Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
“Besides Morose, there are at least or different Characters and humors in The Silent Woman, all which persons have several concernments of their own, yet are all used by the Poet, to the conducting of the main design to perfection. I shall not waste time in commending the writing of this Play, but I will give you my opinion, that there is more wit and acuteness of Fancy in it than in any of Ben Jonson’s. Besides, that he has here described the conversation of Gentlemen in the persons of True-Wit, and his Friends, with more gayety, air and freedom, than in the rest of his Comedies. For the contrivance of the Plot ’tis extreme elaborate, and yet withal easy; for the lusis, or untying of it, ’tis so admirable, that when it is done, no one of the Audience would think the Poet could have missed it; and yet it was concealed so much before the last Scene, that any other way would sooner have entered into your thoughts. But I dare not take upon me to commend the Fabric of it, because it is altogether so full of Art, that I must unravel every Scene in it to commend it as I ought. And this excellent contrivance is still the more to be admired, because ’tis Comedy where the persons are only of common rank, and their business private, not elevated by passions or high concernments as in serious Plays. Here every one is a proper Judge of all he sees; nothing is represented but that with which he daily converses: so that by consequence all faults lie open to discovery, and few are pardonable. ’Tis this which Horace has judiciously observed:

Creditur ex medio quia res arcessit habere

Sudoris minimum, sed habet Comedia tanto
Plus oneris, quanto veniæ minus.

[Comedy is thought to require the minimum of sweat,
Because it takes its characters from ordinary life;
But the less indulgence it encounters, the more work it
    needs—ed.]

But our Poet, who was not ignorant of these difficulties, had prevailed himself of all advantages; as he who designs a large leap takes his rise from the highest ground. One of these advantages is that which Corneille has laid down as the greatest which can arrive to any Poem, and which he himself could never compass above thrice in all his Plays, viz. the making choice of some signal and long expected day, whereon the action of the Play is to depend. This day was that designed by Dauphine for the settling of his Uncle’s Estate upon him; which to compass he contrives to marry him: that the marriage had been plotted by him long beforehand is made evident by what he tells True-Wit in the second Act, that in one moment he had destroy’d what he had been raising many months.

“There is another artifice of the Poet, which I cannot here omit, because by the frequent practice of it in his Comedies, he has left it to us almost as a Rule, that is, when he has any Character or humor wherein he would show a Coup de Maistre, or his highest skill; he recommends it to your observation by a pleasant description of it before the person first appears. Thus, in Bartholomew Fair he gives you the Pictures of Numps and Cokes, and in this those of Daw, Lafoole, Morose, and the Collegiate Ladies; all which you hear described before you see them. So that before they come upon the Stage you have a longing expectation of them, which prepares you to receive them favorably; and when they are there, even from their first appearance you are so far acquainted with them, that nothing of their humor is lost to you.

“I will observe yet one thing further of this admirable Plot; the business of it rises in every Act. The second is greater than the first; the third than the second, and so forward to the fifth. There too you see, till the very last Scene, new difficulties arising to obstruct the action of the Play; and when the Audience is brought into despair that the business can naturally be effected, then, and not before, the discovery is made. But that the Poet might entertain you with more variety all this while, he reserves some new Characters to show you, which he opens not till the second and third Act. In the second, Morose, Daw, the Barber and Otter; in the third the Collegiate Ladies: All which he moves afterwards in by-walks, or under-Plots, as diversions to the main design, lest it should grow tedious, though they are still naturally joined with it, and somewhere or other subservient to it. Thus, like a skilful Chess-player, by little and little he draws out his men, and makes his pawns of use to his greater persons.

“If this Comedy, and some others of his, were translated into French Prose (which would now be no wonder to them, since Molière has lately given them Plays out of Verse which have not displeased them) I believe the controversy would soon be decided betwixt the two Nations, even making them the Judges. But we need not call our heroes to our aid; Be it spoken to the honor of the English, our Nation can never want in any Age such who are able to dispute the Empire of Wit with any people in the Universe. And though the fury of a Civil War, and Power, for twenty years together, abandoned to a barbarous race of men, Enemies of all good Learning, had buried the Muses under the ruins of Monarchy; yet with the restoration of our happiness, we see revived Poesy lifting up its head, and already shaking off the rubbish which lay so heavy on it. We have seen since His Majesty’s return, many Dramatick Poems which yield not to those of any foreign Nation, and which deserve all Laurels but the English. I will set aside Flattery and Envy: it cannot be denied but we have had some little blemish either in the Plot or writing of all those Plays which have been made within these seven years (and perhaps there is no Nation in the world so quick to discern them, or so difficult to pardon them, as ours): yet if we can persuade our selves to use the candor of that Poet, who (though the most severe of Critics) has left us this caution by which to moderate our censures—

ubi plura nitent in carmine non ego paucis
Offendar maculis

[where many things shine in a poem, I am not offended
by a few blemishes—ed.]

—if in consideration of their many and great beauties, we can wink at some slight, and little imperfections; if we, I say, can be thus equal to our selves, I ask no favor from the French. And if I do not venture upon any particular judgment of our late Plays, ’tis out of the consideration which an Ancient Writer gives me; Vivorum, ut magna admiratio ita censura difficilis [in proportion as admiration for the living is great, finding fault with them is difficult—ed.] betwixt the extremes of admiration and malice, ’tis hard to judge uprightly of the living. Only I think it may be permitted me to say, that as it is no lessening to us to yield to some Plays, and those not many of our own Nation in the last Age, so can it be no addition to pronounce of our present Poets that they have far surpassed all the Ancients, and the Modern Writers of other Countries.”

This, my Lord, was the substance of what was then spoke on that occasion; and Lisideius, I think was going to reply, when he was prevented thus by Crites: “I am confident,” said he, “the most material things that can be said, have been already urged on either side; if they have not, I must beg of Lisideius that he will defer his answer till another time: for I confess I have a joint quarrel to you both, because you have concluded, without any reason given for it, that Rhyme is proper for the Stage. I will not dispute how ancient it hath been among us to write this way; perhaps our Ancestors knew no better till Shakespeare’s time. I will grant it was not altogether left by him, and that Fletcher and Ben Jonson used it frequently in their Pastorals, and sometimes in other Plays. Farther, I will not argue whether we received it originally from our own Countrymen, or from the French; for that is an inquiry of as little benefit, as theirs who in the midst of the great Plague were not so solicitous to provide against it, as to know whether we had it from the malignity of our own air, or by transportation from Holland. I have therefore only to affirm, that it is not allowable in serious Plays, for Comedies I find you already concluding with me. To prove this, I might satisfy my self to tell you, how much in vain it is for you to strive against the stream of the peoples inclination; the greatest part of which are prepossessed so much with those excellent Plays of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson, (which have been written out of Rhyme) that except you could bring them such as were written better in it, and those too by persons of equal reputation with them, it will be impossible for you to gain your cause with them, who will still be judges. This it is to which in fine all your reasons must submit. The unanimous consent of an Audience is so powerful, That even Julius Cæsar (as Macrobius reports of him) when he was perpetual Dictator, was not able to balance it on the other side. But when Laberius, a Roman Knight, at his request contended in the Mime with another Poet, he was forced to cry out, Etiam favente me victus es Laben [Even with me favoring you, Laberius, you are beaten—ed.]. But I will not on this occasion, take the advantage of the greater number, but only urge such reasons against Rhyme, as I find in the Writings of those who have argued for the other way. First then I am of opinion, that Rhyme is unnatural in a Play, because Dialogue there is presented as the effect of sudden thought. For a Play is the imitation of Nature; and since no man, without premeditation speaks in Rhyme, neither ought he to do it on the Stage; this hinders not but the Fancy may be there elevated to a higher pitch of thought than it is in ordinary discourse: for there is a probability that men of excellent and quick parts may speak noble things extempore: but those thoughts are never fettered with the numbers or sound of Verse without study, and therefore it cannot be but unnatural to present the most free way of speaking, in that which is the most constrained. For this Reason, says Aristotle, ’tis best to write Tragedy in that kind of Verse which is the least such, or which is nearest Prose: and this amongst the Ancients was the Iambic, and with us is blank verse, or the measure of verse, kept exactly without rhyme. These numbers therefore are fittest for a Play; the others for a paper of Verses, or a Poem. Blank verse being as much below them as rhyme is improper for the Drama. And if it be objected that neither are blank verses made extempore, yet as nearest Nature, they are still to be preferred. But there are two particular exceptions which many besides my self have had to verse; by which it will appear yet more plainly, how improper it is in Plays. And the first of them is grounded upon that very reason for which some have commended Rhyme: they say the quickness of repartees in argumentative Scenes receives an ornament from verse. Now what is more unreasonable than to imagine that a man should not only light upon the Wit, but the Rhyme too upon the sudden? This nicking [striking—ed.] of him who spoke before both in sound and measure, is so great an happiness, that you must at least suppose the persons of your Play to be born Poets, Arcades omnes et cantare pares et respondere parati [in Virgil, Arcades ambo …, Dryden’s translation: Both young Arcadians, both alike inspired / To sing, and answer as the song requir’d—ed.]: they must have arrived to the degree of quicquid conabar dicere [singing whatever they attempted—ed.]: to make Verses almost whether they will or no: if they are any thing below this, it will look rather like the design of two than the answer of one: it will appear that your Actors hold intelligence together, that they perform their tricks like Fortune-tellers, by confederacy. The hand of Art will be too visible in it against that maxim of all Professions; Ars est celare artem. That it is the greatest perfection of Art to keep it self undiscovered. Nor will it serve you to object, that however you manage it, ’tis still known to be a Play; and consequently the Dialogue of two persons understood to be the labor of one Poet. For a Play is still an imitation of Nature; we know we are to be deceived, and we desire to be so; but no man ever was deceived but with a probability of truth, for who will suffer a gross lie to be fastened on him? Thus we sufficiently understand that the Scenes which represent Cities and Countries to us, are not really such, but only painted on boards and Canvass: But shall that excuse the ill Painture or designment of them; Nay rather ought they not to be labored with so much the more diligence and exactness to help the imagination? since the mind of man does naturally tend to, and seek after Truth; and therefore the nearer any thing comes to the imitation of it, the more it pleases.

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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