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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism

§ 14. The final stage in Dryden

But it was not until the age of Dryden that the roll-call disappears entirely, and is displaced by the critical study of a poet and his work. The critique of The Silent Woman, the literary portraits of Jonson, Shakespeare and Fletcher, in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), mark a new stage in the growth of English criticism. The commendatory verses of many poets, the new aesthetic of Hobbes, the prose style of Cowley and D’Avenant, and many tentatives in the art of character-writing have made such things possible; but it is the discours and examens of Corneille (1660) that furnished Dryden with his true models. With Dryden, then, the intensive study of works of literature begins, and displaces the mere tags and epithets of the older criticism. But literary history was not born in England for another quarter of a century; and, in Rymer’s View of Tragedy (1693), despite an exaggerated animus against Elizabethan tragedy, real learning was placed at the service of criticism, and the first connected account of the rise of modern literatures attempted.

The critical literature of the first half of the century is interesting, therefore, for its direction, rather than for any accomplishment of its own. It revolutionised aesthetic principles, but accomplished little or nothing in the field of concrete criticism. It did not adequately explain or appraise the works of the great poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan age. Englishmen were slowly beginning to realise the greatness of their literary past, but criticism did little to direct or encourage this new taste. The playwrights themselves scattered comments on their own art throughout their plays, and the modern scholar may arrange these isolated utterances at his pleasure into a unified code; yet, no critic of this age brought order and meaning out of the chaos of hints and hopes, and the romantic drama remained without its thoroughgoing exponents or analysts. New ideas in respect to poetry were, indeed, being developed. But, though Jonson elaborated a classical point of view and Hobbes a new aesthetic, these ideas were not consistently or intelligently applied to the literary heritage of the English people. Not until after the restoration was the clash of romantic and classical achievement truly apprehended, and its meaning analysed and explained.