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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:

Chronos.

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

The pond'rous Orb around.

All, all, of a piece throughout.

Then Comedy (or "Momus"), showing no mercy, lets the gods of war, beauty and the hunt have it:

Pointing

to Diana.

To Mars.

To Venus.

Thy Chase had a Beast in View;

Thy Wars brought nothing about;

Thy Lovers were all untrue.

Janus, the Roman god of doorways, transitions and January (his two faces look backward and forward), makes his contribution to the judgment of Time.

Janus.

Chro.

Cho. of all.

'Tis well an Old Age is out,

And time to begin a New.

All, all, of a piece throughout;

Thy Chase had a Beast in View;

Thy Wars brought nothing about;

Thy Lovers were all untrue.

'Tis well an Old Age is out,

And time to begin a New.

And then Dryden's masque ends with a "Dance of Huntsmen, Nymphs, Warriours, and Lovers."

Anyone eager to apply this little 17th-century scene to the wars and amours of the present, as chronicled in the newspaper stories of 2006, should reflect on the figure of Diana, whose "chase had a beast in view," which suggests that all human pursuits, compared to their first, beautiful, newborn hopes, may become somewhat beastly.

(John Dryden's "The Secular Masque" can be found

in collections of his work.)

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Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 through 2000.

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