Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 13. Mulgrave’s Essay upon Poetry

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

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 13. Mulgrave’s Essay upon Poetry

The conduct of his quarrel with Rochester, and whatever else is known of him, justify this harsh opinion. As a writer of verses, he is fluent and undistinguished. His Temple of Death has no better claim to be remembered than his Ode on Love. In The Vision, which was written during a voyage to Tangier, we come with surprise upon a line, “odd antic shapes of wild unheard of things,” which is not made up of current phrases, and echoes the true sentiment of romance. His Essay on Satire, which cost Dryden an encounter with Black Will, belies the principles which he himself has set forth: the accent of the scold is heard in every line. The work by which he is best known is An Essay upon Poetry, a piece of rimed criticism, then fashionable. It is neither profound nor original. Even as a chapter in the history of criticism it is not valuable, because whatever of wisdom it contains is borrowed from Boileau. It is full of commonplaces, his own and others. “Nature’s chief masterpiece,” says he, “is writing well.” Number and rime he finds “but vulgar arts,” and employed in vain without genius, “for that’s the soul.” He discourses, without illumination, of satires, songs, odes and epics. As for dialogue, he finds that “Shakespeare and Fletcher are the wonders now,” pays a lofty tribute to Homer—“Read Homer once, and you can read no more,” and in the second edition, published nine years after the first, in 1691, puts Milton on the topmost pinnacle of fame, above even Tasso and Spenser. This is the highest feat of his intelligence, and he would have deserved still greater credit for it, had not Roscommon anticipated him. In general, he leans to the school of “good sense”; he accepts Dryden’s definition of wit, “exact propriety of word and thought,” and would judge poetry by a rigid standard of life. In condemning “such nauseous songs as the late Convert made,” he voided his spleen against his old enemy, Rochester, and suggested his dislike of the sheer with of restoration comedy. His condemnation inspired Robert Wolseley, in his preface to Valentinian (1685), valiantly to defend the memory of his friend Rochester, and to strike a blow for the freedom of poetry.

  • “It never yet came into any man’s Head, who pretended to be a Critick,” says Wolseley, “except this Essayer’s that the Wit of a Poet was to be measured by the worth of his Subject, and that when this was bad, that must be so too; the manner of treating the subject has hitherto been thought the true test, for as an ill Poet will depresse and disgrace the highest, so a good one will raise and dignifie the lowest.”