restricted access Dryden the Critic
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286 ] Dryden the Critic1 The prose writings of Dryden, whether in the standard edition of W. P. Ker, or in the convenient “Everyman” edition, consist entirely of prefaces to various volumes of verse or verse plays.2 For the most part, they are concerned either with his views on poetic drama, or with his views on the art of translation. They are occasional, and constitute a kind of commentary on what he was doing in verse; they are the notes of a practitioner. They are obviously important in two ways: in the history of the development of English prose style, and in the history of English criticism; they are of further importance to us here, in reckoning the importance of the whole work of Dryden; for they form a part of this whole work which cannot be neglected. Dryden’s Essays are first, important in the history of English prose. As I have said, Dryden’s verse exercised the most vital influence on English poetry for nearly a century; similarly, his prose had a temporary, and has a permanent, value for English critical prose style; but the great influence of Dryden cannot be divided into two currents; his main influence was upon the matter of thought and feeling, out of which both verse and prose are made; his own verse and prose can therefore not be wholly separated, though we may say that he probably influenced prose by his verse still more than by his prose. I mean, that if we consider him as a writer of critical prose alone, we cannot say that his influence was dominant.3 We find similar tendencies in style in other contemporary writers on other subjects; and no one could go so far as to maintain that but for Dryden, we should have had neither the essays of Addison nor the writings of Swift at the point of perfection which these two writers reached. One can more plausibly conjecture , that but for the criticism of Dryden, we might not have had Addison’s critical essays on Milton or on the ballads; for Dryden was positively the first master of English criticism; and he set a good example for critics by practising what he preached.4 In Dryden’s prose style, we find no such painful development as we find in his verse. His prose seems to spring spontaneously, perfectly modelled. There is nothing surprising about this; it would be surprising if Dryden had not written good prose. Anyone who has studied his poetry, from [ 287 Dryden the Critic his crude beginnings to his perfect accomplishment, must be aware that Dryden was gradually acquiring those elements of good writing which are fundamental to both verse and prose, whilst he was freeing himself from the artificial poeticality of the previous age. His training in verse was training in prose as well; so that when, in maturity, he set himself, after the example of Corneille, to writing critical introductions to his own verse, his prose style is perfectly finished – indeed, more supple5† than the prose style of Corneille himself.6 I have conceded that Dryden’s prose is only one of the prose styles of his time that went to the formation of our form of classic English prose; but among these styles it is certainly one of the most admirable . He has all the virtues you would expect. He neither descends too low, nor attempts to fly too high; he is perfectly clear as to what he has to say; and he says it always with the right control and changes of intensity of feeling . His wit exceeds that of all his contemporaries; it contributes elegance and liveliness of figure, without ever overreaching itself into facetiousness. He has not the passion of his cousin Swift;7 but he everywhere convinces us of the serious, singleminded integrity of his love of truth in poetry, and in his contempt for shams; and no writer in the next and more polished generation , not even Addison, has more urbanity. “Elegance” and “urbanity”; two words of commendation which have long been in disrepute; but which are always needed. I know of no finer example of the precision and also of the range of Dryden’s prose style, than the essay which we usually read first: the Essay of Dramatic Poesy.8 It may seem an absurd and unjust comparison, but I can think of no essay in dialogue form in English, which on its own plane – less sublime, less profound in...


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