Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

7
Dramatic Poetry: Dryden's Conversation-Piece

For all the syllabus-makers may say, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy is not a masterpiece of our criticism. Its strongest claim on our attention is not as criticism but as conversation-piece — meaning by that, what it has meant to some painters, an idealized picture of ideally civilized social behaviour. And even from that point of view, one may object either that the society is not idealized enough, or else that the society in question does not deserve what Dryden claims for it.

To say that the piece as a whole is not great criticism, not criticism at all, is not to deny, of course, that great criticism is to be found in it. There is, for instance, the examen of The Silent Woman, still an excellent introduction to a neglected play; there are the rapid firm delineations of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Jonson; and there are excellent things in the last few pages, about the use of rhymed verse on the stage. But it can hardly be denied that these are the plums in what is sometimes very suety pudding. No one can be much interested in the issues of Ancient versus Modern drama, or the French tradition versus the English. These questions are 'dated' of course; but that is not the whole of it. Many issues raised in Sidney's Apologie are dated; yet a sympathetic reader can re-phrase those issues in terms more suitable to the present day, and can find that they are of living, because perennial, interest. He cannot do this with Dryden's essay. There the issues are dated in another way, more seriously; we are bored not only by the questions themselves, but by the way they are debated. The discussions, as Dryden presents them, are unavoidably inconclusive, because they are so nebulous.

Dryden could have asked, or implied, the questions: Am I, in my next play, to observe the unities? Am I to take Corneille for my model, or Shakespeare? Posed in this fashion, the question of French versus English drama could have come to life; for it would have taken account of the poet's peculiar temperament, his personal aptitudes and limitations, the sort of actors for whom he wrote, the expectations of his audience. And it is obvious that this is how these

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