Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Traditional cartoons mark the turn of the year with symbolic figures, showing the old year with a long white beard, hunched and weary, and the new year as a happy toddler. John Dryden (1631-1700) goes further than that in the engaging chorus at the end of his "Secular Masque." In this masque (a courtly dramatic form of his time, somewhere between an opera and a pageant), Dryden sets up a cast of symbolic figures to express the folly and wrongdoing of an old year and the hopes of a new. He has the figures of Time and Comedy deride the recent doings of Mars in War, Venus in Love and Diana in the Chase.

The method of a masque is to entertain with spectacle, in which costumed performers sing, speak and dance as embodiments of allegorical figures such as Truth or Winter. The spirit of Dryden's chorus is a worldly, skeptical and candid look back at the preceding era in love, war and other pursuits. (Dryden apparently had in mind the turn not just of a year but of a century.) Time begins by remembering the old days:


The World was then so light,

I scarcely felt the Weight;

Joy rul'd the Day, and Love the Night,

But since the Queen of Pleasure left the Ground,

I faint, I lag,

And feebly drag

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