Page images
PDF
EPUB

INTRODUCTION

1.

DRYDEN's critical writings have been less damaged by the lapse of time and have kept their original freshness better than any literary discourses which can be compared with them, even taking the next century into consideration. He has suffered much less from changes of literary fashion than Addison or Dr. Johnson. Although there are many things that are antiquated or conventional in his discussion of literary principles, although he had his share of the literary pedantries of his age, there is an inexhaustible liveliness and spirit in his essays which has given them an advantage over many more laborious and philosophical pieces of criticism. Every one of his essays contains some independent judgment. His love of literature was instinctive; his mind answered at once to the touch of poetry, and gave in return his estimate of it, in the other harmony of prose. It is true that his opinions are sometimes encumbered by the respect which he feels himself bound to pay to established authorities, and sometimes he condescends to hackwork and compila. tion, as, for instance, in much of the essays on Satire and on Epic Poetry. But even when he is tired of this business he keeps his ease of manner, and it is in the

manner of his discourses that he shows his power as a critic. There is nothing in literary criticism more satisfactory, merely as a display of literary strength and skill, than the essays in which Dryden's mind is expatiating freely, as in the Dramatic Poesy and the Preface to the Fables, where he faces his adversaries, personal and impersonal, with the security of a man who has confidence in his own powers, and in the clearness of his eye. He is at his best when he has set himself to try the value of dogmatic rules and principles ; cautious, respectful, seeming to comply with them, till the time comes for the stroke that ends the encounter, and leaves the arena to be cleared for the next antagonist. Now what, I beseech you, is more easy than to write a regular French play, or more difficult than to write an irregular English one, like those of Fletcher or of Shakespeare ?' The natural grace and the readiness of his style in explanation and controversy have never been surpassed. His language is a creature moving at its own will, in its proper element.

The other great critic of Dryden's time, St. Evremond, had found it to be the fault of the English that they dug too deep, and lost themselves in the windings of their own thoughts before they could bring anything to the surface, to be made available for the common sense of mankind; as, on the other hand, the defect of the French was that they would not follow an argument home, and were too easily contented with the sound of their own voices. It would be good for each nation to learn from the other; for the English to acquire the art of human conversation ; for the French to go deeper in their studies. This balance of faculties is secured in Dryden more completely than in any other English writer, and there is no better account of the excel. lences of his prose than is given in these phrases of

St. Evremond: 'A la vérité, je n'ai point vu de gens de meilleur entendement que les Français qui considèrent les choses avec attention, et les Anglais qui peuvent se détacher de leurs trop grandes méditations pour revenir à la facilité du discours et à certaine liberté d'esprit qu'il faut posséder toujours, s'il est possible. Les plus honnêtes gens du monde, ce sont les Français qui pensent, et les Anglais qui parlent.'

Dryden's power as a writer of criticism does not depend upon his definite judgments. He is not to be refuted, though he may be proved to have thought too highly of Rapin and Bossu among critics, of Fairfax and Waller among English poets. Many little critics, like Dick Minim in the Idler, lived on Dryden's traditional utterances after they had hardened into dogmas ; Idols of the Coffee-house. Denham and Waller he held the first reformers of English numbers. But the separate positive sentences of Dryden are of small account in his work as a critic. His virtue is that in a time when ļiterature was pestered and cramped with formulas he found it impossible to write otherwise than freely. He is sceptical, tentative, disengaged, where most of his contemporaries, and most of his successors for a hundred years, are pledged to certain dogmas and principles.

II. THE HEROIC POEM.

Dryden's Essays belong to the history of the Renaissance. They are part of the general effort of the world to come to an understanding with itself about the ideals of literature which had been imposed upon it by the learning of the classical scholars. There were exact patterns of different kinds of poetry laid up in some heaven to which the true scholar might rise

in his contemplations, and from which he might bring down his knowledge for the instruction of modern poetical artificers. The patterns of Epic (commonly called the Heroic Poem ') and of Tragedy, or the

eroic Play, are those that chiefly concern Dryden. What influence those ideal patterns had, what reverence they evoked, is scarcely conceivable now, and is seldom thought of by historians. The “Heroic Poem' is not commonly mentioned in histories of Europe as a matter of serious interest : yet from the days of Petrarch and Boccaccio to those of Dr. Johnson, and more especially from the sixteenth century onward, it was a subject that engaged some of the strongest intellects in the world (among them, Hobbes, Gibbon, and Hume);' it was studied and discussed as fully and with as much thought as any of the problems by which the face of the world was changed in those centuries. There might be difference of opinion about the essence of the Heroic Poem or the Tragedy, but there was no doubt about their value. Truth about them was ascertainable, and truth about them was necessary to the intellect of man, for they were the noblest things belonging to him?.

About the middle of the seventeenth century there was an increased activity in the business of epic poetry, especially in France and England; owing, no doubt, to

1 See The Answer of Mr. Hobbes to Sir William Davenant's Preface before Gondibert,' 1650, and “The Iliads and Odysses of Homer, translated out of Greek into English by Thomas Hobbes, of Malmesbury. With a large Preface concerning the virtues of an Heroic Poem, written by the translator,' 1676; Hume, 'Letter to the authors of the Critical Review concerning the Epigoniad of Wilkie,' April 1759; Gibbon, “ An Inquiry whether a Catalogue of the Armies sent into the field is an essential part of an Epic Poem,' Dec. 23, 1763

2 “A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform' (Dedication of the Æneis).

« EelmineJätka »