Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
“But as they have failed both in laying of their Plots, and managing of them, swerving from the Rules of their own Art, by misrepresenting Nature to us, in which they have ill satisfied one intention of a Play, which was delight, so in the instructive part they have erred worse: instead of punishing Vice and rewarding Virtue, they have often shown a Prosperous Wickedness, and Unhappy Piety: They have set before us a bloody image of revenge in Medea, and given her Dragons to convey her safe from punishment. A Priam and Astyanax murdered, and Cassandra ravished, and the lust and murder ending in the victory of him that acted them: In short, there is no indecorum in any of our modern Plays, which if I would excuse, I could not shadow with some Authority from the Ancients.

“And one farther note of them let me leave you: Tragedies and Comedies were not writ then as they are now, promiscuously, by the same person; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way. This is so plain, that I need not instance to you, that Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, never any of them writ a Tragedy; Æschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Seneca, never meddled with Comedy; the Sock and Buskin were not worn by the same Poet: having then so much care to excel in one kind, very little is to be pardoned them if they miscarried in it; and this would lead me to the consideration of their wit, had not Crites given me sufficient warning not to be too bold in my judgment of it; because the languages being dead, and many of the Customs and little accidents on which it depended, lost to us, we are not competent judges of it. But though I grant that here and there we may miss the application of a Proverb or a Custom, yet a thing well said will be wit in all Languages; and though it may lose something in the Translation, yet, to him who reads it in the Original, ’tis still the same; He has an Idea of its excellency, though it cannot pass from his mind into any other expression or words than those in which he finds it. When Phœdria, in the Eunuch, had a command from his Mistress to be absent two days; and encouraging himself to go through with it, said; Tandem ego non illa caream, si opus sit, vel totum triduum? [Shall I not do without her, if need be, even for three whole days?—ed.] Parmeno to mock the softness of his Master, lifting up his hands and eyes, cries out as it were in admiration; Hui! universum triduum! [Alas! all of three days!—ed.] the elegancy of which universum, though it cannot be rendered in our language, yet leaves an impression of the wit upon our souls: but this happens seldom in him, in Plautus oftener; who is infinitely too bold in his Metaphors and coining words; out of which many times his wit is nothing, which questionless was one reason why Horace falls upon him so severely in those Verses:

Sed Proavi nostri Plautinos et numeros, et

Laudavere sales, nimium patienter utrumque,
Ne dicam stolidè.

[Our forebears praised both the versification

and the witticisms of Plautus—all too indulgently,
not to say stupidly—ed.]

For Horace himself was cautious to obtrude a new word upon his Readers, and makes custom and common use the best measure of receiving it into our writings.

Multa renascentur quæ nunc cecidere, cadentque

Quœ nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,

Quem penes, arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi.

[Many words now fallen into disuse will be revived,

Many now accepted will fall into disuse, according to the
Of practice, which governs the choice, the right, and the norm
    of speech—ed.]

“The not observing this Rule is that which the world has blamed in our Satirist Cleveland; to express a thing hard and unnaturally, is his new way of Elocution: ’Tis true, no Poet but may sometimes use a Catachresis; Virgil does it—

Mistaque ridenti Colocasia fundet Acantho
[And the colocasia will spread forth, mingled with the
    laughing acanthus—ed.]

—in his Eclogue of Pollio, and in his 7th Æneid.

miratur et undœ,
Miratur nemus, insuetum fulgentia longe,

Scuta virum fiuvio, pictasque innare carinas

[The woods and waters wonder at the gleam

Of shields, and painted ships, that stem the stream
    (trans. Dryden’s)].

And Ovid once so modestly, that he asks leave to do it:

quem si verbo audacia detur,
Haud metuam summi dixisse Palatia cœli

[if I may use such a bold figure,
I should not hesitate to call it the palace of the sky—ed.]

—calling the Court of Jupiter by the name of Augustus’s Palace, though in another place he is more bold, where he says, Et longas visent Capitolia pompas [And the capitol will see long processions—ed.]. But to do this always, and never be able to write a line without it, though it may be admired by some few Pedants, will not pass upon those who know that wit is best conveyed to us in the most easy language; and is most to be admired when a great thought comes dressed in words so commonly received that it is understood by the meanest apprehensions, as the best meat is the most easily digested: but we cannot read a verse of Cleveland’s without making a face at it, as if every word were a Pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard Nut to break our Teeth, without a Kernel for our pains. So that there is this difference betwixt his Satires and Doctor Donne’s: That the one gives us deep thought in common language, though rough cadence; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words: ’Tis true, in some places his wit is independent of his words, as in that of the Rebel Scot:

Had Cain been Scot God would have changed his doom;
Not forced him wander, but confined him home.

Si sic, omnia dixisset! [If only he had said everything thus—ed.] This is within all languages: ’Tis like Mercury, never to be lost or killed; and so that other—

For Beauty like White-powder makes no noise,
And yet the silent Hypocrite destroys.

You see the last line is highly Metaphorical, but it is so soft and gentle, that it does not shock us as we read it.

“But, to return from whence I have digressed, to the consideration of the Ancients’ Writing and their Wit, (of which by this time you will grant us in some measure to be fit judges). Though I see many excellent thoughts in Seneca, yet he, of them who had a Genius most proper for the Stage, was Ovid, he had a way of writing so fit to stir up a pleasing admiration and concernment which are the objects of a Tragedy, and to show the various movements of a Soul combating betwixt two different Passions, that, had he lived in our age, or, in his own could have writ with our advantages, no man but must have yielded to him; and therefore I am confident the Medea is none of his: for, though esteem it for the gravity and sententiousness of it, which he himself concludes to be suitable to a Tragedy, Omne genus scripti gravitate Tragœdia vincit [Tragedy surpasses every kind of writing in gravity—ed.], yet it moves not my soul enough to judge that he, who in the Epic way wrote things so near the Drama as the Story of Myrrha, of Caunus and Biblis, and the rest, should stir up no more concernment where he most endeavored it. The Master piece of Seneca I hold to be that Scene in the Troades, where Ulysses is seeking for Astyanax to kill him; There you see the tenderness of a Mother, so represented in Andromache, that it raises compassion to a high degree in the Reader, and bears the nearest resemblance of any thing in their Tragedies to the excellent Scenes of Passion in Shakespeare, or in Fletcher: for Love Scenes you will find few among them, their Tragic Poets dealt not with that soft passion, but with Lust, Cruelty, Revenge, Ambition, and those bloody actions they produced; which were more capable of raising horror than compassion in an audience: leaving love untouched, whose gentleness would have tempered them, which is the most frequent of all the passions, and which being the private concernment of every person, is soothed by viewing its own image in a public entertainment.

“Among their Comedies, we find a Scene or two of tenderness, and that where you would least expect it, in Plautus; but to speak generally, their Lovers say little, when they see each other, but anima mea, vita mea [my soul, my life—ed.], zōe kai psyche [my life, my soul—ed.], as the women in Juvenal’s time used to cry out in the fury of their kindness: then indeed to speak sense were an offence. Any sudden gust of passion (as an ecstasy of love in an unexpected meeting) cannot better be expressed than in a word and a sigh, breaking one another. Nature is dumb on such occasions, and to make her speak, would be to represent her unlike her self. But there are a thousand other concernments of Lovers, as jealousies, complaints, contrivances and the like, where not to open their minds at large to each other, were to be wanting to their own love, and to the expectation of the Audience, who watch the movements of their minds, as much as the changes of their fortunes. For the imaging of the first is properly the work of a Poet, the latter he borrows of the Historian.”

Eugenius was proceeding in that part of his Discourse, when Crites interrupted him. “I see,” said he, “Eugenius and I are never like to have this Question decided betwixt us; for he maintains the Moderns have acquired a new perfection in writing, I can only grant they have altered the mode of it. Homer described his Heroes men of great appetites, lovers of beef broiled upon the coals, and good fellows; contrary to the practice of the French Romances, whose Heroes neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, for love. Virgil makes Æneas a bold Avower of his own virtues,

Sum pius Æneas fama super athera notus;
[I am dutiful Aeneas of fame known above the heavens—ed.]

which in the civility of our Poets is the Character of a fanfaron [braggart—ed.] or Hector: for with us the Knight takes occasion to walk out, or sleep, to avoid the vanity of telling his own Story, which the trusty Squire is ever to perform for him. So in their Love Scenes, of which Eugenius spoke last, the Ancients were more hearty; we more talkative: they writ love as it was then the mode to make it, and I will grant thus much to Eugenius, that perhaps one of their Poets, had he lived in our Age, Si foret hoc nostrum fato delapsus in avum [If he had been dropped by fate into our age—ed.] (as Horace says of Lucilius), he had altered many things; not that they were not as natural before, but that he might accommodate himself to the Age he lived in: yet in the mean time we are not to conclude any thing rashly against those great men; but preserve to them the dignity of Masters, and give that honor to their memories, (Quos Libitina sacravit [which Libitina has consecrated—ed.]) part of which we expect may be paid to us in future times.”

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 John  Dryden


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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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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