Poetry and Drama in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      Introduction. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, as the name itself suggests, is concerned with drama—drama which is apparently inseparable from poetry. Indeed the views offered in the context of drama are equally applicable to poetry as Dryden conceived of it.

      Definition of drama by Lisideius. In the Essay, Lisideius gives a tentative definition of drama as “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passion and humour, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” The word ‘just’ is to be noted, for it indicates that drama is not a reproduction or ‘copy’ of human nature; it is an imaginative imitation which is true to nature in a broad sense. Furthermore, the imitation is ‘lively’. Critics interpret the term differently. David Daiches says it means ‘interesting’ while R.A. Scott James takes it to mean beautiful and so delightful. In whatever sense we take the term, it is obvious Dryden implies that the imitation of a thing should involve the heightening of its quality, making it beautiful; in other words, the poet’s creative efforts come into play to make the literary piece rise above being a servile copy of reality. Dryden emphatically points out that it is the poet’s craftsmanship which matters. A gunsmith or watchmaker may use iron or silver belonging to another but these raw materials are of least value in the finished product—“the price lies wholly in the workmanship”.

      Role of imagination. Obviously to make the imitation ‘just’ and ‘lively’ the poet’s creative faculty must work. The role of imagination is thus introduced into the definition by Dryden. It is imagination which shapes the raw material into a more heightened, more beautiful vision of reality. The image of nature created by the poet is basically true, hence it is ‘just’. At the same time it is a more beautiful ‘reproduced’ version of reality, hence it is ‘lively’. It is clear that Dryden is more concerned about the liveliness of a literary work. He praises Shakespeare’s plays and readily overlooks their ‘irregularities’ because they satisfy his criterion of liveliness. On the same grounds he prefers the variety of plot and character of English plays to the cold barrenness of the rule-bound French plays.

      Function of poetry and drama. In his other critical works Dryden has more than once observed that delight is “the chief, if not the only end of poesy”. Instruction occupies a second place, for “poesy only instructs as it delights”. In the Essay, too, Dryden is ever conscious of the function of poetry to delight, though he does not ignore its instructional role. He does not expound on how exactly poesy delights or instructs. However, it is clear by implication that art (which is synonymous in Dryden’s mind with beauty) has the power to move, the power of transport, the power to “affect the soul, and excite the passion, and above all to move admiration”. An appreciation of beauty means an appreciation of the good and the noble also does art (and poetry) to delight and instruct Of course, excessive transmutation of reality through unbridled imagination is to be avoided; imagination must be controlled by the judgment of the poet or the imitation of reality will not be ‘just’ and there will be a falsification of nature.

      Conclusion. The definition of drama as given by Dryden may not be perfect or unarguable. However, Dryden’s disregard for being bound down by rules is obvious in his not giving any rigid or very carefully worded definition. It is, on the whole, clear that Dryden wanted poetry (for the definition of drama may fit poetry as well) to imitate nature in such a way as to transform it into something more beautiful but never false to basic truth. And here the workmanship instigated by the imagination of the poet is all important. It is significant that Dryden emphasizes on the craftsmanship of the poet It is the workmanship which can make sure that the function of drama - delight and instruction—is fulfilled.

University Questions

Critically assess the definition of drama offered in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy and point out what according to Dryden is the nature and function of poetry?
Consider Dryden’s theory of poetic imitation as expounded in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

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