"The Softness of Expression, and the Smoothness of Measure": A Model of Gendered Decorum from Dryden's Criticism

By Runge, Laura L. | Essays in Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

"The Softness of Expression, and the Smoothness of Measure": A Model of Gendered Decorum from Dryden's Criticism


Runge, Laura L., Essays in Literature


In 1679 Dryden compared Shakespeare's "masculine," "bolder" and "fiery" genius with Fletcher's "more soft and womanish" creativity, employing the hierarchy of genders to recommend his preference for Shakespeare (Essays 1.212). As Dryden fashioned the tools for critical inquiry, he appropriated the categories of gender and translated them into critical terms for literature. Dryden's pervasive use of gender sets up the principles of decorum that operate on many different levels. His most fundamental gendered distinction classifies whole languages or linguistic attributes according to masculine and feminine codes. In the analysis of specific literary works, Dryden distinguishes certain writing styles and specific genres by gendered terms. At times the sex of the intended audience influences Dryden's designation of a gendered style; in other instances the gendered association of the literary content determines its "masculine" or "feminine" label. Still other uses of gendered decorum simply involve a gendered comparison of two authors without regard to their biological sex. Finally, Dryden assesses the critical abilities of his readers and audiences given the expectations of gendered stereotypes. Throughout his critical writings Dryden draws many "happy similitudes," including economic, religious and political metaphors, but none prove so flexible, accurate and ultimately safe as his subtle manipulation of the gendered hierarchy of society.

Until quite recently, no one had elaborated on Dryden's use of gender in his critical assessments. In "When Beauty Fires the Blood": Love and the Arts in the Age of Dryden, James Winn examines the centrality of sexual passion in Dryden's creative process:

I argue that Dryden's complex and contradictory attitudes toward

human sexuality helped shape his influential ideas about nature

and art, beauty and virtue, imagination and judgment.... I

address some topics not much noticed in previous studies of his

important role in the history of English literary criticism: his tech-

nical knowledge of the other arts; his lively sexual imagination; his

use of conventional and unconventional notions of gender to flesh

out theoretical distinctions; and the contrasting attitudes of his con-

temporaries, especially those of women writers. (x) Winn analyzes Dryden's lifelong preference for poetry, which Dryden considered masculine because it stimulated the mind toward virtue, over the "sister-arts" of music and painting, which he characterized as feminine because their beauty pleased the imagination. Winn's account offers a corrective to traditional views of Dryden as the sharp, Tory satirist by stressing Dryden's more "feminine" attributes: "the musical lyricism of his line, the visual splendor of his imagery, the precious moments when he recognizes his own emotional and sexual frailty" (435). While this essay sometimes covers the same texts as Winn does, the basic focus and method differ altogether. "When Beauty Fires the Blood" ties in numerous aspects of Dryden's life and artistic development with the ultimate goal of more fully understanding Dryden and his work. My analysis investigates Dryden's use of gender as a model of difference upon which he establishes literary judgment with the intent to prove the extent to which critical discourse intersects with the culturally specific ideology of gender. Where Winn is biographical, my argument is feminist and epistemological, positioning Dryden's work at the beginning point of the trajectory of Augustan criticism. Winn's final assessment that Dryden combined the characterizations of both sexes in his own writing concurs with my appraisal of Dryden's adroit management of gender in his literary criticism, but Winn's hint that Dryden's work embodies "some of the deepest truths we know," with its appeal to a universal knowledge of sex and eroticism, stands on its own (435).

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