John Dryden – “The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License”, “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Saatire” (fragments)

More of Dryden’s theoretical writings with very long titles (I can’t blame him since I am guilty of it myself; it’s only in belles-lettres where you can get away with a one-word title). Both of them are a bit self-aggrandizing, as you are going to see. The first one comes from an introduction to Dryden’s libretto to a never produced opera based on Paradise Lost. In this text Dryden defends himself against the charges of using too high-flown and bombastic style, saying that the most severe stylists such as Virgil and Horace sometimes also used bold metaphors when appropriate. So when you judge  a poet for using too colourful language, perhaps the problem is with you, not with the poet. And why should Virgil and Horace be our yardsticks? Because they were admired by countless readers from all the later generations, so by taking issue with their language you also implicitly accuse all these readers of the lack of discernment. The reason why Virgil and Homer were the authors of such effective texts is because they studied Nature. In another fragment Dryden defines “wit” as “thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject”, which means that high and noble subjects require elevated style.

The next fragments, from Dryden’s introduction to a collection of translation of Roman satires, is about the difference between two modes of satire, named after two Roman poets “Juvenalian” and “Horatian”, the former being a savage attack on human depravity and the latter more of gentle mocking. Even though, as the Helpful Footnote informs us, Dryden seemed elsewhere to favour the Juvenalian, here he rather praises the latter, rather immodestly quoting his own portrait of Buckingham as Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel. He thinks rather highly of it himself and he thinks it is “worth the whole poem”.The real art of satire, Dryden argues, is to make somebody appear like a fool and knave without ever calling him thus. It’s like early English miniaturists, who could create an illusion of three-dimensional face without using shadowing. This mode of satire is preferable and safer also for the author, because “a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.” It’s like a masterful execution, when the victim hardly notices his being dispatched, as opposed to clumsy hanging.

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John Dryden – “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (fragments)

The last fragment in this selection is Dryden’s comparison of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, in his opinion, was a genius who can withstand even the charges of not having enough education because he was “naturally learned” and didn’t need book-learning. Of course even Shakespeare had his weaker moments, but whenever he had the subject great enough for his genius, he always rose up to the occasion. Even though other poets may be more fashionable nowadays, Shakespeare was considered always the best both in his lifetime and also later, by people of discerning tastes. Jonson, on the other hand, is “the most learned and judicious” of writers. He is not particularly good at writing about and inciting passion, but his real metier was comedy. When he stole from Roman poets, he did so like an invading monarch carrying off the spoils of war and in his Roman plays he in fact outdid Roman playwrights themselves. His weakness might also be his tendency to use too many latinisms in English. In short, Dryden considers him “the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit… I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.” He also praises Jonson’s work as a literary critic, saying his theoretical writings on the theatre are as good as written by any French critic.

John Dryden – “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (fragments)

The next fragment in the selection is the one about the essence of true wit, which, according to Dryden’s mouthpiece Eugenius, can be carried across through languages and cultures, even though it’s diminished in translation. But the example he gives – a supposedly funny come-back by a slave in a Terence’s comedy – shows that what he means rather is that somebody for whom Latin is not the first language (so, like, everybody alive now) can still enjoy the humour of something funny in Latin, even if they are unable to fully translate it into their native tongue. An uncultivated churl like me, who knows no Latin, would not still find the repartee funny without a translation and a footnote explaining why it is funny (and then I don’t find it funny, either, but that’s because too much explanation went into this joke). Plautus, Eugenius thinks, was too fond of bold metaphors and coining new meanings, and Horace justifiably gave him hard time for it. Eugenius quotes several other examples from ancient poets of their use of catachresis (unusual use of language), saying that it is not bad if it’s used in moderation. But the examples he gives are so tame I hardly notice anything unusual about them at all, like Vergil’s “the woods and waters wonder…” This is what John Cleveland does (a minor poet, whom Dryden criticised already in the previous fragment), when he cannot write a line without it, while “wit is best conveyed to us in most common language”. And the problem with Cleveland is that he uses this colourful language for some very shallow thoughts, while Donne “gives us deep thoughtss in common language”. But Cleveland is not without his merits, and Eugenius praises some funny lines of his, like if Cain had been a Scotsman, God would have punished him not by sentencing him to wander the world, but by making him stay at home, or that beauty is like white powder, destroying noiselessly.

John Dryden – “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (fragments)

This starts a selection from Dryden’s critical writings. The essay has an interesting form, since this is a conversation between four friends who went on a rowboat to see a naval battle between the British and the Dutch. After they learn the British have won they sail back, but in the course of their conversation they start to worry about the amount of bad poetry this victory is going to inspire. In this excerpt they talk about the two principal kinds of bad poets: ones which are kind of epigons of the metaphysical poets, torturing words beyond their meanings. The other one is the one who is deliberately plain but he “affect plainness, to cover his want of imagination”; he writes dull, plodding poetry only because he’s unable to write any better.