When, in 1682, the Reverend Mr Busby, headmaster of Westminster School, expelled or suspended John Dryden's son, the poet wrote him an excellent letter. Busby had already been at Westminster for more than forty years: he was that terrifying thing, a Great Headmaster. Moreover, Dryden had himself been among his pupils and knew well enough what tricks the old autocrat could get up to. Busby had sent a message by the boy, that he 'desired to see' the father. Dryden hastened to assure him that his son 'did the message', but he did not obey the summons. His letter begins, indeed, by assuring Dr Busby that he would have come, if he could have found in himself 'a fitting temper', meaning, no doubt, that he was in no mood to talk to the headmaster as became an old pupil. His fury and his caution in addressing the great man jostle side by side throughout the letter. He admits or pretends that he found 'something of kindness' in the message, for Busby sent the boy away, so he said, in order that he 'might not have occasion to correct him' - a necessity more obvious, no doubt, to Busby than to the poet. He gives reasons why the boy's alleged crime was perhaps 'not so great' as Busby seemed to think. Then he tells the headmaster that his first impulse was to send for the boy's things from the college, without a moment's delay. That he did not do so was partly out of respect for Dr Busby and partly - and this clearly is the point of the sentence - out of 'tenderness of doeing anything offensive to my Lord Bishop of Rochester, as cheife Governour of the College'. A threat that the matter might not rest with the headmaster and that the chairman of the governors might hear of it. Dryden is concerned that his son's chance of election to a university place will have been lost by the upset, and stoutly suggests the boy might as well go to Cambridge at once, 'of his own election'. The letter concludes with the hope that Dryden will be 'satisfyed with a favourable answer' from Dr Busby's 'goodnesse and moderation', so that he may continue his 'obliged humble servant', as, of course, every father with a boy at the school would wish to be.
LRB 18 February 1982 | PDF Download