Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dryden Rules

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dryden Rules

Article excerpt

Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join

The varying verse, the full resounding line,

The long majestick march, and energy divine.

-Pope, "Epistle to Augustus"

Writing to Philip Larkin more than sixty years ago, Kingsley Amis delivered one of his frequent critiques of English poets, this one on John Dryden:

I have stopped reading Dryden. He is very like Chaucer, isn't he? I mean, however hard you try, you cannot see what people mean who admired them. Now, I see what people mean (though I don't agree with them) who like Donne or Pope or Wordsworth, or Keats, or even Milton, but I cannot with Dryden. A second-rate fucking journalist ("Oh?"). A secOND-RATE FUCKINGJOURNALIST ("Oh").

Amis showing off for Larkin, of course.1 But then there was C. S. Lewis pronouncing as if from on high: "Dryden fails to be a satisfactory poet because being rather a boor, a gross, vulgar, provincial, misunderstanding mind, he yet constantly attempts those kinds of poetry which demand the cuor gentil."* And on the occasion of Dryden's tercentenary in 2000, the Oxford don Barbara Everett, one of the shrewdest living critics of poetry, noted with regard to Dryden's low public esteem that "Perhaps the few readers of poetry who still exist need an intensity of verse that Dryden never cared to supply." She acknowledged that after decades of teaching she has found that "only the rarest of able pupils has agreed to try Dryden, has indeed (it sometimes seems) heard of him."3 My own experience tallies with Everett's: in decades of teaching I have supervised but a single honors essay by a student on the writer-that one, as with Everett, by the rarest of able pupils. If Dryden is not read with enthusiasm and admiration in college classrooms, where is such reading likely to occur?

It occurred most memorably in the eloquent testimony of one of his finest critics, Samuel Johnson. In his "Life of Pope," in Lives of the Poets, Johnson made a famous, extended comparison between the characteristics of Pope's and Dryden's verse containing formulations such as the following:

Dryden's page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope's is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and leveled by the roller. . . .

If the flights of Dryden therefore are higher, Pope continues longer on the wing. If of Dryden's fire the blaze is brighter, of Pope's the heat is more regular and constant. Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight.

At the end of the parallel, Johnson hopes it will be found just, then makes the following confession:

If the reader should suspect me, as I suspect myself, of some partial fondness for the memory of Dryden, let him not too hastily condemn me; for meditation and enquiry may, perhaps, shew him the reasonableness of my determination.

As a young man, Johnson contemplated writing a biography of Dryden, so the "partial fondness" might be accounted for solely on that ground, and surely the modern reader, contemplating Johnson's parallel, should feel no need to choose one of these poets over the other. Yet this particular reader after considerable ventures into studying and teaching both poets (Johnson's "meditation and enquiry") has become convinced of the reasonableness of Johnson's determination. The pages to follow attempt to give an account of that conviction.


No one in the last century, unless it be Mark Van Dorenwhose 1920 book on Dryden was the occasion for T. S. Eliot's short but trenchant review essay-has written more sympathetically about the poet than Eliot; yet in thinking about Dryden's status as a great English writer, sentences from another of Eliot's essays come to mind, his even more trenchant one about Ben Jonson. That essay begins by stating bluntly, "The reputation of Jonson has been of the most deadly kind that can be compelled upon the memory of a great poet":

To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries-this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval. …

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