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When asked by President-elect Kennedy to participate in the inaugural ceremonies of January 1961, Robert Frost responded with a poem which begins:
Summoning artists to participate In the august occasions of the state Seems something artists ought to celebrate. Today is for my cause a day of days. And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise...
Interpreting the significance of this "day of days" for the president and the public, Frost concludes with a prophecy of a new golden age.
It makes the prophet in us all presage The glory of a next Augustan age Of a power leading from its strength and pride, Of young ambition eager to be tried, Firm in our free beliefs without dismay, In any game the nations want to play. A golden age of poetry and power Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.
Shortly before his assassination Kennedy revealed his understanding of these lines in his address at the dedication of the Frost library. "[It is] hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power. For he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses." Frost's poem names the general subject of this book, "poetry and power," while Kennedy's interpretation suggests the emphasis, poetry as a check on power.
Frost's inaugural poem recalls the poetry of John Dryden. The public theme, expressed in couplets mingled with an occasional triplet, is reminiscent of Dryden's addresses to the later Stuart kings. The closing prophecy echoes in particular Astraea Redux, the poem Dryden wrote to celebrate the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Oh Happy Age! Oh times like those alone By Fate reserv'd for Great Augustus Throne! When the joint growth of Armes and Arts foreshew The World a Monarch, and that Monarch You.
Both Frost and Dryden revive the famous prophecy in book 6 of Vergil's Aeneid to proclaim an Augustan ideal of civilization, the union of "poetry and power," of "Armes and Arts." The resemblance perhaps explains why Frost refers to his poem as "old-fashioned praise." Writing three centuries after Dryden, Frost evokes an old tradition of public poetry which Dryden would have called "panegyric."
At the height of its popularity and importance in the Stuart period, panegyric is a literary genre that has since fallen not only out of fashion, but virtually out of existence. Moreover, the word "panegyric" itself has changed in meaning and in connotation since the seventeenth century. We must begin, therefore, by tracing the historical evolution of the term and establishing its critical meaning for Dryden and his contemporaries.
To appreciate the special significance of the term "panegyric" in Dryden's day, it is helpful to distinguish this term from its common twentieth-century synonym, "encomium." In a modern English dictionary, Webster's Third International, for example, the words "panegyric" and "encomium" are given as synonyms for each other and both are defined by a mutual synonym, "eulogy." In seventeenth-century English dictionaries, on the other hand, the two terms are not given as synonyms. The distinction between them, preserved throughout the Stuart period, is expressed shortly after Dryden's death in John Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum. Kersey defines "encomium" as "a Speech, or Song, in Commendation of a Person; Praise." His definition of "panegyrick" is more detailed: "a Speech deliver'd before a solemn and general Assembly of People, especially in Praise of a great Prince." "Encomium" is thus a general term synonymous with "praise," whereas "panegyrick" denotes a specific kind of public occasion (a "general Assembly of People"), a specific mode ("a Speech"), and a specific subject of praise ("a great Prince"). Kersey's distinction between these two terms, lost in modern English, accurately summarizes the definitions given by the lexicographers of the preceding century.
But there is more to this distinction than the difference between a general and a specific term. In the seventeenthcentury dictionaries of John Bullokar, Henry Cockeram, Thomas Blount, Edward Phillips, and Elisha Coles, the definitions of "encomium" are consistent in denotation and neutral in connotation, whereas the definitions of "panegyric" are inconsistent and sometimes charged with emotion. A comparative table reveals this difference.
"Encomium," praise of "any person," does not arouse the same emotions as "panegyric," praise of "great persons." Panegyric, unlike encomium, touches a political nerve.
Political differences cannot, however, entirely account for the inconsistencies among these definitions of "panegyric." Although the political views of the author may influence the tone of his definition, the fundamental discrepancies on this list are inherited from earlier lexicographers, as a closer look at Thomas Blount's Glossographia reveals. The first edition of this dictionary, published during the interregnum, was followed by a second in 1661, the same year as Dryden's To His Sacred Majesty, A Panegyrick on his Coronation. Possibly reflecting the changing spirit of the times, Blount here reduces the antimonarchical emphasis in his definition of "panegyrick" by lopping off the phrase "wherein some falsities are joyned with many flatteries." In its place, however, Blount adds a second definition, which suggests that he was motivated to make the alteration more by the competition of his rival Edward Phillips than by political considerations. At least, Blount's second definition corresponds to the primary definition given by Phillips in 1658: "Also any Feast, Game or Solemnity exhibited, before the General Assembly of a whole Nation."
Blount's two different explanations of 1661, which capture the basic discrepancy in seventeenth-century dictionary definitions of "panegyric," reflect two different sources of information. His secondary definition is condensed from the glossary to Philemon Holland's translation of Plutarch's Morals (1603). "Panegyricke. Feasts, games, faires, marts, pompes, showes, or any such solemnities, performed or exhibited before the general assembly of a whole nation; such as were the Olympick, Pythick, Isthmick, and Nemian games in Greece." His primary definition, on the other hand, is appropriated from Thomas Thomas's Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (1587). "Panegyricum. A licentious and lascivious kinde of speaking or oration in the praise and commendation of Kings, wherein men do ioyne many lyes with flatterie." In short, one source is Greek (panegyrikos) and the other Latin (panegyricus or panegyricum).
As Philemon Holland's definition suggests, panegyric originates in the festivals of ancient Greece. Derived from the word panegyris, meaning "a general assembly," the panegyric was a speech delivered before a mass audience on a festival occasion. Gorgias, Hippias, and Lysias are all known to have delivered panegyrics, but the most famous and influential of these festival orations is the Panegyrikos of Isocrates. Although never actually delivered as a speech, the oration was circulated among those who attended the Panathenaic festival in 380 B.C. The festival provided Isocrates not only with an occasion and an audience, but also with a serious subject: national reconciliation. The oration emphasizes the conciliatory purpose of the festival itself.
Now the founders of our great festivals are justly praised for handing down to us a custom by which, having proclaimed a truce and resolved our pending quarrels, we come together in one place, where, as we make our prayers and sacrifices in common, we are reminded of the kinship which exists among us and are made to feel more kindly towards each other for the future, reviving old friendships and establishing new ties.
The impulse behind both the festival and the festival oration, or panegyric, is the desire to promote domestic peace and national unity. When English lexicographers define "panegyric" as a "general assembly or Solemnity," they are at least indirectly referring to the Greek custom thus described by Isocrates.
When, on the other hand, they define "panegyric" as an "oration, in the praise and commendation of Kings, or other great persons," they are referring to Roman custom and literature. A late addition to the Latin language, the word panegyricus occurs only rarely in the Republican period and still infrequently in the early years of the empire. Cicero, for example, does not use the word except to refer specifically to Isocrates' oration, while Quintilian finds only three occasions to use it in the entire course of the Institutio Oratorio. By the fourth century, however, the word is commonly used to designate an oration, either in prose or verse, addressed to a public figure, usually the emperor. The most important and enduring examples of late Roman panegyric are by the poet Claudian. Between 395 and 404, Claudian attached the panegyricus label to five poems, each of which celebrates the beginning of a new year and the installation of a new consul. Three of these poems are addressed to the emperor Honorius, including the Panegyricus De Quarto Consulatu Honorii Augusti, which begins: "Once more the year opens under royal auspices and enjoys in fuller pride its famous prince...," The public occasion, here an inaugural ceremony, now calls for eulogy of the emperor.
Combining the Greek example of Isocrates with the Roman example of Claudian produces a composite definition of "panegyric" like Kersey's: "a Speech deliver'd before a solemn and general Assembly of People, especially in Praise of a great Prince." If Kersey had a specific author in mind, however, it was probably neither Isocrates nor Claudian, but rather Pliny the Younger. Elected consul for the year 100, Pliny acknowledged the honor in a speech delivered before the senate. Titled an actio gratiarum, this speech includes expressions of gratitude and promises of faithful service to the senators. But these remarks are only tiny appendages to the body of the speech, an elaborate idealization of Trajan, who was present to hear himself praised as the optimus princeps. Although Pliny did not call the speech a panegyricus, later orators viewed it as a model of the genre. In fact, when Pliny's oration was rediscovered for the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, it was not alone but rather at the head of a collection of panegyrics that came to be known as the panegyrici latini or panegyrici veteres. Modeled directly on Pliny's actio gratiarum, these other orations (eleven in number) publicly celebrate the Roman emperors from Diocletian to Theodosius. All of the orations in this collection fit Kersey's definition of "panegyric." They all praise a "great Prince" before a "general Assembly of People."
The general assembly that gathered to hear the eulogies of the later Roman emperors was not, however, necessarily restricted to the senate. On the contrary, the surviving panegyrics indicate that one of the most common occasions for this kind of oratory was an imperial visit to a provincial town. When the emperor decided to visit Autun or Trèves, for example, the town showed its appreciation by having its most distinguished orator (usually a professor at the local school) deliver an address. The speech was an essential part of the ceremony, like the decorations, the festive games, and the military salute.
The attendant atmosphere, perhaps not altogether different from the atmosphere in Athens during the Panathenaic festival, more obviously suggests the progresses of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, especially those of Elizabeth and James I. The fourth-century orators might have felt almost at home in Cambridge on August 9, 1564, for example, when Elizabeth paid a visit to the university. "This daie, about IXne of the clock, before dinner, her Highness, with her train, rode from Colledge to Colledge; and at every House where her Grace staid was receaved with a short Oracion, two in Greeke, the residue in Latin..." Even when such orations were delivered in English, the speaker often paused to establish a classical precedent. In 1572 the recorder of Warwick carefully opened his speech to Elizabeth by defining the term panegyricae (shorthand for orationes panegyricae).
The manner and custome to salute Princes with publik Oracions hath bene of long tyme usid, most excellent and gracious Sovereigne Ladie, begonne by the Greeks, confirmed by the Romaynes, and by discourse of tyme contynued even to thies our daies: and because the same were made in publike places and open assemblies of senators and counsaillors, they were callid both in Greek and Latyn panegyricae.
By incorporating the Latin word into his English speech, the recorder expresses a sense of continuity with the classical past and identifies himself with the orators of the Roman empire, in particular with the "noble senator, Caius Plinius."
There was, however, another good reason for borrowing the Latin word on this occasion. It was not until the 1590's that the English vocabulary contained an equivalent of either panegyricus or oratio panegyrica. The first appearance of any form of the word in English is a translation of the latter expression: "Panegyricall Oration." The innovator was Gabriel Harvey and his innovation was met with predictable abuse from Thomas Nashe. In one of his attacks on Nashe, Harvey had referred to "a plausible discourse" or "a Panegyricall Oration." In his answer Nashe condenses this to "plausible Panegyricall Orations" and then comments sarcastically: "Soft, ere I goe anie further, I care not if I draw out my purse, and change some odde peeces of olde Englishe for new coyne; but it is no matter, upon the Retourne from Guiana, the valuation of them may alter, and that which is currant now be then copper." This, as it turns out, is a remarkably prescient statement. A turn-of-the-century neologism, "panegyric" continues to be used infrequently and carefully well into the seventeenth century. When it eventually gains currency as an English word, its "valuation" does indeed begin to change from gold coin to copper.
By tracing this changing "valuation" of "panegyric" through the titles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poems, we can begin to establish the literary context of Dryden's addresses to the later Stuart kings. The first recorded use of the noun "panegyric" in the English language occurs in the title of Samuel Daniel's poem on the Stuart succession: A Panegyrike Congratulatorie Delivered to the Kings most excellent majesty, at Burleigh - Harrington in Rutlandshire (1603).
Excerpted from Dryden and the Tradition of Panegyric by James D. Garrison Copyright © 1975 by James D. Garrison. Excerpted by permission.
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