Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

3
Shakespeare and the Practising Poet Today

There is only one way to start on this topic. And that is by ritually recalling a very famous passage of English criticism, John Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy, at the point where Dryden is recalling Shakespeare along with Fletcher and Ben Jonson: 'But it is to raise envy to the living, to compare them with the dead. They are honoured, and almost adored by us, as they deserve; neither do I know any so presumptuous of themselves as to contend with them . . . We acknowledge them our fathers in wit; but they have ruined their estates themselves before they came to their children's hands. . . .' This is of course the earliest and as it seems to me still the most generous and moving expression of how all subsequent poets of the English language must regard Shakespeare; as a standard so daunting that we cannot afford to be at all constantly aware of it. Shakespeare represents, for all his successors, a vast area of the English language and the English imagination which is as it were 'charged', radioactive: a territory where we dare not travel at all often or at all extensively, for fear of being mortally infected, in the sense of being overborne, so that we cease to speak with our own voices and produce only puny echoes of the great voice which long ago took over that whole terrain for its own. If poets today do not constantly frequent Shakespeare, it is because they cannot afford to.

I would set beside this a passage which for writers of my generation was not much less classic than Dryden's, and which points in much the same direction. It is from T.S. Eliot's essay on Dante ( 1929):

For the science or art of writing verse, one has learned from the Inferno that the greatest poetry can be written with the greatest economy of words, and with the greatest austerity in the use of metaphor, simile, verbal beauty, and elegance. When I affirm that more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any English poet, I do not at all mean that Dante's way is the only right way, or that Dante is thereby greater than Shakespeare or, indeed, any other English poet. I put my meaning

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