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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

§ 4. The Style of Dryden and its Conversational Character

Dryden’s statement that “if he had any talent for English prose it was owing to his having often read the writings of the great archbishop Tillotson” must be regarded as a piece of generous exaggeration. At the most, he can only have learnt from him the virtues of clear and logical statement, and of short, well co-ordinated sentences. In the epistle dedicatory of The Rival-Ladies (1664), and in the earlier part of the Essay of Dramatick Poesie written in the summer of 1655, his management of the clause is still somewhat uncertain. It is not till Neander, who represents Dryden, joins in the discussion that we recognise our first master of modern prose.

In the Essay of Dramatick Poesie, the conversational character of Dryden’s style is, also, already apparent. This, of course, is due, in part, to the dialogue form, but we may also trace in it the influence of Will’s coffee-house, where, though he was “not very conversible,” he was listened to as an oracle. The statement suggests a man who talked with unusual deliberation and precision, and with a nice choice of words, and whose written style was thus a more exact copy of his talk than is ordinarily the case. Moreover, that style is always refined and well bred, reflecting, in this, the tone of the court and, particularly, that of the king. “The desire,” says Dryden in his Defence of the Epilogue (1672), “of imitating so great a pattern loosened” the English “from their stiff forms of conversation, and made them easy and pliant to each other in discourse.” And, of Charles II, Halifax says that his wit “consisted chiefly in the quickness of his apprehension.” It was a trait which he inherited—with others—from his grandfather, Henri IV, and he gave expression to it with a refinement of language and a conversational ease natural to one who had spent five years in Paris Society.