John Dryden: as A Flawed Poet

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Dryden's Drawbacks as Poet

      The genius of John Dryden as a poet is marred by some 'flaws'. We find a lack of imagination and passion in his poetry in general. There is a deficiency of "spiritual content" in his poetry, argues H.J.C. Grierson. Intellect, not intuition, and wit, not feeling, dominate in Dryden's work. Passion and imagination are subordinated to reason and intellect. The imagination of conception is beyond the grasp of Dryden.

      The enhancement of intellect and reason naturally led to a lack of feeling in poetry. His poetry deals with city life, to the exclusion of nature, i.e. the natural world of flowers and trees. Dryden's subjects are the current controversies, which, according to some critics, cannot give rise to great poetry. Lack of originality as far as subject or theme is concerned, marks Dryden's poetry. His themes are borrowed from others. He lacked inventive power. Yet another drawback, which some critics level against Dryden, is his indecency in some of his satires and plays. Some of his plays are coarse and obscene. His range in the tise of meter is also limited. He hardly uses any other metrical form except the heroic couplet.

Dryden: A Poet Despite Flaws

      In spite of flaws, one cannot deny Dryden the status of a poet. He shows remarkable satiric providers. We admire his wit, reason, language, and power of argument. His skill in satiric portraiture is excellent. Indeed, it is to Dryden's credit that satire was given a position of importance as a literary form. Dryden is a great satirist and, as satire involves reason, we can say that Dryden is a poet of reason. His skill at exposition and reasoning in verse is well evident in Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, and Mac Flecknoe.

      Dryden showed his skill as a lyric poet as well, though on a limited scale. His odes, To Anne Kill ingrew, A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, and Alexander's Feast are beautiful, harmonious, and show Dryden's capacity for feeling and style. Variety, richness and distinctness of images mark the works. The songs which intersperse his plays are melodious. They also show Dryden's ability to use other meters than the heroic couplet. Harmony of music and mood mark these songs, which present, in each case, one simple emotion or idea.

      Dryden's craftsmanship cannot be denied or ignored by any critic. He brought clarity, simplicity and order to the English language. Correct and dignified, he knows where exactly to place his words. He has a control over his language. He also perfected the heroic couplet, the meter which was to be so very popular for the next century. He brought artistic finish and polish to the English language. We agree with Saintsbury in remarking: "Dryden found English of brick, and left it marble", He gave purity, new wealth and capability to his language. He made appropriate use of style so as to suit satire, lyrics, odes and theological themes.


      Dryden may not be "as much the poet's poet as Spenser." He lacks the "faculty divine", or the light of inner imagination which illuminates the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton or Spenser to make it truly sublime. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake and a surrender to Romantic bias, if we discard Dryden's position as a poet. He may not be one of the greatest of poets; he is, all the same, a good poet. He is the poet of reason as Keats is the poet of emotion. Hugh Sykes comes to a balanced statement on Dryden as a poet: "If Arnold pushed him a little lower, Mr. Eliot has raised him a little higher than his usual place. But when he sinks again, as he will, he will not sink very far - only to a position among the most secure if not the most glorious."

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