Critics View on John Dryden

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      A.J. Wyatt. In an interesting passage of his Essays on Satire Dryden gives his own recipe: How easy it is to call rogue and villain, and that wittily. But how hard to make a man appear a fool, blockhead, or a knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms.... This is the mystery of that noble trade.... Neither is it true that this fineness of raillery is offensive: witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner; and a fool feels it not.... There is a vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man and the fineness of stroke that separates the head from the body and leaves it standing in its place. A man may be capable, as Jack Ketch's wife said of his servant, of a plain piece of work, of a bare hanging, but to make malefactor die sweetly was only belonging to her husband. I wish I could apply it to myself, if the reader would be kind enough to think it belongs to me. The character of Zimri in my "Absalom" is, in my opinion, worth the whole poem. It is not bloody, but it is ridiculous enough, and he for whom it was intended was too witty to resent it as an injury.... I avoided the mention of great crimes, and applied myself to the representing of blind sides and little extravagances, to which, the wittier a man is, he generally the more obnoxious. Perhaps the reader will not be kind enough to think it belongs to Dryden on all occasions; but when Dryden comes to be compared with Pope - and the supremacy in verse satire certainly lies between them - it will be seen how much the nearer of the two he is to the ideal satirist. Rich, massive, intensely vigorous and virile is Dryden. The red-hot energy which with him ensure a liquid ease of expression and gives warmth and life to all the satirical portraits; their inimitable precision which, though not so minutely exact as Pope's has a range of application far beyond his, and an ease and freedom peculiar to themselves; the clear reasoning so convincing to the reader, perhaps all the more because it requires so little effort to follow; the utter absence of any cold timidity or drowsy hesitation of expression - these are the great qualities of Dryden's best poetry.

      No English man of letters has ever received such glowing tributes of admiration from contemporaries and successors as 'glorious John.' Pope avowed that he learned versification wholly from Dryden's works, Dryden who

'taught to join
The varying verse, the full-resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.'

      Gray describes the vigor of Dryden's style as a car borne wide over the fields of glory by

Two courses of ethereal race
With necks in thunder clothed and long resounding pace;

      and asseverates that 'if there is any excellence in my numbers, I have learned it wholly from that great poet'. And Landor wrote of him:

None ever crossed our mystic sea
More richly stored with thought than he;
Though never tender or sublime,
He wrestles with and conquers Time.

      Bernard Groom: Dryden's poetry was a great power in his day. The busiest found time to read it; the most practical could not deny its influence. Its virility and vigor compensate in some measure for its want of the finer and higher beauty. And though Dryden is not one of our chief artists in "poetic diction", he is the master of a rich and copious vocabulary. Coarse in expression he sometimes is, but never insipid.

      Albert C. Baugh: Taste in poetry has changed so extremely in the last century and a half that for many persons John Dryden and his school are practically unreadable. For the intelligent student of poetry, this is not true. Dryden is one of the most significant figures in the history of English verse; for he perhaps more than any other single person formulated a method for poetry that has appealed to disciples (some of them, to be sure, only metrical imitators) as different as Pope, Gray, Churchill, Byron, Keats, and T.S. Eliot; a method that for two generations after his death dominated English verse. Dryden's way was not that of the sensuous romantic, "tremblingly alive all over, "unlocking his heart of hearts for the public to see; it is rather an impersonal, almost editorial criticism of life. Much of the time it hardly seems to be "the language of the sense. It is a method that conceives of poetry as intellectual utterance emotionally or imaginatively suffused so as to persuade a public "audience." It is, in short, the poetry of eloquence, which, in spite of John Stuart Mill and his followers, is not merely a reputable but an essential method for poets living as Dryden did in times of public emergency. His poetry is "occasional"; and the occasions which it celebrates are public and important - or were in his day. As time passes, however, the importance of occasions fades; the obvious journalistic character of such poetry requires annotation,' and annotation is insufferable tedium to later casual readers of verse.

      A.C. Ward: To say, as must be said, that Dryden is the most purely rational of the great English poets is in some sense to deny him greatness. Criticism of his poetry has, indeed, seemed as double-faced as Dryden himself; for even his strong admirers are forced into a defensive posture. One of his later advocates says that Dryden was "surprisingly wanting in imagination." This is pointed to as his 'gravest deficiency' and if it covered the facts it would offer a conveniently simple solution of the Dryden problem. But it is not entirely true that he was lacking in imagination. He lacked romantic and emotional imagination but not intellectual and reflective imagination. His poetry is deficient in color and human warmth; if it gleams and glitters, it is not with a deep gem-like radiance but with the hard brilliance of faceted and polished steel. Through sheer efficiency, he brought verse satire to a high poetic level. He was the master of a precise and perfect functional adoption of means to ends. His lines cut down with the cleanly merciless sweep of Toledo blade those they are aimed at; yet while dealing out this perfection of slaughter Dryden's satire developed an interior irony - which was certainly no part of Dryden's purpose - by conferring a kind of martyrdom upon his victims. Men whose very names would have been forgotten by all but literary antiquarians are now permanently and magnificently monumented in Dryden's satires: he slew with equal zest the basely illustrious and the pretentiously obscure and bestowed an inverted immortality where he meant to annihilate.

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