Analysis of Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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Introduction to Dryden’s ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy’

      The very title of the ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy’ under our discussion embraces three different forms of literary endeavor viz. prose, poetry and drama in all of which Dryden has distinguished himself. In as much as his literary significance is thus three-fold; it will be necessary for us to take stock of his achievements in every one of these literary forms.


      Dr. Johnson calls Dryden “the father of English Criticism”. His poetic talents did not prevent him from critically assessing the worth of real poetry. The essay that we have taken up for critical analysis is the only major work of literary criticism that Dryden wrote. His prefaces, epistles dedicatory etc. contain some critical material, no doubt, but they have been written for justifying some of his own standpoints. They cannot be considered objectively critical works.

      Sensibility and keen awareness of artistic values can be considered the most salient features of his critical faculty. His imagination was highly creative and it is the principal thing that accounts for much that is noble and great in the literary criticism diet Dryden has offered us.

      No blind follower of established critics. Dryden never exhibited the weakness of blindly following established critics like Aristotle, for despite their depth of knowledge in the poetic art, their models were only the few plays extant during their lifetime whereas we have a wider range of tragedies and comedies of equal merit if not better.

      He even went to the extent of criticizing some of the theories of Aristotle such as the Unities of time and place. Differences in the literary taste in the different nations should be accepted at all costs. This was the contention of Dryden because the genius of the peoples differs. What is literary and aesthetic food for one nation may prove to be literary and aesthetic poison for another nation.

      Dryden established English norms for proper criticism. Rules and regulations should be taken as general guides and not as strict disciplinarians. In his plays his aim was to delight the audience who flocked to the theatre for a full night’s entertainment. He fully appreciated and made full use of the variety in his patrons at the theatre to introduce an immense variety in his plays. Discarding arbitrary rules and regulations, he could make his plays more true to life and nature. If the majority of the people show tendencies to deviate from prudish adherence to virtue, chastity, morality, etc. within the four walls of matrimonial establishment and if he depicts that tendency on the stage it is not his fault. His political and religious opportunism, the fact that he stooped to the grossest flattery of the persons at the top, and other weaknesses he was guilty of should not make us blind to his achievements as a pioneer in a literary criticism of great versatility and as a champion of liberal classicism.

      His limitations. There are many limitations and shortcomings in the art of literary criticism as Dryden developed. He did not deal with ultimate problems of literature. He indulged in lengthy discussions on specific matters of technique and method such as comparative merits of rhyming and blank verse. He took up several points for discussion but not in a systematically developed manner. His casual and personal way of dealing with criticism is diametrically opposed to an incisive and searching treatment of basic issues. Dr. Johnson has this to say about Dryden’s limitations: “His literature, though not always free from ostentation will be commonly found either obvious and made his own by the art of dressing it; or superficial or erroneous, hastily collected and negligently scattered. He is not very scrupulous about what he asserts”.


      The Essay of Dramatic Poesy had the Horatian motto prominently displayed on the title page. The translation is as follows: “I’ll play a whetstone’s part which makes steels sharp, but of itself cannot cut”. This motto announces in unmistakable terms what the general public can and should expect. Practical issues along with theoretical ones should be pondered over and so Dryden’s aim was to stimulate thought about them. He also proposed criteria for judging plays as well for writing them because the readers of the Essay at that time were expected to be his audience at the theatre. Dryden did accomplish his aim in ways that entertained and convinced those readers.

      The background. The period between June 1665 and December 1666 was spent by Dryden out of London because of the Great Plague. He was then at Charlton Park, the manor house of the Earl of Berkshire, his father-in-law. As Dryden himself says in the note to the Reader: “The drift of the ensuing discourse was chiefly to vindicate the honor of our English writers, from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them”.

      The main theme. Five points of discussion emerge from the Essay (a) What are the distinct merits of the ancient and modem poets? (b) Can the French School of Drama be called superior to that of the English? (c) Can the Elizabethan dramatists be considered superior to Dryden’s contemporaries of the seventeenth century? (d) Do plays acquire more literary worth by strictly adhering to the rules laid down by the ancient writers and critics? (e) What are the comparative merits of rhyming verse and blank verse?

      The form of the Essay. Dryden has introduced four persons engaged in a dialogue for the discussion of the topic mentioned above. The four persons are (1) Crites who defend the ancients. It is evident that Dryden meant his own brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard. (2) Eugenius: This is Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst to whom Dryden dedicated his essay. He is the spokesman for the moderns. (3) Lisideius: He stands for Sir Charles Sedley. He defends the French Drama and is inclined to believe in the superiority of the French over the English. (4) Neander: This is Dryden himself. He advocates the superiority of the English over the French and the modems over the ancients. No one person states the whole truth. Every speaker makes his own contribution to the discussion. The give and take of views is freely indulged in and the readers are expected to draw their own conclusions.


      Introduction. Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy is concerned with some of the major controversies of the day. The main themes or critical issues discussed by Dryden in the Essay are: (i) the comparative worth of the ancients and the modems, (ii) the relative merits of the contemporary French and English Schools of Drama, (iii) whether the Elizabethan dramatists were in all respects superior to the dramatists of Dryden’s age, (iv) the extent to which the worth of a play depends upon its conformity to the dramatic rules laid down by the ancients, and (v) the comparative merits and demerits of blank verse and rhyme in serious plays. These issues are discussed in the form of a debate among four speakers who, while they may stand for real individuals of the poet's time, are more important for the ideas they represent.

      Setting and overture. Dryden gives his dialogue a picturesque setting reminiscent of the Platonic tradition. The scene is placed on the Thames, with swallows darting around and within hearing of the Dutch guns engaged in the battle of 1665. As the thunder of battle fades, the dialogue is carried on by the four characters. The light gossip about lost glories, ‘the levelers of poetry’, and bad verses composed to celebrate national events leads on to more serious things. The interlocutors decide to confine their discussion to the drama. Lisideius defines drama as “the lively and just image of human nature representing its passions and humor and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind”—a description which the others are ready to accept.

      Crites: spokesman for the ancients. Crites undertakes to present the case for the ancients, (i) Dramatic art was indigenous to ancient Greece and the drama there had gained an early maturity, (ii) Dramatists were highly esteemed in ancient Greece and thus encouraged to excel at their work. In the modem age lacking deserved encouragement and healthy competition, the dramatists were not interested in doing well. (iii) The ancients emulated nature, the distortion of which aspect led to the decline of drama in the present, (iv) Men of the present looked mainly to the ancients for their rules of the drama. The ancients observed the Unities well. They saw to it that a play’s action fell as nearly as possible within twenty-four hours, the natural duration of the day, and was equally divided between the Acts. The Unity of time, however, was not followed by the modern English dramatists. Nor did they follow the Unity of place as practiced by the ancients. The French observed this unity of representing the same scene throughout a play. The Unity of Action implies that there should be only one great and complete action. These Unities are violated by the modem dramatists who thus render their plays unnatural and improbable, (v) The ancients had possessed the power of expression in a superlative degree.

      Crites thus argues that the ancients are superior to the moderns.

      Eugenius presents the case for the moderns. Eugenius replies to the arguments of Crites, (i) The modern dramatists had actually improved on the work of the ancients though it was always difficult to assess fairly the value of contemporary writings, (ii) The ancients too had defects. The division of the play into protasis, epitasis, etc. was ineffective. Their tragic plots were mostly based on hackneyed tales of Thebes and Troy, while in comedy characters were limited to certain stock types, (iii) The Unities were not always observed by the ancients. At times the strict observance of the Unities of time and place led them into absurdities. In any case, apart from the Unity of action those rules were not Aristotelian but French in origin. (iv) Other defects in technique include excess of speech at the cost of action leading to monotony, many instances of faulty diction and metaphors. The ancients having had writers exclusively devoted to either tragedy or comedy, should have achieved perfection in each field, and there is no justification for their defects. (v) Apart from technical defects the ancients also exhibited a faulty moral attitude. Instead of ‘punishing vice and rewarding virtue’ they often displayed “a prosperous vice and an unhappy piety’’ Their themes of lust, revenge and ambition gave rise to horror rather than pity in an audience. Love, with its moderating influences, is conspicuous by its absence in ancient tragedy.

      Crites’s concession. The discussion is brought to a close by Crites’s concession that whether the moderns surpassed, or merely differed from the ancients, yet the ancients had they lived in later times would doubtless have made many changes. The change in ideas and values accounts for much of the difference between the ancients and modems.

      The debate now takes a new turn, and Lisideiqs and Neander enter on a discussion of the respective merits of French and English plays.

      Lisideius: contention of French superiority over English drama. To begin with Lisideius grants that English plays of forty years previously had clearly surpassed those of the French. However, political turmoil at home had since hampered the progress. (i) The French, aided by Richelieu and Corneille, had lately reformed their stage so that it had become unrivaled in Europe, (ii) The superiority of the French dramatists firstly lay in their observance of the three Unities. They had discarded the absurd tragi-comedies with their mingled passions and yet provided variety in plenty, (iii) The French based their plots on familiar history but modified and transformed for dramatic purposes, whereas Shakespeare’s historical plays were nothing but chronicles, cramping years into hours in an unnatural fashion, (iv) Another notable feature of the dramatic art of the French was their economy in plotting, their selection of significant details, which, while constituting a great and complete action, yet allowed for a more searching treatment of emotions and passions, (v) The French method of characterization too was effective as it gave due importance to characters even while exalting one of them. Each character had a suitable role to play. (vi) No less notable was their skill in narrative though too much explanation could become tedious. On the other hand, there were many incidents in a story which could not well be represented on the stage, such as duels, battles and scenes of cruelty and these were best related, not acted. Such narratives could be both impressive and convincing, whereas to represent an “Army with a drum and five men behind it” was merely ridiculous, while a death-scene in an English tragedy was often the most comic part of the play, (vii) Other commendable points about French drama were a logical development of the plot, and the use of rhyme in preference to blank verse.

      Neander (or Dryden) spokesman for England and liberty. Neander now takes up the challenge and with the skill of a great advocate strikes at the heart of the question. He grants the French some plus points but vindicates the English at the same time. (i) The French drama had regularity and decorum, while the English plays had many irregularities but these virtues and defects were not enough to place the French above the English, (ii) The beauties of the French plays were artificial, lacking touch with actual life, hence defective if considered with the laws of Nature as the ultimate test. Moliere, notably, followed the English tradition for variety of humor.

      (iii) Neander disapproved of the rigid separation of tragic and comic elements in French plays. He preferred the English characteristic of mingling the serious and the mirthful as (a) contraries set off each other, (b) the juxtaposition of a comic scene amidst continued gravity provided relief, (c) compassion and mirth are coexistent in nature also, and (d) tragic-comedy is a more pleasant way than was known to the ancients or any modems who have eschewed it.

      (iv) Neander could not admire the barrenness and severity of French plays in excluding under-plots and minor episodes. Provided such details contributed to the main design, their value lay in adding a pleasing variety, the effect being similar (as he puts it) to that of the two-fold movements of planets in the Primum Mobile.

      (v) That the preoccupation of the French with a single theme (or Unity of action) gave opportunity for impassioned appeals was unconvincing, since such appeals consisted mostly of long-winded and boring declamations. Furthermore, long speeches were untrue to life, while short speeches were more likely to stir the emotions. As for comedy, repartee was “one of its chief graces”.

      (vi) Variety was enhanced by having a large number of characters. If skilfully managed, as by Ben Jonson, the large number of characters need not cause confusion.

      (vii) As regards showing violence on stage, such scenes had become part of the English tradition, being a concession to the native temperament which somehow delighted in these things. As for incredibility, if an audience could imagine an actor as a king, they could also imagine three soldiers to represent an army. And if the English were guilty of showing too much action on the stage, the French were guilty of showing too little action. A mean path must be taken, eschewing the indecent and the incredible but representing the beautiful. Death, however, must not be shown on stage.

      (viii) The French dramatist Corneille had observed that French dramatists had suffered from too strict an observance of the rules, and had thereby banished from the stage many artistic beauties.

      (ix) Regular English plays were not entirely wanting—an example being Jonson’s Silent Woman. For the rest, however, English plays were more original, more varied and spirited. Neander now goes on to illustrate these qualities from the works of outstanding English dramatists.

      Neander’s appreciation of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher and Jonson. Neander hails Shakespeare as the largest and most comprehensive soul of all modem, and perhaps ancient poets. Reference is made to his unlaboured art, his inborn genius, his life-like characterization, though he is also said at times to stumble into bombast and punning. But the final judgment is unequivocal. “He is always great when some great occasion is presented to him...”

      The remarks on Beaumont and Fletcher are equally interesting. The two dramatists are credited with gaiety, wit, skill in intrigue and a lively display of the passion while excelling in their “imitation of the conversation of gentlemen”.

      Ben Jonson is described as ‘‘the most learned and judicious of dramatists”. Humour being his sphere, he treated mainly of ordinary life. His tragedies were distinguished by learning and the faithful pictures of ancient Rome drawn from classical sources. However, there could be no question of plagiarism with Jonson. Neander conducts an Examen of The Silent Woman to show its adherence to the Unities, its faultless construction, its variety of character and humor. In the process some notable remarks on Falstaff occur. Neander concludes that the English writers are better than the ancients and the writers of other countries.

      Crites’s attack on rhyme and Neander’s defense. After vindicating the English dramatists, which is the main object of the Essay, Dryden is unable to conclude without some reference to the question of the verse most suitable for dramatic purposes.

      Crites notes that blank verse had established itself in popular favor since Shakespeare and others had written, and rhyming verse was an unnatural and artificial form of expression. Aristotle too had held that tragedy was best written in verse nearest prose. Nor could he accept the argument that rhyme was instrumental in curbing wild fancies; for a dramatist unable to control these fancies in blank verse would not be able to control them anyway.

      Neander marshalls all his arguments in favor of rhyming verse and boldly asserts that it is more natural and effectual than blank verse in serious plays. Rhyming verse had been universally adopted abroad and could be made to resemble prose by varying the cadences, by running the sense on from one line to another, or by irregular devices. Blank verse was no verse at all, at its best only poetic prose. The truth was, so Neander felt, that the possibilities of blank verse had been exhausted by those earlier dramatists. All that was left for a later age with its different genius was to employ rhyming verse in which excellence unknown to the earlier age had lately been achieved, Furthermore, rhyming verse was, according to Neander ‘the noblest kind of modem verse’, and the only adequate verse-form for tragedy. Tragedy was a representation of ‘Nature wrought up to a higher pitch’ and for such a treatment of Nature, rhyming verse was the only verse form. Moreover, rhyme was an aid to judgment.

      Conclusion. The Essay concludes at this moment in a picturesque fashion, with the moonlight playing on the Thames, as the boat reaches its destination, and the disputants disperse on their several ways.

      The Essay ends without a definite conclusion. “What Dryden does”, as Robert D. Hume observes, “is to sketch out some possible positions. Each one is coherent and reasonably self-contained, which makes the essay unique in Dryden’s criticism. His concern is always ultimately practical. But whereas normally his response is syncretic—he lumps together what seems best in the various positions—here he keeps the positions discrete. This separation is, I think, one of the best arguments for calling Essay of Dramatic Poesy exploratory rather than legislative in intent.”

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