Dryden's 'Defence of the Epilogue': A Reinterpretation

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Dryden published the two parts of The Conquest of Granada in 1672. The original production, which had taken place the previous year, was an enormous success. But the Epilogue to the second part, in which he appeared to insult his Elizabethan predecessors, caused considerable resentment. There he declared, with a touch of disarming sarcasm, that barbarous ages produce barbarous literature and that, despite all their many excellences, the best writers of the preceding century could not (even in their best works) escape totally the failures of their time and place:

They, who have best succeeded on the Stage, Have still conform'd their Genius to their Age. Thus Jonson did Mechanique humour show, When men were dull, and conversation low. Then, Comedy was faultless, but 'twas course: Cobbs Tankard was a jest, and Otter's horse. And as their Comedy, their love was mean: Except, by chance, in some one labour'd Scene, Which must attone for an ill-written Play: They rose; but at their height could seldome stay. Fame then was cheap, and the first commer sped; And they have kept it since, by being dead. (11:201)

As for the present age, which is the most civilized in English history, it has produced a most civilized literature, of which apparently Dryden's own accomplishments, including of course The Conquest of Granada, are a splendid and impressive example:

If Love and Honour now are higher rais'd, 'Tis not the Poet, but the Age is prais'd. Wit's now arriv'd to a more high degree; Our native Language more refin'd and free. Our Ladies and our men now speak more wit In conversation, than those Poets writ. (201)

When he published the play, he included the Epilogue and, despite the public outcry, defiantly kept it intact. He did, however, include in the volume, along with his preface, "Of Heroique Playes," a kind of postscript, a remarkable attempt at self-justification, the "Defense of the Epilogue; or, An Essay of the Dramatique Poetry of the last Age."

The "Defence" has never been well received. Dryden's contemporaries found it even more offensive than the Epilogue; later generations have thought it shameful, carping, and dull.(1) Even Hoyt Trowbridge, who analyzed it with much brilliance, believed that "[t]he whole essay" "is supererogatory," and concluded that Dryden did well to withdraw it from later editions of his work. The "Defence," however, though somewhat narrow in its ostensible aims, is not "of second-rate importance" (Trowbridge 11).(2) It clarifies a key moment in Dryden's thinking, and its removal from the canon would interrupt the inner debate or dialogue which the essays hold among themselves.

Dryden's critical essays are commentaries on one another, as well as on the poems and plays to which they refer and on which they are always based. In the Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) he had hoped that in the new age new playwrights would create a drama which in every way would rival and even supersede the best works of the Elizabethans: one day they would wear the "Lawrels...[of] the English" (17:63-64).(3) In the "Defence of the Epilogue," he boasts that, for the most part, his fondest hopes have at last been realized.

In "Of Heroique Playes" (1672), while barely speaking about his interest in classical rules, both ancient and modern, he had explained at some length his commitment to the "liberty of Fancy" and the "precipitation of the Soul" (11: 10-14). In the "Defence," while saying little about his preference for the imaginative in art, or about the extent to which it must supersede the requirements of sound judgment, he discusses the obverse side of the coin: the extent to which even the most imaginative poems must somehow be circumscribed by human judgment and hence by a sound (though minimal) classicism. Though appended to a heroic play, The Conquest of Granada, the essay says nothing about heroic drama either directly or immediately. …