John Dryden wrote The Hind and the Panther (1687) in order to contribute to an ongoing dispute between Protestant and Catholic factions. While his exact date of conversion from devotion to the Church of England to Catholicism remains uncertain, it happened sometime during 1686, as in July of that year he was known to have attended mass. Many doubted his motivations, most believing he was moved by the practicality that had ruled his life, rather than by a passion for the Catholic faith.
When Charles II died in 1685, he was succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, duke of York, a figure celebrated by Dryden in his poetry. Detractors accused Dryden of converting in order to gain religious favor. Samuel Johnson would write later in Lives of the English Poets (1779) while considering Dryden’s conversion, “He that never fi nds his error till it hinders his progress towards wealth or honour, will not be thought to love Truth only for herself.” However, Dryden had questioned publicly in his Religio Laici; Or A Layman’s Faith (1682) the proper authority for faith and salvation. As the scholar Earl Miner notes, “Like many before him, he could say ‘my doubts are done’ only when he had trusted the guidance of his faith to a Church whose claim to authority was complete and whose government (like monarchy?) was continuous in legitimate succession.” Johnson was willing to believe Dryden an honest convert of conscience, as he continued, “Yet it may easily happen that information may come at a commodious time; and as truth and interest are not by any fatal necessity at variance, that one may by accident introduce the other.”
In the third portion of The Hind and the Panther Dryden supplies history for beast fables, in which animals assume characteristics of humans, noting examples from real life in which humans behaved like animals and concluding, “If men transact like brutes, ’tis equal then / For brutes to claim the privilege of men.” The pure white hind, or deer, represented Catholicism while the equally beautiful, but impurely spotted and black, panther represented the Church of England. Dryden’s employment of an animal tale to express the sober truths of faith provoked ridicule from the reading public. Yet in his traditional approach, Dryden fashioned his poem on various models that dealt with sacred zoography, a religious study of animals. He may also have been influenced by Wolfgang Franzius’s Historia Animalium Sacra (1612), a discussion of, according to Miner, “the moral, ecclesiastical, and typological signifi cances of quadrupeds and birds.” The Renaissance and Middle Ages had both utilized animals for religious allegory. While all of Dryden’s scenes of interaction between the animals are not absurd, those that are generally feature the panther. Readers had to suspend the normal rules governing existence to adopt the anthropomorphological approach. Indulging the poet by accepting that animals can engage in serious discussion, readers might still smile in the poem’s third part when the Catholic Hind informs the Anglican Panther that Catholic Poultry, even though involved in unapproved sexual behavior, still prove superior to Anglican Pigeons.
The lengthy poem is divided into three parts. “The First Part” runs to 572 lines, “The Second Part” to 722 lines, and “The Third Part” to 1,298 lines, with a format of rhyming couplets. The beginning lines introduce various animals and make clear their allegorical significance. That the poem focuses on religion and faith is made clear by 27 references to grace or variant terms, such as mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, where grace is superior to nature. Dryden describes “A milk white Hind, immortal and unchang’d,” adding she is “unspotted, innocent within” as contrast to the spotted panther. Because she knows “no sin,” she does not fear danger. He describes a history of her being hunted by “horns and hound” but offers a paradox in line 8, “And doom’d to death through fated not to die,” at which point the reader understands she is not a typical deer. Dryden will focus on other animals as well, supplying information that alerts readers to their allegorical significance, with several representing different religious organizations or affiliations:
‘The bloody Bear, and Independent beast,
Unlick’d to form, in groans her hate express’d.
Among the timorous kind the Quaking Hare
Profess’d neutrality but would not swear.
Next her the Buffoon Ape, as atheists use,
Mimic’d all sects and had his own to choose;
Still when the Lion look’d, his knees he bent
And pay’d at church a courtier’s compliment. (1.35–42)
Additional references include the “Baptist Bore” (43), on which Dryden spends much description. He later includes a wolf and a fox, each representing heresy present in the Anglican Church. The wolf believes God’s essence is man’s will, not his wisdom, and the fox denies supernaturalism, a central premise to true faith. These heresies corrupt what Dryden views as an otherwise true church. Lines 62–149, which center on the fox’s Socinianism, or denial of Christ’s supernatural divine state, are the best known of the poem. The “wolfi sh race” (160) refers to Presbyterians, such as Shaftsbury, described as “Never was so deform’d a beast of Grace. / His ragged tail betwixt his legs he wears” (162–163) and he also “pricks up his predestinating ears” (166), referring to predestination, a major tenet of Presbyterianism. Dryden makes the point that when men turn from the Catholic faith, they deny God’s greatest gifts, which served to distinguish man from animals as each was created:
And mercy mix’d with reason did impart,
One to his head, the other to his heart;
Reason to rule, but mercy to forgive;
The first is law, the last prerogative. (1.259–262)
While the lion, or the crown, holds the other animals at bay, the Panther, described from line 327, is something different. After the hind, she is “the noblest,” the “fairest creature of the spotted kind.” Dryden wants to differentiate clearly the unspotted, and therefore pure, Hind and the Panther, or Church of England. By the end of part 1 the Hind and the Panther begin a discussion.
In part 2 the two animals discuss Church authority and religious controversy. Of the three parts, the second contains the most theology. The controversy it examines includes the Anglicans’ reluctance to relate to the new king and to his Catholic subjects; church tradition and especially the Rule of Faith, the Catholic Church as the only true church, and the Catholic tradition of embracing all who desire to enter. Dryden pauses along the way to praise James’s tolerance, again comparing the monarch to a lion, who, “when his foe lies prostrate on the plain, / He sheaths his paws, uncurls his angry mane,” and remains “pleas’d” with “bloodless honours” (2.269–271). He continues,
So James, if great with less we may compare,
Arrests his rolling thunderbolts in air,
And grants ungrareful friends a lenghten’d space
T’implore the remnants of long suff’ring grace. (2.273–276)
Dryden alludes to James again toward the section’s conclusion, ending with the Hind and Panther still in conversation. For that reason, modern readers may find it uninteresting, but it contains excellent examples of Dryden’s artistic passion.
The poem’s third portion begins with the allusion to animal tales noted earlier and continues to focus on social and political influences on the religious climate during the second half of England’s 17th century. It includes some skillful logic of Dryden’s that through the Hind traps the Panther into admitting that the Catholic faith is the only true faith. The allegory continues through the use of birds, including martins, crows, and ravens, but most especially swallows. Dryden’s source is John Ogilby’s Aesop-style fable The Parliament of the Birds, in which the swallow is the true, or Catholic, Church. As Miner notes, Dryden’s argument proves complicated, as he counsels care of James, as the king has been advised rashly in the opinion of many Catholics. They hoped that James could deal fairly with the Anglicans. Dryden then caricatures the Anglicans, through the Panther character, as cruel, wishing death to the Catholics. However, the fact that the swallow survives a bitter winter in the Panther’s tale is an admission by him that the Catholic Church will survive. Still the Hind reacts vigorously to the Panther’s cruel suggestion of death to Catholics:
The patience of the Hind did almost fail,
For well she mark’d the malice of the tale,
Which ribald art their Church to Luther owes;
In malice it began, by malice grows;
He sow’d the Serpent’s teeth, an iron-harvest rose.
Dryden’s use of alliteration and repetition supports momentum, while his brilliant imagery of the serpent’s teeth as seeds birthing an iron-hard rose proves he deserves his reputation as his era’s finest poet.
The Hind and the Panther proves crucial to reader understanding of Dryden’s religious stance. Never a revolutionary, he always preached a middling philosophy in political dealings. While his dedication to the Catholic Church remains clear, so does his humanism in his desire that Anglicans should receive the respect English subjects deserve. The reign of the Catholic James II lasted a brief three years, after which Protestant rule returned to the throne through James’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, William. James was forced into Continental exile, and Dryden remained true to the Catholic faith, even though he risked persecution for so doing. Perhaps his dedication put to rest rumors that his conversion to Catholicism had been merely a move of expedience.
Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. Vol. 1. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958.
Miner, Earl, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 1985.