General Estimate of Dryden as A Critics

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      Dr. Johnson’s famous verdict that Dryden is father of English criticism appears incontrovertible when we take into account the condition of English criticism before Dryden’s time and also both the quality and quantity of his critical output. His critical independence, the freedom of his inquiries and the boldness of his conclusions further entitle him to the rank of the originators of English literary criticism. Certain qualities embodied in Dryden’s critical work are of abiding significance. He was a poet-critic, one of the long line of critics who evolved their critical views out of their practical experience as writer, with the artist’s sensibility and judgment heightening the critical approach. While the Essay of Dramatic Poesy is his only formal work of criticism, Dryden’s critical views are to be found in a wide range of Prefaces to his poems, plays and translations.

      Native sensibility affirmed. Dryden was a Restoration writer, influenced by the cross-currents of thoughts and ideas prevailing at the time. The ‘neo-classical’ trend of the French critics influenced the English greatly. However, Dryden’s greatness lies in the affirmation of his native sensibility. His head, as one critic observes, was French but his heart was English. He understood and acknowledged the importance of principles and rules but he was averse to any rigidity in following conventions. It was his native sensibility which made him keenly alive to artistic values, and, as J.W.H. Atkins points out, “enable also of a dispassionate psychological analysis of those values”. Ultimately his judgment really sprang from an imaginative sympathy which soared above what the pure intellect could discern. Before Dryden almost all the critics of England followed the continental critics like Boileau who closely followed the ancients like Aristotle and Horace. Dryden chose not to blindly follow any critical tenet, merely on the basis of its having been expounded by a “classical” critic. He thus went to the extent of saying that it is not enough that Aristotle said so.

      In his Essay of Dramatic Poesy Dryden defends the English version of dramatic art, its violation of the unities, and its variety of plot and character. He offers cogent arguments in favor of tragi-comedy. He points out that nations and peoples differ in temperament and a form of entertainment suitable for one group may not necessarily be suitable for another. The English, he says, are more sullen than the French and come to the theatre for entertainment. The tragi-comedy, greater action on stage, variety of characters—all these suit the genius of the English people. Thus Dryden’s critical views, coming at the time they did, stemmed the tide in favor of neo-classical criticism and asserted the importance of the native tradition. Dryden shows himself to be “keenly alive to artistic values”, and at the same time is able to offer a dispassionate psychological analysis of those values. He admits that the English penchant for violence and tumultuous action on stage may not be “decorous”, but as it is the way the English people are, the dramatists had better accept the situation and create suitable entertainment for them.

      Dryden established “the English fashion of criticizing as Shakespeare did the English fashion of dramatizing’. If Shakespeare pays scant attention to ‘rules’, Dryden is equally willing to bypass them while judging a work of art. He analyses and evaluates with sympathy and imaginative understanding. As R.A. Scott-James observes, Dryden “clears the ground for himself by brushing away all the arbitrary bans upon freedom of judgment. He refuses to be cowed by the French playwrights and critics...Even to Aristotle, he refuses to render slavish homage.” Aristotle, after all, drew his models of tragedy from the work of playwrights he was acquainted with; he might have presented different critical points if he had been acquainted with the English plays of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such an approach was nothing if not revolutionary in the seventeenth century.

      Not only in the “Essay of Dramatic Poesy but also in the Preface to the Fables we find Dryden’s native sensibility at work. His estimate of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is now considered a standard piece of sensitive and accurate criticism. The subjective feeling and objective judgment coalesce into a memorable critique of Chaucer’s power of characterization. He appreciates the variety and realism of Chaucer’s characters. He blends historical and biographical facts allowing each to illuminate the other. He shows that Chaucer’s characters are both of their age and of all ages. As David Daiches says, “Dryden has employed both history and psychology in critical evaluation...It is popular criticism, but in the best sense of the word”.

      Dryden’s liberal classicism. To question the authority of the ancients, to suggest that there might be another good way of writing tragedies besides that of Sophocles and Euripides, to hint that, after all, the plot may not necessarily be the chief thing, “though it is the foundation”, of a tragedy,—to dare all this, as Dryden did, was revolutionary indeed. Dryden had read not only the classics; he had read and appreciated the Elizabethan writers too. He found that the effect upon him of the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, Beauniont and Fletcher and Jonson was not much different from that of the ancient Greek plays. Yet the technique employed by the English dramatists was not in the least bit like the ancients. Thus Dryden points out that techniques may differ, but the result may be the same. Dryden’s own changing tastes and interests helped to make him responsive to different kinds of literary skills. He is able to read the work under consideration with full and sympathetic understanding. At the same time, however, he was aware of standards of taste beyond what the English society of the day was aware of and these he tried to introduce into England without defying the valuable parts of the native tradition. He is a liberal classicist, concerned with the craftsmanship, polish and form of the poetry but not to the extent of recommending a rigid adherence to rules at any cost.

      Comparative and historical method. Dryden’s major contribution to the field of English criticism lies in his opening a new field of comparative criticism. Critics before Dryden had compared modem literature to the ancient works, assuming the latter to be the perfect standard. Dryden refused to indulge in this kind of comparison. He pointed Out literature is not static; it evolves along with the changes and development undergone by the character and taste of a people. He anticipated the modem critics by pointing out that each nation and each age has its own genius. Thus his comparative criticism involves, not the comparison of the literatures of different ages, nations or writers to the detriment of one, but evaluation of different qualities to be found in the various literatures. Dryden shows a well developed historical sense when he says that the differences in the temperament developed over the ages account for differences in the technique of writing. Thus he defends the literary conventions governing the drama of the Elizabethan and Restoration periods.

      Dryden’s comparative and historical method is exemplified in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy when he defends the modems against the ancients and then the English against the French. His Preface to the Fables illustrates his critical technique even better. It is here that Dryden has used the comparative method to a nicety in his assessment of Homer and Virgil. Nor is his critical assessment of Chaucer to be ignored. With a shrewd critical acumen he says that perfection was not to be expected from Chaucer who wrote “in the infancy of our poetry”.

      Descriptive criticism. George Watson sees criticism to be of three kinds which have nothing in common except a reasoned concern for poetry. First there is legislative criticism which claims to teach the poet how to write or how to write better. It prescribes rules to guide one in literary composition. Secondly, there is the theoretical type concerned with abstract questions of literary aesthetics. Finally, there is descriptive criticism which is concerned with the analysis and interpretation of a work of art. Criticism here becomes creative, trying to mold public taste. Dryden was the first Englishman to attempt any extended descriptive criticism. His examen of Jonson’s The Silent Woman is thus unique in this context. His appreciation of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher and Jonson similarly deserve notice for their analytical technique. The marks of a great critic are seen in the judicial balancing of virtues and faults, in the sense that each of these writers has his own special gifts and is not necessarily to be censured for lacking qualities which another may have, and in the ability to summarise the total achievement of a writer.

      Limitations as a critic. Dryden was not without shortcomings. He failed to deal with the ultimate problems of technique, but contented himself with specific matters, questions of technique and method. The medium of tragedy—blank verse or rhyme - is one such issue. Dryden also failed to systematically develop a point. He often took up an issue, dropped it in the interest of another point and then returned to it after some time. He is thus al times too casual in his approach. Furthermore, Dryden is not very scrupulous about what he asserts when he has to substantiate his opinions. Robert D. Hume points out that Dryden in his prefaces often succumbed to the quarrels and transient concerns of a petty and personal nature, descending to the level of a casual and occasional critic. Often Dryden’s purpose is self-justification.

      Dryden also failed to evolve a formal aesthetic principle. Dryden’s work at best can be divided into three categories—speculative, prescriptive and explanatory.

      Dryden’s, “cavalier inconsistency” as R.D. Hume calls it, is also undeniable. His attitude towards the use of rhyme in tragedy, for example, underwent considerable change.

      Conclusion. Limitations cannot, however, diminish the greatness of Dryden as a critic, for, despite his lack of system, his inconsistencies and digressions, he has something substantial to offer to his own and later ages. Firstly, he recalled quite a number of seminal and lasting principles generated in antiquity—that poetry, for example, was not confined to factual truth. To these he added advice gleaned from his own experience. He decried bombast in drama, conceits and false wit in poetry, irrelevance and superfluity in prose; he called attention to the importance of dramatic characterization, and noted the emotional values of literature in general. Moreover, he drew attention to the higher function of criticism, that is, the appreciation of positive literary excellences and to the fact that time was the final test of literary values. Above all, his manner of presentment, the charm, the urbanity and liveliness of his style, so free of pedantry, add an unfading freshness to all that he wrote. “His reputation as a critic,” as Atkins says, “rests on sure and lasting foundations.”

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