Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Mmmf. Here, Read This.

Maybe I should just change the name of the blog from "Will's Coffee House" to "I really should blog more but most of the time I just don't feel like it." It's not as catchy, but it's got the ring of honesty about it. Whiny, self-pitying honesty, but honesty nevertheless. I'm caught, as I usually am at this time of year--when I am sans summer teaching or summer fellowship, a denial on both fronts which is an offense to all that is good and decent, for am I not most deserving of such largesse? I think so!--on the horns of (no, not a dilemma, though good for you for anticipating the idiom--it shows erudition!) a bout of ennui/anxiety--what Heidegger called angst and what Woody Allen has been basing his personality on for 40 years or so. I just don't know what to do with myself, except live cheaply (mmm...tuna sandwiches on white bread twice a day...) and try to find something, anything to occupy my mind before it begins to feed on itself. And so...I've decided to go back to my novel. Yes, for those of you not in the know, this is the infamous Rose Alley, a historical semi-mystery set in the Restoration (mostly--there are flashbacks) and starring, surprise surprise, John Dryden as the detective-hero. It's about--well, you know what, f*** it--here, here's a great big swatch of reading for you--here's the opening few pages of my minum opus. The events described actually occurred. Enjoy:

December 18, 1679 – London

John Dryden, 48 and Poet Laureate, rose from his cushioned chair by the fire and reached for his purse. It was a thoroughly artificial gesture—Dryden hadn’t paid his own bill in months of dining at Will’s Coffee House, and would have been surprised if he’d been allowed to now. Before he could even touch the small leather bag, a half dozen voices and hands leapt up to stop him. The entire room pleaded as one to pay: “Small recompense”—they all echoed this sentiment—“for such company.” Dryden let them, assuming a flattered look that flattered them, that made these lesser lights feel important because they had shouldered a burden of his. Such were the small graces attendant on being the Laureate, these gratuities he permitted himself.
A corruption of the office? Perhaps. But trivial, and few who knew Dryden would openly argue that the King had erred in gracing him with the laurel; besides his equally abundant talent and loyalty to the Crown, there was the admirable persona of Dryden to consider. Even here, in the relaxed and smoky realm of the coffee house, he carried himself with a mixture of dignity and sprightliness that marvelously became the position. Few others could have brought it off so well. A shade more solemn and he would have been a bore. A shade more sly and he would have seemed a trifle. But instead, he wore his learning and wit like a well-tailored waistcoat, his presence charming, rather than smothering or tickling. None grudged buying his company with the fare at Will’s because, in the end, Dryden’s company and conversation were worth the price.
So the cries were still for him to stay, and he lingered long enough to give thanks and a few last bon mots. Such was his form of repayment—Dryden’s epigrams were conversational gold. He knew within the week he’d hear these words second-hand, plagiarized by some eager young spark. Still, he didn’t bask overlong in the praise of his circle. Dryden loved adulation as well as most men—more, he would cheerfully admit. But an unvaried dish makes a dull palate, and as much as his ego loved the puffery, his modesty would rise at such over-feeding, and spoil his appetite. Two hours he’d spent at Will’s, and even the least effort of his wit had been greeted with something like hosannas. Every idol occasionally desires a respite from its pedestal. Besides, like most men of equal parts ego and genius, Dryden loved solitude even more than company, since only in solitude could he really appreciate himself, as from third-person’s perspective, and marvel.
He left the coffee house, opening and shutting the door quickly to keep the warmth of the room inside. Now in the street, outside the closeness, he savored the chill and the quiet. Dryden’s poetic mind looked automatically for contrasts—better still, opposites. The heat of the fire—the cold of the night. The light inside the house—the dark of the street. The sweet smell of roast, tobacco, and chocolate—the sour stink of dung, piss, and puke. Contrasts were the easy meat of heroic couplets, and few men had done more to make that addictively interlocking rhyme scheme the poetic mode of all England than John Dryden. “From warmth of fare and friend and fiery light, / I fade into the famined frost of night,” he murmured internally. Then grimaced—dear God, that was awful. Alliteration for its own sake, no sense of completion in the rhyme, and “warmth” simply clogged the verbal flow in the offing. Best not to attempt poetry without pen and ink to slow one into caution. He was tired, but not sleepy; coffee was the luxury drink of the social man, and Dryden had consumed dish after dish as he held court among his admirers. He would work tonight. Elizabeth, his wife, would already be abed; they seldom dined, and never retired together. He would settle himself in his closet, write himself into a doze, cross the room to his couch, and sleep there. In the morning, he’d review his night’s product, and salvage anything worth keeping. He made the turn off the main street, and headed down Rose Alley towards his home. He trod carefully. His shoes were new, and he was trying to delay as long as possible the stains of smut and shit one picked up in even the shortest London stroll. Curtained windows and a clouded sky forced him to grope his way, remembering the path.
Dryden’s memory was an especially fine one; indeed, he secretly knew that most of his talent lay in the abundance of material his remembrance offered him when he began his compositions. He thought back over the conversation of this evening; some scrap of news or gossip might play a part in a future piece. The latest talk concerned a new satire making the social rounds, a nasty piece of work that had said some particularly nasty things about Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, and about John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Rumor added that Dryden himself was its anonymous author, a fact that had led to elbows and winks aimed at him from all sides. But while the crowd had, under this assumption, heartily endorsed the parodic portrait of Louise, the King’s least popular mistress, Rochester’s name had not been mentioned in Dryden’s presence. The two men had once been close—not friends, one couldn’t be friends with Rochester, but close. Mutual admirers, each envying something in the other, each recognizing the other’s importance. Rochester, intimate of the King, had reportedly secured Dryden his current position as the Laureate. But whatever they had been, the Earl and the Laureate were enemies now; none were sure why, but the looks that each gave when the other’s name was mentioned hinted at some substantial break, personal and bitter.
But while avoiding this faux pas, his acolytes had stumbled into another. They did wrong to praise the satire, thinking they were flattering Dryden. Though he might agree with its sentiments about Rochester, Dryden knew the poem to be sophomoric, the work of an aristocrat who had never had to earn his living by his pen, and thus had never had to learn to please a reader. To make matters worse, those who thought the poem to be Dryden’s, and who read it through the prism of his reputation, deluded themselves into thinking it splendid, and made favorable comparisons with his earlier works. Dryden’s tender artistic pride was in torment. It was almost easier to be condemned for a good poem to be praised than a bad one; in the first case, a true poet knows enough of his work to scorn the contempt, in the second, all he can do is admit that his reputation has exceeded his actual worth as an artist.
But much as Dryden longed to chastise the crowd at Will’s—“Fools, can you not read?”—to do so would embarrass the poem’s true author, and that he could not afford to do. Literally: his reason for silence was financial necessity. It was a bad poem, but it had been written by a patron, the Earl of Mulgrave. That nobleman’s largesse to Dryden paid bills heftier than those of Will’s. Condemn the poem as it deserved, and he sheared himself of a source of income he dearly needed. And so Dryden winced through the sly celebration of his devilish wit, his stomach squirming all the while. The consolation was that such nauseous praise was enough to stimulate his poetic fluids into flowing. To wash the taste of undesired acclaim away, he would write something splendid, something to replace the satire in conversation, something that would remind him, if no one else, that he was Laureate for good cause.
Such thoughts pushed him forward in the Alley, and distracted him from the dim sights before his eyes. He nearly ran into the first man. Before Dryden’s mind could be redirected to the outer world, this figure seemed to appear suddenly, though he probably had stood there since Dryden turned into the alley. Embarrassed by his surprise, Dryden smiled and spoke a word of apology, and moved to one side.
The man moved in the same direction, blocking the path again.
Dryden sensed—smelled—the danger, his nostrils twitching at the odor of intuition. The man’s features were hidden beneath a dirty gray scarf, wrapped tightly around his lower face—no strange sight in the London cold, but now sinister. His eyes, too, were hidden beneath the long brim of a dark cap. Nothing about the figure seemed identifiable, except his size. Dryden was a short man, but had he been half-a-head taller, he still would have felt belittled before this looming menace. He moved again, faster—this still might be a bit of mutual clumsiness between the two, each attempting to avoid the other, each accidentally mirroring the other’s dodging step. The man moved again to block him, and now drew from some dark cache on his body a stout brown rod—a club, Dryden realized.
He saw the second man emerge into his right field of vision, and heard, now, behind, the footsteps of the third. He turned back—the third man was as large as the other, his features likewise swaddled. He could not run back or forward, and turned around again to face his initial opponent. ‘Robbery’ was his first thought, and for the second time tonight, reached for his purse. Perhaps if he handed it over quickly, worse could be avoided. But his movement was misinterpreted—all three of his challengers assumed he was reaching under his coat for a sword or pistol—Dryden had neither—and lunged in to prevent him.
The second man, much smaller than the others, perhaps with the most to prove to his comrades, swung first, and Dryden lifted his arm to block the blow. It was a mistake. The loud snap from his forearm told him, even before the pain sent him into shock, that his eyes had played him false. He had thought that the short clubs these men carried were wooden, but his sight had read the rust of iron as the brown of timber. Dryden gave something like a shriek, but only the start of one, because the first man before him stepped neatly—gracefully, for such a giant—to one side, and dance-like swung his club into Dryden’s midriff. The air of the shriek belched out of his lungs and left him retchingly silent. In the clutching of his stomach and the crouching of his body, one side falling against the wall to hold himself upright, the third man struck from behind, a meaty blow across his back that broke no bones, but toppled him over onto his hands and knees, whereupon the second man struck again, again across his back, and Dryden’s face fell into the sludge that paved the alley.
Not one of them reached for his purse after his fall. Instead, they continued to strike, one—no, two—of them abandoning the efficiency of the club for the greater satisfaction of the boot. Not robbery then, he thought, his mind in some marvelous, far-away place, where he was watching this butchery happen as if to a character onstage. Not robbery. What then? It was remarkable, really, how clearly he was thinking, as the tip of a boot caught him above the eye, tearing open a flap of flesh and brow and blinding him with his own blood. Not robbery—a message. Yes. That was it. A message. Someone was sending him a message. Someone was reminding him of his place. Country squire. Country nobody. Silly little scribbler, writing his jibs and jabs and mocking his betters. Something in his left leg went hot, then numb. His right side still protected by the wall, they were concentrating on any exposed bulk they could find. Dryden felt himself involuntarily curl into a ball like a hedgehog amid the hounds, the blows continuing to come, but more slowly, for time had slowed now, and he was thinking clearly. Who had sent them, these hounds? Louise? Did she, like everyone, think him the satire’s author? Rochester? Would he stoop to such meanness—would he not prefer himself to beard Dryden in his lair? Then again, the idea of squashing Dryden with a giant or two—the little man crushed by the greater—that smacked something of Rochester’s cruel wit. But who could say—Dryden had so many enemies—who could say? But, yes, if not robbery—and still they had shown no interest in his purse—this was, this had to be a message. But if so—if so, why did they not say something—?
The beating continued, and intensified. Dryden felt his ribs give way, vomited blood and bile and the foulness of coffee mixed with the juices of his stomach. Still, no one had spoken. No one had spoken. That was not right. Surely whoever was paying these men to do this thing would want Dryden to understand, would want him to connect the pain he was feeling with the offense he had caused. Otherwise, what was the point? What was the point? And still the blows came, seeming softer now as he began to retreat further into his own body, huddling deeper and deeper into himself, away from the pain, away from the world.
And then, he understood.
This was not a message. This was a murder.
Only now did he think to cry for help, and by this point, it was too late—he could not draw deep breath with his broken ribs stabbing into his lungs. And he was so far fallen into himself, so far away from the world and its sounds and smells, that perhaps even if he could have screamed, could have begged for his life, he would not have done so. It was a warm place he was going towards, warm and bright and safe, and he was almost there when a last thought—more of an intuition than an idea—occurred to him, and made him smile. He thought, and laughed somewhere at the thought, that the seeds of his death had been planted that day over twenty years ago, when he had returned to London, and fallen under the spell of John Milton.

It needs work--tends to be over-written at places: "savored the chill" sort of stuck out as writerly writing, which isn't good. Still finding my voice, he said, pretentiously. Anyway, that's what I'm up to these days. If I grow bloggishly lethargic, I'll just subject you to more of it...


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