Literary daybook, Nov. 19

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published November 20, 2002 12:00AM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On Nov. 19, 1996, Dr. Kathryn Railly gives a lecture on apocalyptic visions. James Cole kidnaps her.
-- "Twelve Monkeys" (1995)
by Terry Gilliam, director

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1692, British poet and playwright Thomas Shadwell died. Shadwell wrote 18 plays and became poet laureate but, as the Columbia History of English Literature puts it, "he enjoyed a popularity in his own day which is not easily explicable in ours," as literary skill "was not among the gifts of his mind." This is utter kindness compared to the attacks suffered by Shadwell in his own day from John Dryden. For it is as loser in the satire wars of 1682 that Shadwell is now remembered, his three written that year about Dryden being no match for Dryden's three about him. In "Mac Flecknoe," Dryden has Flecknoe, the King of Dullness, give his crown to Shadwell, the son with both genes and talent:

"... And pond'ring which of all his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense ..."


The Shadwell-Dryden dispute could be highbrow, such as their debate on whether Ben Jonson was a better playwright than Shakespeare, but much of it was sniping along Whig vs. Tory and Protestant vs. Catholic lines. Judging by talent rather than partisanship, modern literary historians label the second half of the 17th century the Age of Dryden and barely give Shadwell an anthology page. During his day Dryden ruled supreme too, at least at his own coffee house. This was the famous Will's, where the Restoration wits would gather to practice, and where, says Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets, Dryden's armchair "which in the winter had a settled and prescriptive place by the fire, was in the summer placed in the balcony." Here a young Alexander Pope came to train, a wide-eyed Samuel Pepys came to listen, and many with hopes for their manuscript came to get Dryden's endorsement, at the risk of getting his barb. The game could be played with gloves off: One gentleman who did not like Dryden's attitude had him beaten up while walking home from Will's. It could also be played for keeps: When James II abdicated in 1688, and it was once again open season on Catholics, Dryden had his poet laureateship taken from him -- and given to Thomas Shadwell. Thus the butt of Dryden's enthronement joke in Mac Flecknoe now got from the real King the poetic crown, the pension, and the "butt of Canary wine."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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