Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Dryden > The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose > Dryden’s Influence on English Style; the Preface to the Fables
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose.

§ 20. Dryden’s Influence on English Style; the Preface to the Fables.


Thus, the essay, with its near allies, the literary preface and the political pamphlet, played a large part in the formation of the new prose. We have seen that it was in the same year (1665) that Cowley and Dryden achieved independently the mastery of their instruments. Cowley only played on his for a brief moment, but Dryden’s mastery became more and more perfect, till, in the last year of the century, he produced his masterpiece in “the other harmony of prose”; the Preface to the Fables. In its numerous digressions—“the nature of a Preface,” he says, “is rambling”—and in the pleasant intrusion of his own personality, it reminds one happily of Montaigne. 35  But the style is all Dryden’s own—short and well balanced sentences, restraint, lucidity and precision, a tone of friendly intercourse with the reader, an ease which never becomes familiarity, and a dignity which never stiffens into pomposity. When, nine years later, Steele wrote the first number of The Tatler, he found an instrument ready to his hand. Steele’s style suggests Dryden, just as Addison’s model in the first paper which he contributed to the same journal is, obviously, Cowley. Steele and Addison addressed themselves to a wider audience than Dryden, not only to scholars and wits and courtiers, but to ordinary middle-class citizens; they made the essay lighter, and introduced into it humour and a spice of malice. But they were not the creators either of the essay or of modern prose. The foundations of most of the literature of the first half of the eighteenth century were already laid down in the seventeenth. Dryden not only dominates his own age, but throws his shadow over the next.   34

Note 35. Cf. ante, Chap. 1, p. 58. [ back ]

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