Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

xi the Anglican Church, of which he was a member; the secon

—“The Hind and the Panther"-is an elaborate argument in favour of Roman Catholicism, to which he had in the meantime been converted. The question of the sincerity of his religious change, like that of the real significance of his political fluctuations, is an intricate one, and space cannot be afforded for a consideration of it here. But it will be well for the student of Dryden's literary criticism to note that his mind was in a state of almost perpetual vacillation about every subject which he took up, and that emphatic as was his expression of whatever opinion he chanced to hold at any given moment, his changes of judgment were often rapid and fundamental.

He had once more trimmed his political sails to take advantage of the accession of James II. But the revolution of 1688 swept away all hopes he may have cherished of recognition and advancement. Deprived of all his offices and of the income he derived from them, Dryden now accepted with manly courage and dignity the troubles which darkened his declining years, and, turning with renewed industry to literature, maintained under the burden of increasing ill-health a wonderful activity to the end. He produced more plays, translated Juvenal, Persius, and Virgil, and in his Fables (paraphrases from the “Iliad,” Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer) gave the world some of his finest work. These were published in November 1899. On the ist of May of the following year he died.

Milton excepted—and this older and greater John is really a survivor of “the mighty race before the flood ”—Dryden is in all respects the most important figure in English literature during the second half of the seventeenth century. Here he merits special attention as our first great prose writer and first systematic critic. English prose before the Restorationthe prose, for example, of Raleigh and Hooker—was stately, rich, and at times magnificent; but it was too cumbrous, intricate, and unwieldy for common use; and it was this kind of prose which, in Dryden's early manhood, was still being written by such men as Milton, Clarendon, and Jeremy Taylor. It was a most important part of the business of the Restoration period—a business which its pedestrian temper particularly fitted it to undertake-to perfect and give currency to an English style which, like the French style by which

1 It is admirably treated by Scott, in his Life of Dryden, $ 6.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Hly influenced, should be clear, simple, direct,

serviceable for the ordinary purposes of exposi

cussion; and Dryden beyond all other men is to garded as the leader in this much-needed work of reform. and as the Restoration was the age of the new prose, so it was the age of the new criticism; for though a great deal of criticism had been produced in England before this, it was now for the first time that men began to be seriously concerned about the principles of literature and to analyse methods, institute comparisons, investigate rules, and seek for definite standards of judgment. Here again the power and weight of Dryden's genius gave him an easy supremacy. Johnson called him “ the Father of English criticism,” and we need scarcely challenge the title.

It was undoubtedly in the dramatic field that Dryden's best work in criticism was done, and of the value of this work the reader of the present volume will now be in a position to judge for himself. To read his essays profitably, however, it

sential that we should place ourselves at the point of view of the time when they were written. It must be remembered that, largely as a result of England's new political and social relations, a great enthusiasm for all things French grew up in this country after the Restoration. Adopting many of the habits, manners, and ideals of their neighbours across the Channel, our cultured classics learned to regard their drama also with the utmost admiration. Now the French dramathe "neo-classic drama " as it is called—was specially marked by structural correctness, respect for decorum, dignity of mode and speech, love of high-flown rhetoric, and strict adherence, in theory at any rate, to the classic unities of time, place, and action. It was thus inevitable that the newly-bred interest in a form of dramatic art so unlike that of our older stage should bring about a widespread neglect of the free romantic type of play, and lead to openly expressed contempt of the work of the pre-Restoration men, including Shakespeare himself. At the same time, various questions connected with the practice of the French playwrights came naturally to the front: as to the value of the unities, for example, the significance of the love-motive, and the use of narrative instead of action and of rhyme instead of blank verse. Furthermore, throughout the current discussion of these, as of all other similar matters, it was the habit of the age to consult the precedents furnished by antiquity and invoke the authority

of classic writers for rule and guidance. Hence there was another problem which arose from time to time, and which presently filled the French world of letters with excitement and indirectly inspired Swift's famous satire, “The Battle of Books,” the problem of the comparative merits of the ancients and the moderns, and of the right of the moderns to break away from classic leading-strings, assert the freedom of individual genius, and work out the principles of a new literature for themselves.

These were some of the subjects most prominent in the literary discussions of the time when Dryden wrote his essays in dramatic criticism, and it was perfectly natural, therefore, that his own mind should be full of them. What are the relative values of the ancient and modern dramas ? How does the French drama (based in theory on the ancient) compare with the romantic drama of the older English stage? What in turn may be said for and against this romantic drama itself when it is set beside the drama of Dryden's own time? What is the real significance of the unities? Has tragi-comedy any justification ? What is the proper place and what the proper treatment of love in the modern drama? What are the advantages and drawbacks of action and narrative ? of rhyme and blank verse ? Such are the topics which recur in Dryden's pages; and if for most of us to-day they are scarcely living issues, the historical importance, and even the critical value, of what Dryden says about them are not the less on that account.

The foundations of his dramatic criticisms are laid in the earliest and at the same time the most masterly of all his writings on the subject—the “Essay 'of Dramatic Poesy." That this essay was largely based upon three treatises by the great French playwright Corneille, and that Dryden also draws freely for it from other authors, is a fact that must be mentioned in passing. His indebtedness to those who had been before him in the field makes little difference, however, to the individuality of his own work, for he had a rare faculty for making borrowed material entirely his own and for leaving his personal impress upon it. In the present essay, it will be noted, the discussion is thrown into the form of a dialoguea favourite device since the revival of learning, when all over Europe men had begun to imitate Plato and Cicero. The critical value of this form is of course to be found in the opportunity it affords for the consideration of any given

а.

subject from different points of view; and it doubtless commended itself to Dryden both for this reason and because it fell in with the curious flexibility of his own judgment. “You see it is a dialogue," he afterwards explained, "sustained by persons of several opinions, all of them left doubtful, to be determined by readers in general.” 1 Hence the employment of the controversial method may very probably have been suggested in the first instance by the writer's characteristically sceptical spirit. But however that may be, it is important to observe that as literary principles are thus treated, not as fixed and final, but as open to varying interpretations, the older critical dogmatism is abandoned, and the comparative line of investigation adopted instead. The fact adds much to the historical significance of the essay.

There are four interlocutors—Crites, Eugenius, Lisideius, and Neander, representing respectively, it is now generally admitted, Sir Robert Howard, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Charles Sedley, and Dryden himself. Crites asserts the superiority of the ancients to the moderns, in virtue of their closer imitation of nature, and upholds the unities. Eugenius defends the French drama against the classicists; maintains that with the ancient playwrights poetic justice was imperfectly realised, and points out the deficiency of the classic drama in one important respect-its neglect of love. Lisideius in turn undertakes the advocacy of the French drama against the English, on the ground of its adherence to the unities, great structural regularity, and use of rhyme. Neander protests against this: the English, he declares, excel in “lively imitation of nature,' richness of invention, variety. He further insists that the French drama has lost more than it has gained by undue regard for decorum and obedience to the rules, and argues that in English plays—even when most "irregular"—there is

masculine fancy "and a "greater spirit in the writing' than are ever to be found on the French stage.

Other matters are drawn into the argument, but these are the main points discussed. The result, as we have seen Dryden acknowledge, is left in some uncertainty; for while superstitious veneration for classical antiquity and the current admiration of the French drama are boldly challenged, and

[ocr errors]

more

novus

1“ Defence," prefixed to second edition of The Indian Emperor.

* It is probable that he assumed this name (which means homo "-véos åvýp-or“ parvenu ") to mark the difference between himself and the other speakers, all of whom belonged to a higher social rank.

1

2

[ocr errors]

while too the older English dramatists are defended, yet the ancients and the French are alike treated with the greatest respect; the value of rhyme (one of the salient features of French tragedy) is emphasised; and the unities are practically admitted as essential principles of a good play. On the conservative side the argument is, that while dramatic rules may be derived immediately from the ancients, the ancients in turn derived them directly from nature; so that to imitate the ancients and to follow nature turn out to be one and the same thing. On the other hand, a strong case is made out for the irregular English drama, and therefore for the right of the individual playwright to go straight to nature for himself. The general purpose of the Essay,” however, may be said to be two-fold - to defend rhyme in the drama against Sir Robert Howard, and to "vindicate the honour of our English writers, from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them.”3 It should be observed that these two aims are, strictly speaking, incompatible.

While the “Essay of Dramatic Poesy” holds the place of pre-eminence among Dryden's writings on the drama, it does not record his final or unswerving judgment upon the questions raised in it. It has therefore to be supplemented by his prefaces and dedications to various plays, in studying which we have an ample opportunity of following the always interesting and sometimes rather puzzling evolutions of his thought. Thus in the “Defence” of the essay he traverses again much of the ground which he had already covered in the essay itself, re-stating his views about rhyme and the "rules," without however adding anything of much importance on either point. In his preface to "All for Love” (“Antony and Cleopatra and the Art of Tragedy”) he seems to be seeking some kind of compromise between the classic and the romantic dramas, advocating adherence to ancient tragedy, yet admitting that something of " larger compass” is required on the English stage, and under the influence of “divine Shakespeare” repudiating rhyme, which hitherto has had his ardent support. In considering “The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy” in the preface to Troilus and Cressida, he takes * Compare Pope's well-known couplet:

Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;

To copy nature is to copy them.-Essay on Criticism.
3" Defence of an Essay of Dramatic Poesy."
8" To the Reader,” prefixed to “ Essay of Dramatic Poesy."

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« EdellinenJatka »