Dryden was actually a massive presence on the Restoration’s cultural scene.
Both Pope and Dryden suffer to some extent because we look at them from a post-Romantic perspective; the Victorian Matthew Arnold famously said that Pope and Dryden “are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.” We post-Romantics tend to think of poetry as inherently personal and subjective, a bit isolated (necessarily so) from the social and political world around it. In the world of Dryden and Pope, poetry also expressed the poet’s personal views, but often on public matters: poetry was moral and political (and so, inevitably, satirical) and connected to the world around it in a way that it isn’t for us. Poetry is always moral and political – if a contemporary of ours writes a poem about looking at a flower, we might think it’s just pretty, but in fact it’s also making a point about the importance of patient observation, and of the natural world, and of our relation to it, in ways that are an implicit rebuke to our consumer-driven, technology-obsessed, high-speed capitalist society. But it’s an implicit rebuke, not the principal subject of the poem. If you’re reading Wordsworth and he’s filled with joy at stumbling on a field of daffodils, it gives an added depth if you know he’s writing while the Industrial Revolution with its new factories and trains is ripping up the English countryside, but basically to understand the poem you don’t really need to know that, you just need to have seen a daffodil.
But Dryden, in works like Annus Mirabilis, MacFlecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Hind and the Panther, is dealing directly with the religious controversies, literary battles, and political maneuverings of his time. Their immediacy in his own day means they need copious footnotes in ours, and even then we may feel that the place in the royal succession of the Duke of Monmouth or the quality of Thomas Shadwell’s verse are subjects in which we don’t really have a stake. It’s the quality of his writing, its vividness and concision and color, that keep us interested in these works; as W. H. Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and the innocent, / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique, // Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives. . . “. But that’s also the poem in which he says that “poetry makes nothing happen” – for Dryden and his contemporaries, poetry did make things happen, and that’s the divide we have to cross.
This post-Romantic view can require adjustments for music lovers, too: if you grew up listening to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, it can take some adjustment to hear the passion and emotion in works of the Baroque, with their very different scale and vocabulary – I know people who have had this problem even with some of Mozart’s operas. And of course modern instruments are more powerful, and the orchestras are larger, and those things affect how we hear earlier works as well.
Where/how does Alexander’s Feast fit in John Dryden’s canon of published works?
It was a fairly late work. It feels like a culmination of several strands of Dryden’s lifework: his years in the theater (once they were re-opened after the restoration of the monarchy), his interest in the classical world (in addition to his famous translation of the Aeneid, he also translated Plutarch’s Lives as well as works by Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and other classical authors), and his involvement in the political world of his time. It involves a feast for the great conqueror and king Alexander the Great, but the musician and poet Timotheus (who actually existed) pretty much leads him by the nose, changing the king’s mood by changing the song. When Dryden’s text mentions the master, he is referring to Timotheus, who starts off by calling Alexander illegitimate (though in the most flattering way possible: Zeus is said to have fathered him on his mother Olympia), then sings in praise of wine, then makes Alexander weep for the Persian king he just defeated, then he sings in praise of love, then of war and revenge: with each change, Alexander’s mood changes too. At the end St Cecilia, patron of music, makes a fairly arbitrary appearance – you can see her presence as part of the long tradition of trying to reconcile classical with Christian achievements. But she does not displace Timotheus; they “divide the crown” because both control the power of music. Ultimately Alexander’s Feast is about that power, and the power of art, so it feels like sort of a valedictory statement by Dryden.
When reading Alexander’s Feast, are you particularly struck by its wit, drama, or evocative quality?
Yes – Dryden’s years in the theater really come through here. His plays are not often revived these days – I’ve been attending theater for decades and have never seen one, outside of musical works like King Arthur – and for us something like All for Love seems like a tame version of Shakespeare’s wilder, richer Antony and Cleopatra. But he knew how to structure a work and how to hold an audience’s attention. There’s sly wit in the way Timotheus observes Alexander’s reactions and manipulates him emotionally – this powerful conqueror is so easily led by sounds and airs. So there’s also a bit of sadness there, a sense of the fragility and folly of the world; the lines “Fighting still, and still destroying; / If the world be worth thy winning, / Think, O think it worth enjoying. . . “ offer some really good advice.
The poem has some great lines (I particularly like “And the King seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy: / Thais led the way, / to light him to his prey / and like another Helen fir’d another Troy”) and lots of musical allusions in both its structure and prose. Do you “hear the music” in Dryden’s poem?
Flambeau is a pretty irresistible word! Those are great lines. Since I first knew the lyrics through Handel’s work, many of the memorable passages are made so in part by Handel’s wonderful music. The rollicking chorus to Bacchus, god of wine, have words that are suited to a simple soldier’s drinking song, but what makes them really indelible is the music. Alexander’s Feast is part of a tradition of works praising St Cecilia and the power of music (Dryden wrote another, more conventional one, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, which Handel also set to music) and it’s designed to provide a wide-ranging variety of opportunities to the composer and the musicians. Alexander’s Feast uses the ingenious dramatic device of a victory feast as a way of showing who the real victor is: music.
From February 26-29, ABS will perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in the Bay Area and in Davis. For more information, check the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900. You can follow Patrick Vaz’s writings on The Reverberate Hills; or Apotheosis of the Narwhal.