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A NOTE UPON DRYDEN'S HEROIC STANZAS
ON THE DEATH OF CROMWELL.
BY PROFESSOR EDWARD S. PARSONS,
In the fifteenth of Dryden's Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Cromwell are to be found the following words, which form one line and part of a second:
"His palms, though under weights they did not stand,
Not all the editors of Dryden have ventured any comment upon this passage. Those that have noticed it have confined themselves to the interpretation of the metaphor. For example, Gilfillan, in his edition of Dryden's works [Edinburgh, 1855], says: "Palms were thought to grow best under pressure." Sir Walter Scott's note is a little more elaborate: "It was anciently a popular notion that the palm tree throve best when pressed down by weights. An old scoliast defines it as arbor nobilissima illa quae nulli cedit ponderi, sed contra assurgit et reluctatar. Fabri Thesaurus ad verbum palma." Saintsbury, in his definitive edition of Dryden [Edinburgh, 1884], in which he re-edits Scott's edition, adds to this note the following, in brackets: "Christie quotes Aulus Gellius and Cowley in support. Non opus." Non opus." The reference of Saintsbury is to the note by Christie in the Globe edition of Dryden's poems [London, 1875], where there is still greater elaboration. "Aulus Gellius, quoting Aristotle and Plutarch, says that, if you place great weights on the trunk of the palm tree, and so press and load it that the weight is more than can be borne, the palm does not yield nor does it bend
within, but it rises back against the weight and forces itself upwards and bends itself back' [Noct. Att. III., 6]. And this is why the palm is the emblem of victory. The palm referred to is the date palm and the palm of Scrip
'Well did he know how palms by oppression speed,
The burden lifts them higher.'
Cowley, Davideis, book i."
The matter of these comments is interesting enough, but it seems to have escaped the commentators that, as the passage stands, it is irrelevant. It would fit the case if the passage read:
His palms, though under weights they did stand,
But Dryden negatives the metaphor. The comments fit only the affirmation of it.
The commentators have also failed to see that unless there is an ulterior reference in the passage, something other than a mere metaphor, it is nonsense. It would be sensible to say that Cromwell thrived in spite of opposition, as the palm does under weights, but it is not sensible to say that Cromwell, although he had no opposition, still succeeded, just as the palm thrives even if it is not dragged down by weights. It is natural to suppose that under proper conditions a palm tree would thrive unweighted. Without some ulterior reference, therefore, the negation of the metaphor is absolutely pointless, a flat truism.
A probable explanation of the seeming irrationality of the passage is that it contains an allusion to the famous frontispiece of the Eikon Basilike, published February 9, 1648-9, a little less than nine years before the Heroic Stanzas. The Eikon was, as its sub-title indicated, "The Pourtraicture of his Sacred Majestie [Charles I.] in his
Solitudes and Sufferings," and at the time of its publication it was supposed to be from the king's own hand. The task of replying to the book was entrusted by Cromwell's Council of State to their most vigorous pamphleteer, John Milton. He was chosen, and his Eikonoklastes was written, because the Eikon was proving to be such a dangerous weapon against the cause of the Commonwealth. Masson [Life of Milton, IV., 36] thus describes the impression the latter made: "O what a reception it had! Copies of it ran about instantaneously, and were read with sobs and tears. It was in vain that Parliament, March 16th, gave orders for seizing the book. It was reprinted at once in various forms to supply the constant demand-which was not satisfied, it is said, with less than fifty editions within a single year; it became a very Bible in English Royalist households."
The seductiveness of the book was concentrated in the frontispiece, which represented allegorically, in a singularly persuasive form, the substance of the book itself. The engraving represents Charles I. in his royal robes, kneeling, the Bible open before him, his foot on the world, -spurning the earthly crown, grasping the crown of thorns, looking upward toward the heavenly crown, soon to be his. From a cloud in the background a beam of light shines out and rests on the king's head; a rock stands immovable in the midst of a stormy sea; and two palms are disclosed, carrying heavy weights, with the motto: Crescit sub Pondere Virtus.
Cromwell was the great antagonist of King Charles, the Bolingbroke to his Richard. In seeking antitheses with which to set forth most strikingly the characteristics and career of the great warrior-statesman, Dryden could turn to no better source for material than to the memories which centered in the ill-fated king. Popular interest in
the great apology of his life had not died out, and the frontispiece of the Eikon was probably universally remembered. It was natural then that, when Dryden was composing his verses in praise of the arch-enemy of Charles, he should call to mind the famous picture, and, recollecting the detail of the palms, he should write antithetically of his hero:
"His palms, though under weights they did not stand,
This interpretation has the two-fold merit of clearing up an otherwise inexplicable difficulty in Dryden's poem, and of bringing to light an interesting point of connection between that poem and the life of the time in which it was composed.1
'Reprinted from Modern Language Notes, February, 1904.