Rhyme Versus & Blank Verse in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

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      Dryden has raised many topics regarding the assessment of drama. The suitability of rhyme in drama is the last of those critical topics. Many critics affirm that rhyme in a drama is unnatural and utterly artificial. Shakespeare and other established writers have preferred blank verse to rhyme in many of their serious plays.

      Crites’s argument against rhyme. Crites points out that rhyming verse is utterly artificial in view of the fact that no ordinary man speaks in rhyme. Even if there are persons who indulge in dialogues in rhymed lines it is impossible without a lot of premeditation. Crites notes that Aristotle favors a language more akin to prose than to poetry in a tragedy where emotion plays a greater role than ‘cool calculations and deep ponderances’. The fact that Ben Jonson and Fletcher had recourse to rhyme in their pastorals mainly and in other plays now and then does not mean that we must adopt it all together. In serious plays rhyme cannot be allowed, and in comedies prose is better than any type of verse. Excellent plays of Shakespeare in blank verse further makes one protest against rhyme in tragedies.

      A play is an imitation of nature and the fact that ordinary man cannot use rhyming verse without premeditation leads one to the conclusion that it is better to eschew rhyme in serious plays. In regard to the counter-argument that blank verse in ordinary conversation is also not very common or frequently resorted to by people, it can be pointed out that of the two, blank verse is preferable to rhymed verse. In the representation of a free way of speaking, i.e., in dialogues, the use of the most constrained type of literary expression cannot be recommended. Aristotle’s dictum, that tragedy is preferably written in the least constrained form, means that a language nearest to prose is to be adopted. The ancients used iambic and the modems use blank verse in order to express ideas in tragic dramas.

      Crites lays emphasis on the fact that rhyme is incapable of expressing the greatest thoughts in a natural mode. Furthermore, the lowest thoughts expressed in rhyme lose all grace. How ridiculous it would be if a servant were asked to close the door in rhymed verse.

      Quick and luxuriant fancy is said to be circumscribed by the labor required to produce well-turned and polished rhyme. Crites counters this argument by saying that the poet who is unable to restrain his excessive flights of imagination in blank verse would equally blunder in rhymed verse.

      Neander in defense of rhyme. The argument of Crites is refuted by Neander (i.e., Dryden himself). While admitting that blank verse is admirably used by some in serious plays, he says that in plays where the plot is unmixed with mirth rhyme can be most natural. If one argues against rhyme because it is ill-written, that is another matter. If the words are not chosen well or not placed in proper form even blank verse will fail to attract the audience or readers. Rhyme too can be natural when care is bestowed on the diction and proper syntax. If the ordering of words is natural the rhyming cannot but become natural.

      In Europe modern French, Italian drama etc.) rhyme is favored with the adoption of varying the cadances, running the sense on from one line to another or by irregular devices in the Pindaric fashion. Importance need not be attached to the argument that laymen are dazzled by the use of blank verse in drama or because Shakespeare and others won success in its use.

      Crites’s argument regarding the absurdity of using rhyme in ordinary conversation is met by Neander by recommending that the poet need not indulge in rhyme all the time. As in every rule this too can have its exception. In any case, the same charge can be brought against blank verse as well.

      Crites has warned that the audience accustomed to the blank verse of great excellence from Jonson, Fletcher and Shakespeare will not welcome the rhymes of other writers. Here Neander advises Crities that the eulogy he heaps on the dead writers, albeit they may fully deserve it, will have the unwelcome result of exciting the envy of die-living poets. Shakespeare and others deserve the honor and adoration of any critic worth the name. But if those writers were to be resurrected now they would fail to excel themselves, for they had exhausted all ideas, characterization, and scintillating humor. That being the case the novelty of adopting rhyming verses in plays may succeed in capturing the imagination and hence the appreciation of the general public.

      Neander is bold enough to assert that their age (i.e” the 17th century) has achieved a perfection in the use of rhymed verse, which the older poets never knew and perhaps, could not have reached at all.

      In the end Neander (Dryden) makes the bold assertion that rhyming verse is the noblest kind and can be the only adequate verse form for tragedy which represents nature wrought up to a higher pitch; just as statues when placed on a high pedestal appear greater than life but can descend to the sight in just proportions. Blank verse is too low and hence unsuitable for tragic dignity. Thus Dryden concludes advocating the use of rhymed verse in plays.

      Conclusion. If we are asked whether Dryden’s ideas valid now we can safely point out Dryden’s own later practice was opposed to his preaching in this essay. He gave up the use of rhyme in many of his later plays. He changed his mind. In spite of all these arguments and counter-arguments the question of rhymed verse versus blank verse is alive even today among critics.

University Questions

Critically examine Dryden’s views on the use of rhyme as embodied in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.
What are Dryden’s views on the suitability of rhymed verse for the stage? Are his arguments applicable to the modern theatre?
What are the objections of Crites to rhyme in Drama? Explain Dryden’s own views on the subject
Assess the comparative merits and demerits of rhymed verse and blank verse as the medium for drama.

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