Close to the walls which fair Augusta bind,
(The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd)
An ancient fabric, rais'd t'inform the sight,
There stood of yore, and Barbican it hight:
A watch tower once; but now, so fate ordains,
Of all the pile an empty name remains.
From its old ruins brothel-houses rise,
Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys.
- "Augusta" refers here to London. The word "august" originally means to inspire reverence or awe, reinforcing the poem's mock-epic tone.
- London was in a state of fear during this time due to the so-called "Popish Plot," an alleged conspiracy suggesting that the Jesuits planned to assassinate King Charles II. The plot turned out to be completely inaccurate
- The Barbican ("it hight" means "it was called") was a defensive fortification located in London. Its former glory is gone, however, as it has become the site of brothels, for the purpose of "polluted joys."
Where their vast courts, the mother-strumpets keep,
And, undisturb'd by watch, in silence sleep.
Near these a nursery erects its head,
Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;
Where unfledg'd actors learn to laugh and cry,
Where infant punks their tender voices try,
And little Maximins the gods defy.
- Here Dryden paints for us a picture of a "nursery," where the brothel children learn to be actors. His tone is quite ironic here, seeing as this brothel is an unlikely birthplace for "queens" and "future heroes."
- We have more terminology to clear up: the term "punks" refers to prostitutes.
- Also, Maximin was a character in Dryden's own 1670 drama Tyrannick Love—a tragic hero.
Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,
Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;
But gentle Simkin just reception finds
Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds:
Pure clinches, the suburbian muse affords;
And Panton waging harmless war with words.
- John Fletcher was an early seventeenth-century playwright known for his tragedies; in the ancient Greek tradition, "buskins" were the kind of boot worn by actors when performing tragedies.
- Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Fletcher's and an idol of Shadwell's, was a playwright best known for his comedies, for which performers on stage generally wore socks.
- "Simkin" is a dramatic term for a simpleton or a clown, while "clinches" is another word for puns, of which Thomas Panton was a well-known practitioner.
- In short, the speaker explains here that there is no room for tragedies or comedies in this place; only fools and punsters who wage "harmless war[s] with words" may find an audience here.
Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,
Ambitiously design'd his Shadwell's throne.
For ancient Decker prophesi'd long since,
That in this pile should reign a mighty prince,
Born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense:
- What better place for Shadwell to reside than here, this unfortunate part of town devoid of good writers and culture? It is here that Flecknoe sets up Shadwell's new throne.
- Thomas Dekker was an ill-regarded English writer, and a victim of Ben Jonson's satire, The Poetaster. A prophecy from Dekker, in this sense, is hardly a shining endorsement—though this anticipated prince without wit or sense seems to perfectly fit the bill.
- Dryden is right back at belittling Shadwell. The previous twenty lines have served to set up Shadwell's new domain as a place of ill repute and lack of taste—now Shadwell is about to assume his place on the throne.
To whom true dullness should some Psyches owe,
But worlds of Misers from his pen should flow;
Humorists and hypocrites it should produce,
Whole Raymond families, and tribes of Bruce.
- These lines make reference to three of Shadwell's plays: The Miser, The Humorists, and The Hypocrite.
- Raymond is a character from The Humorists, and Bruce is a character from The Virtuoso.
- Dryden is taking a shot at every Shadwell work he can.