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John Dryden by John Michael Wright, 1668. Stephencdickson, CC BY-SA

What a 17th-century poet can teach us about marginalised Muslims today

At a time when a candidate for the presidency of the United States feels it’s OK to declare that if elected he would stop the entrance of all Muslims to the United States, the perception of the danger of entire religious communities has come to the fore.

Many literary greats have been religious outsiders, such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope. So from reading them we can relate to our times – and in my recent work on Dryden I have found this to be particularly the case.

John Dryden was appointed poet laureate by Charles II in 1668 and historiographer royal two years later, making him responsible for the propagandistic literature of the Tory Stuart state. So he was an important figure at the centre of court. But things swiftly went awry. Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism some time in 1685, just before Charles II’s brother James succeeded him as king. Due to his Catholicism, James’s succession to the throne had almost been blocked by the opposition of the “low church” Whig party. Dryden was a sincere convert to Catholicism, but was riding the winds of change.

William III of England, Jan Wyck, 1688.

Another change was to see him lose his position at the heart of the Restoration court. In 1688, at the invitation of the Whigs, William, Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary overthrew James in an almost bloodless coup known as the “Glorious Revolution”. Dryden could have come to some sort of accommodation with William III and his government but he instead stood by his religion and was deprived of his royal posts. From this point on Dryden was an outsider to the establishment, living simply on what he could earn from his pen.

Dryden’s letters

I have recently been editing Dryden’s correspondence. Sir Walter Scott, who did the same in 1808, wrote of them:

The Letters of Dryden, so far as hitherto given to the public, are, with a few exceptions, singularly uninteresting.

This is surely not the case. Dryden’s letters are small in number, but they represent the poet in his private dress. Here we find, obliquely referred to, the troubles of a Catholic and those of “our perswasion” under the Stuart dispensation. This is the correspondence of an insider who becomes an outsider, part of a marginalised religious community.

Dryden’s letters have interestingly always been edited during a war – first by Edmund Malone and Scott during the Napoleonic Wars, then by Charles E Ward during World War II, and now by me during the so-called “war on terror”. Perhaps this is when outsider status speaks to us.

What is notable about his letters is what they do not say. References to religion are few and only made to close family members. Dryden’s three sons – Charles, John Junior, and Henry-Erasmus – had gone to Rome. Two of them were to become priests. It is hard to state in this enlightened time how very radical this was in the late 17th century. Catholicism was the religion of the avowed enemy of the English state. Britain was still deep in the fallout of the supposed terrorist plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother James in the Rye House Plot (1683), which had put radical Catholicism in the spotlight. Suspicion was everywhere.

The echoes today

In some sense in going to Rome, the centre of Catholicism, Dryden’s sons had done the equivalent of radicalised young Muslim men and women going to fight in Raqqa today. (That said, there is no suggestion that Dryden’s sons, having done something perceived of as so radical, were radicals themselves.)

And at a time when Muslims are coming under scrutiny for the minority of marginal, radicalised terrorists which have come from or have joined their numbers, we can be very aware of what it means to have a whole religion tarnished with the brush of the enemy (in the 17th-century context the supposed plotters). This feeling was most exactly expressed by an anonymous bystander at the recent stabbing of a man in London’s Leytonstone tube station by a supporter of Syria who said “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”. #YouAintNoMuslimBruv later trended on Twitter.

Dryden’s correspondence represents something in its silences which may be felt by marginalised Muslims today.

Dryden offers a model of engagement with the state in the late 17th century – one of quiescence – and an understanding of the problems that beset members of a religion that some have chosen to associate with radical and oppositionary forces to the state of which one is a citizen. This is not to say that his example is one which ought to be followed. Today it is recognised that, unlike Catholicism of the 17th century, Islam is a religion of peace and not a threat in itself to the state in which we live. The nervousness which Dryden and his fellow Catholics felt under the Williamite dispensation and which can be felt in what he does not say need not be felt by our fellow Muslim citizens. Yet it is.

Despite losing his official posts due to his religion and politics, Dryden flourished in his remaining years, producing some of the finest poetry and translations in the English language. This is what he is remembered for, but it is cautionary to note that what he did not say, even in private, can speak to society today.

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