Literary Criticism of John Dryden

Literary Criticism of John Dryden

Literary Criticism of John Dryden

Literary Criticism of John Dryden

Excerpt

Dryden's criticism is easy to undervalue or to value for the wrong reasons. To be truly understood it must be accepted on its own terms, and at a distance of two centuries those terms are neither easy to perceive nor appreciate. All critics suffer from such historical accidents, but Dryden does especially, for he is very unlike what we currently expect a critic to be. He neither analyzes a text intensively nor speaks portentously about literary form or theory. His criticism is almost entirely occasional: prefaces, dedications, prologues, epilogues, written to explain or justify his own works. He changes his mind, often, and has little patience with theoretical positions for their own sake. His interests are practical to the point of being technical. In the modern critical pantheon these are not virtues, and we are tempted to explain them away either by reducing Dryden to an amateur who wrote graceful prose and entertaining shoptalk or by magnifying him into a skeptic who contradicted himself on the basis of consistent philosophical premises. But Dryden was not a philosophical skeptic, and he certainly was no amateur. He was a great literary critic, and it is worth the effort to discover this greatness in qualities which are really his.

To begin with, we must fully appreciate the pragmatic character of his criticism. From 1664, when he published his first critical essay, to 1700, when he published his last, Dryden wrote for a living. For the first fifteen years of his career he was a dramatist (for most of that time under contract to write three plays a year for one of the two theatrical companies in London); and Of Dramatic Poesy, "A Defence of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy," the "Preface to An Evening's Love," the "Heads of an Answer to Rymer," and the "Preface to Troilus and Cressida Containing the Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy" all reflect his professional commitment and interest in the contemporary English theater. "An Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic Licence" and the "Preface to Fables" similarly are the product of . . .

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