Literary Background Study of Dryden Age

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      The Age of Dryden roughly spans the period from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the year 1700. Dryden best represents the English mind of this period. It is necessary to study the social, political and literary background, for “when we reach the works of Dryden we make a study of his Age”, as Nicoll Smith has observed.

THE POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

      The three main historical events, which left a lasting mark on the literary scene, were:

      (i) The Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Charles came back to the English throne from exile, and restored the monarchy after a long period. It marked the end of the Puritan government of Cromwell. The rigorous curbs on entertainment and natural human impulses gave way to an excess of indulgence in this period. Immorality and indecency became rampant, and are well reflected in the comedies of the age.

      (ii) Religious and political controversies were quite common in the age. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were at loggerheads. The Puritan supporters of the earlier regime were cruelly persecuted. The nation was, in general, of Protestant faith. Religious opposition met with suspicion and high taxes. The very religion of the King was suspected. Charles II had no legal heir. As such his brother, James, a confirmed Catholic, would succeed.

      (iii) The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the culmination of religious and political controversies. James II ascended the throne in 1685 and wanted Parliament to be subservient to the Roman Catholic Church. He proved to be unpopular with the entire nation. The result was the bloodless Revolution of 1688 which saw the rejection of James and the establishment of William of Orange, a Protestant, on the English throne. Dryden’s works reflect the religious and political controversies of the time.

THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND

      There were two major calamities in London—the great plague of 1665 and the great fire of 1666. As a result of reconstruction after the fire, London, the center of the English economy and culture, was transformed from a medieval to a modem city. A new literary class evolved which was closely connected with the growing reading public. Journalism also developed. A factor which brought the writer closer to the ordinary reader was the development of coffee houses. These places became centers of intelligent discussion between politicians, lawyers, clergymen and other sections of the public. Pope and Dryden had their select audiences in coffee-houses. The changes, however, did not affect the sense of connection with the past. Especially after 1688, a sense of health and stability returned to the English social and political scene. The excessive immorality was also toned down. There was hope for a better future, a sense of freedom as well as social harmony, with a reconciliation between religion and politics.

THE LITERARY TRENDS

      Restoration literature signifies a sudden break with the older values. Subject and style took on a new spirit, aim, and attitude. It became classical or neo-classical as against the romanticism of the Elizabethans. It was the rise of pseudo-classicist. The spirit of the age was embodied in the following trends:

      (i) Rise of rationality. The reason became the predominant factor. Imagination was often equated with madness. The “steady direction towards some approved end” was the directing principle. ‘Reason’ and ‘Good Sense’ were the watchwords. As a consequence, some kinds of poetry became difficult to write. The establishment of the Royal Society to encourage scientific study was one factor in the growth of reason.

      (ii) Imitation of Ancients. Great classical writers of antiquity were models to be imitated. The ultimate test for excellence, according to Pope, was:

Learn for ancient rules a just esteem,
To copy Nature is to copy them.

      (iii) French influence. French influence is seen in the evolution of the “heroic play”. Moliere, the French writer of comedy, influenced Restoration Comedy. Often, however, the French wit and delicacy gave way to vulgarity and coarseness in English comedies.

      (iv) Realism and formalism and insistence on rigid poetic style. The reaction against the imaginative exuberance of the Elizabethans and the “Metaphysicals” resulted in a strict adherence to realism. It led to depiction of vice to the exclusion of moral interest. Town life was concentrated upon. “Correctness” was important. There was a tendency to adhere to rigid rules for poetry. Formalism of style and precise elegance ruled in poetry. Bred in the head more than in the heart, the intellectual display was more important than feelings. An artificial style developed.

      (v) Growth of prose and satire. Precision and simplicity in style and emphasis on reason and science helped in developing prose and making this age “an age of prose and reason’’. The poetic form best suited to the age was the satire, which gained immense development The purpose of poetry became to convince, not to inspire. Wit was inherent in satire. The wits of the age show a remarkable gift for trenchant and pithy phrases.

      (vi) Perfection of the heroic couplet The culmination of the insistence on a set poetic form and precision, was the perfection and popularity of the heroic couplet. It became the natural medium of intellectual expression in the age. It was suitable for satiric poetry as well as drama.

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