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Home » » How is Dryden "the Father of English Criticism"?

The most valuable criticism of the Neoclassical Age was that written by John Dryden. The high excellence of his critical writing derives, first, from a mental incisiveness that led him at times with inspired directness to the heart of a problem and, secondly, from an unusually catholic sensitiveness to the merits of several divergent literary traditions. Amongst these traditions his mind has seemed to some merely blown about by various winds of doctrine inconsistently. 

There is also problem of development for Dryden was writing criticism (chiefly in prefaces, there being at the time no other well established vehicles of criticism, except perhaps pamphlets) at frequent intervals throughout a career of almost forty years, and one might expect changes in his position. The temptation is to exaggerate a progressive detachment form Elizabethan romanticism in favour of neoclassical orthodoxy. It is doubtful if any orthodox and tangible neoclassical credo was ever widely held: certainly Dryden is no consistent adherent to any such formulated doctrine. His prefaces are, at first sight, preoccupied with transitory. even topical, matters, and this fact makes it difficult to trace development surely, and makes it wise to focus on the aesthetic values basic in his thinking. 

His fundamental skeptical independence in dogmatising is perhaps best seen in his masterpiece in critical writing, the early The Essays of Dramatic Poesy, written in 1665 and published in 1668, as a part of his argument with his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, over the advisability of writing plays in rime. In form it is a Ciceronian dialogue, the four speakers present diverse points of view, for most of which Dryden felt both sympathy and reservation. 

The first speaker, Critic, defends the ancients (for whom Dryden has great admiration); Eugenius, who like Dryden believes in progress in the arts. defends the superiority of contemporary English drama; Lisideius prefers French drama to English and prefers Elizabethan drama to that of the early Restoration Period; and Neander, who most nearly is Dryden himself among the speakers finally defends the English as opposed to the French, gives a glowing account of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher. and Shakespeare. but defends the recent use of rime in plays. 

Here, and usually, Dryden believes in progress and modernity. He objects to the triteness of Roman comic plots, their faulty moral instruction, their weak wit, and their lack of warmth in love scenes, he praises their excellent contrivance of situation, their structural regularity which the French imitate but which, he thinks, may easily lead to thinness of action. Irregularity in structure may contribute invaluable variety, but the paths of irregularity are difficult. One of Dryden's triumphant sentences is: ‘Now what, beseech you, is more easy than to write a regular French play, or more difficult than write an irregular English one, like those of Fletcher, or of Shakespeare He can respect and even overvalue French rules, but he feels that the French are too strictly tied up with these formalistic matters: so he loyally asserts that in most of the irregular plays of Shakespeare or Fletcher, there is a mort masculine fancy and greater spirit in the writing, than there is in any of the French. Dryden is relatively consistent if somewhat prejudiced, if his evolution of French drama; his notion of progress led him at times t¢ overvalue his own as compared with Elizabethan drama, notably in his Epilogue to the Second part of 'The Conquest of Granada’ and in thé prose ‘Defence of the Eyiloqm' (1672) where he asserts that the Elizabethan often actually low failed to produce polite or courtly dialogue because they were not, like the Restoration comic writers, frequenters Of the best school of manners, the court. Normally he recognises the merits as well as the defects of the Elizabethans. He sums up in his preface to the ‘Lxamen Poeticum’ (1693) where he exclaims: “Peace be to the venerable shades of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson none of the living will presume to have any competition with them: as they were our predecessors, so they were our masters.” 

Dryden swerved from minor positions, such as the use of rime in plays or rant in his heroic dramas; . but he is reputably constant in his catholic appreciation of naturalness, refined wit, structural neatress (and such rules as conducive to it) as weil as of variety (disparaging such rules as constrict genius) of bold strokes, and of masculine fancy. These last two values he admires in the Elizabethans, though at times excessively aware of the incorrectness found with them. Shakespeare, he says, “who many times has written better than any poet, in any the very Janus of poets; he wears almost everywhere two faces; and you have scarce begun to admire the one, ere you despise the other.." Similarly Dryden finds many faults among ancient writers, but yet holds them to be the best teachers for moderns. He believes in a spirited and emulous imitation of Nature as shown by the ancients, but abhors a constricted imitational that is dull, insipid, languishing, and without sinews. He ranges himself among the Aristotelian in his Grounds of Criticism in 'Tragedy’ (1679), and urges classical restraint in diction in his dedication to ‘The Spanish Friar’ (1681). Both these works are influenced by Thomas Rymer's 'Tragedies of the Last Age’ Consider'd (1678) a work to which Dryden planned a reply. and by which he was considerably influenced. In the last decade of his career such prefaces as those to his translations of Juvenal (1693) and Virgil (1697) naturally stress classical topics; but even in the first extreme phase of Rymcr's influence, seen in the dedication to 'The Spanish Fnar’ we find Dryden declaring firmly for tragicomedy as opposed to pure genres, and in one of his last dedications (to his Acneis 1697) he exclaims, “Let the French and Italians value themselves on their regularity: strength and elevation are our standard." Throughout his career he is likely to be boldly independent. 

On such topics as the heroic poem or wit or such a neoclassical ultimate as Nature, Dryden's thought is always vital and incisive; but a great deal of his impressiveness derives from his directness and pungency of expression. He seasons his assertions with apt and illuminating metaphor or with a summarising aphorism. Of tragicomedy he concludes: “the feast is too dull and solemn without the fiddles," and his glowing remarks abou Shakespeare ("he needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature") and Chaucer ("here is God's plenty") are known examples. Of Ben Jonson's indebtedness to the ancients he says, "You track him everywhere in their snow;" of Jonson's borrowings: "He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him." A final apt metaphor in the preface to his 'Evening's Love’ (1671) expresses neatly the neoclassical concept of emulous imitation. 

But in general, the employment of a poet is like that of a curious gunsmith, or watchmaker: the iron or silver is not his own; but they are the least part of that which gives the value; price lies, wholly in the workmanship. And he who works dully on a story, without moving laughter it a comedy, or raising concernment in a serious plays, is no more to be accounted a good poet, than a gunsmith of the Minories is to be compared with the best workman of the town. 

Obviously Dryden understands not merely poetic expression but also what he himself calls the other harmony of prose. The frequency with which his phrases turn up in later authors indicates a considerable and appropriate amount of influence. 


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