As with his poetry, most of Dryden's prose is occasional. The exception is his Essay of Dramatick Poesy, a dialogue platonic in its framework and general conduct. Otherwise it is made up of dedications and prefaces, the former sometimes becoming critical essays, as the latter always are. The dedications we tend to regard as fulsome; they are addressed for the more part to noble patrons, even to royalty, and may seem to us ludicrously, or shamefully, laudatory: but then the dedication was a genre of its own, with its laws and traditions. Nobody — least of all, one imagines, the addressees — took them literally. Dryden's, beautifully phrased, always graceful, sometimes witty, invariably retain a perfect balance, the tribute paid never being wholly undeserved. But they need not detain us here. The prefaces are another matter. They are full of meat, lively, to the point, still of vital interest to any writer who takes his craft seriously. They are never stiff or pedantic; they border on looseness, for a preface, Dryden held, should be a rambling sort of affair, never wholly in the way, nor ever wholly out of it. No one, Dr. Johnson pronounced, ever found them tedious. Sometimes Dryden attacks; sometimes he defends himself; but for the greater part he is thinking aloud as an artist handling his material.
Dryden, to quote Johnson again, 'may properly be considered as the father of English criticism'. There had, of course, been critics before him, but their approach was sectional, dealing either with philosophic ideas or narrow technique. Dryden not only combined and broadened the two, but was the first critic to define, by practice rather than by precept, what were the important things to talk about. Take, for instance, the Essay of Dramatick Poesy. The important things to talk about, then, now, and always, are structure and diction, and his characters talked about them. We may not go hand in hand with the debaters there; we approach the matter a little differently: but here as everywhere he puts the issues squarely before us, not attempting to dragoon us into one opinion or another. He stimulates our thoughts to make up our own minds; for after all, we are all unalike, and 'our minds are perpetually wrought on by the temperament of our bodies'. So long as he is writing plays, he discusses the drama: but when he engages in other forms he divagates upon those, as satires in The Original and Progress of Satire; and when he comes to translation he talks about that, especially when prefacing his Æneis. But in his tremendous, easy discourses, those to the various Miscellanies known as The Preface to Sylvae (1685), the Dedication of Examen Poeticum (1693), and the final Preface to the Fables, and others, he tries to get at the heart of the writers he is criticizing.
This seems to come in incidentally, as when he is explaining why he translates various authors in different ways, how he is striving to get at their being before deciding how they would have said in English in the late seventeenth century what they said in their own tongue in their own age. To choose a little at random:
If I am not mistaken, the distinguishing character of Lucretius (I mean of his soul and genius) is a certain kind of noble pride, and positive assertion of his opinions ... From this sublime and daring genius of his, it must of necessity come to pass that his thoughts must be masculine, full of argumentation, and that sufficiently warm. From the same fiery temper proceeds the loftiness of his expressions and the perpetual torrent of his verse, where the barrenness of his subject does not too much constrain the quickness of his fancy ...
That is discriminatory criticism; we understand Lucretius : and think also of the implications of Dryden's seemingly casual remarks. Or look at what he says about Chaucer, some of whose work he modernized from his desire to keep him in the tradition of English literature. In his day many judges, including Cowley, regarded Chaucer as 'a dry, old-fashioned wit, not worth reviving', or on the other hand held him in such 'veneration due to his old language ... that it [was] little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it'. But Dryden wanted Chaucer to be read.
As he is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects: As he knew what he wanted to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practised by few writers ...
He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age ... 'tis sufficient to say, according to the old proverb, that here is God's plenty.
He was always eager to pay tribute to his giant predecessors, which is not only part of his humility towards those who have done superbly the task he assigned himself, but proof of his extraordinary judgement. It is easy enough for us to regard Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, as towering figures; but it was Dryden who first declared they were so. As early as the Essay of Dramatick Poesy he could write:
To begin then with Shakespeare. He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them, not laboriously, but luckily; when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature; he looked inwards, and found her there.
There is hardly anything more to be said: but Dryden said it at a time when Shakespeare was dubiously regarded, looked upon as a barbarous author, who did indeed want learning. That he needed trimming Dryden agreed with Ben Jonson in thinking; he also knew that for his plays to be popular they must be infused a little with the sense of the new age; Dryden was the first to appreciate that different ages have different needs. What is more remarkable still for a practising poet, he could pay homage to a near contemporary working towards different ends by methods other than his own: earliest among critical contemporaries he hailed Paradise Lost as 'undoubtedly one of the greatest, most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced'.
For with his wide comprehensiveness he regarded all literature as one, a gift given to creative writers, but unavoidably a little foreign to the academic mind, intent upon separating, reluctant to believe with Dryden that
'Mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of Nature, though every thing is altered'.
And throughout he reveals a superb common sense, in itself amounting to genius: he never allows an idea to rush him into extravagance; he merely sets forth his own at the time.
'I have only laid down,' he ends The Author's Apology for Heroic Poetry and Poetic Licence, 'and that superficially enough, my present thoughts; and shall be glad to be taught better by those who pretend to reform our poetry.'
He does not presume to constrict anything so fluid, so divers et ondoyant as the great human activity of literature into rigid compartments, emaciating by definitions, strangling by categories. For after all — from the same essay —
'they wholly mistake the nature of criticism who think its business is principally to find fault. Criticism . . . was meant a standard of judging well; the chiefest part of which is, to observe those excellencies which should delight a reasonable reader.'
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