Both in theory and practice Dryden was essentially a neo-classicist. In his criticism as well as his creative work he appears as a supporter of1 the theory and practice of the Greek and Latin writers of antiquity, even though he always disclaims any slavish adherence to those “rules” which were enunciated long ago.
In his classicism he was more or less a representative of the age. Along with Milton he stands at the end of the Renaissance. Milton and Dryden according to George Sherbum, “represent two developments at the end of the Renaissance. Milton preserved the elevation and growing richness of the humanist Intellect, while Dryden developed in the realistic, critical, and skeptical tradition initiated in part by Montaigne. Milton in his post-Restoration poems thought and worked in terms of the higher genres, epic and tragedy, and ne thus achieved the acme of English neo-classic distinction, Dryden followed in inferior genres, and the lesser poets in general followed Dryden in this respect.”
Dryden and His Times:
The classicism of Dryden and Milton was representative of the post-restoration period. The Restoration marked the close of the genuine romanticism of the Elizabethan period and also the decadent romanticism of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. The creative imagination, exuberant fancy and extravagance of the past had no appeal for an age which saw the establishment of the Royal Society and with that the glorious initiation of an era of experimental science. A critical spirit was abroad, and men stopped taking everything for granted. This critical spirit was analytic and inquisitive, not synthetic and naively credulous. Itput a-greater premium on intellect and reason than on imagination. Dryden was a great exponent of this spirit. As a critic puts it, “the merits of the new school are found in its intellectual force and actuality; just as its demerits lie in its lack of deep imagination, and tendency to deal with manners and superficialities, rather than with elemental things and larger issues of life.”
Dryden’s neo-classicism signifies mainly the following two characteristics:
(i) His appreciation and recommendation of the theory and practice of the ancient Greek and Roman writers (and also their old Italian and contemporary French imitators);
(ii) His critical and realistic appraisal of his own times through the handling of topical and realistic themes having a direct and immediate bearing upon his society and times.
Basically, Dryden’s neo-classicism. like the classical temper of his times, was a reaction against the decadent romanticism of the preceding age. The metaphysical tradition of Donne in the hands of his followers was, in the words of a critic, “guiding poetry towards a wilderness of nonsensical thought and of grotesque form”. “Somehow,” says the same critic, “unconsciously, yet nonetheless firmly, “there arose towards the middle of the [seventeenth] century a desire for a change, a reversion to something more orderly and more definite. The glorious days of Elizabeth had gone for ever. Now there were the tendencies for repressing the formless poetry, the formless prose, and the extravagant philosophy. This repression led to the pseudo-classicism of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It found no greater champion than John Dryden. ‘It stands to reason whether this classicism was true or “pseudo.” Though Dryden was a great champion of this classicism yet it must be admitted that before him Waller and Dentiam had done some pioneer work.
Imitation of the Ancients:
Dryden’s neo-classicism manifests itself primarily in his reverence of the ancients and his repeated protestations in favour of their theory and practice. It was perhaps on account of their lack of native genius that Dryden and his contemporaries looked towards the ancient Greek and Roman writers for inspiration as well as guidance. “This habit”, says a critic,” quite noticeable during the time of Dryden, deepened and hardened during the succeeding era of Pope—so much so that the Lll-i laid down as a fine test of excellence :
Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy ‘.hem.
Dryden and his contemporaries looked upon the ancients as their models. By “the ancients” they generally, and practically, meant the ancient writers. Seneca provided the model for tragedy, Terence: and Plautus for comedy, Virgil for epic and pastoral, Horace and Juvenal for satire, Pindar for odes, and Horace (with his Ars Poetica) for literary criticism. Of all the ancient Roman writers, Dryden respected Virgil the most and repeatedly acknowledged him as his master and guide. It was a lifelong ambition of his to write an epic in the manner of V’ngiYs Aeneidand to imitate the brilliance, stateliness, and sonority of this masterpiece. It must be remembered that the neoclassical critics in France as also in England had given pic the most exalted place among the poetic “kinds.” Hence Dryden’s ambition is understandable. But as Louis I, Bredvold puts it, “this ambition he sacrificed for the various opportunities of the moment, because of the pressing necessity of earning a living for his family.” Apart from the fact that Dryden “imitated” the ancients and drew inspiration from them it is notable that he translated quite a few of them into English verse. Among those whose works he “translated” (in part) may be mentioned Virgil and Boccaccio.
Influence of the Neo-classicists:
Dryden’s neo-classicism was, partly, imported stuff. In France, to quote an opinion, “the reaction against the poetic licence of the Renaissance had set in somewhat earlier…establishing order and discipline in literature. Corneille and Racine had developed a drama on the lines of Latin tragedy…and Moliere evolved, under the influence of classical example, a type of social comedy, which ranged from hearty farce to the elegant comedy of manners.” According to W. H. Hudson, “the contemporary literature of France was characterised by lucidity, vivacity, and—by reason of the close attention given to form-correctness, elegance, and finish-It was moreover a literature in which intellect was in the ascendant and the critical faculty always in control.” It was to this literature that Dryden looked for inspiration his heroic plays which seem to be “romantic” in their exuberance and extravagance were based on French models. In Dryden’s comedies, too, the influence of the French masters like Moliere is quite apparent, though this influence is for the worse.
Much of romantic literature is marked by a lack of a realism amounting sometimes to sheer escapism. Classicism, on the other hand, puts a special emphasis on concrete reality and aims preeminently at the edification and improvement of the reader. But a true classical writer does not indulge in ephemeral journalism. Even if he may deal with topical issues he treats them in such a way that his work does not lose interest outside the context of his age and his environment. Dryden, like his contemporaries, saysA critic, “did not allow his thoughts to wander off with Spenser into fairyland or to explore with Milton the mysteries of heaven and hell. He made his verse the vehicle of argument, controversy, personal and political satire.” Dry den’s poetry is not the poetry of basic human passions but of the practical motives which govern human actions. He was a man Bright in the thick of the faction-torn political life of his age. He had strong likes and dislikes, though these likes and dislikes were seldom constant. Most of his poetical work is intimately linked with the events and ethos,o£,his age or his own life, his friends and his enemies. His Religio Laid ( 1 683) for instance, was written in defence of the Church of England when he himself was one of its ardent members. becoming a Roman Catholic he came out with The Hind and the Panther (1 687) defending his new religion. HisAnntts Mirabilis (The Year of Wonders) describes the wonderful events-the Great Fire and the defeat of the Dutch Fleet-of the year 1 666. His three great satires-Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, and Mac Flecknoe-arz concerned with the political activity of his age and are designed to chastise his personal and political enemies. From all this it should be clear that he was very realistic in the choice of themes for his poetry. These themes may have been prosaic enough, but his poetry cannot be called prosaic. Matthew Arnold went so far as to assert that Dryden and Pope are the classics not of our poetry but of prose. As T. S. Eliot and Mark Van Doren have pointed out. Dryden’s treatment is poetic. It is, in fact, the superabundance of Dryden’s poetic faculty that raises even prosaic themes to the level of high poetry.
Vers de Societe:
Dryden’s poetry was vers de societe. “The Poet”, says Louis I. Bredvold, “was in this age close to his public, was indeed, presumably a part of it : a gentleman who wrote for ladies and gentlemen. He found his audience in this select circle, and his works were appraised not by reviews in literary journals but by the judgements voiced in the coffeehouse or drawing room. The poet was a man of the world and he wrote about politics, war, religion, or scientific progress whatever might interest the society in which he lived. He wrote verses for social or festive occasions as a matter of course, poetry being one of the delightful amusements of life.. .this poetry has the merits and the defects of the society for which it was written.” Whereas the romantic poet writes mainly as an individual for himself primarily, the classical poet like Dryden writes as a cultured man speaking to other cultured men. His aim is not self-revelation but arguing and convincing w ith the help of logic or that “specious logic” which is called satire. Dryden was the greatest arguer in verse, but what is of primary significance is not his argumentation but his poetry to whatever purpose it may have been bent by him.
Intellect versus Imagination:
Classical poetry is characterised, broadly speaking, by the predominance of the intellectual faculty, control, good sense, reason, order, symmetry, and clarity over heady imagination, lawlessness, disorder, extravagance, eccentricity, and disrespect of authority. Dryden himself compared imagination to a headstrong horse and reason to the bit which regulates its speed and but for M’hich the beast would go out of control and do much mischief. George Sherburn maintains in this connexion: “Basically the school of Dryden is devoted to a belief in control as essential to art, to a disbelief in “unpremeditated art.” One’s imagination was controlled by the procedure of the ancients and by thinking in terms of genres.” It must be understood that this insistence on control, reason, or intellect is not necessarily an evidence of imaginative sterility. It is rather tentamount to a preference of order over chaos, of sobriety over extravagance. There are very few poets who have the vitality and exuberance of Dryden, even when some have much more of intensity and profundity. It is wrong to say that Dryden’s poetry is completely intellectual and has nothing to do with imagination or emotion. As Cazamian maintains, Dryden “retains in his blood the glow of an ardour that is vanishing from his generation. The mature art he creates for himself is not of the stripped and somewhat spare type, to which a perfected technique will tend; but rather of a still sturdy, robust and strong-lived quality. The psychological sources that nurture it are exclusively intellectual.” Thus we may say that Dryden is not a strict classicist. His art, says Cazamian, “is a mixed art, neither the pure classicism which Pope will endeavour to practise, nor the pseudo-classicism, tainted with decadent Romanticism, which Dryden had practised in his early poems; but a strong blending in which the essential elements of discipline and of an accepted rule combine with the sovereign ease and boldness of inspiration.” His odes are good instances of the combination of discipline and inspiration.
As a Critic:
Thus Dryden was never a hidebound classicist. His approach is always marked by flexibility and tentativeness. That is evident in his critical works also. He gave due respect to the ancients but was not chary of praising the moderns-even those moderns who did not care for the rules of the ancients. His glowing tribute to Chaucer and Shakespeare is well known. He seems to believe in akind of theory of continuous evolution towards perfection. He makes bold attempts to criticise the triteness of Roman comic plots, their poor wit and instructiveness though he praises their dexterous handling of individual situations and the regularity of their structure. He is also critical of those ‘”classical” French dramatists who put all the stress on regularity, which, according to him, leads to “thinness.” He asks disarmingly : “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?” Further, he condemns the French preoccupation with “rules” at the cost of the spirit of writing. Fie: maintains that “in most of the irregular plays of Shakespeare or Fletcher…there is a more masculine fancy and greater spirit in the writing than there is in any of the French.” Dryden was indeed influenced by the French neo-classical critics such Le Bossu, Rapin, and later Boileau; but their influence on him is not so strong as on critics like Rymer who tenaciously and unimaginatively adhered to all the “rules.” Unlike Rymer, Drydenliimself was a creative writer brimful of native poetic energy which he refused to curb by the mechanical application of these rules. Thus in him was a synthesis of classical and romantic qualities. Cazamian avers : “Full of the doctrine of the ancients, he bends it to a free and fruitful adaptation; and his instinct outruns and explains away the last scruples of the thinker.”
In his expression, again, Dryden appears as a classicist” cherishing the virtues of clarity, simplicity, neatness and order. He has been rightly called the father of modern English prose. As W. J. Long maintains, before Dryden “the general tendency of writers was towards extravagance of thought and language. Sentences were often involved and loaded with Latin quotations and classical allusions.” Dryden brought prose from the turbulence and confusion of antiquity to the perspicuity and order of modernity. Even though his prose has a charming masculine vigour and raciness yet basically it is functional in nature.
In the field of verse also Dryden emphasised the need for clarity, order, and balance. He popularised the use of the heroic couplet as a vehicle for almost all kinds of poetry and even tragedy. For its neatness, clarity, and balance the heroic couplet appealed to him. After him the couplet became the recognised measure for all classical poetry of the school of Pope and even later. Dryden’s achievement is to have made the heroic couplet a self-contained unit by discouraging the tendency towards enjambement. He married his sense perfectly to his metre. However, he reserved for himself considerable .liberty in the employment of this measure. His frequent use of alexandrines and triplets-of which Pope was highly critical-may be mentioned in this connexion.