“The father of English criticism” is the title conferred on John Dryden by Dr. Johnson who said, “Dryden may be properly considered as the father of English Criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition. ” Dr. Johnson’s verdict has been supported by critic after critic. Even a modern critic like T. S. Eliot supports this vew. And George Saintsbury very aptly remarks : “He established the English fashion of criticising, as Shakespeare did the English fashion of dramatising—the fashion of aiming at delight, at truth, at justice, at nature, at poetry, and letting the rules take care of themselves.”
First Original Critic
Before Dryden English criticism was just a blind imitation of the ancients. It was he who liberated it from classicism and rightly therefore, “it is in virtue of his ‘liberal classicism’ and sturdy independence of spirit that Jonson deserves the title of being the first English critic. ” Not that there was no criticism in England before Dryden. There had been critics like Sir Philip Sidney and Ben Jonson. But they were critics merely by chance; their critical works are merely occasional utterances on the critical art. Sidney’s Apology arose out of the need to defend poetry against Puritan attack, and the learned Ben’s critical utterances are in the nature of jottings on just a few things that interested him. While Jonson is ruthless, Dryden is tolerant; while Jonson is limited, Dryden is urbane in his critical range. Jonson’s criticism is sketchy and relatively small in output: “Dryden with a diverse literacy tradition behind him and a much greater critical output remains the true father of English practical criticism. “
His Liberal Classicism
The earlier criticism was ‘magesterial’ or dogmatic. Dryden, on the other hand, is never magesterial or ‘Pontific,’ he is ‘sceptical,1 he does not lay down the rule, he rather sets out to discover the rules for his guidance in writing plays, as well as in judging of those written by others. He rather derides those who are dogmatic or too sure in knowing the correct thing. The sceptical tone of his criticism is but a reflection of his personality—gentle, modest, unassuming, intelligent, free from dogmatism and vanity of every kind.
Scott-James has aptly remarked, “he clears the ground for himself by brushing away all the arbitrary bans upon freedom of composition and freedom of thought. He refuses to be cowed by the French playwrights and critics. He sees no reason why tragi-comedy should be forbidden because it mingles mirth with serious plot, nor will he join blaming the variety and copiousness of the English plays, with their under-plots or by-concernments, because they do not conform to the French ideal of singleness of plot. Even to Aristotle he refuses to render slavish homage. “It is not enough that Aristotle has said so, for Aristotle drew his models of tragedy from Sophocles and Euripides : and, if he had seen ours, might have changed his mind.”
His Contribution to Descriptive Criticism
“The first Englishman to attempt any extended descriptive criticism,” says George Watson, “was John Dryden.” The earlier English criticism was either theoretical or legislative. The critics were merely content to lay down the rules. It is Dryden who inaugurates the era of descriptive criticism, he was qualified for the function by his wide reading and learning. He had, “not only read and digested Sophocles, Euripides, Theocritus and Virgil, but also Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Fletcher, and a host of other writers, both ancient and modern. It is in his criticism that literary analysis, the dominant concern of the modern critic, emerges for the first time. There is no surviving Elizabethan analysis of an Elizabethan play, and no contemporary analysis of a Metaphysical poem. It is in Dryden’s examen of The Silent Woman that we get the first elaborate critical analysis of a literary work in English. Both Saintsbury and George Watson agree that the “Examen is something quite new” in the history of-English literary criticism. Equally unique are his enthusiastic and loving appreciations of Shakespeare, Fletcher and Beaumont, and Ben Jonson. Nothing like this had previously been seen in English, while to this day his character of Shakespeare is ‘one of the pieces of universal criticism.’ Dryden thus affirms at the right moment, “the native element,” in literature.
Pioneer in the field of historical criticism
Dryden is also a pioneer in the field of historical criticism. He recognises that the genius and temperament differ from age to age, and hence literature in different periods of history is bound to be different. He traces the decay of literature in the Pre-Restoration era to historical causes and its revival, “to the restoration of our happiness.” Thus he recognizes that the Elizabethan Drama and the Restoration Drama are governed by different literary conventions.
His Contribution to Comparative Criticism
Dryden has added a new dimension to criticism by his method of comparative analysis. His comparative studies of Greek, Roman, French and English writers show not only the wide range of his knowledge but also the catholicity of his taste and a sensitiveness to literary values in whatever literature they may be found. In this connection, as David Daiches observes, “We must remember, too, that Dryden’s method shifts according to the work he is discussing; he was intelligent and sensitive enough as a critic to realize that different kinds of works require different critical approaches. He would never have analysed Shakespeare the way he analysed Jonson, for he knew that they were doing different sorts of thing.”This makes Dryden’s criticism highly individualised and free from the rigidity of a system.
His Contribution to Theoretical Criticism
In the field of theoretical criticism, Dryden’s best contribution lies in the modification of the ancient doctrines rather than in the creation of new theories. He tested every accepted critical canon of the ancients in the light of ‘modernity’ and exploded some of their outmoded concepts. He recognised the fundamental truth that ‘the climate, the age, the disposition of the people, to which a poet writes, may be so different, that what pleased the Greeks would not satisfy an English audience.”
The affirmation of the Native Element
“The great work of Dryden in criticism,” observes T. S. Eliot, “is that at the right moment he became conscious of the necessity of affirming the native element in literature.” His vindication of the English dramatist of the preceding age is regarded as a glorious example of’national self-appreciation’. “In an age of transition and much confusion, he set criticism on new and fruitful lines, pointing to other standards and methods than those commanded by the French neo-classical school.” (Atkins).. His Faults
His criticism suffers from well-marked faults. He is often prejudiced in favour of his country, and his own age, often his criticism is in the nature of special pleading, sometimes he commits errors of fact or conveniently ignores awkward facts. He is guilty of many inconsistencies and is often vague and desultory. But despite these faults it must be acknowledge that “he established the English fashion of dramatizing…..the fashion of aiming at delight, at truth, at justice, at nature, at poetry, and letting the rules take care of themselves.” (Saintsbury)
Conclusion : The Ultimate Value of His Criticism
Atkins calls his criticism ‘supra-rational’. With him begins a regular era of criticism. He showed the way to his countrymen to be as great critics as they had been poets—to know what makes for greatness in literature. Inspite of the scattered nature of his criticism, no literary problem that confronted his age escaped his attention : the nature and function of poetry, tragedy, comedy, epic, satire and other ‘kinds’, the question of tragi-comedy, the unities; rhyme and blank verse : the other harmony of prose; the critical art itself. His pronouncement—’Here is God’s plenty’ used of Chaucer—applies to him as well. The most impressive qualities of Dryden as a critic are “his breadth of view, his skill at comparison, his sense of changing artistic conventions, his readiness to bear new evidence and if necessary change his mind, his concern with the practical questions of craftsmanship,” his uncommon commonsense, and his gentlemanly tone. For these qualities and for his native sensibility, for his liberal classicism, for his catholicity of taste and broadness of outlook, his conversational pace, the gentlemanly tone and cool, judicious posture and above all for his animate and easy style that Dryden deserves to be called the father of English criticism.