The Native Impulse in Dryden's Criticism

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      Introduction. In his English Literary Criticism 17th and 18th Centuries, Professor J.W.H. Atkins has given us a detailed analysis of the literary contributions of John Dryden. Unless the native element in literature is affirmed, no creatively critical writer can advance his claim for consideration as an outstanding critic, much less the “Father of English Criticism.” Dryden had become conscious of the necessity of bringing the native impulse to bear upon literature. He had abundant native sensibility that was later to make him keenly alive to artistic values which no one can deny. He thus became capable of a dispassionate psychological analysis of artistic values.

      Supra-rational approach. While theorizing about formal rules regarding creative literature or appreciating it in the light of the applicability of the test of Nature or Reason, Dryden’s judgment throughout remained supra-rational. He did not admire Shakespeare or Chaucer for any strict adherence to formal rules in their literary output whether based on writer’s conventions or those adumbrated by Aristotle and others. Dryden possessed adequate imaginative sympathy that could soar high in the realms of pure unalloyed intellect. A true critic must be capable of blending true feeling and rational analysis. Equipped with strong faith and still stronger conviction, Dryden projected his appreciation of writers and their works from the basic stratum of his own personal impressions, but never bereft of ability for acute analysis and sound reasoning.

      Absence of pedantry and pomposity: a smooth blend of feeling and reason. The modem familiar meaning of the word ‘criticism’ is “a formal discussion of literature in all its bearing.” It must be admitted that it was Dryden who used the word in that particular sense. This formal discussion is impossible without a balancing of feeling and reason. Dryden went ahead after fully incorporating this salient feature in his critical writings—a feature not noticed in critical writings till Dryden’s time. Dryden was keen to pronounce his judgments with all the charm, urbanity and liveliness he could command. The picturesqueness of his style cannot go unnoticed even by a casual reader, let alone an ardent student. His skill in argument does not lose sight of good sense which is his unfailing companion. Even hostile and malevolent critics are never paid back in their own coin but are faced with quiet dignity and independent judgment.

      Unfortunately, there was a French wave in the realm of criticism in Dryden’s time, with many quietly conceding the claim of France as the world’s greatest arbiter of taste. French literature catered to the polite society, the elite and the sophisticated. It is needless to say that this type of literature had many merits despite limitations. While the intellect continued to be on the ascendant, the critical faculty was generally subdued, though not suppressed. It is not to be wondered at that English writers looked up to this literature for guidance because it was characterized by lucidity and vivacity, with adequate attention given to form, correctness, elegance and finish. English writers developed principles of regularity and spirit of good sense in the realms of prose and play writing. On the contrary, in the field of poetry, a kind of artificiality was allowed to grow as a result of the neglect of feeling and spontaneity. What is termed as the heroic play, a combination of the French as well as the classical models, reigned supreme.

      Criticism: legislative and descriptive. Before the advent of Dryden what was popular in English literature was a type of theoretical criticism backed by Hobbes’s references to the psychology of the creative act. Plato and Aristotle were the beacons to be closely followed. Rhetorical terms, flowery description and figures of speech were freely adopted without carek for using them for the purpose of literary analysis. Historical method was adopted and popularised by Puttenham, Sidney and others, with the consequent neglect of purely descriptive criticism. This vacuum was filled by Dryden. Although Dryden had a long career in the field of literature, extending over four decades, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy is his only work of formal criticism. No doubt his 'Prefaces' to various collections of plays, translations contain very good critical material. However, we cannot assert that Dryden considered 'criticism' as such to have an important function. Despite this we not be wrong in averring that Dryden was the founder of descriptive criticism in English.

      Dryden: spokesman of liberty. Dryden did not bow down to any set of formulas. He maintained his freedom from all overbearing critical injunctions. He refused to submit to the suzerainty of Aristotle, asserting that if he had seen some of our (i.e., English) extant dramas Aristotle himself would have modified his own rules of dramaturgy and poetics. He vindicated the peculiar virtues of the native English drama against the onslaught of the French models. He encouraged the taciturnity of the English temper vis-a-vis the sprightliness of the French genius. He preferred the vigor and the warmth of the English drama to the cold regularity and precision of the French writers of his days. As T.S. Eliot says, the great significance of Dryden in criticism is that at the right moment he became conscious of the necessity of affirming the native element in literature. He blended together the accents of the English and the French. His analysis of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare show how his native sensibility helped him approach the works with a broad mind and a liberal outlook.

      Conclusion. For Dryden it was not enough if Aristotle had said something. He recognized the dynamism of Art and the necessity of change of attitude and values in successive ages. He saw literature as some kind of organic force which developed with the development of a nation, and as a force which must express the impulses of each new age in a manner suited to its growth. And he recognized that nations differ from one another in taste, and literature of one type may or may not suit the genius of every nation. It is the good fortune of English criticism that Dryden came on the scene at a time when critics were looking exclusively to the Continent for their “rules” and “regulations” by which to judge literature. It was Dryden who set matters right by pointing out that rigid yardsticks cannot and should not be applied in criticism, and thus established the “English fashion of criticism”.

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