Dryden: A Pioneer of Comparative Criticism

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      Introduction. Dryden was a scholar of Greek and Latin literature and he took equally keen interest in Elizabethan literature. He did not decry his contemporaries. He himself was a prolific writer of poems and plays. This wide and extensive perusal of a vast field of literary enterprise of diverse nature convinced Dryden that the modem authors are as worthy of reading as the ancient giants. This was contrary to the ideas of post-Renaissance critics who were convinced that the ancients were far superior to the moderns. According to them the ancient authors should be regarded as models by the writers of all climes and tongues. Between the Greek and Latin authors the former were supposed to be far superior to the latter in grace, subtlety and propriety. It was Dryden who laid emphasis on the patent fact of external differences of language and style by revealing the differences of character and the tastes of the people concerned. Dryden clearly pointed out that each age or nation has its own genius, with the disposition of mankind varying at different times and places. He also revealed the fact that Shakespeare and Fletcher enjoyed a success in their own age comparable with that of Sophocles and Euripides in the ancient times.

      Change of tastes and values. Dryden took special care in giving the reasons for this general phenomenon of universal applicability. Shakespeare, Fletcher and others wrote catering to the taste and genius of the nation in which they lived. Human nature may be the same in essence everywhere but climatic conditions, dispositions of the people and other things may be different. What pleased one set of people need not necessarily please their successors or even contemporaries of another environment.

      In favor of objectivity. Objectivity in views is an essential characteristic of the art of comparative criticism. Longinus, as great a critic as Aristotle himself, has enumerated many things for the success of comparative criticism. Criticism has to involve and establish a standard of judging well. Those excellences that delight a reasonable reader should be observed carefully. If the design, the conduct, the thoughts and the expressions of a poem be generally such as proceed from a true genius of poetry, the critic ought to pass his judgment in favor of the author. It is malicious and unmanly to snarl at the little author. It is malicious and unmanly to snarl at the little lapses of the pen from which Virgil himself does not stand exempted. Horace acknowledges that honest Homer nods sometimes. Longinus has judicially preferred the sublime genius that sometimes errs to the middling or indifferent one which makes few faults but seldom or never rises to any excellence.

      Mental incisiveness. This quality inspires Dryden to go into the very heart of a problem. Dryden’s criticism of Chaucer and Ovid as well as the comparative estimates of Homer and Virgil can be cited as instances of his mental incisiveness. The Preface to the Fables can be mentioned as his best piece of critical appraisal involving the use of comparative and historical methods of criticism.

      Catholic sensitiveness. It this quality that enables John Dryden to see merits in all literary camps. Many passages of Dryden illustrate this point whether he assesses the Romans, Chaucer, or makes a comparative study of Homer and Virgil:

With Ovid ended the golden age of the Roman tongue, from Chaucer the purity of the English language began. The manner of the poets were not unlike. Both of them were well-bred, well-natured—amorous and liberative, their studies were the same philosophy and philology. Both writs with wonderful felicity and clearness; neither were great inventors; Ovid only copied the Greek fables and most of Chaucer’s stories were taken from his Italian contemporaries or their predecessors...

In the first place as he is father of English poetry I so hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense, learned in all sciences and therefore speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say so he knows also where to leave off; a continence which is not practiced by any of the ancients except Virgil and Horace. Chaucer followed Nature everywhere but was never so bold as to go beyond. Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond and must first be polished ere he shines...

Virgil was of a quiet sedate temper. Homer was violent, impetuous and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts and ornament of words. Homer was rapid in his thoughts and took all the liberties both of numbers and expressions which his language and the age in which he lived allowed him. Our two great poets being so different in their tempers, one choleric and sanguine and the other phlegmatic and melancholic, that which makes them excel in their several ways is that each of them has followed his own natural inclination as well informing designs as in the execution of it....the action of Homer being more full of vigor than that of Virgil....is consequently more pleasing to the reader. One warms you by degrees: the other sets you on fire at once and never intermits his heat...one persuades, the other commands...

      Dryden’s critical acumen impels him with inspired directness to the heart of a problem. The comprehensive survey of the various critical ideas — those of the ancients, the modem French and the English—as found in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy illustrates his catholicity and sensitiveness.

      Comparative criticism in the ‘Essay’. The Essay of Dramatic Poesy demonstrates that Dryden’s claim to being the father of practical comparative criticism is amply justified. The relative superiority of the English and French dramatic writings was a burning question of his days. Dryden may not have resolved it but he certainly added fresh dimensions to the controversy. He deals with (a) the relative merit of the ancient and modem writers; (b) the position of the English school of drama in comparison to that of the French; (c) the superiority or otherwise of the Elizabethans to the writers contemporaneous with Dryden; (d) whether the unities of time, place and action are to be strictly observed or not; and (e) the comparative merits of blank verse and rhymed verse as a medium for drama. Four speakers representing four leading writers of the day including Dryden indulge in a dialogue to discuss these burning problems. Each one has his own opinion. Dryden thus frees criticism from its dogmatic features. He recognizes that there are different methods and principles in literature and investigates all of them. He weighs their relative merits and thus establishes comparative criticism. He is also able to raise criticism to the dignity of an art and evolve it as a distinct literary form.

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