Reflection on “Epistle the Second”

Either your art hides art, as stoics feign
Then least to feel, when most they
suffer pain;
And we, dull souls, admire, but cannot see
What hidden springs within the engine be:

Sure that’s not all; this is a piece too fair
To be the child of chance, and not of care.
No atoms, casually together hurled,
Could e’er produce so beautiful a world;


Maybe your poetry hides its best
poetic language,
in the same way that a stoic person
hides his emotions when he feels bad.
Or maybe we are not smart enough—
and your creativity is like a hidden spring.

Even more than that, surely your poetry
is too good to be random chance—really!
Small thoughts never produce beauty when
they are casually hurled at the reader.

In 1660, John Dryden wrote the prefix to a collection of poems by his brother-in-law (and sometimes patron) Sir Robert Howard. A few lines from Dryden’s prefix poem appear in five places throughout the Canyon—from the Headwaters activity barn to the Cody Center to Lavernis Royal’s hand stenciling outside the Dryden room at Laity Lodge’s Black Bluff.

Like so many of the poetry selections throughout the Canyon, this little piece is beautiful and complex. This one is also surprisingly snarky. Dryden is poking fun at the quality of his brother-in-law’s poems, saying Howard’s “art hides art” and pointing out that the poems must be good even if Dryden himself can’t quite see “what hidden springs within the engine be.” Dryden also playfully implies that the poems cause him to “suffer pain,” but he’ll be stoic and never admit it.

Long before anyone knew that atoms were the building blocks of the scientific world, Dryden draws on an earlier meaning of the word and reminds us that our smallest ideas shape the way we perceive the world around us. When those ideas are deliberate and beautiful, we experience a beautiful world. When those ideas are casually hurled, they create a world of random chance. Beauty requires care and devotion. It’s okay—good even—when your pottery project at Family Camp or your watercolor project at the Cody Center aims higher than your ability, but don’t be surprised if your family makes fun of you a little bit.

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