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

§ 8. John Dennis

One of the best known critics of his time was the redoubtable John Dennis. Dennis had the advantage of an education at Harrow and Cambridge, of early travel in France and Italy and of the company, in his earlier days, of many men of culture. His plays are noticed elsewhere, and it is not necessary to give details of his quarrels with Pope, Steele, Addison and others. His later criticisms are marred by pedantry and abuse, but there is often real merit in his work. He answered Collier’s attack on the stage with two pamphlets, intended to be “a vindication of the stage, and not of the corruptions or the abuses of it,” and, in 1701, published The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry: a Critical Discourse, which was followed, in 1704, by The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry. An Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner (1706), was directed against the growth of effeminacy. An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare (1712), contains some excellent passages, but, for the most part, shows the writer’s inability to understand or appreciate his subject. Shakespeare, he says, had great qualities by nature, but he made gross mistakes: “If he had had the advantage of art and learning, he would have surpassed the very best and strongest of the Ancients.” The poetical justice of which he was so fond he often missed in Shakespeare, and he regretted that the crowd in Julius Cæsar showed “want of art.” His favourite views are indicated on the title-page of The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), which is in two parts,

  • the first, showing that the principal reason why the Ancients excelled the Moderns in the greater poetry, was because they mixed religion with poetry. The second, proving that by joining poetry with the religion revealed to us in Sacred Writ, the modern poets might come to equal the Ancients.
  • The answer to the question why he preferred Oedipus to Julius Cæsar, is, says Dennis, “first, the Oedipus is exactly just and regular, and the Julius Cæsar is very extravagant and irregular: secondly, the Oedipus is very religious, and the Julius Cæsar is irreligious.”
  • “Every tragedy,” he adds, “ought to be a very solemn lecture, inculcating a particular Providence, and showing it plainly protecting the good, and chastizing the bad, or at least the violent.… If it is otherwise, it is either an empty amusement, or a scandalous and pernicious libel upon the government of the world.”
  • The same views are repeated in The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry. Poetry, he says, had fallen to a low level, because of ignorance of the rules by which poets ought to proceed.
  • If the end of poetry be to instruct and reform the world, that is, to bring mankind from irregularity, extravagance and confusion, to rule and order, how this should be done by a thing that is in itself irregular and extravagant is difficult to be conceived.