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

I. Dryden

§ 12. Essay Of Heroick Plays

Dryden’s apologetic Essay of Heroick Plays was preceded in date of publication by his Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668), written in reply to Sir Robert Howard’s preface to his Foure New Plays (1665). The earlier essay is in that dialogue form which had preserved its popularity in the literatures of Europe since it had been revived by Erasmus and others in the renascence period, with which Dryden’s age was familiar from both Spanish and French precedents, and which was practised by many contemporary English writers, including Clarendon and Burnet. But there can be little doubt that Dryden derived the most direct impulse to the composition of the essays in dramatic and other literary criticism with which he enriched the library of English prose from the three Discours severally prefixed by Corneille to the three volumes of the 1660 collection of his plays, and the Examens which, in the same edition, preceded each drama.

Dryden’s famous essay is written with great spirit, and with a fusion of vigour and ease altogether different from the vivacity by which literary critics appealing to a wider public at times strive to hide their thoroughness, or the want of it, as the case may be. The dialogue form is employed with Platonic grace, the venue being laid under the sound of the guns discharged in the battle of Solebay, and audible in the Thames “like the noise of distant thunder or swallows in a chimney.” The conclusions reached may be described as eclectic and, at the same time, as based upon experience, albeit the latter was, necessarily, of a very limited range. As a matter of fact, Dryden’s opinions on most subjects—and not the least on dramatic theory—were sufficiently fluid to respond without reluctance to the demands of common-sense; nor did he ever take pride in a doctrinaire consistency—even with himself. The arguments, in this Essay, of Neander (who represents Dryden’s own views) lead to the conclusion that observance of the time-honoured laws of dramatic composition, as reasonably modified by experience—in other words, adherence to the principle of the unities as severally interpreted by Corneille—is reconcilable with the greater freedom of treatment assumed by the masters of the English drama; while the plea for the use of the rimed couplet, based on its dramatic capabilities, especially in tragedy, comes in as a sort of corollary.

The immediate occasion for Dryden’s Essay had been the confession of a doubt by Sir Robert Howard (who, as Crites, reproduces it in the dialogue) with regard to the appropriateness of the use, in which he had formerly taken part, of the rimed couplet in dramatic verse. Howard having replied to Dryden’s answer in the preface to his play The Great Favourite, or The Duke of Lerma (1668), without losing his temper—as why should he have done, except to give grounds for the persistent misrepresentation of a literary difference as a personal quarrel?—Dryden wound up the controversy by A Defence of an Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668), prefixed to the second edition of The Indian Emperor, from later editions of which, however, he omitted it. This piece, which is an admirable example of light raillery, though with just a suspicion of a sting, adds little to the previous force of his argument; but the incidental remark that “poetry only instructs as it delights” explains the failure of many attempts made in defiance of the truth conveyed by the saying.

The Conquest of Granada (1669–70) may be justly described as the heroic play par excellence, and exhibits Dryden as exultantly carrying through a prolonged effort such as only the splendid vigour of his peculiar genius could have sustained throughout at so tremendous a pitch as is here essayed. The colouring of the whole is gorgeous, and the hero, Almanzor, combines, on Dryden’s own showing, the imposing features of the Achilles of the Iliad, Tasso’s Rinaldo and the Artaban of La Calprenède’s Cléopâtre. Dryden had now reached the height of his popularity—it was in the year 1670 that he was appointed poet laureate. With an arrogance which Almanzor himself could hardly have surpassed—though it is hidden behind the pretence that

  • not the poet, but the age is praised—
  • the Epilogue to the Second Part declares the dramatist superior to all his predecessors, including Jonson, in “wit” and power of diction. The poets of the past could not reply; but, among the critics of the day who took up the challenge, Rochester, for one, retorted with a rough tu quoque which is not wholly without point. Other protests may have ensued; at all events, Dryden did not allow the hot iron time to cool, but followed up his rodomontade (for it really deserves the name) by A Defence of the Epilogue, or An Essay on the Dramatick Poetry of the last Age (1672), which cannot be called one of the happiest, and is certainly one of the least broadly conceived, of his critical efforts. Finding fault with a series of passages in the chief Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists was not the way to make good the general contention on which he had ventured. He appealed once more to his own generation against its predecessors; but he was wise enough not to appeal to posterity.

    Meanwhile (in December, 1671), the nemesis provoked by the arrogance of success had descended upon Dryden, though in no more august shape than in that of a burlesque dramatic concoction by a heterogeneous body of wits. The Rehearsal, as the mock play with its running commentary was called, had gone through a period of incubation spread over nine or ten years, and among the contributors to the joke were the duke of Buckingham, Thomas Sprat (already mentioned), Martin Clifford, master of the Charterhouse, a very learned and foul-mouthed writer, and, it is said, though without proof, Samuel Butler. They included in their ridicule anything which seemed to offer them a chance in any of Dryden’s plays; but they also impartially ransacked the productions of other dramatists; indeed, it would seem that, before Dryden, D’Avenant and Sir Robert Howard, had, in turn, been thought of as the central figure of the farce, and that it was only the triumphant success of The Conquest of Granada which had concentrated the attack upon its author. The recent appointment of Dryden to the poet laureateship, of course, suggested the name Bayes, which the lampooners continued to apply to him for the rest of his literary career.

    The Rehearsal, which, if the long line of its descendants, including Sheridan’s Critic, be taken into account, proved an important contribution to the literature of the stage, is an amusing revue of now for the most part forgotten productions, diversified by humorous sallies of which the spirit of burlesque always keeps a store for use. Its satire against heroic plays is incidental, except in so far as they carried artificiality, exaggeration and bombast further than had any other of the species of plays ridiculed. Its satire against Dryden himself glanced off, practically harmless, from a personality in which there was nothing to provoke derision, and from a genius to which no adversary could seriously impute poverty of invention or sameness of workmanship. Thus, he was able to treat the satire, so far as it concerned him personally, with more or less good-humoured contempt; and his revanche on Buckingham, when it came, was free from spite. As for heroic plays, he certainly did not leave off writing them because of The Rehearsal; nor did it deter him from publishing a reasoned essay in defence of the species. But he could not expect to outdo his chief effort of the kind; and no other playwright was likely to seek to surpass him in a combination of treatment and form which he had made peculiarly his own.

    In 1672, The Conquest of Granada was published in company with a prefatory essay Of Heroick Plays. The essay opens with the assertion—the latter half of which Dryden was afterwards himself to help to refute—that heroic verse was already in possession of the stage, and that “very few tragedies, in this age,” would be “received without it.” For the rest, this essay only develops propositions previously advanced, besides fearlessly engaging in a defence of the non plus ultra of the heroic character-type, Almanzor, the Drawcansir of The Rehearsal.