Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden

Introduction

Though he died in 1700, John Dryden is usually considered a writer of the 18th rather than the 17th century. Incredibly prolific, Dryden made innovative advances in translation and aesthetic philosophy, and was the first poet to employ the neo-classical heroic couplet and quatrain in his own work. Dryden’s influence on later writers was immense; Alexander Pope greatly admired and often imitated him, and Samuel Johnson considered him to have “refined the language, improved the sentiments, and tuned the numbers of English poetry.” In addition to poetry, Dryden wrote many essays, prefaces, satires, translations, biographies (introducing the word to the English language), and plays. “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” was probably written in 1666 during the closure of the London theaters due to plague. It can be read as a general defense of drama as a legitimate art form—taking up where Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesie” left off—as well as Dryden’s own defense of his literary practices. The essay is structured as a dialogue among four friends on the river Thames. The group has taken refuge on a barge during a naval battle between the English and the Dutch fleets. The four gentlemen, Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander (all aliases for actual Restoration critics and the last for Dryden himself), begin an ironic and witty conversation on the subject of poetry, which soon turns into a debate on the virtues of modern and ancient writers. While imitation of classical writers was common practice in Dryden’s time, he steers the group’s conversation towards dramatic poetry, a relatively new genre which had in some ways broken with classical traditions and was thus in need of its own apologia. The group arrives at a definition of drama: Lisideius suggests that it is “a just and lively Image of Humane Nature.” Each character then speaks in turn, touching on the merits of French and English drama, continuing the debate over ancient versus modern writers, and discussing the value of the “Unities” or rules of French drama. While French plays hew closer to classical notions of drama (adhering to the unities of time, place and action), Neander steps in to support English drama precisely because of its subplots, mixture of mirth and tragedy (in tragicomedy), and spirited, multiple characters. Drawing on Platonic dialogues for inspiration, Dryden’s characters present their opinions with eloquence and sound reasoning. The group discusses playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Molière, and Shakespeare with great insight, and has a final debate over the suitability of rhyme to drama. Crites objects to the use of rhyme because he believes it detracts from the verisimilitude of the scene, and cites Aristotle; Neander suggests a “natural” rhyme to serve the play’s meaning can add to its artistry. During this final speech, the barge docks at the Somerset-Stairs, and the four friends go their separate ways, content with their evening. Text and notes, unless otherwise indicated, are adapted from Essays of John Dryden, ed. W. P. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926).

It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy engaged the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe. While these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our Country men, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the Enemies; the noise of the Cannon from both Navies reached our ears about the City: so that all men, being alarmed with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which we knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the Town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some cross the River, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.

Amongst the rest, it was the fortune of Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius and Neander, to be in company together: three of them persons whom their wit and Quality have made known to all the Town: and whom I have chose to hide under these borrowed names, that they may not suffer by so ill a relation as I am going to make of their discourse.

Taking then a Barge which a servant of Lisideus had provided for them, they made haste to shoot the Bridge, and left behind them that great fall of waters which hindered them from hearing what they desired: after which, having disengaged themselves from many Vessels which rode at Anchor in the Thames, and almost blocked up the passage towards Greenwich, they ordered the Watermen to let fall their Oars more gently; and then every one favoring his own curiosity with a strict silence, it was not long ere they perceived the Air break about them like the noise of distant. Thunder, or of Swallows in a Chimney: those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reached them, yet still seeming to retain somewhat of their first horror which they had betwixt the Fleets: after they had attentively listened till such time as the sound by little and little went from them; Eugenius lifting up his head, and taking notice of it, was the first who congratulated to the rest that happy Omen of our Nations Victory adding, we had but this to desire in confirmation of it, that we might hear no more of that noise which was now leaving the English Coast. When the rest had concurred in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world have mistaken in him for ill nature, said, smiling to us, that if the concernment of this battle had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wished the Victory at the price he knew must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made upon it; adding, that no Argument could scape some of those eternal Rhymers, who watch a Battle with more diligence than the Ravens and birds of Prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry, while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their Poems, as to let them be often called for and long expected! “There are some of those impertinent people you speak of,” answered Lisideius, “who to my knowledge, are already so provided, either way, that they can produce not only a Panegyric upon the Victory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy upon the Duke: and after they have crowned his valor with many Laurels, at last deplore the odds under which he fell, concluding that his courage deserved a better destiny.” All the company smiled at the conceit of Lisideius, but Crites, more eager than before, began to make particular exceptions against some Writers, and said the public Magistrate ought to send betimes to forbid them; and that it concerned the peace and quiet of all honest people, that ill Poets should be as well silenced as seditious Preachers. “In my opinion,” replied Eugenius, “you pursue your point too far; for as to my own particular, I am so great a lover of Poesy, that I could wish them all rewarded who attempt but to do well; at least I would not have them worse used than Sylla the Dictator did one of their brethren heretofore: Quem in concione vidimus (says Tully speaking of him) cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subjecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiuculis, statim ex iis rebus quæ tunc vendebat jubere ei præmium tribui, sub ea conditione ne quid postea scriberet.” [We saw him once in an assembly, when out of the crowd a bad poet offered him an epigram in elegiac verse that he had just written as an attack on Sylla; he immediately ordered that the poet be given a reward out of the articles that he was selling, with the condition that he never again write anything—ed.] “I could wish with all my heart,” replied Crites, “that many whom we know were as bountifully thanked upon the same condition, that they would never trouble us again. For amongst others, I have a mortal apprehension of two Poets, whom this victory with the help of both her wings will never be able to escape.” “’Tis easy to guess whom you intend,” said Lisideius; “and without naming them, I ask you if one of them does not perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery? if now and then he does not offer at a Catachresis or Clevelandism, wresting and torturing a word into another meaning: In fine, if he be not one of those whom the French would call un mauvais buffon; one that is so much a well-willer to the Satire, that he spares no man; and though he cannot strike a blow to hurt any, yet ought to be punished for the malice of the action, as our Witches are justly hanged because they think themselves so; and suffer deservedly for believing they did mischief, because they meant it.” “You have described him,” said Crites, “so exactly, that I am afraid to come after you with my other extremity of Poetry: He is one of those who having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better than the other what a Poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily than any man; his stile and matter are every where alike; he is the most calm, peaceable. Writer you ever read: he never disquiets your passions with the least concernment, but still leaves you in as even a temper as he found you; he is a very Leveller in Poetry, he creeps along with ten little words in every line, and helps out his Numbers with For to, and Unto, and all the pretty Expletives he can find, till he drags them to the end of another line; while the Sense is left tired half way behind it; he doubly starves all his Verses, first for want of thought, and then of expression; his Poetry neither has wit in it, nor seems to have it; like him in Martial: Pauper videri Cinna vult, et est pauper [Cinna wants to seem to be a pauper; and, sure enough, he is a pauper]: He affects plainness, to cover his want of imagination: when he writes the serious way, the highest flight of his fancy is some miserable Antithesis, or seeming contradiction; and in the Comic he is still reaching at some thin conceit, the ghost of a Jest, and that too flies before him, never to be caught; these Swallows which we see before us on the Thames, are just resemblance of his wit: you may observe how near the water they stoop, how many proffers they make to dip, and yet how seldom they touch it: and when they do, ’tis but the surface: they skim over it but to catch a gnat, and then mount into the air and leave it.”

“Well Gentlemen,” said Eugenius, “you may speak your pleasure of these Authors; but though I and some few more about the Town may give you a peaceable hearing, yet, assure yourselves, there are multitudes who would think you malicious and them injured: especially him who you first described; he is the very Withers of the City: they have bought more Editions of his Works than would serve to lay under all the Pies at the Lord Mayor’s Christmas. When his famous Poem first came out in the year, I have seen them reading it in the midst of Change-time; many so vehement they were at it, that they lost their bargain by the Candles ends: but what will you say, if he has been received amongst the great Ones? I can assure you he is, this day, the envy of a great person, who is Lord in the Art of Quibbling; and who does not take it well, that any man should intrude so far into his Province.” “All I would wish,” replied Crites, “is, that they who love his Writings, may still admire him, and his fellow Poet: Qui Bavium non odit, etc. [who does not hate Bavius—ed.] is curse sufficient.” “And farther,” added Lisideius, “I believe there is no man who writes well, but would think himself very hardly dealt with, if their Admirers should praise anything of his: Nam quos contemnimus eorum quoque laudes contemnimus [For we detest praise that comes from those we detest—ed.]” “There are so few who write well in this Age,” said Crites, “that methinks any praises should be welcome; then neither rise to the dignity of the last Age, nor to any of the Ancients; and we may cry out of the Writers of this time, with more reason than Petronius of his, Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis [If I may be permitted to say so, you were, of all, the first to lose the old eloquence]: you have debauched the true old Poetry so far, that Nature, which is the soul of it, is not in any of your Writings.”

“If your quarrel,” said Eugenius, “to those who now write, be grounded only upon your reverence to Antiquity, there is no man more ready to adore those great Greeks and Romans than I am: but on the other side, I cannot think so contemptibly of the Age I live in, or so dishonorably of my own Country, as not to judge we equal the Ancients in most kinds of Poesy, and in some surpass them; neither know I any reason why I may not be as zealous for the Reputation of our Age, as we find the Ancients themselves in reference to those who lived before them. For you hear your Horace saying,

Indignor quidquam reprehendi, non quia crassé

Compositum, illepidève putetur, sed quia nuper
[I bristle when something is condemned, not because
it is badly or obscurely written, but just because it is new—ed.].

And after,

Si meliora dies, ut vina, poemata reddit,

Scire velim pretium chartis quotus arroget annus?
[If books, like wines, improve with age, tell me

in what year they achieve value?—ed.].

“But I see I am engaging in a wide dispute, where the arguments are not like to reach close on either side; for Poesy is of so large extent, and so many both of the Ancients and Moderns have done well in all kinds of it, that, in citing one against the other, we shall take up more time this Evening, than each man’s occasions will allow him: therefore I would ask Crites to what part of Poesy he would confine his Arguments, and whether he would defend the general cause of the Ancients against the Moderns, or oppose any Age of the Moderns against this of ours?”

Crites a little while considering upon this Demand, told Eugenius he approved his Propositions, and, if he pleased, he would limit their Dispute to Dramatic Poesy; in which he thought it not difficult to prove, either that the Ancients were superior to the Moderns, or the last Age to this of ours.

Eugenius was somewhat surprised, when he heard Crites make choice of that Subject; “For ought I see,” said he, “I have undertaken a harder Province than I imagined; for though I never judged the Plays of the Greek or Roman Poets comparable to ours; yet on the other side those we now see acted, come short of many which were written in the last Age: but my comfort is if we are o’ercome, it will be only by our own Countrymen: and if we yield to them in this one part of Poesy, we more surpass them in all the other; for in the Epic or Lyric way it will be hard for them to show us one such amongst them, as we have many now living, or who lately were so. They can produce nothing so courtly writ, or which expresses so much the Conversation of a Gentleman, as Sir John Suckling; nothing so even, sweet, and flowing as Mr. Waller; nothing so Majestic, so correct as Sir John Denham; nothing so elevated, so copious, and full of spirit, as Mr. Cowley; as for the Italian, French, and Spanish Plays, I can make it evident that those who now write, surpass them; and that the Drama is wholly ours.”

All of them were thus far of Eugenius’s opinion, that the sweetness of English Verse was never understood or practiced by our Fathers; even Crites himself did not much oppose it: and every one was willing to acknowledge how much our Poesy is improved, by the happiness of some Writers yet living; who first taught us to mould our thoughts into easy and significant words; to retrench the superfluities of expression, and to make our Rime so properly a part of the Verse, that it should never mislead the sense, but itself be led and governed by it.

Eugenius was going to continue this Discourse, when Lisideius told him it was necessary, before they proceeded further, to take a standing measure of their Controversy; for how was it possible to be decided who writ the best Plays, before we know what a Play should be? but, this once agreed on by both Parties, each might have recourse to it, either to prove his own advantages, or discover the failings of his Adversary.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 John  Dryden

Biography

After John Donne and John Milton, John Dryden was the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century. After William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he was the greatest playwright. And he has no peer as a writer of prose, especially literary criticism, and as a translator. Other figures, such as George Herbert or Andrew Marvell or William Wycherley or William Congreve, may figure more prominently in anthologies and literary . . .

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