Essay on Poetic Theory

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

by John Dryden
“Thus, you see, your Rhyme is incapable of expressing the greatest thoughts naturally, and the lowest it cannot with any grace: for what is more unbefitting the Majesty of Verse, than to call a Servant, or bid a door be shut in Rhyme? And yet this miserable necessity you are forced upon. But Verse, you say, circumscribes a quick and luxuriant fancy, which would extend itself too far on every subject, did not the labor which is required to well turned and polished Rhyme, set bounds to it. Yet this Argument, if granted, would only prove that we may write better in Verse, but not more naturally. Neither is it able to evince that; for he who wants judgment to confine his fancy in blank Verse, may want it as much in Rhyme; and he who has it will avoid errors in both kinds. Latin verse was as great a confinement to the imagination of those Poets, as Rhyme to ours: and yet you find Ovid saying too much on every subject. Nescivit (says Seneca) quod bene cessit relinquere [He did not know how to leave off when it was proper to do so—ed.]: of which he gives you one famous instance in his Description of the Deluge:

Omnia pontus erat, deerant quoque Litora Ponto.
Now all was Sea, Nor had that Sea a shore. [trans. Dryden’s]

Thus Ovid’s fancy was not limited by verse, and Virgil needed not verse to have bounded his.

“In our own language we see Ben Jonson confining himself to what ought to be said, even in the liberty of blank Verse; and yet Corneille, the most judicious of the French Poets, is still varying the same sense an hundred ways, and dwelling eternally upon the same subject, though confined by Rhyme. Some other exceptions I have to Verse, but being these I have named are for the most part already public; I conceive it reasonable they should first be answered.”

“It concerns me less than any,” said Neander, (seeing he had ended) “to reply to this Discourse; because when I should have proved that Verse may be natural in Plays, yet I should always be ready to confess, that those which I have written in this kind come short of that perfection which is required. Yet since you are pleased I should undertake this Province, I will do it, though with all imaginable respect and deference both to that person from whom you have borrowed your strongest Arguments, and to whose judgment when I have said all, I finally submit. But before I proceed to answer your objections, I must first remember [remind—ed.] you, that I exclude all Comedy from my defense; and next that I deny not but blank verse may be also used, and content my self only to assert, that in serious Plays where the subject and characters are great, and the Plot unmixed with mirth, which might allay or divert these concernments which are produced, Rhyme is there as natural, and more effectual than blank Verse.

“And now having laid down this as a foundation, to begin with Crites, I must crave leave to tell him, that some of his Arguments against rhyme reach no farther than from the faults or defects of ill rhyme, to conclude against the use of it in general. May not I conclude against blank verse by the same reason? If the words of some poets who write in it, are either ill chosen, or ill placed, which makes not only rhyme, but all kind of verse in any language unnatural, shall I, for their vicious affectation condemn those excellent lines of Fletcher, which are written in that kind? Is there anything in rhyme more constrained than this line in blank verse? “I Heav’n invoke, and strong resistance make,” where you see both the clauses are placed unnaturally; that is, contrary to the common way of speaking, and that without the excuse of a rhyme to cause it: yet you would think me very ridiculous, if I should accuse the stubbornness of blank Verse for this, and not rather the stiffness of the Poet. Therefore, Crites, you must either prove that words, though well chosen, and duly placed, yet render not Rhyme natural in it self; or, that however natural and easy the rhyme may be, yet it is not proper for a Play. If you insist upon the former part, I would ask you what other conditions are required to make Rhyme natural in itself, besides an election of apt words, and a right disposing of them? For the due choice of your words expresses your sense naturally, and the due placing them adapts the rhyme to it. If you object that one verse may be made for the sake of another, though both the words and rhyme be apt; I answer it cannot possibly so fall out; for either there is a dependence of sense betwixt the first line and the second, or there is none: if there be that connection, then in the natural position of the words, the latter line must of necessity flow from the former: if there be no dependence, yet still the due ordering of words makes the last line as natural in itself as the other: so that the necessity of a rhyme never forces any but bad or lazy Writers to say what they would not otherwise. ’Tis true, there is both care and Art required to write in Verse; A good Poet never concludes upon the first line, till he has sought out such a rhyme as may fit the sense, already prepared to heighten the second: many times the close of the sense falls into the middle of the next verse, or farther of, and he may often prevail himself of the same advantages in English which Virgil had in Latin. He may break off in the Hemistich, and begin another line: indeed, the not observing these two last things, makes Plays which are writ in verse so tedious: for though, most commonly, the sense is to be confined to the Couplet, yet nothing that does perpetuo tenore fluere, run in the same channel, can please always. ’Tis like the murmuring of a stream, which not varying in the fall, causes at first attention, at last drowsiness. Variety of cadences is the best rule, the greatest help to the Actors, and refreshment to the Audience.

“If then Verse may be made natural in itself, how becomes it improper to a Play? You say the Stage is the representation of Nature, and no man in ordinary conversation speaks in rhyme. But you foresaw when you said this, that it might be answered; neither does any man speak in blank verse, or in measure without rhyme. Therefore you concluded, that which is nearest Nature is still to be preferred. But you took no notice that rhyme might be made as natural as blank verse, by the well placing of the words, etc. All the difference between them when they are both correct, is the sound in one, which the other wants; and if so, the sweetness of it, and all the advantage resulting from it, which are handled in the Preface to The Rival Ladies, will yet stand good. As for that place of Aristotle, where he says Plays should be writ in that kind of Verse which is nearest Prose; it makes little for you, blank verse being properly but measured Prose. Now measure alone in any modern Language, does not constitute verse those of the Ancients in Greek and Latin, consisted in quantity of words, and a determinate number of feet. But when, by the inundation of the Goths and Vandals into Italy new Languages were brought in, and barbarously mingled with the Latin (of which the Italian, Spanish, French, and ours, [made out of them and the Teutonic] are Dialects): a new way of Poesy was practiced; new, I say in those Countries, for in all probability it was that of the Conquerors in their own Nations. This new way consisted in measure or number of feet and rhyme. The sweetness of Rhyme, and observation of Accent, supplying the place of quantity in words, which could neither exactly be observed by those Barbarians who knew not the Rules of it, neither was it suitable to their tongues as it had been to the Greek and Latin. No man is tied in modern Poesy to observe any farther rule in the feet of his verse, but that they be disyllables; whether Spondee, Trochee, or Iambic, it matters not; only he is obliged to rhyme: Neither do the Spanish, French, Italian or Germans acknowledge at all, or very rarely any such kind of Poesy as blank verse amongst them. Therefore at most ’tis but a Poetic Prose, a Sermo pedestris [prose discourse—ed.], and as such most fit for Comedies, where I acknowledge Rhyme to be improper. Farther, as to that quotation of Aristotle, our Couplet Verses may be rendered as near Prose as blank verse it self, by using those advantages I lately named, as breaks in a Hemistich, or running the sense into another line, thereby making Art and Order appear as loose and free as Nature: or not tying our selves to Couplets strictly, we may use the benefit of the Pindaric way, practiced in The Siege of Rhodes; where the numbers vary and the rhyme is disposed carelessly, and far from often chiming. Neither is that other advantage of the Ancients to be despised, of changing the kind of verse when they please with the change of the Scene, or some new entrance: for they confine not themselves always to Iambics, but extend their liberty to all Lyric numbers, and sometimes, even to Hexameter. But I need not go so far to prove that Rhyme, as it succeeds to all other offices of Greek and Latin Verse, so especially to this of Plays, since the custom of all Nations at this day confirms it: All the French, Italian and Spanish Tragedies are generally writ in it, and sure the Universal consent of the most civilized parts of the world, ought in this, as it doth in other customs, include the rest.

“But perhaps you may tell me I have proposed such a way to make rhyme natural, and consequently proper to Plays, as is unpracticable, and that I shall scarce find six or eight lines together in any Play, where the words are so placed and chosen as is required to make it natural. I answer, no Poet need constrain himself at all times to it. It is enough he makes it his general Rule; for I deny not but sometimes there may be a greatness in placing the words otherwise; and sometimes they may sound better, sometimes also the variety itself is excuse enough. But if, for the most part, the words be placed as they are in the negligence of Prose, it is sufficient to denominate the way practicable, for we esteem that to be such, which in the Trial oftener succeeds than misses. And thus far you may find the practice made good in many Plays; where you do not, remember still, that if you cannot find six natural Rhymes together, it will be as hard for you to produce as many lines in blank Verse, even among the greatest of our Poets, against which I cannot make some reasonable exception.

“And this, Sir, calls to my remembrance the beginning of your discourse, where you told us we should never find the Audience favourable to this kind of writing, till we could produce as good Plays in Rhyme, as Ben Jonson, Fletcher, and Shakespeare, had writ out of it. But it is to raise envy to the living, to compare them with the dead. They are honored, and almost adored by us, as they deserve; neither do I know any so presumptuous of themselves as to contend with them. Yet give me leave to say thus much without injury to their Ashes, that not only we shall never equal them, but they could never equal themselves, were they to rise and write again. We acknowledge them our Fathers in wit, but they have ruined their Estates themselves before they came to their children’s hands. There is scarce an Humor, a Character, or any kind of Plot, which they have not blown upon: all comes sullied or wasted to us: and were they to entertain this Age, they could not make so plenteous treatments out of such decayed Fortunes. This therefore will be a good Argument to us either not to write at all, or to attempt some other way. There is no bays to be expected in their Walks; Tentanda via est quà me quoque possum tollere humo [New ways I must attempt, my grov’ling name / To raise aloft—trans. Dryden’s].

“This way of writing in verse they have only left free to us; our age is arrived to a perfection in it, which they never knew; and which (if we may guess by what of theirs we have seen in verse, as The Faithful Shepherdess, and Sad Shepherd) ’tis probable they never could have reached. For the Genius of every Age is different; and though ours excel in this, I deny not but that to imitate Nature in that perfection which they did in Prose, is a greater commendation than to write in verse exactly. As for what you have added, that the people are not generally inclined to like this way; if it were true, it would be no wonder, that betwixt the shaking off an old habit, and the introducing of a new, there should be difficulty. Do we not see them stick to Hopkins and Sternhold’s Psalms, and forsake those of David, I mean Sandys’s Translation of them? If by the people you understand the multitude, the hoi polloi [the multitude, the many; since hoi means “the,” Dryden’s “the” is superfluous, but the usage is general in English; this is the first recorded use of the phrase in English, with or without the superfluous article—ed.]. ’Tis no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong; their judgment is a mere Lottery. Est ubi plebs rectè putat, est ubi peccat [There are times when the people think rightly and times when they err—ed.], Horace says it of the vulgar, judging Poesy. But if you mean the mixed audience of the populace, and the Noblesse, I dare confidently affirm that a great part of the latter sort are already favorable to verse; and that no serious Plays written since the King’s return have been more kindly received by them, than The Siege of Rhodes, the Mustapha, The Indian Queen, and Indian Emperor.

“But I come now to the inference of your first Argument. You said the Dialogue of Plays is presented as the effect of sudden thought, but no man speaks suddenly, or extempore in Rhyme: And you inferred from thence, that Rhyme, which you acknowledge to be proper to Epic Poesy cannot equally be proper to Dramatick, unless we could suppose all men born so much more than Poets, that verses should be made in them, not by them.

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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