Analysis of John Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis

With Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666  John Dryden published his first major nondramatic poem, and his last major poem utilizing the heroic quatrain format. In addition to its subtitle, The Year of Wonders, 1666, the work contained an explanation beneath the title identifying those wonders: “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 ALBEMARLE, AND DESCRIBING THE FIRE OF LONDON.” Dryden labeled it a historical poem, explaining in his introductory material that written wit “is that which is well defin’d, the happy result of thought or product of that imagination.” He continues, “But to proceed from wit in the general notion of it to the proper wit of an heroic or historical poem, I judge it chiefly to consist in the delightful imaging of persons, actions, passions, or things.”


Critics have judged Dryden’s critical material almost as valuable as the verses that follow, as he continues explaining his approach by comparing it to that of the classical writers Lucan, VIRGIL, and Ovid. He notes that description must be “dress’d in such colours of speech that it sets before your eyes the absent object as perfectly and more delightfully than nature.” He next describes what he calls the three elements representing the “happiness of the poet’s imagination.” The fi rst happiness is “invention, or fi nding of the thought,” while the second “is fancy, or the variation, driving or moulding of that thought, as the judgment represents it proper to the subject.” In his opinion, Ovid most famously accomplishes those happinesses. Virgil best accomplishes the third happiness, which is “elocution, or the art of clothing and adorning that thought so found and varied, in apt, signifi cant, and sounding words.” All three remain crucial to proper execution, as “quickness in the imagination” remains responsible for “invention, the fertility in the fancy, and the accuracy in the expression.”

Dryden well exhibits all of these ideals in his 304 four-line stanzas. He explains that he selects the quatrain “in alternate rhyme, because I have ever judg’d them more noble and of greater dignity, both for the sound and number, than any other verse.” Naturally in telling of miracles, a poet would select a format that imbued a dignified sense of pride. Acknowledging the simplicity of the couplet for easy rhyme, he explains that, by contrast, in the quatrain a poet is challenged to succeed. Poets correctly using this form “must needs acknowledge that the last line of the stanza is to be consider’d in the composition of the first.”

As Earl Miner discusses, Dryden’s purpose was to encourage readers that the source of England’s woes lay in the past, in the country’s enemies, and even in human nature. This proved important when speaking to a certain faction who blamed the war and the fi re on divine retribution. They conceived history as a combination of God’s acts and those of nature, and many believed a natural disaster, such as the fi re that devastated London, was the result of God’s displeasure with the restoration of the king to the throne. Portents also proved important, and Dryden combines these ideas in Stanza 16 to suggest that God approved of the English action against the Dutch. He used the figurative language of metaphor to compare two comets sighted in November and December of 1664 to candles, sent by angels to light the English way:

To see this fleet upon the oceans move
Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies,
And Heav’n, as if there wanted lights above,
For tapers made two glaring comets rise.

Dryden alludes again in stanza 22 to the fact that God took the side of the English in battle, a fact admitted by the Dutch when they lose their commander, Sir John Lawson:

Their chief blown up, in air, not waves expir’d,
To which his pride presum’d to give the law;
The Dutch confess’d Heav’n present and retir’d,
And all was Britain the wide ocean saw.

In stanza 192, however, Dryden seems to remind his readers that all sides in war may look to God as their guide, as he imagines the thoughts of the Dutch:

Their batter’d admiral too soon withdrew,
Unthank’d by ours for his unfinish’d fight,
But he the minds of his Dutch Masters knew,
Who call’d that Providence which we call’d flight.

As Dryden focused on four days of the second war with the Dutch, he praised Prince Rupert and James, duke of York, later to become King James II, for their part in settling it in England’s favor. This aspect of the poem has caused critics also to categorize it as panegyric, a poem of praise, as Dryden writes in his introductory material of his two subjects, “it is no wonder if they inspir’d me with thoughts above my ordinary level.” He devotes much praise to the duke of Albemarle as well, shaping powerful dialogue for the English:

Then, to the rest, “Rejoyce,” said he, “today
In you the fortune of Great Britain lies;
Among so brave a people you are they
Whom Heav’n has chose to fi ght for such a prize.

If number English courages could quell,
We should at first have shunn’d not met our foes,
Whose numerous sails the fearful only tell:
Courage from hearts and not from numbers grows.”

Dryden also examined the part of art and science in improving humans’ lot in life. The poem’s opening line seeks to credit art for Holland’s strength: “In thriving arts long time had Holland grown, / Crouching at home, and cruel when abroad.” He also inserted a section subtitled “Digression Concerning Shipping and Navigation” in which he began stanza 155, “By viewing Nature, Nature’s handmaid Art, / Makes mighty things from small beginnings grow.” Dryden next inserts an “Apostrophe to the Royal Society,” the group formed under King Charles II, of which Dryden was a member, to investigate the many new scientific developments. He urges his audience to recognize the importance of study, writing in stanza 166,

O truly royal! Who behold the law
And rule of beings in your Maker’s mind
And thence, like limbecs, rich ideas draw
To fit the levell’d use of humankind.

Just before stanza 209 Dryden inserts the subtitle “Transitum to the Fire of London.” He reminds his readers of the pride the English felt after the defeat of the Dutch and the English sailors’ looting of Holland’s fl eet, then suggests in stanza 210, “We urge an unseen fate to lay us low / And feed their envious eyes with English loss.” Describing the death and devastation brought on by the fi re, he focuses on the actions of King Charles and his brother, James, who received much credit for saving London. Of the king he writes in stanza 241,

He wept the fl ames of what he lov’d so well
And what so well had merited his love.
For never prince in grace did more excel,
Or royal city more in duty strove.

Then Dryden makes the point in line 966 that, unlike the people who could indulge in a numb terror, the king must act: “(Subjects may grieve, but monarchs must redress).” Charles ordered that several buildings be exploded with gunpowder in order to form a breech to stop the flames. Dryden describes the results, using personification in stanza 245:

The powder blows up all before the fire;
Th’ amazed flames stand gather’d on a heap,
And from the precipice’s brink retire,
Afraid to venture on so large a leap.

His plan worked, and some of London was saved, although the fl ames continued to wreak havoc, described with vivid imagery and the use of alliteration in stanza 249: “No help avails: for, Hydra-like, the fire / Lifts up his hundred heads to aim his way.” By night, when Charles is exhausted, he calls on James for help in stanza 253:

The days were all in this lost labour spent,
And when the weary King gave place to night,
His beams he to his royal brother lent
And so shone still in his reflective light.

Dryden conducts a bit of wordplay with the term light. Humans generally depended upon fl ame, in the controlled form of candles and lanterns to light their way. But in this instance, the ruler provides the metaphoric light to brighten a symbolic, as well as literal, dark hour in which London is tried by disaster. As a lesser body like the Moon refl ects the Sun’s light, James, a crucial person but not yet a king himself, refl ects his brother’s light to great advantage for them both.

As the fire at last burns out, Dryden suggests in stanza 293 that, as when fi re is applied to ore to remove its impurities, London will be golden in its reincarnation:

Methinks already, from this chemic flame,
I see a city of more precious mold:
Rich as the town which gives the Indies name,
With silver pav’d and all divine with gold.

The poem concludes with an emphasis on London’s future as a great trade seaport, interacting with the countries once its enemies. Mainly through Dryden’s energy, the poem concludes on an optimistic note, despite the desolation it has described.

Miner, Earl, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 1985.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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