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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

V. Arbuthnot and Lesser Prose Writers

§ 7. Literary criticism of the age: Rymer; Langbaine; Gildon

Literary criticism at the end of the seventeenth century owed much to Boileau and Rapin, who pleaded for “good sense” and urged the wisdom of following classical models. Thomas Rymer, born in 1641, the son of a Yorkshire roundhead, published, in 1674, a translation of Rapin’s Reflections on Aristotle’s Treatise of Poesie, and wrote a play, Edgar, or the English Monarch (1678), in accordance with classical laws. But his principal literary work was The Tragedies of the Last Age considered and examined by the Practice of the Ancients, and by the Common Sense of all Ages (1678), in which he examined three of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays, and Paradise Lost. These pieces he found to be “as rude as our architecture.” Both the poetry and Gothic architecture were condemned because they were not based on classical models. Rime he defended against the “slender sophistry” in Paradise Lost, “which some are pleased to call a poem.” Dryden, in the preface to All for Love (1678), said that he had here endeavoured to follow the practice of the ancients, “who, as Mr. Rymer has judiciously observed, are, and ought to be, our masters.” In order, however, to imitate Shakespeare in his style, he disencumbered himself of rime: “Not that I condemn my former way, but that this is more proper to my present purpose.” In 1692, Rymer published (with the date 1693 on the title-page), A short View of Tragedy: Its original excellency and corruption, with some reflections on Shakespeare and other practitioners for the stage; in which he proved his incompetence as a critic by expressing contempt for Shakespeare’s tragedies. Dryden’s criticism, said Johnson, “has the majesty of a queen; Rymer’s has the ferocity of a tyrant.” In a letter to Dennis, Dryden said that our comedy was far beyond anything of the ancients;

  • and notwithstanding our irregularities, so is our Tragedy. Shakespeare had a genius for it; and we know (in spite of Mr. Rymer) that genius alone is a greater virtue (if I may so call it) than all other qualifications put together.… Who will read Mr. Rymer, or not read Shakespeare? For my own part, I reverence Mr. Rymer’s learning, but I detest his ill-nature and his arrogance.
  • But the preaching of “common sense” and of the need of laws in writing was a useful work, and, if Rymer is full of extravagances, he was at least qualified by his learning to discuss the practice of the ancients. Spence says that Pope thought him generally right, though unduly severe on some of the plays he criticised. Rymer devoted the later years of his life to historical work, and we owe him a great debt for Foedera, fifteen volumes of which appeared before his death in 1713.

    Gerard Langbaine, son of the provost of Queen’s college, Oxford, of the same name, is known chiefly by his Account of the English Dramatic Poets, 1691. Langbaine frequented the theatre and collected plays, and had already published, in 1687–8, catalogues of plays, with notes concerning the sources of the plots. His passion for discovering plagiarisms annoyed Dryden and others, but his work was scholarly and is still sometimes useful. A new edition of his book was brought out by Charles Gildon in 1699, under the title The Lives and Characters of the English Dramatic Poets. The name Gildon, a hack writer on the whig side, is familiar to posterity because Pope wrote of his “venal quill.” He is described by a contemporary as of “great literature and mean genius.” Neither his critical nor his dramatic work is of value; but he wrote an entertaining book, A Comparison between the Two Stages (1702), in which, in dialogue forms, he discussed the plays and players of the day. Some interesting critical views are expressed in a letter to Prior (1721) on one of his tragedies, in which Gildon says that to move the passions is the chief excellence in that way of writing, and so allowed to be by all ages but the present, when critics had arisen who made diction or language the chief mark of a good or bad tragedy, and such a diction as, though correct, was scarcely tolerable in this way of writing; “for tragedy, consisting of the representation of different passions, must, of necessity, vary its style according to the nature of each passion which it brings on the stage.” Gildon’s Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. DDe F—, of London, Hosier, “who has lived above fifty years by himself, in the kingdoms of North and South Britain” (1719) is an interesting pamphlet on the new romance of Robinson Crusoe, which shows that the authorship of that work was no secret to some, at least, of Defoe’s contemporaries. Gildon’s charges of inconsistencies in Robinson Crusoe are sometimes without foundation.