February 20, 2018
Rhyme War: Shadwell vs. Dryden
On this day in 1692, British poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell died. Shadwell wrote eighteen plays and became poet laureate but, as the Columbia History of English Literature puts it, "he enjoyed a popularity in his own day which is not easily explicable in ours," as literary skill "was not among the gifts of his mind." This is utter kindness compared to the attacks suffered by Shadwell from contemporary John Dryden. For it is as loser in their satire war that Shadwell is now remembered, his three written about Dryden being no match for Dryden's three about him. In Mac Flecknoe, or a Satire on the True Blue Protestant Poet, T.S., Dryden has Flecknoe, the King of Dullness, give his crown to Shadwell, the son with the most suitable genes and talent:
...And pond'ring which of all his sons was fit
The Shadwell-Dryden dispute could be highbrow, such as their debate on whether Ben Jonson was a better playwright than Shakespeare, but much of it was sniping along Whig vrs. Tory and Protestant vrs. Catholic lines. Judging by talent rather than partisanship, modern literary historians label the second half of the 17th century the 'Age of Dryden' and barely give Shadwell an anthology page. During his day Dryden ruled supreme too, at least at his own coffee-house. This was the famous "Will's," where the Restoration wits would gather to practice, and where, says Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets, Dryden's armed chair "which in the winter had a settled and prescriptive place by the fire, was in the summer placed in the balcony." Here a young Alexander Pope came to train, a wide-eyed Samuel Pepys came to listen, and many with hopes for their manuscript came to get Dryden's endorsement, at the risk of getting his barb. The game could be played with gloves off: one gentleman who did not like Dryden's attitude had him beaten up while walking home from Will's. It could also be played for keeps: when James II abdicated in 1688, and it was once again open season on Catholics, Dryden had his poet laureateship -- he was Britain's first -- taken from him, and given to Thomas Shadwell. Thus the butt of Dryden's enthronement joke in Mac Flecknoe now got from the real King the poetic crown, the pension, and a "butt of Canary wine." Shadwell was a heavy drinker, and opium taker; most accounts of his death in 1692 attribute it to an opium overdose.
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense....