Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 10. Evidence of Dryden, Rapin and Rymer

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 10. Evidence of Dryden, Rapin and Rymer

Of these three Frenchmen, all of whom have now passed into oblivion, it may be said that, like Boileau, they express in their literary criticism the absolutist ideas of their age. But their outlook is narrower, and their attitude towards the ancients less independent, than Boileau’s. Conform to “the Precepts of Aristotle and Horace and to the Practice of Homer and Virgil,” is the summary of Le Bossu’s long-winded treatise. Rapin says that “to please against the rules is a bad principle,” and he defines art as “good sense reduced to method.” In Thomas Rymer, who prefixed to his translation a characteristic preface, he found an interpreter who, with equal respect for Aristotle, laid even greater emphasis on common-sense. He aspired to be “the Plain Dealer” of criticism, and, having examined modern epic poems in the preface to Rapin, proceeded, four years later (1678), to “handle” The Tragedies of the Last Age “with the same liberty.” He was answered in verse by Butler (Upon Critics who judge of modern plays by the rules of the Ancients), and in prose by Dryden, who, in his preface to All for Love, the play in which he renounced rime, rebels against the authority of “our Chedreux critics,” and, while he admits that “the Ancients, as Mr. Rymer has judiciously observed, are and ought to be our masters,” qualifies his admission with the remark that, “though their models are regular, they are too little for English tragedy.” The earl of Mulgrave (afterwards marquis of Normanby and duke of Buckinghamshire), in his much admired Essay upon Poetry (1682), drew largely from Boileau’s Art Poétique; and, in 1684, the authority of “the rules” was reinforced by a translation of the abbé d’Aubignac’s Pratique du théâtre:

  • Then, ’t is the mode of France; without whose rules
  • None must presume to set up here as fools.
  • Rymer’s Short view of Tragedy (1693), with its famous criticism of Othello, roused Dryden to another spirited defence of English, tragedy. But the authority of Rymer continued to stand high, even with Dryden. It was well, therefore, for English literature that there were critics in France who paid little or no respect to the rules, and who believed that individual taste was a better criterion than Rymer’s “common-sense of all ages.” Such were chevalier (afterwards marquis) de Méré, whose letters, containing a good deal of scattered criticism, were published in 1687; père Bouhours, whose Manière de penser sur les ouvrages de l’esprit appeared in the same year; and La Bruyère, whose Caractères, with the admirable opening chapter Des Ouvrages de l’esprit, followed at the beginning of the next. All these three writers, of whom the second and third were known in England before the close of the century, may be said to belong to the school of taste, when taste was still a matter of individual judgment, and had not yet stiffened into the narrow code of an oligarchy.