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Since Boileau’s work appeared in 1674 and the Soame–Dryden version in 1683, the temporal vantage point from which the two works reflect on their respective national literary histories is roughly contemporary, but one is immediately struck by the fact that Boileau traces a development that begins a full century earlier, and, moreover, a development that has already reached its completion (with Malherbe) some fifty years before Boileau published his Art poétique. The English development, by contrast, begins roughly as the French one reaches its completion, and very quickly it moves onto figures who were personally known to Dryden’s generation.

Who the English Tongue design’d: To SPENSER! who improv’d it, and refin’d:— To Muse-fir’d SHAKESPEAR! who increas’d its Praise, Rich in bold Compounds, & strong-painted Phrase, To WALLER! Sweet’ner of its manly Sound:— To DRYDEN! — While these couplets invoke Chaucer and the other authors, the subject they celebrate is “the English Tongue” and its refinement to “full Perfection”— a progression that is presented as only being consummated in Dryden’s age. 18 While the engraving depicts the English corner in the Temple of Apollo, it is clear that this is but one part of a larger structure.

But as I show in this section and in following chapters, the negotiation of metropolitan and provincial standing within a context of cultural diversity was as important a modality of imperial culture as any project of hegemony and cultural assimilation. In the eighteenth-century world of composite monarchies, recognition (rather than erasure) of linguistic and cultural diversity, precisely as “provincial” diversity, was central to the elevation of English as a “metropolitan” language. ” But such an outlook forgets more traditional conceptions of the British Isles as an inherently multilingual domain—generally construed as consisting of five regional languages and cultures—and the anglocentric cultural politics that makes use of such 46 BEFORE THE EMPIRE OF ENGLISH diversity as a resource.

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