During the 17th century, John Dryden (1631–1700) was a well-known English poet, dramatist, and critic. He was widely regarded as the most important writer of the Restoration era and had a profound impact on the literary scene of his day. Dryden’s essays, prefaces, and dedications, in which he discussed his opinions on a range of literary and dramatic topics, represent his contributions to literary criticism. The following are some salient features of literary criticism by John Dryden-
- Inspired by the writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors, Dryden championed neoclassical ideals in literature. In poetry and theatre, he thought it was crucial to maintain decorum, order, and conformity to classical norms.
- “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” (1668): A notable addition to literary criticism is Dryden’s article “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” which is often referred to as “Of Dramatick Poesie.” In this essay, Dryden converses with four acquaintances who each have a distinct viewpoint on the play. They go over several topics related to dramatic poetry, including the nature of rhyme, the prose and verse combinations, and the relative merits of classical vs contemporary theatre. The essay is regarded as one of the founding pieces of English literary criticism.
- Unity of Action: Drawing on Aristotle’s idea of unity of plot, Dryden stressed the significance of the unity of action in theatre. He maintained that a play ought to have one cohesive storyline that avoids superfluous subplots and concentrates on a main subject or conflict.
- Rules for the Use of Rhyme and Metre: Dryden offered rules for the application of rhyme and metre in poetry. He promoted the use of heroic couplets, which are rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter lines, as an appropriate form for English poetry and pushed for a more liberal interpretation of rhyme.
- Shakespeare Receives Preferential Treatment: Although Dryden was a neoclassicalist in general, he also showed respect for William Shakespeare, who didn’t always follow the norms. While defending the necessity of structure and order in literature, Dryden also praised the genius and talent of Shakespeare.
- Satirical Works: Some of Dryden’s satirical works mirror his critical views. These include “Mac Flecknoe” (1682), in which he criticises the failings of other poets, and “The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis” (1692), which are his translations of the satires written by the Roman poet Juvenal.
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An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
John Dryden’s “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” is among his most significant literary criticism pieces. Written in 1668, it was published under a pseudonym in the same year. The article is structured as a conversation between four friends who each represent a distinct viewpoint on drama. The four main speakers are Eugenius (who represents current English drama), Lisideius (who represents French drama), Neander (Dryden’s voice), and Crites.
- Defence of English Drama: Repelling the ancients’ objections to English drama is one of the essay’s main goals. Dryden makes the case that English play, especially that of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, is on par with or even better than classical drama through the persona of Neander.
- Unity of Action: Neander uses Aristotle’s idea of the unity of the plot to support his argument for the unity of action. He contends that a play ought to have a single, logical primary action and refrain from superfluous subplots.
- Comparing Ancient and Modern play: The characters have a conversation in which they draw comparisons between classical and modern plays from the past. Crites defends the works of the ancients, especially the Greek and Roman dramatists, whereas Neander is in favour of the accomplishments of contemporary playwrights, especially those from England.
- Verisimilitude and Decorum: The ideas of verisimilitude (believability) and decorum (appropriateness) are examined in this article. Neander makes the case for a thoughtful balance between idealism and reality in play, permitting certain poetic licences but keeping a link to the actual world.
- Use of Rhyme in Drama: The characters talk about a topic that divides classical and contemporary playwrights: the use of rhyme in drama. Neander challenges the traditional preference for blank poetry by defending rhyme as a valid and useful literary form.
- William Shakespeare is praised extensively in this article, demonstrating its genius. Shakespeare receives high marks from Neander for his originality, charisma, and ability to convey the core of human nature via his characters. This, although supporting classical ideas, is essential since it demonstrates Dryden’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s greatness.
What I Mean…
The final section of the article makes a case for tolerance and an open mind when assessing various theatrical genres. Neander says that there is potential for diversity in the dramatic arts and that every era and country may have its own strengths.
In the annals of English literary criticism, “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” is regarded as a seminal book. It adds to our grasp of the rules governing dramatic composition and represents the continuous argument between the classical and the creative, the ancients and the moderns.