Whereas his contemporaries were fiddling on the tune of the ancients and declaring that the ancients were superior to the moderns. Dryden approached the ancients and moderns on a much more scientific basis. He found the difference in more ways than one. Apart from the difference of style and the difference of language, there could be the difference of character of tastes. Fashions in tastes change as fast as fashions in costumes. Dryden anticipated Taine in pointing out that each age or nation has its own genius; the climate counts for something; the disposition of mankind varies at different times and places, and involves variations in taste and in art. Shakespeare and Fletcher enjoyed a success in their age comparable with that of Sophocles and Euripides in theirs.
Scott-James admires Dryden’s contribution to the field of comparative criticism. His studies of the ancients as well as of the moderns was deep and he could compare very well and with authority the ancients and the moderns.
As a pioneer in the art of comparative criticism, Dryden made it a point to be as much objective as possible. He fully conformed to the noble ideal of criticism, which he evidently derived from the great critic of antiquity—Longinus. His mental incisiveness and Catholic sensitiveness helped him a great deal in comparing various authors. The first quality may be illustrated from his criticism of Chaucer and Ovid, and the second from that of Homer and Virgil. His Preface to Fables gives us memorable comparative estimates of Ovid and Chaucer, e.g.
“With Ovid ended the golden age of the Roman tongue; from Chaucer the purity of the English tongue began….Both of them were well-bred, well-natured, amorous and liberative; their studies were the same philosophy and philology. Both writ with wonderful facility and clearness; neither were great inventors; for Ovid only copied the Grecian fables and most of Chaucer’s stories were taken from his Italian contemporries or their predecessors…….
More stimulating than the. estimates of Ovid and Chaucer is the comparative estimate of Homer and Virgil. “Virgil was a quite, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thoughts and ornament of words. Homer was rapid in his thoughts and took all the liberties both of numbers and expressions, which his language and the age which he lived, allowed him…Our two great poets being so different in their tempers, one choleric and the other phlegmatic and melancholic….the action of Homer being more full of vigour than that of Virgil…
The Essay also gives a comparative piece of criticism in its immortal comparison of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, the French and the English, the ancients and the moderns. Dryden’s claim depends much more on his attempts at practical comparative criticism than any other factor. Out of the four speakers in the Essay can be woven four approaches. Crites defends the ancients; Eugenius defends the superiority of the Elizabethan English drama; Lisideius prefers the French to the English and the Elizabethan drama to that of the early Restoration period, and Neander finally defends the English as opposed to the French. Just mark the following passage of comparative criticism :—
“I must acknowledge him the more correct poet but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him but I love Shakespeare.”