Literary Criticism of John Dryden

John Dryden (1631–1700) occupies a seminal place in English critical history. Samuel Johnson called him “the father of English criticism,” and affirmed of his Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) that “modern English prose begins here.” Dryden’s critical work was extensive, treating of various genres such as epic, tragedy, comedy and dramatic theory, satire, the relative virtues of ancient and modern writers, as well as the nature of poetry and translation. In addition to the Essay, he wrote numerous prefaces, reviews, and prologues, which together set the stage for later poetic and critical developments embodied in writers such as Pope, Johnson, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot.

Dryden was also a consummate poet, dramatist, and translator. His poetic output reflects his shifting religious and political allegiances. Born into a middle-class family just prior to the outbreak of the English Civil War between King Charles I and Parliament, he initially supported the latter, whose leaders, headed by Oliver Cromwell, were Puritans. Indeed, his poem Heroic Stanzas (1659) celebrated the achievements of Cromwell who, after the execution of Charles I by the victorious parliamentarians, ruled England as Lord Protector (1653–1658). However, with the restoration of the dead king’s son, Charles II, to the throne in 1660, Dryden switched sides, celebrating the new monarchy in his poem Astrea Redux (Justice Restored). Dryden was appointed poet-laureate in 1668 and thereafter produced several major poems, including the mock-heroic Mac Flecknoe (1682), and a political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681). In addition, he produced two poems that mirror his move from Anglicanism to Catholicism: Religio Laici (1682) defends the Anglican Church while The Hind and the Panther, just five years later, opposes Anglicanism. Dryden’s renowned dramas include the comedy Marriage a la Mode (1671) and the tragedies Aureng-Zebe (1675) and All for Love, or the World Well Lost (1677). His translations include Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), which includes renderings of Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer.

Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy is written as a debate on drama conducted by four speakers, Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander. These personae have conventionally been identified with four of Dryden’s contemporaries. Eugenius (meaning “well-born”) may be Charles Sackville, who was Lord Buckhurst, a patron of Dryden and a poet himself. Crites (Greek for “judge” or “critic”) perhaps represents Sir Robert Howard, Dryden’s brother-in-law. Lisideius refers to Sir Charles Sedley, and Neander (“new man”) is Dryden himself. The Essay, as Dryden himself was to point out in a later defense of it, was occasioned by a public dispute with Sir Robert Howard (Crites) over the use of rhyme in drama. In a note to the reader prefacing the Essay, he suggests that the chief purpose of his text is “to vindicate the honour of our English writers, from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French” (27). Yet the scope of the Essay extends far beyond these two topics, effectively ranging over a number of crucial debates concerning the nature and composition of drama.

The first of these debates is that between ancients and moderns, a debate that had intermittently surfaced for centuries in literature and criticism, and which acquired a new and topical intensity in European letters after the Renaissance, in the late seventeenth century. Traditionalists such as Jonathan Swift, in his controversial Battle of the Books (1704), bemoaned the modern “corruption” of religion and learning, and saw in the ancients the archetypal standards of literature. The moderns, inspired by various forms of progress through the Renaissance, sought to adapt or even abandon classical ideals in favor of the requirements of a changed world and a modern audience. Dryden’s Essay is an important intervention in this debate, perhaps marking a distinction between Renaissance and neoclassical values. Like Torquato Tasso and Pierre Corneille, he attempted to strike a compromise between the claims of ancient authority and the exigencies of the modern writer.

In Dryden’s text, this compromise subsumes a number of debates: one of these concerns the classical “unities” of time, place, and action; another focuses on the rigid classical distinction between various genres, such as tragedy and comedy; there was also the issue of classical decorum and propriety, as well as the use of rhyme in drama. All of these elements underlie the nature of drama. In addition, Dryden undertakes an influential assessment of the English dramatic tradition, comparing writers within this tradition itself as well as with their counterparts in French drama.

Dryden’s Essay is skillfully wrought in terms of its own dramatic structure, its setting up of certain expectations (the authority of classical precepts), its climaxing in the reversal of these, and its denouement in the comparative assessment of French and English drama. What starts out, through the voice of Crites, as promising to lull the reader into complacent subordination to classical values ends up by deploying those very values against the ancients themselves and by undermining or redefining those values.

Lisideius offers the following definition of a play: “A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind” (36). Even a casual glance at the definition shows it to be very different from Aristotle’s: the latter had defined tragedy not as the representation of “human nature” but as the imitation of a serious and complete action; moreover, while Aristotle had indeed cited a reversal in fortune as a component of tragedy, he had said nothing about “passions and humours”; and, while he accorded to literature in general a moral and intellectual function, he had said nothing about “delighting” the audience. The definition of drama used in Dryden’s Essay embodies a history of progressive divergence from classical models; indeed, it is a definition already weighted in favor of modern drama, and it is a little surprising that Crites agrees to abide by it at all. Crites, described in Dryden’s text as “a person of sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit” (29), is, after all, the voice of classical conservatism.

Crites notes that poetry is now held in lower esteem, in an atmosphere of “few good poets, and so many severe judges” (37–38). His essential argument is that the ancients were “faithful imitators and wise observers of that Nature which is so torn and ill represented in our plays; they have handed down to us a perfect resemblance of her; which we, like ill copiers, neglecting to look on, have rendered monstrous, and disfigured.” He reminds his companions that all the rules for drama – concerning the plot, the ornaments, descriptions, and narrations – were formulated by Aristotle, Horace, or their predecessors. As for us modern writers, he remarks, “we have added nothing of our own, except we have the confidence to say our wit is better” (38).

The most fundamental of these classical rules are the three unities, of time, place, and action. Crites claims that the ancients observed these rules in most of their plays (38–39). The unity of action, Crites urges, stipulates that the “poet is to aim at one great and complete action,” to which all other things in the play “are to be subservient.” The reason behind this, he explains, is that if there were two major actions, this would destroy the unity of the play (41). Crites cites a further reason from Corneille: the unity of action “leaves the mind of the audience in a full repose”; but such a unity must be engineered by the subordinate actions which will “hold the audience in a delightful suspense of what will be” (41). Most modern plays, says Crites, fail to endure the test imposed by these unities, and we must therefore acknowledge the superiority of the ancient authors (43).

This, then, is the presentation of classical authority in Dryden’s text. It is Eugenius who first defends the moderns, saying that they have not restricted themselves to “dull imitation” of the ancients; they did not “draw after their lines, but those of Nature; and having the life before us, besides the experience of all they knew, it is no wonder if we hit some airs and features which they have missed” (44). This is an interesting and important argument which seems to have been subsequently overlooked by Alexander Pope, who in other respects followed Dryden’s prescriptions for following the rules of “nature.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope had urged that to copy nature is to copy the ancient writers. Dryden, through the mouth of his persona Eugenius, completely topples this complacent equation: Eugenius effectively turns against Crites the latter’s own observation that the arts and sciences have made huge advances since the time of Aristotle. Not only do we have the collective experience and wisdom of the ancients to draw upon, but also we have our own experience of the world, a world understood far better in scientific terms than in ages past: “if natural causes be more known now than in the time of Aristotle . . . it follows that poesy and other arts may, with the same pains, arrive still nearer to perfection” (44).

Turning to the unities, Eugenius points out (after Corneille) that by the time of Horace, the division of a play into five acts was firmly established, but this distinction was unknown to the Greeks. Indeed, the Greeks did not even confine themselves to a regular number of acts (44–46). Again, their plots were usually based on “some tale derived from Thebes or Troy,” a plot “worn so threadbare . . . that before it came upon the stage, it was already known to all the audience.” Since the pleasure in novelty was thereby dissolved, asserts Eugenius, “one main end of Dramatic Poesy in its definition, which was to cause delight, was of consequence destroyed” (47). These are strong words, threatening to undermine a long tradition of reverence for the classics. But Eugenius has hardly finished: not only do the ancients fail to fulfill one of the essential obligations of drama, that of delighting; they also fall short in the other requirement, that of instructing. Eugenius berates the narrow characterization by Greek and Roman dramatists, as well as their imperfect linking of scenes. He cites instances of their own violation of the unities. Even more acerbic is his observation, following Corneille, that when the classical authors such as Euripides and Terence do observe the unities, they are forced into absurdities (48–49). As for the unity of place, he points out, this is nowhere to be found in Aristotle or Horace; it was made a precept of the stage in our own age by the French dramatists (48). Moreover, instead of “punishing vice and rewarding virtue,” the ancients “have often shown a prosperous wickedness, and an unhappy piety” (50).

Eugenius also berates the ancients for not dealing sufficiently with love, but rather with “lust, cruelty, revenge, ambition . . . which were more capable of raising horror than compassion in an audience” (54). Hence, in Dryden’s text, not only is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy violently displaced by a formulation that will accommodate modern poets, but also the ancient philosopher’s definition itself is made to appear starkly unrealistic and problematic for ancient dramatists, who persistently violated its essential features.

The next point of debate is the relative quality of French and English writers; it is Lisideius who extols the virtues of the French while Neander (Dryden himself) undertakes to defend his compatriots. Lisideius argues that the current French theatre surpasses all Europe, observing the unities of time, place, and action, and is not strewn with the cumbrous underplots that litter the English stage. Moreover, the French provide variety of emotion without sinking to the absurd genre of tragicomedy, which is a uniquely English invention (56–57). Lisideius also points out that the French are proficient at proportioning the time devoted to dialogue and action on the one hand, and narration on the other. There are certain actions, such as duels, battles, and deathscenes, that “can never be imitated to a just height”; they cannot be represented with decorum or with credibility and thus must be narrated rather than acted out on stage (62–63).

Neander’s response takes us by surprise. He does not at all refute the claims made by Lisideius. He concedes that “the French contrive their plots more regularly, and observe the laws of comedy, and decorum of the stage . . . with more exactness than the English” (67). Neander effectively argues that the very “faults” of the English are actually virtues, virtues that take English drama far beyond the pale of its classical heritage. What Neander or Dryden takes as a valid presupposition is that a play should present a “lively imitation of Nature” (68). The beauties of French drama, he points out, are “the beauties of a statue, but not of a man, because not animated with the soul of Poesy, which is imitation of humour and passions” (68).

Indeed, in justifying the genre of tragicomedy, Neander states that the contrast between mirth and compassion will throw the important scenes into sharper relief (69). He urges that it is “to the honour of our nation, that we have invented, increased, and perfected a more pleasant way of writing for the stage, than was ever known to the ancients or moderns of any nation, which is tragi-comedy” (70). This exaltation of tragicomedy effectively overturns nearly all of the ancient prescriptions concerning purity of genre, decorum, and unity of plot. Neander poignantly repeats Corneille’s observation that anyone with actual experience of the stage will see how constraining the classical rules are (76).

Neander now undertakes a brief assessment of the recent English dramatic tradition. Of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, he says, Shakespeare “had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” He was “naturally learn’d,” not through books but by the reading of nature and all her images: “he looked inwards, and found her there” (79–80). Again, the implication is that, in order to express nature, Shakespeare did not need to look outwards, toward the classics, but rather into his own humanity. Beaumont and Fletcher had both the precedent of Shakespeare’s wit and natural gifts which they improved by study; what they excelled at was expressing “the conversation of gentlemen,” and the representation of the passions, especially of love (80–81). Ben Jonson he regards as the “most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had,” and his peculiar gift was the representation of humors (81–82). Neander defines “humour” as “some extravagant habit, passion, or affection” which defines the individuality of a person (84–85). In an important statement he affirms that “Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Johnson was the Vergil, the pattern of elaborate writing” (82). What Neander – or Dryden – effectively does here is to stake out an independent tradition for English drama, with new archetypes displacing those of the classical tradition.

The final debate concerns the use of rhyme in drama. Crites argues that “rhyme is unnatural in a play” (91). Following Aristotle, Crites insists that the most natural verse form for the stage is blank verse, since ordinary speech follows an iambic pattern (91). Neander’s reply is ambivalent (Dryden himself was later to change his mind on this issue): he does not deny that blank verse may be used; but he asserts that “in serious plays, where the subject and characters are great . . . rhyme is there as natural and more effectual than blank verse” (94). Moreover, in everyday life, people do not speak in blank verse, any more than they do in rhyme. He also observes that rhyme and accent are a modern substitute for the use of quantity as syllabic measure in classical verse (96–97).

Underlying Neander’s argument in favor of rhyme is an observation fundamental to the very nature of drama. He insists that, while all drama represents nature, a distinction should be made between comedy, “which is the imitation of common persons and ordinary speaking,” and tragedy, which “is indeed the representation of Nature, but ’tis Nature wrought up to an higher pitch. The plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions, are all exalted above the level of common converse, as high as the imagination of the poet can carry them, with proportion to verisimility” (100–101). And while the use of verse and rhyme helps the poet control an otherwise “lawless imagination,” it is nonetheless a great help to his “luxuriant fancy” (107). This concluding argument, which suggests that the poet use “imagination” to transcend nature, underlines Neander’s (and Dryden’s) departure from classical convention. If Dryden is neoclassical, it is in the sense that he acknowledges the classics as having furnished archetypes for drama; but modern writers are at liberty to create their own archetypes and their own literary traditions. Again, he might be called classical in view of the unquestioned persistence of certain presuppositions that are shared by all four speakers in this text: that the unity of a play, however conceived, is a paramount requirement; that a play present, through its use of plot and characterization, events and actions which are probable and express truth or at least a resemblance to truth; that the laws of “nature” be followed, if not through imitation of the ancients, then through looking inward at our own profoundest constitution; and finally, that every aspect of a play be contrived with the projected response of the audience in mind. But given Dryden’s equal emphasis on the poet’s wit, invention, and imagination, his text might be viewed as expressing a status of transition between neoclassicism and Romanticism.

Dryden’s other essays and prefaces would seem to confirm the foregoing comments, and reveal important insights into his vision of the poet’s craft. In his 1666 preface to Annus Mirabilis, he states that the “composition of all poems is, or ought to be, of wit; and wit . . . is no other than the faculty of imagination in the writer” (14). He subsequently offers a more comprehensive definition: “the first happiness of the poet’s imagination is properly invention, or finding of the thought; the second is fancy, or the variation, deriving, or moulding, of that thought, as the judgment represents it proper to the subject; the third is elocution, or the art of clothing or adorning that thought, so found and varied, in apt, significant, and sounding words: the quickness of the imagination is seen in the invention, the fertility in the fancy, and the accuracy in the expression” (15). Again, the emphasis here is on wit, imagination, and invention rather than exclusively on the classical precept of imitation.

In fact, Dryden was later to write “Defence of An Essay on Dramatic Poesy,” defending his earlier text against Sir Robert Howard’s attack on Dryden’s advocacy of rhyme in drama. Here, Dryden’s defense of rhyme undergoes a shift of emphasis, revealing further his modification of classical prescriptions. He now argues that what most commends rhyme is the delight it produces: “for delight is the chief, if not the only, end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poesy only instructs as it delights” (113). And Dryden states: “I confess my chief endeavours are to delight the age in which I live” (116). We have come a long way from Aristotle, and even from Sidney, who both regarded poetry as having primarily a moral or ethical purpose. To suggest that poetry’s chief or only aim is to delight is to take a large step toward the later modern notion of literary autonomy. Dryden goes on to suggest that while a poet’s task is to “imitate well,” he must also “affect the soul, and excite the passions” as well as cause “admiration” or wonder. To this end, “bare imitation will not serve.” Imitation must be “heightened with all the arts and ornaments of poesy” (113).

If, in such statements, Dryden appears to anticipate certain Romantic predispositions, these comments are counterbalanced by other positions which are deeply entrenched in a classical heritage. Later in the “Defence” he insists that “they cannot be good poets, who are not accustomed to argue well . . . for moral truth is the mistress of the poet as much as of the philosopher; Poesy must resemble natural truth, but it must be ethical. Indeed, the poet dresses truth, and adorns nature, but does not alter them” (121). Hence, notwithstanding the importance that he attaches to wit and imagination, Dryden still regards poetry as essentially a rational activity, with an ethical and epistemological responsibility. If the poet rises above nature and truth, this is merely by way of ornamentation; it does not displace or remold the truths of nature, but merely heightens them. Dryden states that imagination “is supposed to participate of Reason,” and that when imagination creates fictions, reason allows itself to be temporarily deceived but will never be persuaded “of those things which are most remote from probability . . . Fancy and Reason go hand in hand; the first cannot leave the last behind” (127–128). These formulations differ from subsequent Romantic views of the primacy of imagination over reason. Imagination can indeed outrun reason, but only within the limits of classical probability. Dryden’s entire poetic and critical enterprise might be summed up in his own words: he views all poetry, both ancient and modern, as based on “the imitation of Nature.” Where he differs from the classics is the means with which he undertakes this poetic project (123). Following intimations in Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Poetics, he suggests in his Parallel of Poetry and Painting (1695) that what the poet (and painter) should imitate are not individual instances of nature but the archetypal ideas behind natural forms. While adhering to this classical position, he also suggests that, in imitating nature, modern writers should “vary the customs, according to the time and the country where the scene of the action lies; for this is still to imitate Nature, which is always the same, though in a different dress” (Essays, II, 139). This stance effectively embodies both Dryden’s classicism and the nature of his departure from its strict boundaries.

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