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- Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry - 1/31 -


by John Dryden


Dryden's discourses upon Satire and Epic Poetry belong to the latter years of his life, and represent maturer thought than is to be found in his "Essay of Dramatic Poesie." That essay, published in 1667, draws its chief interest from the time when it was written. A Dutch fleet was at the mouth of the Thames. Dryden represents himself taking a boat down the river with three friends, one of them his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, another Sir Charles Sedley, and another Charles Sackville Lord Buckhurst to whom, as Earl of Dorset, the "Discourse of Satire" is inscribed. They go down the river to hear the guns at sea, and judge by the sound whether the Dutch fleet be advancing or retreating. On the way they talk of the plague of Odes that will follow an English victory; their talk of verse proceeds to plays, with particular attention to a question that had been specially argued before the public between Dryden and his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard. The question touched the use of blank verse in the drama. Dryden had decided against it as a worthless measure, and the chief feature of the Essay, which was written in dialogue, was its support of Dryden's argument. But in that year (1667) "Paradise Lost" was published, and Milton's blank verse was the death of Dryden's theories. After a few years Dryden recanted his error. The "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" is interesting as a setting forth in 1667 of mistaken critical opinions which were at that time in the ascendant, but had not very long to live. Dryden always wrote good masculine prose, and all his critical essays are good reading as pieces of English. His "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" is good reading as illustrative of the weakness of our literature in the days of the influence of France after the Restoration. The essays on Satire and on Epic Poetry represent also the influence of the French critical school, but represent it in a larger way, with indications of its strength as well as of its weakness. They represent also Dryden himself with a riper mind covering a larger field of thought, and showing abundantly the strength and independence of his own critical judgment, while he cites familiarly and frequently the critics, little remembered and less cared for now, who then passed for the arbiters of taste.

If English literature were really taught in schools, and the eldest boys had received training that brought them in their last school- year to a knowledge of the changes of intellectual fashion that set their outward mark upon successive periods, there is no prose writing of Dryden that could be used by a teacher more instructively than these Discourses on Satire and on Epic Poetry. They illustrate abundantly both Dryden and his time, and give continuous occasion for discussion of first principles, whether in disagreement or agreement with the text. Dryden was on his own ground as a critic of satire; and the ideal of an epic that the times, and perhaps also the different bent of his own genius, would not allow him to work out, at least finds such expression as might be expected from a man who had high aspirations, and whose place, in times unfavourable to his highest aims, was still among the master-poets of the world.

The Discourse on Satire was prefixed to a translation of the satires of Juvenal and Persius, and is dated the 18th of August, 1692, when the poet's age was sixty-one. In translating Juvenal, Dryden was helped by his sons Charles and John. William Congreve translated one satire; other translations were by Nahum Tate and George Stepney. Time modern reader of the introductory discourse has first to pass through the unmeasured compliments to the Earl of Dorset, which represent a real esteem and gratitude in the extravagant terms then proper to the art of dedication. We get to the free sea over a slimy shore. We must remember that Charles the Second upon his death was praised by Charles Montague, who knew his faults, as "the best good man that ever filled a throne," and compared to God Himself at the end of the first paragraph of Montague's poem. But when we are clear of the conventional unmeasured flatteries, and Dryden lingers among epic poets on his way to the satirists, there is equal interest in the mistaken criticisms, in the aspirations that are blended with them, and in the occasional touches of the poet's personality in quiet references to his critics. The comparisons between Horace and Juvenal in this discourse, and much of the criticism on Virgil in the discourse on epic poetry, are the utterances of a poet upon poets, and full of right suggestions from an artist's mind. The second discourse was prefixed in 1697--three years before Dryden's death--to his translation of the AEneid.

H. M.


My Lord,

The wishes and desires of all good men, which have attended your lordship from your first appearance in the world, are at length accomplished, from your obtaining those honours and dignities which you have so long deserved. There are no factions, though irreconcilable to one another, that are not united in their affection to you, and the respect they pay you. They are equally pleased in your prosperity, and would be equally concerned in your afflictions. Titus Vespasian was not more the delight of human kind. The universal empire made him only more known and more powerful, but could not make him more beloved. He had greater ability of doing good, but your inclination to it is not less: and though you could not extend your beneficence to so many persons, yet you have lost as few days as that excellent emperor; and never had his complaint to make when you went to bed, that the sun had shone upon you in vain, when you had the opportunity of relieving some unhappy man. This, my lord, has justly acquired you as many friends as there are persons who have the honour to be known to you. Mere acquaintance you have none; you have drawn them all into a nearer line; and they who have conversed with you are for ever after inviolably yours. This is a truth so generally acknowledged that it needs no proof: it is of the nature of a first principle, which is received as soon as it is proposed; and needs not the reformation which Descartes used to his; for we doubt not, neither can we properly say, we think we admire and love you above all other men: there is a certainty in the proposition, and we know it. With the same assurance I can say, you neither have enemies, nor can scarce have any; for they who have never heard of you can neither love or hate you; and they who have, can have no other notion of you than that which they receive from the public, that you are the best of men. After this, my testimony can be of no farther use, than to declare it to be daylight at high noon: and all who have the benefit of sight can look up as well and see the sun.

It is true, I have one privilege which is almost particular to myself, that I saw you in the east at your first arising above the hemisphere: I was as soon sensible as any man of that light when it was but just shooting out and beginning to travel upwards to the meridian. I made my early addresses to your lordship in my "Essay of Dramatic Poetry," and therein bespoke you to the world; wherein I have the right of a first discoverer. When I was myself in the rudiments of my poetry, without name or reputation in the world, having rather the ambition of a writer than the skill; when I was drawing the outlines of an art, without any living master to instruct me in it--an art which had been better praised than studied here in England; wherein Shakespeare, who created the stage among us, had rather written happily than knowingly and justly; and Jonson, who, by studying Horace, had been acquainted with the rules, yet seemed to envy to posterity that knowledge, and, like an inventor of some useful art, to make a monopoly of his learning-- when thus, as I may say, before the use of the loadstone or knowledge of the compass, I was sailing in a vast ocean without other help than the pole-star of the ancients and the rules of the French stage amongst the moderns (which are extremely different from ours, by reason of their opposite taste), yet even then I had the presumption to dedicate to your lordship--a very unfinished piece, I must confess, and which only can be excused by the little experience of the author and the modesty of the title--"An Essay." Yet I was stronger in prophecy than I was in criticism: I was inspired to foretell you to mankind as the restorer of poetry, the greatest genius, the truest judge, and the best patron.

Good sense and good nature are never separated, though the ignorant world has thought otherwise. Good nature, by which I mean beneficence and candour, is the product of right reason; which of necessity will give allowance to the failings of others by considering that there is nothing perfect in mankind; and by distinguishing that which comes nearest to excellency, though not absolutely free from faults, will certainly produce a candour in the judge. It is incident to an elevated understanding like your lordship's to find out the errors of other men; but it is your prerogative to pardon them; to look with pleasure on those things which are somewhat congenial and of a remote kindred to your own conceptions; and to forgive the many failings of those who, with their wretched art, cannot arrive to those heights that you possess from a happy, abundant, and native genius which are as inborn to you as they were to Shakespeare, and, for aught I know, to Homer; in either of whom we find all arts and sciences, all moral and natural philosophy, without knowing that they ever studied them.

There is not an English writer this day living who is not perfectly convinced that your lordship excels all others in all the several parts of poetry which you have undertaken to adorn. The most vain and the most ambitions of our age have not dared to assume so much as the competitors of Themistocles: they have yielded the first place without dispute; and have been arrogantly content to be esteemed as second to your lordship, and even that also with a longo, sed proximi intervallo. If there have been, or are, any who go farther in their self-conceit, they must be very singular in their opinion; they must be like the officer in a play who was called captain, lieutenant, and company. The world will easily conclude whether such unattended generals can ever be capable of making a revolution in Parnassus.

I will not attempt in this place to say anything particular of your lyric poems, though they are the delight and wonder of the age, and will be the envy of the next. The subject of this book confines me

Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry - 1/31

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