First published in 1660 to commemorate the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, John Dryden’s poem Astræa Redux lavishes Charles II with no shortage of praise. He is likened to David and Jove, described as a paragon of virtue, and cast as the favorite son of divine will. All these traits are wonderfully elevated and beautifully rendered, yet Dryden’s poem keeps returning to a word which seems rather mundane for a panegyric: “own.” Time and again, the poem discusses what Charles II or some other figures own. More than any particular actions, Astræa Redux chooses to emphasize the state of possessing something. As a dry fact of statesmanship, this seems like a rather odd topic for a time so jubilant and high-minded.
Right away, an obvious rhetorical rationale presents itself: by repeatedly invoking Charles II’s ownership of England, the poem implicitly argues that his claim to rule the country is legitimate. This would not be an uncontroversial position; after all, hadn’t the people (or at least their ostensible representatives) supported the end of the monarchy during the English Civil War? In this view, one might view Astræa Redux as a well-timed piece of Restoration propaganda, drumming up public support for what was by then a fait accompli.
There may be some truth to this position; however, I’d like to argue for a slightly different reading. The insistent use of the word “own,” rather than merely reiterating Charles II’s claim to rule, serves to highlight the virtues of his prospective reign. In the past, less noble figures laid ownership claims, and the country suffered as a result. But now that the Restoration has placed him in the role of possessor, Charles II can begin his virtuous rule of England (and, as we shall see later, possibly other lands as well).
First, Astræa Redux illustrates the damage that non-royal ownership has wrought on England. The claims of the Parliamentarians have, in Dryden’s view, robbed future generations of a prosperous country: “We thought our sires, not with their own content, / Had ere we came to age our portion spent” (lines 27-28). The political leaders of the interregnum are short-sighted and self-centered, leaving little for their heirs to build upon.
But while criticizing the ownership style of the MPs, the poem does not let the people of England escape unscathed. Indeed, because of the incompetence of the elites, the commoners have been given possession of something potentially sinister:
The rabble now such freedom did enjoy
As winds at sea that use it to destroy;
Blind as the cyclops and as wild as he,
They owned a lawless savage liberty,
Like that our painted ancestors so prized,
Ere empire’s arts their breasts had civilized. (43-48)
Classism and problematic talk of savages aside, the poem casts the people’s possession of absolute liberty as a recipe for disaster, likening the result to sea storms and mythical beasts. A virtuous, noble person might be able to restrain himself while owning such freedom, but surely not “the rabble.” With such vicious groups staking ownership claims, it’s wonder, Dryden might think, that the British Isles had not sunk into the North Sea.
And thus (re)enters Charles II. Whereas when others are in possession society collapses, it comes alive when he is the owner. The island seems to literally rise to herald its king’s return, like a dog to its long-absent owner:
And welcome now, great monarch, to your own;
Behold th’ approaching cliffs of Albion;
It is no longer motion cheats your view;
As you meet it, the landscape approacheth you. (250-53)
There could be some hesitation in this greeting, however. The country might fear that the restored king is still bitter about the whole overthrowing-the-monarchy affair. So how can England welcome him back without restraint? Dryden suggests that Charles II’s ownership claims comes along with a set of reassuring virtues:
But you, whose goodness your descent doth show,
Your heav’nly parentage and your earthly too,
By that same mildness which your father’s crown
Before did ravish, shall secure your own. (256-59)
Rather than enacting iron-fisted revenge, as someone insecure in possession might do, the king will exercise patience and forgiveness. This, so the thinking goes, will solidify his ownership claim all the more.
All this is, admittedly, rather par for the course when it comes to praising a new monarch (however lovely “Behold th’ approaching cliffs of Albion” may sound): criticize the past authorities and glorifying the present one. However, this line of inquiry becomes a bit more interesting when one considers the other contexts in which “own” appears — on lands beyond England.
G.M. MacLean has proposed that Astræa Redux presents an argument for Charles II “to engage in foreign wars of imperial expansion, wars that Dryden represents as a necessary and inevitable condition of the king’s return to power” (p. 54). MacLean emphasizes the argument structure of the poem in support of this idea, but I see the repeated returns to ownership as another piece of evidence, one which MacLean only touches on briefly.
Following the English Civil War, Charles II spent several years in exile on the continent. According to Dryden’s poem, the future king made quite an impression with the local inhabitants:
For when his earthly valour heav’n had crossed
And all at Worc’ster but the honour lost,
Forced into exile from his rightful throne,
He made all countries where he came his own. (73-76)
Of course, this was not an instance of literal conquest; one might object that Dryden intends an alternative meaning of “his own,” as a term of affection: he endeared himself to his temporary home. Indeed, the interpretation is likely correct, but it leads directly to the imperialistic imperative:
Nor is he only by afflictions shown
To conquer others’ realms, but rule his own,
Recov’ring hardly what he lost before,
His right endears it much, his purchase more. (83-86)
The wealth Charles II supposedly accumulated during his exile not only proves his potential imperialistic acumen, it justifies his ownership claim over England. (In reality, as MacLean notes, “Charles had to borrow money and clothes to return” [p.61].) Why not, the poems suggests, extend that justification to ownership claims over foreign lands?
Indeed, in Dryden’s telling, the king’s reconquest of England has the blessing of the ultimate owner of English soil: God. Providence, it appears, in on his side:
Heav’n could not own a providence and take
The wealth three nations ventured at a stake.
The same indulgence Charles’s voyage blessed
Which in his right had miracles confessed. (238-241).
Now is the time, it would seem, for England to show the Spanish, French and Dutch what for. With God on his side and the winds at his back, it is imperative that the king extend his ownership claims beyond the cliffs of Albion.
The imperialistic sweep of Astræa Redux is, I think, what makes the poem so captivating and yet rather troubling. The grand ambition implicit in Dryden’s case is almost intoxicating: this king sounds incredible, so of course he should start thinking expansion. Yet, because this expansion is specifically and repeatedly linked to one man’s ownership claims, it becomes all the more clear how imperialistic power is so readily abused. What is to stop such expansion when the justification is so simple: “It is my own.”
Dryden, John. Astræa Redux. Selected Poems. Ed. Steven N. Zwicker and David Bywaters. New York: Penguin, 2001. 11-19. Print.
MacLean, G.M. “Poetry as History: The Argumentative Design of Dryden’s Astraea Redux.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 4.2 (1980): 54-64. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2008.
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