John Dryden as A Neo Classicist

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      John Dryden was a neo-classicist both in theory and in practice. He supports the theory and practice of ancient Greek and Latin writers in his creative as well as critical work. Dryden represents the essence of the neo-classical period. A critical spirit was prevalent in the age. Analytic and inquisitive in nature, it emphasised on reason and intellect. Dryden embodies this spirit, even though he never ignored the importance of imagination. Dryden's neo-classicism was a reaction against the decadent romanticism of the preceding age.

Imitation of the Ancients

      Dryden's neo-classicism is manifest especially in his respect for the authors of antiquity. Perhaps, the late seventeenth-century poets lacked natural genius and, hence, looked towards classical works for inspiration. Dryden esteemed Virgil the most and repeatedly acknowledged his debt to that great Roman epic poet. But Dryden could not achieve his ambition of writing an epic in imitation of Virgil's Aeneid with its brilliance, sonority and state lines. But he translated quite a number of "classical" authors into English. He shows the influence of Horace and Juvenal in his satires.

Contemporary French Influence

      French neo-classicists like Racine and Corneille, who had developed a drama on the lines of Latin tragedy, were potent forces in English neo-classicism. Dryden, too, looked to the French writers for inspiration. The influence of Moliere is clearly evident in Dryden's comedies. His heroic plays, too, are based on French models.


      Dryden's poetry, in the true neo-classical tradition, is more realistic than romantic. His poetry is of the practical motives which govern human actions. He was in the midst of an age of religious and political controversies. His poetical works are closely related to current events and people. Religio Laid was written in defense of the Church of England. When Dryden became a Catholic, he wrote The Hind and the Panther, a defense of Roman Catholicism. His satires, naturally enough, are concerned with contemporary political affairs and personages. He was realistic in his choice of themes. Annus Mitabilis tells of the Anglo-Dutch war and the London fire. But one cannot call Dryden's poetry "prosaic." His treatment of the realistic themes is poetic.

Poet close to Society or Public

      Dryden's poetry was closely related to the society of the day. He, like other neo-classical poets, wrote about topics which interested the public of his day. He is thus a poet whose task is to convince the public about a point of view. Dryden proved to be a master at verse arguments.

Emphasis on Intellect versus Imagination

      The neo-classicists emphasized on intellect as against imagination. Dryden's work, too, shows his preference for artistic control, sobriety and order against the exuberance and wildness of imagination. He does not, however, ignore the value of imagination. Indeed, his work is quite often a "mixed art" - a strong blending, in which the essential elements of discipline and an accepted rule combine with the sovereign ease and boldness of inspiration, as Cazamian points out.

Dryden's Neo-Classicism as a Critic

      Dryden was not a rigid classicist. He did not advocate blind imitation of the ancients or a rigid adherence to rules. He condemns the French pre-occupation with rules. He praises the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer. As a critic, he synthesized classical and romantic qualities. He bends the doctrine of the ancients to "a free and fruitful adaptation" and "his creative instinct outruns and explains away the last scruples of the thinker."

      Classicists in Modes of Expression
Dryden emphasized on clarity, simplicity, neatness and order in expression. He rescued English prose from the confusion of medievalism and took it to the perspicuity and order of modernity. He, for the first time, gave to English prose its functional nature. Inverse, too, he emphasized on the classical virtues of simplicity, order, balance and clarity. His perfection of the heroic couplet is part of his insistence on precision and neatness in verse.


      Dryden is fairly representative of the neo-classical tendencies. The main characteristics of his neo-classicism lie in his acknowledged debt to writers of antiquity, his critical and realistic appraisal of his age through the handling of topical themes, and his insistence on clarity and simplicity of expression.

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