Poem: John Dryden’s Prologue to Cesare Borgia

In this prologue, Dryden takes up the conventional topics of the audience's lack of appreciation and gratitude.  His clever and self-serving abuse is even more applicable today, to readers who spend hours every day reading what they imagine to be news,.while ignoring the fiction, poetry, and essays that might do them a little good--if only by raising their standards.


The unhappy man, who once has trailed a pen,
Lives not to please himself, but other men;
Is always drudging, wastes his life and blood,
Yet only eats and drinks what you think good.
What praise soe'er the poetry deserve,
Yet every fool can bid the poet starve.
That fumbling lecher to revenge is bent,
Because he thinks himself, or whore, is meant:
Name but a cuckold, all the city swarms;
From Leadenhall to Ludgate is in arms.
Were there no fear of Antichrist, or France,
In the best time poor poets live by chance.
Either you come not here, or, as you grace
Some old acquaintance, drop into the place,
Careless and qualmish with a yawning face:
You sleep o'er wit,—and by my troth you may;
Most of your talents lie another way.
You love to hear of some prodigious tale,
The bell that tolled alone, or Irish whale.
News is your food, and you enough provide,
Both for yourselves, and all the world beside.
One theatre there is, of vast resort,
Which whilome of Requests was called the Court;
But now the great exchange of news 'tis hight,
And full of hum and buzz from noon till night.
Up stairs and down you run, as for a race,
And each man wears three nations in his face.
So big you look, though claret you retrench,
That, armed with bottled ale, you huff the French.
But all your entertainment still is fed
By villains in our own dull island bred.
Would you return to us, we dare engage
To show you better rogues upon the stage.
You know no poison but plain ratsbane here;
Death's more refined, and better bred elsewhere.
They have a civil way in Italy,
By smelling a perfume to make you die;
A trick would make you lay your snuff-box by.
Murder's a trade, so known and practised there,
That 'tis infallible as is the chair.
But mark their feasts, you shall behold such pranks!
The Pope says grace, but 'tis the devil gives thanks.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Truly enjoyed this; I treasure Dryden’s biting wit. Maybe a future Dryden entry can be a portion of “Absalom and Achitophel.”

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    A fine poet, not appreciated because of the Romantic distortion of what poetry is, but much admired by Eliot. Perhaps, if people were willing to chat, we could A&A in chunks and talk about it. I once had to teach it to upperclassmen and graduate students at UNC as part of a course in “Classical Influences on English Literature.”