In general, English literary criticism before Dryden was patchy, ill-organised, cursory, perfunctory, ill-digested, and heavily leaning on ancient Greek and Roman, and more recent Italian and French, criticism. It had no identity or even life of its own. Moreover, an overwhelming proportion of it was criticism of the legislative, and little of it that of the descriptive, kind. Dryden evolved and articulated an impressive body of critical principles for practical literary appreciation and offered good examples of descriptive criticism himself. It was said of Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble. Saintsbury avers that Dryden’s contribution to English poetry was the same as Augustus’ contribution to Rome. With still more justice we could say that Dryden found English literary criticism “brick” and left it “marble.”
It was no less exacting a critic than Dr. Johnson who decorated Dryden with the medal of the fatherhood of English criticism. “Dryden”, he wrote, “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 tribute to Dryden should not be allowed to imply that no literary criticism existed in England before Dryden. Some literary criticism did exist before him, but much of it was not worth the name.
Dryden’s Critical Works:
Dryden was truly a versatile man of letters. He was a playwright (both tragic and comic), a vigorous and fluent prose writer (justifiably the father of modern English prose), a great poet (one of the best satiric poets of England so far), a verse translator, and, of course, a great literary critic. His literary criticism makes a pretty sizable volume. Much of it, however, is informal, occasional, self-vindicating, and, as F. R. Leavis terms it in his appreciation of Dr. Johnson as a critic in a Scrutiny number, “dated”. Dryden wrote only one formal critical work-the famous essay Of Dramatic Poesie. The rest of his critical work consists of three classical lives (Plutarch, Polybius, and Lucian), as many as twenty-five critical prefaces to his own works, and a few more prefaces to the works of his contemporaries. These critical prefaces are so many bills of fare as well as apologies for the writings to which they are prefixed. In his critical works Dryden deals, as the occasion arises, with most literary questions which were the burning issues of his day, as also some fundamental problems of literary creation, apprehension, and appreciation which are as important today as they were at the very inchoation of literature. He deals, satisfactorily or otherwise, with such issues as the process of literary creation, the permissibility or otherwise of tragi-comedy, the three unities the Daniel-Campion controversy over rhyme versus blank verse, the nature and function of comedy, tragedy, and poetry in general, the function and test of good satire, and many others. Here is, indeed, to steal a phrase from him, “God plenty”. No English literary critic before Dryden had been so vast in range or sterling in quality.
Dryden-the Father of English Descriptive Criticism:
Out of this “God’s plenty” of Dryden’s critical works perhaps the most valuable passages are those which .constitute descriptive criticism. George Watson in his excellent work The Literary Critics divides literary criticism into three broad categories listed below:
(i) “Legislative criticism, including books-of rhetoric.” Such criticism claims to teach the poet how to write, or write better. Thus it is meant for the writer and not the reader of poetry. Such criticism flourished before Dryden who broke new ground.
(ii) “Theoretical criticism or literary aesthetics.” Such criticism had also become almost a defunct force. Today it has come back with a vengeance in the shape of various literary theories.
(iii) “Descriptive criticism or the analysis of existing literary works.” “This”, says Watson, “is the youngest of the three forms, by far the most voluminous and the only one which today possesses any life and vigour of its own.”
Whether or not Dryden is “the father of English criticism” it is fair enough to agree with Watson that “he is clearly the founder of descriptive criticism in English.” All English literary critics before him—such as Gascoigne, Puttenham, Sidney, and Ben Jonson-were critics of the legislative or theoretical kind. None of them concerned himself with given literary works for interpretation and appreciation. Of course, now and then, Dryden’s predecessors did say good or bad things about this or that writer, or this or that literary composition; for instance, Sidney praised Shakespeare and commented on his contemporaries. However, such stray comments were not grounded on any carefully formulated principles of appreciation. “Audiences”, says Dr. Johnson, “applauded by instinct, and poets perhaps often pleased by chance.” Dryden was to repeat Dr. Johnson’s words, “the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition.” Dryden “practised” what he “taught.” He was the first in England “to attempt extended descriptive criticism.” Thus he established a new tradition and did a signal service to literary criticism. Watson says : “The modern preoccupation with literary analysis emerges, patchily but unmistakably, in his prejudiced and partisan interest in his own plays and poems.”
It is to be noted that every one of Dryden’s prefaces to his own works is of the nature of an apologia meant to defend in advance the poet’s reputation by attempting to answer the possible objection likely to be raised. Such self-justification leads him often to the analysis of his creative works and the discussion of principles to determine “the merit of composition.”
Dryden’s Important Descriptive Criticism:
Dryden’s very first critical essay—the dedicatory letter to his first published play The Rival Ladies (1664)-contains the germ of-descriptive criticism. However, the first critical analysis of a literary work in English was the “examen”, of Ben Jonson’s comedy The silent woman embedded in Dryden’s only formal work of criticism- the essay of Dramatic Poesie. This “examen” in Watson’s words, “is the earliest substantial example of descriptive criticism in the language.” Dryden selects The Silent Woman as “the pattern of a perfect play.” Of this play, Dryden proposes to “make a short examen, according to those rules which the French observe.” The intrinsic merit of the “exmen”, unlike the historical, is very limited. It is not only crude, but imprecise; so much so that in Watson’s words “it would not be acceptable as pass-work in any modern school of English.” When facts do not suit his conclusions, Dryden has little scruple in misrepresenting them. For example, he says that the action of the play “lies all within the compass of two houses,” when the fact is that there are three houses and a lane. In spite of such patent inaccuracies, the “examen” is, in the words of David Daiches, “a technical achievement of a high order and probably the first of its kind in English.”
Dryden’s criticism of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Chaucer is much more substantial than this “examen”. His aggressive nationalism distorts to some extent his appreciation of English writers. However, he has quite a few illuminating remarks to make. As regards Shakespeare we find Dryden strangely cowed down by the worthless and vituperative criticism of his contemporary, Rhymer; but his appreciation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is superb and eminently readable even today. His very acute analysis of Chaucer’s characterisation in his Preface to the Fables remains, in the words of Atkin in English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries, “something rare and of permanent value in English criticism.”
Dryden’s Liberalism, Scepticism, Dynamism, and Probabilism:
As a literary critic, Dryden was certainly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman critics (such as Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace) and later Italian and contemporary French critics (such as Rapin and Boileau). But this influence did not go beyond a limit. The age in which, he lived accepted this influence in all spheres of literature and Dryden was not isolationist enough to escape the spirit of the age. However, his fundamental liberalism, scepticism, dynamism, and probabilism—not to speak of his admirable sanity and common sense-helped him to fight quite a few dogmas and conventions imported from abroad. The French neo-classjcists of his age stuck to their Aristotelian guns with tenacity. While paying due respect to Aristotle, Dryden refused to swear by his name. He demolished, for example, the formidable trinity of the so-called “three unities,” the prejudice against tragi-comedy, and the rigorous enforcement of the principle of decorum. He was not a hidebound neo-Aristotelian like his contemporary Rhymer who denounced Shakespeare for his refusal to fall in line with the principles of Aristotle. Dryden seems to have had belief, like Longinus and the romantics, in inspiration and the inborn creative power of the poet. He favoured the romantic extravagances of Shakespeare and candidly criticised ancient Roman and contemporary French drama which strictly followed all the “rules.” Of course, he favoured “regularity” and deference to some basic “rules” of composition, but, unlike, say, Rhymer, he refused to worship these rules and to consider them as substitutes for real inspiration and intensity of expression. The bit and the bridle are necessary, but there has to be a horse first. “Now what, I beseech thee,” asks he “is more easy than to write a regular French play, or more difficult than write an irregular English one, like those of Fletcher, or of Shakespeare?”
Dryden’s intellectual scepticism, which Louis I. Bredvold stresses in The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden, was greatly responsible for his liberal and unorthodox outlook. His probabilism as a literary critic is both his strength and weakness. While discussing an issue, he argues, very often, from both the sides and leaves the conclusion hanging in the air. In the essay Of Dramatic Poesie, for instance, he compares ancient and modern drama, Elizabethan playwrights of his country and French play wrights of his own age, and rhyme and blank verse; but these issues are discussed by four interlocutors, and Dryden (though very easily recognisable in Neander) is, apparently at least, non-committal. His somersault on the question of the relative merit of rhyme and blank verse may be variously quoted as a time-serving trick or as an example of his dynamism, but the undeniable fact remains that as a literary critic he is flexible enough to keep the issue open. Watson remarks : “Dryden’s whole career as a critic is permeated by what we might tactfully call his sense of occasion: Pyrrhonism, or philosophical scepticism, liberated him from the tyranny of truth.” And further : “Dyden is remarkable as a critic not only for the casual ease with which he contradicts himself, but for the care he takes in advance to ensure that there will not be much in future to contradict.”
Dryden’s “Historic Sense”:
Dryden’s impatience with classical “rules” arose mainly from his abundant “historic sense.” He was the first critic who emphasized the dvnamic character of literature. Literature, according to him. is expressive of the genius of a nation, and it necessarily keeps pace with the times. It is simply not possible to formulate a body of rules applicable to literatures of various nations in various ages. He affirmed that what was liked by ancient Greeks “would not satisfy an English audience.” He refused to believe that ancient Greeks and Romans “were models for all time and in all languages.” He was not, therefore, cowed down by the authority of Aristotle. He declared: “It is not enough that Aristotle had said so, for Aristotle drew his models of tragedy from Sophocles and Euripides: and, if he had seen ours, might have changed his mind”. This outspoken assertion comes partly from Dry den’s cultural patriotism” but partly from his keen historic sense.
Dryden-the Father of Comparative Criticism:
Commenting upon Dryden’s “examen” of The Silent Woman in the essay Of Dramatic Poesie, Watson says: “The chief triumph of the examen lies in its attempt at comparative criticism, in its balancing of the qualities of the English drama against those of the French. It is undeniably the first example of such criticism in English, and among the very earliest in any modern language. “Dryden, says Scott-James, “opens a new field of comparative criticism.” In the course of his critical works, Dryden critically compares Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Chaucer and Ovid, Chaucer and Boccaccio, Horace and Juvenal, ancient and modern drama, contemporary French and English drama, Elizabethan and Restoration drama, rhyme and blank verse as vehicles of drama, and so on. This method of comparative criticism is very rewarding and illuminating and a favourite instrument of modern ritics.