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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

§ 31. Preface to the Fables

The prose Preface to the Fables is one of the most delightful and one of the most unconstrained of all Dryden’s prose pieces; nor can it be doubted to whose example the fascination which this essay has exercised upon many generations of readers must, in part, be ascribed. “The nature of a preface”—he might have said, the nature of half the prose writing that commends itself to that large proportion of the public that are not students, and, at times, to some who are—“is rambling; never wholly out of the way, nor in it. This I have learnt from the practice of honest Montaigne,” whose influence, indeed, is progressively perceptible in Dryden’s later prose writings, though it was nowhere emphasised by too close an imitation. For, in truth, there are features in Montaigne—his quaintness, for example, and his playfulness—which are foreign alike to Dryden’s directness of manner and to his reserved disposition. In referring, as he does in different parts of this Preface, to the accusation of “loose writing” brought against him by Blackmore and Collier, he cannot be said to plead with much success, unless it be in mitigation of the offence charged against him; but he makes amends, not only by the modesty of his defence, but, also, by the practice into which he puts his regrets. The selection of “Fables” from Chaucer, and, still more so, from Boccaccio, would have been of a different kind had Dryden desired “more to please than to instruct”—in other words, had the last fruit from an old tree been designed, like some of its earlier produce, to tickle palates pleased only by over-seasoned cates.