ENL 6236: Restoration and
Civility and the Public Sphere
Sep. 20: Republic of Letters -- Criticism
Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" (2099-2106) and prose (2114-2122)
Pope's Essay on Criticism (2509-2524)
Johnson's Lives of the Poets (2736-2749)
Report Topic: Public debate and critical manners
Suggestion: for those of you interested in literary criticism and theory or theatre, I highly recommend that you
read Dryden's An Essay on Dramatic Poesy in full. This is available in numerous ways, on the internet, in most
critical anthologies, and in the collected works of Dryden available in the library. See editions below.
Due: Post #3
The readings for today allow us to trace the formation of a set of critical standards that developed through
the Restoration and eighteenth century, and we can also trace the trajectory of good critical manners that began
with Dryden's even handed, conversational prose essays and developed through the writings of Addison (which we discussed
last week) and on to the most significant literary critic of the second half of the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson. But
critical values were also discussed in the poetry itself, and we can consider what sort of literary community would consider
the subject of critical values (for example, in Pope's Essay on Criticism) as the proper subject of poetry.
As you read these works, keep in mind the construction of a public sphere of shared values and opinions and try to determine
what role literature played in this discourse. What values come to be celebrated in these writings and how do they fit in
with the culture's new interest in politeness and civility?
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. Dryden -- "Mac Flecknoe" and prose criticism
For more information on Dryden's poetry and prose, see Keith Walker’s edition of John Dryden: A
Critical Edition of the Major Works (Oxford, 1987). I borrow some of his annotations in the following
Dryden was made Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668 directly following his publication of An Essay of Dramatic Poesie,
and there is perhaps no greater English poet so aware of the difficulties and advantages to be gained in the position.
Certainly, following Dryden no poet until Tennyson occupies the post with any pretension to his skill and accomplishment.
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. Swift despised (and perhaps envied) Dryden, his elder
cousin; Pope praised and sought to emulate him. Upon his death Dryden was lauded by a variety of female poets,
including Elizabeth Thomas. Samuel Johnson found much to admire and, as was his wont, much
to censure in Dryden’s vast corps of work.
"Mac Flecknoe" -- First published in a pirated version in 1682, and published in an authorized version
in Miscellany Poems in 1684. There is strong evidence that it was written in substantially the form given
by 1684 in 1676. During this long period (unusual for Dryden) between writing and publication, the poem had
limited circulation in manuscript form. At last 12 manuscript copies are extant, none of them in Dryden’s
hand. Readings in the manuscripts do not substantially alter the text as given by 1684.
While this is a personal satire, "MacFlecknoe" is also an examination of literary issues and personalities.
What kinds of insight does this offer into the literary culture of the Restoration? What can it tell us
about the conditions of authorship then?
The occasion of "Mac Flecknoe" was a prolonged debate on the nature of drama, on plagiarism, and on wit
and humour, between Dryden and Thomas Shadwell, a playwright at the rival Duke’s House [theatre].
The debate was sharpened when, in the dedication to The Virtuoso (1676), a satire on the new science
of the Royal Society, of which Dryden had been a member, Shadwell went over the old ground and included
an offensive and gratuitous swipe at Dryden’s pension as Laureate and Historiographer Royale. (
Notes from Keith Walker).
Are the assessments offered here valid? What standards does Dryden employ to judge? Are these
standards primarily critical?
To what extent does this poem reveal conceptions of what good writing should be?
An Essay of Dramatic Poesy: First published in 1668 and revised in 1684 (mostly grammatical revisions).
The speakers in the debate are traditionally associated with Dryden and three friends. Eugenius (‘well-born’)
represents Buckhurst, to whom the work is dedicated; Crites (‘censorious’) seems to be a portrait of Sir Robert
Howard (1626-98), Dryden’s brother-in-law; Lisideius (the name is a Latinized anagram) is Charles Sedley or Sidley
(1639-1701), poet and wit; and Neander (‘new-man’) is Dryden himself. (Notes taken from Keith Walker.)
As you read, evaluate the importance of the major questions concerning dramatic forms and purposes during the
Restoration and Dryden’s position on them. Is the word ‘neoclassical’ a useful one in connection with Dryden’s
Dryden deploys numerous and varied methods of criticism even within this single essay. Examine and determine how
many types of criticism you can find. What issues or methods are of historical interest? Which parallel
current methods of criticism? What evidence of "manners" or "politeness" can you find? How does the dialogue form itself
create a tone of civility?
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 does the speaker bring to bear? How will this debate appear
in later critics, like Pope, Addison and Johnson?
Explain the unities. Why are these so important to Dryden? What is his stand on them, and how does it
compare to later discussions in Pope, Addison and Johnson?
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? How does this differ from critical imperatives of
disinterestedness, characteristic of the nineteenth century?
Questions on the excerpts from Dryden's other prose criticism:
What are the characteristics of bad poetry? How does Dryden define wit? (Note how Addison takes issue with Dryden's
definition of wit in his essay "On True, False and Mixed Wit.") How do later critics build on or depart from Dryden's
How does Dryden’s view of Jonson in the Essay on Dramatic Poesy inform his treatment of Shadwell – who claimed to be
Jonson’s literary heir – in "Mac Flecknoe"?
Would you characterize Dryden’s prose criticism as fair? Why or why not?
How does Dryden’s treatment of earlier authors in his prose criticism compare with his treatment of contemporary
authors in "Mac Flecknoe"?
2. Pope's Essay on Criticism
For an online version of the poem with additional notes, you can visit: Alexander Pope: Essay on Criticism Part 1,
Like Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe", Pope's Essay characterizes the literary tastes of his age.
Pope's elegant, compressed heroic couplets set the standard in versification. You will find
them far more compressed than Dryden's energetic couplets; take the time to unpack them
and understand the communication in the lines.
An Essay on Criticism is Pope's first major poem, but it is not so much an
original analysis as a compilation of literary opinions. It is a verse essay in the
Horatian mode, and it is primarily concerned with how writers and critics behave in
the new literary commerce of the modern age.
Pope begins with the contention that bad criticism is worse than poor writing.
How does he arrive at this conclusion? What does it mean? How do the subsequent
descriptions of bad criticism / bad critics support this statement?
Despite the dangers of bad criticism, some worthy individuals need to become
critics. Why? What advice does Pope give to the 'true critic'?
Pope's poem is characterized by a generous sense of humanity toward faults. He
stresses the need for the critic not to lose sight of his (or her) own humanity.
Why is this important? What does Pope suggest is gained by this?
Note in the stanza beginning at line 526 ("But if in Noble Minds some Dregs remain")
the criticism of Charles II's court. What does Pope find objectionable in the culture/literature
of this period? What does he recommend as a remedy?
Examine the stanza beginning at line 631 ("But where's the Man, who Counsel can
bestow") as a statement of the ideal critic. What are his characteristics?
Note how Pope creates a list of the greatest critics in literary history. How does
this compare with Dryden's praise for the ancients? With Addison's?
As is usual in Pope's poems, the Essay concludes with a reference to
himself. Walsh, the last of the critics mentioned, was his mentor and friend.
What do the closing lines suggest about Pope as a poet? Pope as a critic? Pope as a friend?
How do Pope’s couplets complement the aesthetic ideas expressed in the poem?
3. Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets
How would you describe the tone of Johnson’s criticism of the metaphysicals? Is this a fair
assessment of their poems? Is this a fair assessment of wit? What does Johnson's criticism on wit borrow from
the critics that came before him?
Evaluate Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? How does this
compare with Addison's papers on that poem?
How does Pope compare with Dryden in Johnson’s assessment? Is this an accurate assessment?
In what sense might you claim that Johnson is the inheritor of a revolution in critical manners between Dryden's age
and his own? What problems might such "good nature" in a critic bring? How does Johnson's critical prose balance between
mannerly criticism and truth?
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