English 6236:  Restoration Literature                                                                                                                                                                   Spring 2010

 

Class 5 -- Literary Values – Poetry and Prose

 

Assignment:

                             

Dryden:  "MacFlecknoe" (Hammond 200)

Rochester: "A Session of the Poets" (Lyons, 54);  "An Allusion to Horace" (Hammond 178)

Behn: Epilogue to Sir Patient Fancy (Todd 329);  To Mr. Creech . . . on his Excellent Translation" (Todd 335)

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)

 

 Recommended:  Sophie Gee, “The Sewers: Ordure, Effluence, and Excess in the Eighteenth-Century,” A Concise Companion to The Restoration and Eighteenth Century, ed. Cynthia Wall (Blackwell, 2005) pp. 101-120.  See Course Docs.

 

Oroonoko Presentation:  Lauren Oetinger

 

Scholarship Presentation:  Megan Weber, Daly, Patrick J. "'Rome's Other Hope':Charles, Monmouth, and James in Summer 1676." English Literary History 66.3 (1999):655-76. Print

 

 

Part One -- Poetry

 

With the exception of Behn's "To Mr. Creech" (and some may debate this), all the poems for this week operate in the mode of satire, and all involve an examination of literary issues and personalities.  Given our discussion of satire last week, how might you understand the energies of satire in these poems, and how do they operate within the poetic structure?

 

What kinds of insights do these poems offer into the literary culture of the Restoration?  What can they tell us about the conditions of authorship then?

 

How valid are these poets' assessments of each other?  What standards are they employing to judge?  Are these standards predominantly critical ones?

 

To what extent do these poems reveal conceptions of what good writing should be?  If you see such concepts, do they represent the views of individuals or those of the age?  In what ways do the differences in class and gender affect the poets' literary views?

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Though not the greatest, MacFlecknoe has remained the most popular of Dryden's works.  What does it take to make a lampoon endure over time?  How can the continuing appeal of this poem be explained?

 

How does the portrait of Shadwell here differ from that in the second part of Absalom and Achitophel?  For what reasons?

 

If you were to include MacFlecknoe on an undergraduate syllabus, what benefits would you expect for the students?  What difficulties would you anticipate in teaching it?

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

"Rochester was the only man in England that had the true veine of Satyre."

                                                                                                Andrew Marvell

 

"The glare of [Rochester's] general character diffused itself upon his writings; the compositions of a man whose name was heard so often were certain of attentions, and from many readers certain of applause.  This blaze of reputation is not yet quite extinguished; and his poetry still retains some splendour beyond that which genius has bestowed."

                                                                                                Samuel Johnson

 

Compare Rochester as a satirist with Dryden.  Does he employ particular methods or techniques that distinguish him from Dryden?  From Behn?

 

"Oh, that second bottle Harry is the sincerest, wisest, and most impartiall downright freind wee have, tells us truth of ourselves, & forces us to speak truths of others, banishes flattery from our tongue, and distrust from our Hearts, setts us above the meane Pollicy of Court prudence, wch. makes us lye to one another all day, for feare of being betray'd by each other att night."

 

                                                                                    Rochester, in a letter to Savile

 

In his biography of Rochester, Pinto claims that he "is always more at home with the particular and the concrete than with the general and the abstract.  Like Swift's, his mind successfully resisted the Augustan tendency towards high-sounding generalizations" (153).

 

How is this a strength in satire?  To what extent is this a weakness in poetry?

 

Many of Rochester's works are difficult to attribute because he belonged to a collaborative writing group, called "The Wits."  If we consider Rochester as the leading author of "A Session of Poets" and "An Allusion to Horace," how does this affect the interpretation of the poems?  What sort of power might a group of writers possess that a solitary writer lacks? 

 

Winn argues that Dryden's ability to write courtly lyrics in his plays caused resentment in Buckingham, Sedley and Rochester, not because they were jealous, but because Dryden's poetry threatened the notion that such skill was an aristocratic birthright (226).  How might this explain the caricature of Dryden in these poems?  What literary value does the criticism of Dryden have?

 

Pat Rogers notes that one of the differences between Rochester's "Allusion to Horace" and the original, is that Rochester's target (Dryden) is alive at the time of the writing.  "This sense of a live opponent lends a certain menace to the Allusion which is highly characteristic of Rochester, and the sort of thing he turns to good poetic effect" (Spirit of Wit 169).

 

What does Rochester gain by making his accusations present tense?  How does this attack on Dryden differ from that in "A Session of Poets"? 

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

Aphra Behn has the dubious distinction of being the only female poet honored in "A Session of Poets."  What type of honor might this be?

 

Angeline Goreau, one of Aphra Behn's biographers claims that the author[s] of this poem draw[s] a distinction between gentleman poets and poets who would be competing for the Laureateship, i.e. those who wrote for pleasure versus those who wrote for money.  This distinction causes problems for Behn, who is a self-styled commercial poet.  Given these distinctions, how does Behn justify her writing?  In what ways does this problem exist for Dryden as well?  Are there any differences?

 

Goreau calls the epilogue to Sir Patient Fancy "an unabashed claim for the right of women to write plays, and for those plays to be considered equally with those of men.  Again Aphra Behn rejects the Jonsonian classical rules, the unites of time, place and action, which she calls 'learned cant'" (164-5). 

 

What strategies does Behn use to make her argument?  How successful is she?

 

Keeping in mind that epilogues follow certain conventions and perform specific functions, how does this piece operate as poetry?  How does its tone, voice and language differ from the satires of Rochester and Dryden?  How does it operate as literary criticism?

 

Compare this poem with her complimentary poetry to Thomas Creech.  What issues does she highlight in this poem? 

 

In what ways does Behn establish alternative values for poetry that would not exclude the female writer? 

 


Part Two: Prose

 

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?