John Dryden: Contribution to English literature

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     John Dryden (1631-1700) is the greatest literary figure of the Restoration and in his works, we have an excellent reflection of both the good and evil tendencies of the age in which he lived. Dryden has left works of considerable volume in poetry, drama and prose.

      Poetry :  Dryden's early poem, "Lines on the death of Lord Hastings" is written in the form of heroic couplet strongly reminiscent of Donne's Anniversaries. His heroic stanzas On the death of Oliver Cromwell and his Annus Mirabilis possess dignity and finish but lack the strength and flow of his greater poems. This poetical craftsmanship is shown in Astraea Redux (1660) in celebration of Charles II's return. His poem on Oliver Cromwell (1659) consists of thirty seven quatrains. They are uninspired and stiff but they show force and metrical dexterity.
Dryden is, however, more important in the history of English poetry for his satirical verses.
John Dryden

      Dryden is, however, more important in the history of English poetry for his satirical verses.

      Dryden's Satires : John Dryden is the greatest name in Restoration satires. In satiric verses, he was the master of perfect poetic expression. The matter of Dryden's satirical work is really original. In Absalom and Achitophel (1681) he exposes the machination of Shaftesbury which brought England almost to the verge of civil war. It was written amid the excitement following the alleged Popish plot to defend the king's policy against the Earl of Shaftesbury. In this poem Dryden uses the poetic convention of the time by which the return of Charles II to his country was likened to that of the youthful David. He satirises under scriptural names the chief advocates of Exclusion Bill and enemies of the Catholic succession. It is a political allegory and has epic dimension. The excellence of the work lies mainly in the numerous portraits which show Dryden's keen insight. This poem owes its greatness to the author's Olympian alootness: he neither preaches nor scolds. There is relentless power in the portraits of Achitophel, Zimri, Shimei etc. His couplet here has achieved superb strength and freedom. The Medal is a bitter attack on the middle class whigs of the town. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe is a stinging, destructive personal lampoon degraded with much coarseness and personal spite. In it he satirises the whig playwright Thomas Shadwell who was formerly a friend of Dryden. Here Shadwell is represented as succeeding the tedious playwright Flecknoe in his rule over the realms of nonsense. This poem is a personal attack on Shadwell who wrote a reply to the Medal attacking the Tory. Dryden wrote a second part of Absalom and Achitophel (1682) in which he made a violent attack on Shadwell.

      These satirical poems are on a higher plane though it must be contested that Dryden's satire often strikes us as cutting and revengeful rather than witty. In Absalom ana Achitophel he shows himself to be the master of picturesque characterisation and delicate rhythm. The classical strictness of form is enriched and set off by a romantic imagination. The intelligent and apt use of imagery, the power of poetic suggestion, the free exercise of critical faculty and animating force of expression contribute to the creation of an inspired satirical style. Dryden shows himself a master in uniting a crushing force of mockery with an enlivening good humour which lends to his satires the stamp of universality. His couplet is incisive and forceful.

      Other Poems :  The strong intellectual basis of Dryden's best poetry is nowhere more evident than in the poems, Religio Laice (1682) and The Hynd and the Panther (1687) in which he declares the successive stages of his religious faith. Dryden's lyric gift finds expression in the songs which are scattered throughout his plays. The stately songs for St. Cecilias Day and Alexander's Feast are universally known. Though his lyrics at their best are majestic and exquisite, his fame, depends on his skilful use of the couplet.

      His Plays : Dryden's dramatic works cover almost all contemporary kinds of dramatic writings. His first play to be acted is The Wild Gallant, a moderately successful prose comedy reproducing the free speech and morals of the time. His other comedies are Marriage a la mode and Amphitriyon which are brilliantly written and had considerable success with the public.

      Dryden's dramatic genius finds fullest expression in the Heroic plays. His chief heroic plays included The Indian Emperor (1665), Tyranni Love (1669) and Aurengzeb (1675). In all these plays, Dryden employed the riming couplet. Dryden did for the reformed couplet much the same service that Marlowe had done for blank verse. Heroic plays were not the result of classical influence. They preserve in their composition the freedom of the National Theatre. They took their rules neither from Latin nor from Greek. They owed much to France, but more in content than in form. They reproduced the extraordinary adventures typical of the eleventh century French models. Here are superhuman feats, sentiments refined to absurdity magnificent and sometimes execrable passion. There are no characters, only extremely effective situations allowing of high sounding pompous speeches. The heroes are models, but their code is not the ordinary code. They are unequalled in valour and are incomparable lovers. The plays are generally full of magnificent speeches as it is found in the French novel. The influence of the French heroic romances and tragedies explains why most of the themes turned on the conflict between love and honour. Dryden in his essay on heroic plays pointed out: "An heroic play ought to be an imitation of heroic poem and consequently love and valour ought to be the subject of it". In all the heroic plays of Dryden there is the same strained exaltation of character, the same swift, yet mechanical dialogue and the same rough beat of verse. But he confesses in the prelude to Aurengzeb that "a secret shame invades his breast at Shakespeare's sacred name". This reaction finds expression in the tragedies where he uses blank verse and adopts Shakespeare's themes, as in All For Love, and his rehandling of Troilus and Cresida. In All For Love, (1678) Dryden adopts the theme of Autony and Cleopatra, but he has an original play, less vast and exquisite than the earlier drama but more realistic and closely knit The finest of his remaining tragedies are Don Sebastian and Cleomenes.

      Dryden's Prose : English prose throughout the early seventeenth century possessed much splendour and strength, but it had not evolved any sure and universal mediums of expression. To attribute to Dryden alone the creation ot such a medium would be to ignore the just claims of men like Temple and Halifax. But it has to be admitted Dryden did more than any single man towards purging English prose of its conceits and exaggeration and evolving a form of it which should be at once strong, easy, clear and dignified. Apart from translations Dryden's prose consists mainly of essay and prefaces dealing with a large range of questions connected of his production. As the Restoration saw the rise of the new prose, so also it saw the real beginnings of modern criticism. It is now for the first time that people began to address themselves systematically to the study of the principles and laws of literature and it is in this age that intellectualism predominates over the creative power. Dryden, the English first great modern prose writer is also the first great critic.

      Dryden's prose clearly marks the birth of modern English prose. The older prose- the prose of Hooker, Milton and Jeremy Taylor are too intricate, involved and learned. The construction adopted there was often that of Latin rather than of English syntax. But prose that came with the Restoration and chiefly with Dryden is simple, direct and lucid. This new prose is the result of the spread of the spirit of commonsense and the critical temper of mind. The extending influence of science and the growing taste of the public in varied subjects also favoured clearness of thought and plainness of expression. The influence of France in the creation of direct and lucid prose at this time has also to be recognised. In course of his criticism Dryden took up and discussed all the topics, forms and methods of the drama, e.g, the elements of heroic and epic poetry, the relation of art and nature, the qualities of the great writers of Greece and Rome and so on. His work is thus of capital importance as a commentary on the taste and ideals of rising classical school of literature.

      Dryden's most famous prose work is The Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) in which he considers the merits of three chief types of drama the classical drama of the Greeks and Romans, the neo-classical drama of the French and the romantic drama of the English. It was in form a dialogue. Its estimates of Jonson, Fletcher and Shakespeare would be alone sufficient to prove Dryden as one of the greatest among English critics. Among Dryden's chief remaining essays are those on heroic plays, heroic poetry and on the grounds of criticism in the tragedies. In it he undertakes to justify the use of rhyme in place of blank verse on the stage.

      Dryden often writes hastily and is habitually careless in detail. He accepted in general the limitations and prejudices of his age. His criticism though important historically has but slight permanent value. But his prose is marked by a new intimacy, charm, dignity and accuracy which have influenced the English prose of subsequent ages. His prose style is characterised by clearness, vigour and a wonderful felicity of phrasing, and colloquial ease, and rarely descends to the level of the slipshod or the commonplace.

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