An Essay of Dramatic Poesy as Pure Language Criticism

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      George Watson in his The Literary Critics has classified the art of criticism into three types, viz., (1) Legislative criticism; (2) Theoretical criticism, and (3) Descriptive criticism.

      Legislative Criticism. Books of rhetorics are sermons to the would-be and existing poets giving them the Do’s and Don’ts for writing poems. They enact laws like the legislative wings of the Parliament, asking the devotees of the poetic Muse to confine themselves to certain precepts. The leaders of literature during the Elizabethan era practically adopted this kind of criticism alone. Readers of poetry were not worthy of their consideration at all. They neglected them and turned towards the consideration of what a poem ought to be. This sort of criticism died a natural death in the course of the seventeenth century when Dryden and others came to the helm of affairs. Dryden adopted the descriptive mode of criticism wherein the critics seek their public among the readers of poetry.

      Theoretical criticism. Also called literary aesthetics, this form first arose in England in the 1570s under the influence of Spanish and Italian critics and practiced by Sidney and his circle. While Dryden and others of the seventeenth century continued to show an interest in literary aesthetics, Dryden’s forte lay elsewhere.

      Descriptive criticism. This is more or less a critical analysis and appraisal of all the current literary works. This form of criticism has its own vigor and vitality naturally because of the variety of its contents. It cannot but be voluminous because it has to survey a wide field, becoming wider and wider as more and more writers jump into the arena. It has a history of more than three hundred years in England. Whereas descriptive criticism begins introspectively usually, the critical tradition in England had the credit of being born catechistically, as it were, in view of the dialogues and discussions that precede a general appraisal. Dryden too had his share of introspection because in his prefaces he tried to justify his own method of creating dramatic literature. He was compelled to defend himself and his plays from formidable detractors.

      Even a descriptive critic momentarily takes shelter behind the edifices of legislative and theoretical criticism for the respectability they command. To put it precisely, a legislative critic says, “This is how you must write plays. These are the things you will avoid”. A theoretical critic says, “I have found early writers writing tragedy like this, I have the honor of informing you”; whereas the descriptive critic says, “This is how I have composed my dramas and plays. The reasons that made me do so are these”.

      Dryden a descriptive critic of a sort We cannot affirm that Dryden was radically descriptive. His critical output include prefaces to his own plays, critical appraisals in his biographies of Plutarch, Polybius and Lucian, some prefaces to the works of his contemporaries and then the Essay of Dramatic Poesy. English criticism has made its edifice over the foundation laid by Dryden. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy can be called a formal work of literary criticism. Had it not been for chance circumstance of retiring to the countryside due to the great plague in London in 1665-1666 his Essay would not have seen the light of day. Dryden had begun as a great playwright but the closing of all theatres during the pestilence interrupted his career. His creative genius had to find an outlet and the Essay was the result. Later on when he found reputation and remuneration in dramatic output after the Restoration he had no need to write a work on criticism.

      The Essay a manifesto. A manifesto is the public declaration of a policy a group of people intend to adopt. Although there is no need for writers to issue a manifesto because the public will be judging the writers on the basis of their creative work rather than their assertions and apologies, yet sometimes such a piece becomes necessary. The Essay has some features of such a manifesto because Dryden visualizes the type of plays he hoped to write. Hence there is a sort of prenatal justification of those kinds of plays—heroic plays—though alien to England in origin, yet distinctly Elizabethan in variety of plot and temperament. Dryden, indeed, wrote a vigorous “English” tragedy viz. All for Love. In view of the fact that Dryden did not make use of rhymed verse in it there is a distinct deviation from the type originally visualized. Still the Essay has given us an ideal critical appraisal of a literary work through the examen of Ben Jonson’s Silent Woman.

      Dialogue form. Dialogues of Plato had given Dryden the general external, feature for his Essay. The essay, however, has six set speeches and not running conversation as one would have expected. Three main topics are discussed and we have the orations of one in favor followed by one against Crites speaks first in defense of the ancients to which Eugenius replies with a defense of the modems. Then the defense of the French drama by Lisideius is countered by Neander’s speech in favor of English drama. Finally, Crites and Neander argue for and against blank verse as medium for drama.

      Author's judgment and pronouncements. In the course of his analysis of Ben Jonson’s Silent Woman, Dryden views it as the perfect play and not merely as a good play. Dryden uses the word ‘examen’ for his literary appraisal. It is an expression coined from Latin and borrowed from the French word used by Corneille. The comparative study of the French and English dramatic works—balancing the qualities of one against those of the other - is the first and finest example of literary criticism in England. Like other Renaissance critics, Dryden also indulges in many judgments and pronouncements—both eulogistic and antagonistic—about various writers even as he tries to theorize about poetry in general. In his review of Silent Woman, we can see many examples of descriptive criticism. The general estimates of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher too are noteworthy features.

      Ratification. We have to admit that Dryden is sometimes wanting in the ability to explore an idea impartially. His haste at self-justification exhausts all his powers of argument Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, has classified Dryden’s critical acumen into two, viz. the didactic and the defensive. Dryden was compelled by force of circumstances to be on the defensive till he reached the pinnacle of glory as a poet and of power as a member of the Governmental machinery for the brief period of ten years. Egotism—in as much as he constantly referred to his likes and dislikes as well as to what he did and what he did not—was a complaint against Dryden, given expression to by Johnson. His analysis of fact was only an ancillary to what he did later, namely a generalization for his own purposes. This makes the logical status of his mode of criticism puzzling and ambiguous - looking backward to the Elizabethans and anticipating, to a certain extent, what Samuel Johnson was destined to do later.

      A foretaste of what Dryden could do later. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy besides being a pioneering work in English literary criticism gives us a foretaste of the way in which the genius of Dryden was destined to shape itself. That liveliness and urbanity need not dislodge shrewd reasoning is adequately displayed by the author. Despite the clearly manifest and outspokenly admitted admiration for French critics by the author himself we must not conclude that Dryden slavishly followed the guidance of his French masters. Just as admiration for the ancients did not make Dryden accept all their dictates, so also his appreciation of the achievements of the French savants did not compel him to accept the rules of the French stage in toto.

University Questions

How far would you agree that in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, the “neo-classical jargon has been replaced by the pure language of criticism”.
Consider the Essay of Dramatic Poesy as a manifesto, a work of legislative criticism.
“It is not so much Dryden’s criticism as his general attitude that matters.” Comment
“A remarkable feature of Dryden’s mind is his capacity to retain an openness to contrary argument almost approaching skepticism.” Discuss with illustrations from the Essay of Dramatic Poesy.
In what ways does Dryden give a new turn to English criticism in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy? How far does he succeed in breaking away from the prejudices of his age?

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