Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by W. J. Courthope
John Dryden (1631–1700)
 
[John Dryden was born in 1631 and died in 1700. The most elaborate of his prose compositions was his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, written in 1667. His first play was acted in 1663, his last in 1694, and during this period he wrote many criticisms, chiefly controversial, on matters relating to the stage, prominent among which are his Defence of the Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), Defence of the Epilogue (1673), Remarks on the Empress of Morocco (1674), Vindications of the Duke of Guise (1683). After the Revolution of 1688 his chief prose works were the Essay on Satire prefixed to his Translations from Juvenal and Persius (1692), and the Preface to the Fables (1700). Of his other prose writings the principal are his Life of Plutarch (1683), his controversy with Stillingfleet respecting the conversion of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, to the Roman Catholic faith (1686); his translations of the Life of St. Francis Xavier (1687), and of Fresnoy’s Art of Poetry, to which is prefixed A Parallel of Poetry and Painting (1695).]  1
 
DRYDEN was the first, and in many ways the greatest, of the writers who employed English prose as an instrument for promoting social intercourse and refinement. Before him literary prose had been used in our language chiefly in sermons, travels, histories, scientific treatises, and controversial pamphlets; in short, for the various purposes of instruction. All writings of this kind show themselves plainly, in respect both of matter and manner, to be the offspring of the Schools. The reader is never allowed to forget that he is in the presence of his master; he must submit himself to the learning of the priest, the scholar, or the logician. The sentences, modelled on the Latin, are protracted, through labyrinths of clauses, to “periods of a mile”; in which, though the rhythmical effect is often musical, and sometimes majestic, the mind craves vainly for the relief of variety and repose. Even in the Essay, where Bacon and Cowley have followed the footsteps of Montaigne, the reader seems rather to have surprised an author in his privacy, and overheard him soliloquising, than to have conversed with him face to face. Dryden brings the author and reader together in company, where each must make the acquaintance of the other on equal terms; he appeals to common reason, imagination, taste, and judgment; and while he is very far from disdaining the arts of learning, he improves them with the genius of conversation.  2
  The composition of the conversational elements underlying his prose style is difficult to analyse, but there can be no doubt from what Dryden himself says, that the main factor in it was the character of the king. Charles II. exerted an influence over the tastes and manners of his subjects, which in some respects resembled, and was only equalled by, the authority of Louis XIV. in France; “all by the King’s example lived and loved.” Yet no two examples ever differed in kind more radically than those furnished by these sovereigns. In France the king was only the living impersonation of the monarchy, the great centralising institution which for ages had been absorbing into itself all the political and intellectual powers of the nation; and the stately ceremony in which absolutism embodied itself was reflected equally in the architecture, horticulture, poetry, and criticism of the period. It was said with justice of the court of Louis XIV., that in it nobody dared to speak aloud. In England, on the other hand, where the monarchy had only recently been brought back on a spring tide of popularity to shores strewn with the wrecks of old beliefs and habits, everything depended for the moment on the personal inclinations of the King. Charles II. was well fitted by nature to leave the imprint of his character on the disorganised world over which he ruled. After a youth made painful by danger and privation, he had returned to the exercise of almost absolute power with a boundless appetite for enjoyment. Endowed with keen wit and perception, he took delight in every kind of imaginative entertainment, particularly in the drama. His favourites, Rochester, Buckingham, and Sedley, reflected their sovereign’s tastes in their own, and imparted them to the crowd of playwrights, actors, musicians, epigrammatists and satirists who were charged with providing amusement for the moment. As almost anything might be imagined in the court of Charles II., so whatever was imagined might be uttered and even written. The restraints on society usually exercised by religion and morality vanished in the reaction against Puritanic despotism. There was in fact nothing to check the licence of conversation, except—what can never completely desert a society of gentlemen—the sense of good breeding, and the necessity of veiling the crudities of thought beneath the refinements of language.  3
  Into this courtly chaos Dryden brought the informing spirit of his learning and imagination. Not indeed that fashionable society had any special charm for him. He was not what Pope calls “a genteel man,” for, though he was well born and, by his marriage, highly allied, his want of means prevented him from mixing on a footing of equality with the court wits. Nor did his disposition, reserved and somewhat diffident, naturally fit him to shine in the sparkling exchanges of repartee which were the delight of aristocratic company. But literature was his trade; society needed to be amused; and, whether it were tragedy, comedy, satire, translation, or controversy, he was always ready to provide an entertainment in accordance with what he believed to be the requirements of his patrons.  4
  But how were these requirements to be surely ascertained? The task of the poet was no longer so simple as in the early years of the century, when the imagination moved freely in the midst of a profusion of materials, and words united almost spontaneously with thoughts. Half of that original impulse had spent itself; while, at the same time, the judgment of the audience had become more various and exacting. Dryden, as a playwright, had to reckon with the taste of a king, who was always in search of novelty; the taste of a nobility, each of them stiff in his opinions and accustomed to be treated with deference; the taste of rivals jealous of his favour with the public; and beyond these, with the taste of the public itself, which, though anxious to be rightly pleased and instructed, was perplexed by the conflict of opinions. On what common element in the midst of so much contradiction were the foundations of art to repose? The attempt to answer this question was the beginning of criticism. Every work of imaginative creation had now to be explained and even defended by a process of intellectual analysis; every kind of judgment must be adroitly flattered by an author before he could secure a verdict in favour of his performance. Hence it is that almost all Dryden’s prose writings are of a critical character. His plays are, as a rule, preceded by an “Epistle Dedicatory,” addressed to some noble patron; and the dedication is often followed by a Preface, in which he either replies with spirit to those who seek to lower him in public esteem, or discourses familiarly with “the reader” on the principles of dramatic composition.  5
  The style of his Dedications is marked by the finest gradations of respectfulness or familiarity. At times he seems, like the Panegyrists in the declining days of the Roman Empire, to prostrate himself at the foot of the mountain of compliments which he piles up. “For what could be more glorious to me,” he writes to William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, “than to have acquired some part of your esteem who are admired and honoured by all good men, who have been for so many years together the pattern and standard of honour to the nation; and whose whole life has been so great an example of heroic virtue that we might wonder how it happened into an age so corrupt as ours, if it had not been likewise a part of the former. As you came into the world with all the advantages of noble birth and education, so you have rendered both more conspicuous by your virtue. Fortune indeed has perpetually crowned your undertakings with success, but she has only waited on your valour, not conducted it. She has administered to your glory like a slave, and has been led in triumph by it; or at most, while honour led you by the hand to greatness, fortune only followed to keep you from sliding back in your ascent.”  6
  At other times he mitigates this oriental style of flattery with a note of playfulness, as in his dedication of “Tyrannic Love” to the Duke of Monmouth. “So dangerous a thing it is to admit a poet into your family, that you can never afterwards be free from the chiming of ill verses, perpetually sounding in your ears, and more troublesome than the neighbourhood of steeples. I have been favourable to myself in this expression; a zealous fanatic would have gone farther, and have called me the serpent who first presented the fruit of my poetry to the wife, and so gained the opportunity to seduce the husband.”  7
  Or again, dropping these formal conceits, he suggests a closer degree of familiarity by first allowing himself the privilege of using criticism in a dedication, and then excusing himself with an anecdote. “This digression, my lord, is not altogether the purpose of an epistle dedicatory; yet it is expected that somewhat should be said even here in relation to criticism; at least in vindication of my address, that you may not be deceived to patronise a poem which is wholly unworthy of your protection. Though after all I doubt not but some will liken me to the lover in a modern comedy who was combing his peruke and setting his cravat before his mistress; and being asked by her when he intended to begin his court replied, ‘He had been doing it all this while.’” 1  8
  On the other hand, when he is dealing with those who have sought to discredit him with his patrons or the public, he befouls his antagonists with the coarsest imagery of Smithfield and Billingsgate. Some of them he describes as “animals of the most deplored understanding,” “upstart illiterate scribblers,” a “sputtering triumvirate,” “the illustrious Mr. Hunt and his brace of beagles.” Of another he says, “I have daubed him with his own puddle.” “Og,” so he speaks of his rival Shadwell, “may write against the king if he pleases, so long as he drinks for him, and his writings will never do the government so much harm, as his drinking does it good; for true subjects will not be much perverted by his libels; but the wine duties rise considerably by his claret.” And again of Settle: “He has all the pangs and throes of a fanciful poet, but is never delivered of any more perfect issue of his phlegmatic brain than a dull Dutchwoman’s sooterkin is of her body.”  9
  Removed equally from the toilsome flattery of his Dedications, and the not less laboured blackguardism of his controversial pamphlets, the full charm of his style is to be found in his Prefaces. Here he is face to face with “the reader.” He is no longer addressing a patron or a rival, but an equal, and, it may be presumed, a friend, with whom he may be easy, natural, and unpretending. Though his audience is unseen, and indeed almost impersonal, he is well acquainted with their tastes and sympathies. He has met with them in every class of society, in the court, the coffee house, and all the busy professions of life; and it is their sense of what is right in morals and art in which he lays the foundations of his criticism. When he replies to the charge of offending as an artist against the laws of morality, he understands how to retire with dignity from a position that he knows his audience would not wish him to defend; and when to turn upon an antagonist who has, in the public judgment, pushed his advantage too far. If he discusses a point of abstract taste, he avoids all show of learning and metaphysics, and submits his opinion with confidence to his readers, as men who will judge him by the common law of human nature. He digresses skilfully from his subject to dwell upon his own merits and the motives of those who disparage him. The strength of his formal reasoning is always felt, but his thoughts follow, each other in a natural order, according to the animated motions of his mind, in a flow of language so splendid and yet so familiar, that they seem to spring less from an effort of meditated art, than from the happiness of eloquent conversation.  10
  As to the literary elements which mixed themselves in this vein of colloquial idiom, it does not appear that Dryden was greatly influenced by any existing models. He himself modestly ascribes some of his merit as a prose writer to the sermons of Tillotson, which indeed furnished him with good examples of the logical and lucid arrangement of thought. Yet, if Tillotson had never preached, it may be doubted whether there would have been any great difference in the style of Dryden. Such resemblance as may be observed between them is probably the result, less of conscious imitation of the one by the other, than of the necessity under which they each lay of addressing audiences in the language of daily use. It has also been supposed that Dryden borrowed much of his style from the French, an opinion, it appears, chiefly founded on the numerous words in his writings either taken directly, or ultimately derived, from that language. Many of these words, however, were merely used by him carelessly, after the court fashion of conversation; while others had obtained a footing in our literature long before he began to write. Doubtless he had read, and (as his idioms sometimes show) felt the influence of, Bossu and other French critics, but, while he acknowledged their supremacy in their own department of taste, he was far from surrendering his liberties into their hands. Louis XIV. encouraged critical principles that extended into literature the absolutism he had established in the system of his government, and in the manners of his court; his subjects submitted readily to the authority of “the ancients”; but the turbulent tides of English taste could not be checked by Aristotle’s dams. Of this Dryden was well aware, and often opposed himself to the rules laid down by the French critics. Nor did he make any attempt to imitate their style, who, in their efforts after precision, aimed at purging their language of metaphor, and thus while they refined it into a perfect instrument of logic, deprived it necessarily of much individual life and character.  11
  As far as he can be said to have looked to any literary model, Dryden followed an English tradition, the tendency of which was exactly opposite to the French. The style, which Lyly had first made fashionable in the court of Elizabeth, had continued to affect the conversational idiom of polite society in each succeeding reign. In this style two characteristics predominate, verbal antithesis and metaphorical imagery; and though usage had greatly modified and softened their original harshness, both features of the parent “Euphues” may be plainly discerned in English prose long after the Restoration. They make a prominent figure in the writings of Dryden. Johnson indeed pronounces his clauses to be without studied balance, 2 but his opinion is plainly ill-founded, for Dryden’s style abounds with verbal, oppositions—though these are introduced naturally and with no appearance of effort—and even when the parts of his sentence are not formally weighed against each other, the rhythm is frequently determined by a subtle antithesis of thought. As to his employment of metaphor, the examples already cited from his Dedications show how freely he indulged in what may be called metaphysical Euphuism, when using the language of compliment. But the Euphuistic habit influences him in his more sober moods, and even his controversial passages are enriched with a profusion of images. It is true that in these he does not follow a conceit for its own sake, but—as in good architecture the ornament is intimately connected with the construction—uses metaphors and similes to illustrate, and even to strengthen, his arguments.  12
  When, for example, he is told that, as a layman, he should not trespass on the ground of religion, he answers: “I pretend not to make myself a judge of faith in others, but only to make a confession of my own. I lay no unhallowed hand upon the ark, but wait on it, with the reverence that becomes me, at a distance.” Ben Jonson has been charged with plagiarism. What signifies? says Dryden. “He has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him.” Shakespeare is accused of having wanted learning; Nay, replies the critic, “he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there.” His images are always happily adapted to their subject: “He is too much given to horse-play in his raillery,” he says of Collier, “and comes to battle like a dictator from the plough.” Speaking of the progress of refinement in comedy; “Gentlemen,” he says, “will now be entertained by the follies of each other; and though they allow Cobb and Tibb to speak properly, yet they are not much pleased with their tankard or with their rags.” The fault of irregularity in writing is illustrated by a metaphor of homely force: “Others have no ear for verse, nor choice of words, nor distinction of thoughts; but mingle farthings with their gold to make up the sum.”  13
  Dryden’s prose writings are almost always of an occasional character, and in this respect they want the dignity derived from moral purpose. Among those who succeeded him, Addison, in the next generation, used the essay as an instrument for improving national taste and manners, and a generation later Johnson made it the vehicle of dictatorial criticism. Both of them wrote in a spirit of independence which was foreign to Dryden, whose work, with the single exception of the Essay of Dramatic Poetry, was produced at the demand of patrons or publishers, and who is so far from seeking to rise above the conversation of his company, that, in the extravagance of his flattery, he too often forgets what is due to himself. For all that, no later prose writer can approach him in strength, freedom, and harmony of expression. In reading him, when at his best, we are reminded of his own description of Absalom:
        “Whate’er he did, was done with so much ease,
In him alone ’twas natural to please.”
The most skilful critic finds it sometimes hard to discriminate between the style of Addison and Steele; Johnson’s style had many imitators; but no man could imitate the style of Dryden. Of no writer can it be more truly said, Le style c’est l’homme. Like the Socrates of Plato he runs before his argument as a ship under sail, and whatever be his subject of the moment, he suffuses it with all the glow and colour of his rich vocabulary. The coarse immorality of Charles II.’s Court, as he paints it, takes an air of grace and refinement. A few strokes of unequalled vigour place before us, with perfect discrimination, the varied characters of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Jonson. Even in the midst of his servility he seems to be sustained by a sense of inward greatness, which allows him to speak to his readers with self-respect. Nothing can surpass the dignity of his attitude before Collier; his haughty disdain of Buckingham and the authors of the Rehearsal; his pathetic reference to his old age in the Postscript to the Æneis.
  14
  It is this twofold character which makes Dryden, whether in verse or prose, so interesting a figure in English literature. He occupies, as it were, an isthmus between two seas. In one direction he looks, not without experience, over the great imaginative ocean of Tudor and Stuart literature; in the other he seems to survey in thought the yet untravelled waters of the eighteenth century; the world of reason, judgment, science; the coming temper of Berkeley and Addison, of Burke and of Reynolds. As a playwright he is still the servant of the king. As a man of letters he is the client of noble patrons. He acknowledges with an excessive deference what is due to these; he knows how much of art and manners is derived from their authority; but he feels that their influence is on the wane. On the other hand, looking to the great unorganised forces of the coming time, he sees that the supreme court of appeal lies with the people. To this tribunal he submits his Preface to the Fables, his Versification of Chaucer, his Translation of the Æneid. He pays it the compliment of sincerity, which he withholds from the patrons whom he flatters. All the treasures of his memory and imagination are placed at the disposal of his audience. Yet in one respect he feels himself to be superior to his judges. He is addressing them as a man of genius, on whom they are dependent for their intellectual pleasures. No one, he is well aware, understands like himself how to blend the conversation of refined society with the language of literary tradition; he is acquainted, as none who listen to him can be, with the resources of their mother tongue. Hence he naturally adopts in his Prefaces a tone of dignified familiarity. His discourse is addressed to men who have shown themselves able to conduct a constitutional Revolution, and who are the masters of their own liberties; but it proceeds from one who has learned his manners, and formed his style, amid the arts, the splendour, and the experience of the old English Monarchy.  15
 
Note 1. Epistle Dedicatory to Love Triumphant. [back]
Note 2. Johnson’s Life of Dryden. [back]
 
 
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