John Dryden as the Father of English Criticism

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      Jonson the first English critic but Dryden the Father of English Criticism. It was Dr. Johnson who conferred the title of ‘The Father of English Criticism’ on Dryden. Saintsbury, T.S. Eliot and dozens of other modern critics support Dr. Johnson’s views. Of course by saying that Ben Jonson is the first critic of England Dryden’s position has not been degraded. That remark is based on the historical priority of Jonson and not on originality of ideas or novelty of critical precepts propounded by him. However, no one can deny that the younger contemporary of Shakespeare faced boldly the practical problems of the literature and literary aspirants of the day. Jonson exhibited sturdy independence of spirit and displayed “liberal classicism” entitling him to the position of being the first English critic.

      Dryden admired Jonson for various reasons but not for any merit of originality whatsoever. In what is called a critical work, namely, his Discoveries, Jonson was ruthless in his ‘‘liberal classicism” whereas Dryden was highly tolerant. If it is a question of critical output, Jonson’s was limited in critical range and sketchy and meager in output. Dryden was fortunately in possession of a rich and diverse literary tradition behind him enabling him to produce quantitatively prolific and qualitatively more urbane critical output. This fact entitles him to the position of the father of English practical criticism.

      Dryden’s bold and free spirit. Dryden’s affection for English literature was indisputably deep and he had the courage of conviction. He could never stomach the trivialities of the French critical theorists of his day who were over-scrupulous and meticulous about some stipulated rule and definitions. Dryden was not unaware of the rich variety of life as a consequence of the abundance of genius, rendering these inhibiting rules and regulations incompatible. Professor Scott James aptly expresses how Dryden was successful in realizing and hence clearing for himself the ground by brushing away all arbitrary bans upon freedom of composition and thought. The fact that the tragi-comedy of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century English playwrights which mingled mirth with serious plots did not find favor with their French counterparts could not be a reason for forbidding that type of play itself. The boldness exhibited by Dryden in refusing to render slavish homage to Aristotle is also commendable because he clearly points out that Aristotle himself would have appreciated tragicomedies if only he had seen those English plays directly in the same manner as the works of Sophocles and Euripides which formed the basis for his Rhetoric and Poetics.

      Dryden’s mastery of all types of criticism. Careful analysis of existing literary works can be termed “Descriptive Criticism”. As George Watson the author of The Literary Critics has explained, it is John Dryden the author of Essay of Dramatic Poesy who has given us a fine specimen of descriptive criticism. Dryden’s literary strength and skill has been exquisitely displayed in this work as well as in his Preface to the Fables. There is no other literary giant who has more confidence in his own power and clarity of vision. He has clearly analyzed and tried to estimate and appraise all dogmatic rules and principles.

      There are two other types of criticism, namely, “legislative criticism” which supplies the poet with stock material for discriminating what to write from what not to write and for comprehending the better and more graceful ways of writing. Another type, namely, ‘‘theoretical criticism” deals with the aesthetic aspects of literature. Dryden’s works have enough examples in them to convince any later critic how much he is indebted to Dryden for the full comprehension of the different aspects of literature.

      The following lines of exquisite excellence from Dryden should be carefully considered by any serious student of literary criticism—“Let us therefore admire the beauties and heights of Shakespeare without falling after him into a carelessness and I may call it a lethargy of thought for whole scenes together. Let us imitate as we are able the quickness and easiness of Fletcher without proposing him as a pattern to us, either in the redundancy of his matter or the incorrectness of his language.... Let us ascribe to Jonson the height and accuracy of judgment in the ordering of his plots, his choice of characters and maintaining it to the end. But let us not think him a perfect pattern of imitation except it be in humor; for love, which is the foundation of all comedies in other languages, is scarcely mentioned in any of his plays. And for humor itself the poets of this age will be more wary than to imitate the meanness of his persons. To conclude all, let us render to our predecessors what is their due without confining ourselves to a servile imitation of all they write and without assuming ourselves the title of better poets. Let us ascribe to the gallantry and civility of our age, the advantages we have above them and to our knowledge of the customs and manner of it, the happiness we have to please beyond them.” This brilliant analysis of the three great dramatists of the Elizabethan age clearly points out that despite the fact that Dryden was fully conscious of the natural greatness of Shakespeare, the artistic vigor of Jonson and the stylistic elegance of Fletcher, he is not at all blind to their shortcomings and limitations.

      Pioneer of comparative criticism. Another point to remember is the fact that Dryden also opened the new field of comparative criticism wherein he emphatically points out that the disposition of mankind varies at different times in the History of Man. Hence it involves variations in taste and art. In the History of World Literature, master-minds and giants of letters have their respective places, be they Sophocles and Euripides or Shakespeare and Fletcher and they enjoy their own manner of success and reputation.

      As pointed out by Professor David Daiches in his Critical Approaches to Literature, Dryden’s ability to read any work under consideration with full and sympathetic understanding is superb. Personal bias and prejudice is scrupulously avoided by him with remarkable ability. His appraisal of Chaucer, Shakespeare etc. is epigrammatically attractive of attention and remarkably expository of the salient features of the concerned works. May these be noted: “Chaucer is a rough diamond and must first be polished ere he shines - Chaucer is a perpetual fountain of good sense, learned in all sciences and therefore speaks properly on all subjects”. What he says of Shakespeare is also truly characteristic of Dryden. “He was the man who of all modem and perhaps ancient poets had the largest and most comprehensive soul. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning give him the greater commendation; he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards and found her there.” He considers Jonson as the most learned and judicious writer who ever wrote for the stage. The way in which Dryden compares these two stalwarts of the dramatic field is worth careful study: “I must acknowledge him (Jonson) the more correct poet but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer or Father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him but I love Shakespeare”. As Professor Daiches has observed, “the judicial balancing of virtues and faults, 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, the ability to summarise the total achievement of a writer, are all marks of a great critic.”

      Dryden’s prose. Above all, Dryden’s inimitable prose adds pungency to his critical pronouncements. Dr. Johnson was a great admirer of Dryden’s prose. He says: “They (Dryden’s prose passages) have not the formality of a settled style in which the first half of the sentence betrays the other. The clauses are never balanced nor the periods modeled; every word seems to drop by chance though it falls into its proper place. Nothing is cold or languish; the whole is airy, animate and vigorous; what is little is gay, what is great is splendid. Everything is excused by the play of images and sprightliness of expression”.

      Conclusion. His native sensibility, his classical liberalism, his catholicity of taste and broadness of outlook, his conversational ease, his animate and easy style, the gentlemanly tone all these entitle Dryden to the position of the Father of English Criticism.

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