But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)
John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.
Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.
Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.
It is in the sixth part of the Miscellany Poems that the ballad A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour appeared. A commentary on the actual content of the ballad has been undertaken for TEAMs by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, rendering a further discussion unnecessary here. It is rather the significance of the ballad appearing in the sixth volume that I want to briefly discuss.
Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:
They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.
Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:
There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.
Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.
Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:
This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.
My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.
This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.
Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.
As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.
Stephen N. Zwicker (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).