John Dryden dedicates All for Love to an aristocratic patron: Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby. Dryden claims that poets are less noble than politicians and public figures, since they can only write about “worthy actions,” whereas others can actually do them. But he also argues that poets are important to a commonwealth because they chronicle the great deeds and history of their country. Kings and aristocrats should patronize poets, he suggests, because poets will preserve their reputation for future generations.
Here Dryden expresses conflicting views about the site of authority in 1600s England. On the one hand, he argues that politicians and aristocrats have the real power to perform “worthy actions.” On the other hand, he suggests that it’s poets who have the ultimate authority to preserve their deeds for future generations by writing about them.
Dryden praises Osborne—who served as Lord High Treasurer to King Charles II—for his good financial stewardship and leadership in the face of accusations of bribery. He points out that a king can often be judged by his choice of ministers, and he calls Osborne the perfect “copy” and “emanation” of King Charles’s goodness.
Dryden praises Osborne for his constancy through the political upheavals of the period. Osborne headed off the political challenges of his enemies and remained loyal to King Charles II, even though the king had many enemies.
This praise of Osborne’s virtues leads Dryden to a larger consideration of the merits of the English constitutional monarchy, which Dryden calls the best form of government in the world. He argues that the English have significant freedoms while still retaining the benefit of a monarchy—a monarchy that is “without tyranny.” By contrast, Dryden calls a republic a “specious [i.e. false] name” that claims to offer liberty to its citizens but isn’t actually free. He argues that a monarchy always has some checks on its power, while in a republic the elected representatives are free to oppress the very people they are supposed to be representing.
Dryden praises the English constitutional monarchy for what he sees as its perfect mix of authority and freedom. The English have a strong central government under a powerful monarch, but citizens also have liberty to make certain personal choices about, say, their religion. Dryden’s problem with republics is that, according to him, they only claim to be free—they actually are just as authoritative as monarchies, if not more so, but hypocritically claim to offer more liberty.
Furthermore, Dryden argues that a constitutional monarchy is the ideal form of government for England, an island kingdom which he thinks is more fit for “commerce and defense” than invading and conquering other countries. It is difficult to gather taxes to support war overseas, so large overseas empires tend to require absolute government in order to force their citizens to pay taxes and press them into military service. But people are generally willing to pay taxes to support defense, so England’s non-tyrannical form of monarchy is the best fit for its lack of imperial ambitions.
Here Dryden offers another series of justifications for England’s mixture of authority and freedom. His reasons—which have to do with England’s lack of interest in levying taxes to invade other countries—suggest that he does not see freedom as an absolute good. Rather, he thinks that the freedom afforded to English citizens is the right fit for the constitutional monarchy at this time. His reasons for supporting freedom are thus primarily pragmatic. Dryden’s celebration of England’s non-imperial ambitions is also ironic considering its later expansion into a global empire.
For all these benefits of England’s current form of government, however, Dryden admits that there are some people who want a change. He thinks this is wrong, since English citizens are already as free as they can be—any additional freedom would just be “license,” or a pushing of boundaries beyond what is acceptable. He also dismisses the argument that England needs more religious freedom, pointing out that no one in the country is actively persecuted for their beliefs. He thinks that all attempts at “reform” are dangerous, since any rebellion—even if it just claims to want to reform rather than take down the government—strikes at “the root of power, which is obedience.”
Dryden’s attitude toward reform reveals his fundamentally conservative political principles on the question of authority vs. freedom. He claims that English citizens have freedom, but seems hostile to the idea that they might try to change their government. This is because he had experienced the upheaval of civil war in his own lifetime, and so tends to see all rebellion as a form of “license.” When people are given too much freedom, Dryden thinks, authority will crumble.
Dryden explains that he has addressed these thoughts on English politics to Osborne because the earl has a long history of loyalty to the English monarchy (Osborne’s father fought for Charles II’s father, Charles I, during the English Civil War). Dryden praises Osborne for sacrificing his private life and comfort in the name of public service. He apologizes for writing such a long dedication that doesn’t even mention the poem he has written, but ends by admitting that he doesn’t think Osborne will have the time to read it, given his busy schedule of public duties.
During times of political unrest, Dryden values continuity and loyalty. Osborne was rewarded for his family’s constancy to Charles II after the Civil War. The fact that Dryden praises him for these virtues suggests that post-Civil War English elite society looked to the constants in life—like the loyalty of Osborne’s family—in order to ensure against another disastrous change.