English 6236: Restoration Literature
Literary Values - Prose
Assignment: Dryden: An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (Walker 70-130); Heads of an Answer to Rymer (Walker 148-154); Also Hammond pp. 189-196 (which Includes excerpt from Grounds of Criticism In Tragedy); Preface to Fables (Walker 552-571)
Due: Post 10
Samuel Johnson labeled Dryden "the father of English criticism," and since its first appearance Dryden's critical prose has been praised, criticized, emulated and repeated. The readings for today's class compass Dryden's critical career, from An Essay on Dramatic Poesy in 1667 through the Preface to Fables in 1700. Because of the importance they gained in later years, and because of their engagement with the theoretical and practical concerns of Restoration literature, these essays merit knowing. We might consider in what ways these writings reflect their age and what elements transcend the barriers of time. As you read, evaluate the importance of the major questions concerning dramatic forms and purposes during the Restoration and Dryden's position on them. What are his relations to other critics or critical approaches, and how are they embodied in his writings? Is the word "neoclassical" a useful one in connection with Dryden's dramatic criticism?
I. Dryden As Critic
W. P. Ker claimed that Dryden in his critical writing "is sceptical, tentative, disengaged, where most of his contemporaries, and most of his successors for a hundred years, are pledged to certain dogmas and principles."
David Hume differs, calling Dryden "refreshingly undogmatic and unprescriptive. . . in neither kind nor principles is his criticism greatly different from that of his contemporaries."
How do you reconcile these opposed portraits? Based on your reading, who do think comes closer to the mark?
In addition to being the "father of English criticism," Dryden is the first in a celebrated list of poet-critics. What makes a poet-critic, and how does this influence Dryden's treatment of literature?
John Aden claims that Dryden based his criticism on unchanging principles, but that his position on those ideas often shifted. "One passage seldom represents Dryden's over-all views on a subject. He will cheerfully deny at one time what he confidently affirmed two years earlier."
Knowing this, how does this affect the way you read Dryden's criticism? What does it suggest about Dryden's abilities as a critic?
II. Dryden's Prose Style
Robert D. Hume: "Any undergraduate ought to be able to produce a better examen than Dryden's on The Silent Woman, and even by mid-eighteenth-century standards his grasp of literary history, psychology, and critical biography is rudimentary -- but it is hard not to agree, reading through his criticism, that he is astonishingly good at something."
How would you characterize Dryden's prose? How does it differ from other seventeenth century models of prose? How does it compare with Samuel Johnson, another significant prose writer? How does it measure up to today's standards of prose?
"His standing as a prose writer has not been seriously questioned in the way his position as a poet sometimes has. And yet, having said that he is one of the key figures in the development of modern English prose, it is not easy to say a great deal more about Dryden's prose style."
K. G. Hamilton
Samuel Johnson writes that Dryden does not appear "to have any other art than that of expressing with clearness what he thinks with vigour. His style could not easily be imitated, either seriously or ludicrously; for, being always equable and always varied, it has no prominent or discriminative characters."
Hamilton suggests that Dryden's position in the history of the English language is pivotal: "It is only in the second half of the seventeenth century, and most consistently in Dryden's essays, that English prose develops finally as a means of discourse flexible and unobtrusive enough to meet adequately a wide variety of demands without itself requiring wide variations."
Dryden was himself very interested in the state of the English language. What evidence do you find of this and Hamilton's statement in the prose for today? Why does Dryden emphasize the English language so often? What characteristics does he use to describe the language?
Hume: Dryden's rambling style creates the "rather charming impression that he is discoursing casually -- the writer of a formal treatise could, after all, have gone back to interpolate what he had missed. Actually Dryden is dissembling."
What does Dryden gain by posing this way? What does he lose?
Dryden deploys numerous and varied methods of criticism even within a single essay. Examine one the readings and determine how many types of criticism you can find. What issues or methods are of historical interest? Which parallel current methods of criticism?
III. An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
Dryden regarding the essay: "I was drawing the outlines of an art without any living master to instruct me in it. . . before the use of the loadstone, knowledge of the compass, I was sailing in a vast ocean, without other help than the pole star of the Ancients, and the rules of the French stage amongst the Moderns, which are extremely different from ours, by reason of their opposite taste."
Discourse Concerning . . . Satire
Hume groups this piece along with "Heads of an Answer to Rymer" in the category of speculative criticism. How is this essay speculative? What ideas does it debate? What answers does it provide?
Consider the setting and the method of dialogue used in An Essay. What are the implications of the "drama" he stages for this discussion? In what ways is the criticism "dialogic" and in what ways is it the work of Dryden? What characteristics of the Restoration make the age particularly suited to this "dialogue"?
Consider the main elements of the debate between the Ancients and the Moderns and between the English and the French. What principles are being debated? What support do the speakers bring to bear? How does Dryden's position on these issues differ from later dramatic criticism, like The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy?
Explain the unities. Why are these so important to Dryden? What is his stand on them, and how does it compare to later discussions?
Again and again Dryden comes back to the primary purpose of poetry: "the poet's business is certainly to please the audience." What supporting or conflicting motivations does he discuss? What are some of the implications of Dryden's emphasis on pleasure?
Consider Dryden's use of the term nature, and particularly the idea that art should imitate nature. What does Dryden signify by the word? What role does nature play in the best literature?
Throughout his critical essays, Dryden negotiates the differing relationship between the audience and the author and general aesthetic standards. Sometimes he evaluates literature from the point of view of its reception, sometimes from its creation. From what point of view does Dryden evaluate drama in An Essay? In the other pieces?
IV. Other criticism
Watson calls The Grounds of Criticism "a cautious and diplomatic version of 'Heads of an Answer to Rymer." To what extent can the difference be explained by the fact that Grounds is a published essay while Heads is a compilation of notes? What other issues might be involved?
One of Dryden's characteristic methods of criticism is the relative comparison of two poets. In Grounds Dryden returns to the comparison of Shakespeare and Fletcher that he had started in An Essay. How do the two assessments differ? How might you explain these differences? In Grounds what literary values does Dryden endorse in the comparison? What cultural values are employed to further the literary analysis?
Dryden's Preface to Fables was published three months before he died, and it offers a personal view of this most prolific and controversial of poets. How does this preface compare to his earlier criticism on drama? What are his characteristic approaches and techniques? How did the conditions under which he wrote shape his criticism? How have prevailing concepts altered about what criticism should be?
Dryden's emphasis in the last decade of his life falls more heavily on the moral utility of literature than it had hitherto. What social or historical conditions might have contributed to this change? How can you explain the critical shift from aesthetic success to moral success?