Ownership in Dryden’s “Astræa Redux”

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).

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