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Essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden

My Lord, As I was lately reviewing my loose Papers, amongst the rest I found this Essay, the writing of which in this rude and indigested manner wherein your Lordship now sees it, serv'd as an amusement to me in the Country, when the violence of the last Plague had driven me from the Town.

Seeing then our Theaters shut up, I was engag'd in these kind of thoughts with the same delight with which men think upon their absent Mistresses: I confess I find many things in this discourse which I do not now approve; my judgment being a little alter'd since the writing of it, but whether for the better or the worse I know not: Neither indeed is it much material in an Essay, where all I have said is problematical.

For the way of writing Playes in verse, which I have seemed to favour, I have since that time laid the Practice of it aside, till I have more leisure, because I find it troublesome and slow.

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But I am no way alter'd from my opinion of it, at least with any reasons which have oppos'd it. For your Lordship may easily observe that none are very violent against it, but those who either have not attempted it, or who have succeeded ill in their attempt.

Yet, my Lord, you must suffer me a little to complain of you, that you too soon withdraw from us a contentment, of which we expected the continuance, because you gave it us so early.

  1. For him, human actions will seem more natural if they get enough time to develop.
  2. Crites launches the debate with his advocacy of the Ancients. Dryden sets his discussion in June, 1665, during a naval battle between England and the Netherlands.
  3. Eugenius was going to continue this Discourse, when Lisideius told him it was necessary, before they proceeded further, to take a standing measure of their Controversie; for how was it possible to be decided who writ the best Plays, before we know what a Play should be? Ancient plots are transparent, everybody already knows what will happen; the Romans borrowed from the Greeks.
  4. Any sudden gust of passion as an extasie of love in an unexpected meeting cannot better be express'd than in a word and a sigh, breaking one another.

I know no other quarrel you can have to Verse, then that which Spurina had to his beauty, when he tore and mangled the features of his Face, onely because they pleas'd too well the lookers on. It was an honour which seem'd to wait for you, to lead out a new Colony of Writers from the Mother Nation: The Court, which is the best and surest judge of writing, has generally allow'd of Verse; and in the Town it has found favourers of Wit and Quality.

The words, as near as I can remember them, were these: La jeunesse a mauvaise grace. I leave the words to work their effect upon your Lordship in their own Language, because no other can so well express the nobleness of the thought; And wish you may be soon call'd to bear a part in the affairs of the Nation, where I know the world expects you, and wonders why you have been so long forgotten; there being no person amongst our young Nobility, on whom the eyes of all men are so much bent.

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But in the mean time your Lordship may imitate the course of Nature, who gives us the flower before the fruit: As Nature, when she fruit designes, thinks fit By beauteous blossoms to proceed to it; And while she does accomplish all the Spring, Birds to her secret operations sing.

I confess I have no greater reason, in addressing this Essay to your Lordship, then that it might awaken in you the desire of writing something, in whatever kind it be, which might be an honour to our Age and Country. And me thinks it might have the same effect upon you, which Homer tells us the sight of the Greeks and Trojans before the Fleet, had on the spirit of Achilles, who though he had resolved not to ingage, yet found a martial warmth to steal upon him, at the sight of Blows, the sound of Trumpets, and the cries of fighting Men.

  • In the rest of Corneilles Comedies you have little humour; he tells you himself his way is first to show two Lovers in good intelligence with each other; in the working up of the Play to embroyle them by some mistake, and in the latter end to clear it up;
  • Four cultivated gentlemen, Eugenius, Lisideius, Crites, and Neander, have taken a barge down the River Thames to observe the combat and, as guns sound in the background, they comment on the sorry state of modern literature; this naval encounter will inspire hundreds of bad verses commending the victors or consoling the vanquished;
  • Crites launches the debate with his advocacy of the Ancients;
  • They do not adhere to rules as well;
  • When we see death represented we are convinc'd it is but Fiction; but when we hear it related, our eyes the strongest witnesses are wanting, which might have undeceiv'd us; and we are all willing to favour the sleight when the Poet does not too grosly impose upon us;
  • Si verbo audacia detur Haud metuam summi dixisse Palatia coeli.

For my own part, if in treating of this subject I sometimes dissent from the opinion of better Wits, I declare it is not so much to combat their opinions, as to defend my own, which were first made publick. Sometimes, like a Schollar in an Fencing-School I put forth my self, and show my own ill play, on purpose to be better taught. Sometimes I stand desperately to my Armes, like the Foot when deserted by their Horse, not in hope to overcome, but onely to yield on more honourable termes. And yet, my Lord, this war of opinions, you well know, has fallen out among the Writers of all Ages, and sometimes betwixt Friends.

Onely it has been prosecuted by some, like Pedants, with violence of words, and manag'd by others like Gentlemen, with candour and ciuility.

An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

Even Tully had a Controversie with his dear Atticus; and in one of his Dialogues makes him sustain the part of an Enemy of Philosophy, who in his Letters is his confident of State, and made privy to the most weighty affairs of the Roman Senate. But that I may decline some part of the encounter with my Adversaries, whom I am neither willing to combate, nor well able to resist; I will give your Lordship the Relation of a Dispute betwixt some of our Wits upon this subject, in which they did not onely speak to Playes in Verse, but mingled, in the freedom of Discourse, some thing of the Ancient, many of the Modern wayes of writing, comparing those with these, and the Wits of our Nation with those of others: The drift of the ensuing Discourse was chiefly to vindicate the honour of our English Writers, from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them.

  • My Lord, As I was lately reviewing my loose Papers, amongst the rest I found this Essay, the writing of which in this rude and indigested manner wherein your Lordship now sees it, serv'd as an amusement to me in the Country, when the violence of the last Plague had driven me from the Town;
  • For why may not our imagination as well suffer it self to be deluded with the probability of it, as with any other thing in the Play?
  • The words, as near as I can remember them, were these;
  • The French dramatists interweave truth with fiction to make it interesting bringing elements that lead to fate and borrow from history to reward the virtuous which he was earlier deprived of.

This I intimate, least any should think me so exceeding vain, as to teach others an Art which they understand much better than my self. But if this essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden Essay, written in the Country without the help of Books, or advice of Friends, shall find any acceptance in the world, I promise to essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden self a better success of the second part, wherein the Vertues and Faults of the English Poets, who have written either in this, the Epique, or the Lyrique way, will be more fully treated of, and their several styles impartially imitated.

While these vast floating bodies, on either side, mov'd against each other in parallel lines, and our Country men, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the Enemies; the noise of the Essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden from both Navies reach'd our ears about the City: When the rest had concur'd in the same opinion, Crites, a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate a taste in wit, which the world have mistaken in him for ill nature, said, smiling to us, that if the concernment of this battel had not been so exceeding great, he could scarce have wish'd the Victory at the price he knew must pay for it, in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he was sure would be made upon it; adding, that no Argument could scape some of those eternal Rhimers, who watch a Battel with more diligence then the Ravens and birds of Prey; and the worst of them surest to be first in upon the quarry, while the better able, either out of modesty writ not at all, or set that due value upon their Poems, as to let them be often call'd for and long expected!

All the company smil'd at the conceipt of Lisideius, but Crites, more eager then before, began to make particular exceptions against some Writers, and said the publick Magistrate ought to send betimes to forbid them; and that it concern'd the peace and quiet of all honest people, that ill Poets should be as well silenc'd as seditious Preachers.

In my opinion, replyed Eugenius, you pursue your point too far; for as to my own particular, I am so great a lover of Poesie, that I could wish them all rewarded who attempt but to do well; at least I would not have them worse us'd then Sylla the Dictator did one of their brethren heretofore: I could wish with all my heart, replied Crites, that many whom we know were as bountifully thank'd upon the same condition, that they would never trouble us again.

For amongst others, I have a mortal apprehension of two Poets, whom this victory with the help of both her wings will never be able to escape; 'tis easie to guess whom you intend, said Lisideius; and without naming them, I ask you if one essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden them does not perpetually pay us with clenches upon words and a certain clownish kind of raillery?

In fine, if he be not one of those whom the French would call un mauvais buffon; one that is so much a well-willer to the Satire, that he spares no man; and though he cannot strike a blow to hurt any, yet ought to be punish'd for the malice of the action, as our Witches are justly hang'd because they think themselves so; and suffer deservedly for believing they did mischief, because they meant it. You have described him, said Crites, so exactly, that I am affraid to come after you with my other extremity of Poetry: He is one of those who having had some advantage of education and converse, knows better then the other what a Poet should be, but puts it into practice more unluckily then any man; his stile and matter are every where alike; he is the most calm, peaceable Writer you ever read: Well Gentlemen, said Eugenius, you may speak your pleasure of these Authors; but though I and some few more about the Town may give you a peaceable hearing, yet, assure your selves, there are multitudes who would think you malicious and them injur'd: When his famous Poem first came out in the year 1660, I have seen them reading it in the midst of Change-time; many so vehement they were at it, that they lost their bargain by the Candles ends: I can assure you he is, this day, the envy of a great person, who is Lord in the Art of Quibbling; and who does not take it well, that any man should intrude so far into his Province.

All I would wish replied Crites, is, that they who love his Writings, may still admire him, and his fellow Poet: And farther, added Lisideius, I believe there is no man who writes well, but would think himself very hardly dealt with, if their Admirers should praise any thing of his: Nam quos contemnimus eorum quoque laudes contemnimus. There are so few who write well in this Age, said Crites, that me-thinks any praises should be wellcome; then neither rise to the dignity of the last Age, nor to any of the Ancients; and we may cry out of the Writers of this time, with more reason than Petronius of his, Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis: And after, Si meliora dies, ut vina, poemata reddit, Scire velim pretium chartis quotus arroget annus?

They can produce nothing so courtly writ, or which expresses so much the Conversation of a Gentleman, as Sir John Suckling; nothing so even, sweet, and flowing as Mr. Waller; nothing so Majestique, so correct as Sir John Denham; nothing so elevated, so copious, and full of spirit, as Mr Cowley; as for the Italian, French, and Spanish Plays, I can make it evident that those who now write, surpass them; and that the Drama is wholly ours.

Eugenius was going to continue this Discourse, when Lisideius told him it was necessary, before they proceeded further, to take a standing measure of their Controversie; for how was it possible to be decided who writ the best Plays, before we know what a Play should be? Dramatique Poesie had time enough, reckoning from Thespis who first invented it to Aristophanes, to be born, to grow up, and to flourish in Maturity. It has been observed of Arts and Sciences, that in one and the same Century they have arriv'd to a great perfection; and no wonder, since every Age has a kind of Universal Genius, which inclines those that live in it to some particular Studies: And this, in short, Eugenius, is the reason, why you have now so few good Poets; and so many severe Judges: Certainly, to imitate the Antients well, much labour and long study is required: Those Ancients have been faithful Imitators and wise Observers of that Nature, which is so torn and ill represented in our Plays, they have handed down to us a perfect resemblance of her; which we, like ill Copyers, neglecting to look on, have rendred monstrous and disfigur'd.

But, that you may know how much you are indebted to those your Masters, and be ashamed to have so ill requited them: I must remember you that all the Rules by which we practise the Drama at this day, either such as relate to the justness and symmetry of the Plot; or the Episodical Ornaments, such as Descriptions, Narrations, and other Beauties, which are not essential to the Play; were delivered to us from the Observations that Aristotle made, of those Poets, which either liv'd before him, or were his Contemporaries: I will not deny but by the variation of painted Scenes, the Fancy which in these cases will contribute to its own deceit may sometimes imagine it several places, with some appearance of probability; yet it still carries the greater likelihood of truth, if those places be suppos'd so near each other, as in the same Town or City; which may all be comprehended under the larger Denomination of one place: They tie themselves so strictly to the unity of place, that you never see in any of their Plays a Scene chang'd in the middle of the Act: Johnson has observ'd in his discoveries; but they must be all subservient to the great one, which our language happily expresses in the name of under-plots: There ought to be one action, sayes Corneile, that is one compleat action which leaves the mind of the Audience in a full repose: But this cannot be brought to essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden but by many other imperfect ones which conduce to it, and hold the Audience in a delightful suspence of what will be.

Doubtless many things appear flat to us, whose wit depended upon some custome or story which never came to our knowledge, or perhaps upon some Criticism in their language, which being so long dead, and onely remaining in their Books, 'tis not possible they should make us know it perfectly.

To read Macrobius, explaining the propriety and elegancy of many words in Virgil, which I had before pass'd over without consideration, as common things, is enough to assure me that I ought to think the same of Terence; and that in the purity of his style which Tully so much valued that he ever carried his works about him there is yet left in him great room for admiration, if I knew but where to place it.

In the mean time I must desire you to take notice, that the greatest man of the last age Ben. Johnson was willing to give place to them in all things: He was not onely a professed Imitator of Horace, but a learned Plagiary of all the others; you track him every where in their Snow: If Horace, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter, Seneca, and Juvenal, had their own from him, there are few serious thoughts which are new in him; you will pardon me therefore if I presume he lov'd their fashion when he wore their cloaths.

But since I have otherwise a great veneration for him, and you, Eugenius, prefer him above all other Poets, I will use no farther argument to you then his example: I will produce Father Ben. We draw not therefore after their lines, but those of Nature; and having the life before us, besides the experience of all they knew, it is no wonder if we hit some airs and features which they have miss'd: I deny not what you urge of Arts and Sciences, that they have flourish'd in some ages more then others; but your instance in Philosophy makes for me: That praise or censure is certainly the most sincere which unbrib'd posterity shall give us.

Aristotle indeed divides the integral parts of a Play into four: First, The Protasis or entrance, which gives light onely to the Characters of the persons, and proceeds very little into any part of the action: Thirdly, the Catastasis, or Counterturn, which destroys that expectation, imbroyles the action in new difficulties, and leaves you far distant from that hope in which it found you, as you may have observ'd in a violent stream resisted by a narrow passage; it runs round to an eddy, and carries back the waters with more swiftness then it brought them on: Lastly, the Catastrophe, which the Grecians call'd lysis, the French le denouement, and we the discovery or unravelling of the Plot: Thus this great man deliver'd to us the image of a Play, and I must confess it is so lively that from thence much light has been deriv'd to the forming it more perfectly into Acts and Scenes; but what Poet first limited to five the number of the Acts I know not; onely we see it so firmly establish'd in the time of Horace, that he gives it for a rule in Comedy; Neu brevior quinto, neu sit productior actu: So that you see the Grecians cannot be said to have consummated this Art; writing rather by Entrances then by Acts, and having rather a general indigested notion of a Play, then knowing how and where to bestow the particular graces of it.

  • But, that you may know how much you are indebted to those your Masters, and be ashamed to have so ill requited them;
  • But one Oedipus, Hercules, or Medea, had been tollerable; poor people they scap'd not so good cheap;
  • Since that time it is grown into a custome, and their Actors speak by the Hour-glass, as our Parsons do; nay, they account it the grace of their parts;
  • Neither indeed is it much material in an Essay, where all I have said is problematical;
  • From hence likewise it arises that the one half of our Actors are not known to the other.

But one Oedipus, Hercules, or Medea, had been tollerable; poor people they scap'd not so good cheap: An Old Father that essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden willingly before he dies, see his Son well married; his Debauch'd Son, kind in his Nature to his Wench, but miserably in want of Money; a Servant or Slave, who has so much wit to strike in with him, and help to dupe his Father, a Braggadochio Captain, a Parasite, and a Lady of Pleasure.

She has the breeding of the Old Elizabeth way, for Maids to be seen and not to be heard; and it is enough you know she is willing to be married, when the Fifth Act requires it. But in the first place give me leave to tell you, that the Unity of Place, how ever it might be practised by them, was never any of their Rules: We neither find it in Aristotle, Horace, of any who have written of it, till in our age the French Poets first made it a Precept of the Stage.

The unity of time, even Terence himself who was the best and the most regular of them has neglected: His Heautontimoroumenos or Self-Punisher takes up visibly two dayes; therefore sayes Scaliger, the two first Acts concluding the first day, were acted over-night; the three last on the ensuing day: Now the Plots of their Plays being narrow, and the persons few, one of their Acts was written in a less compass then one of our well wrought Scenes, and yet they are often deficient even in this: To go no further then Terence, you find in the Eunuch Antipho entring single in the midst of the third Act, after Chremes and Pythias were gone off: They have set before us a bloudy image of revenge in Medea, and given her Dragons to convey her safe from punishment.

A Priam and Astyanax murder'd, and Cassandra ravish'd, and the lust and murder ending in the victory of him that acted them: In short, there is no indecorum in any of our modern Playes, which if I would excuse, I could not shaddow with some Authority from the Ancients.

Tragedies and Comedies were not writ then as they are now, promiscuously, by the same person; but he who found his genius bending to the one, never attempted the other way. But though I grant that here and there we may miss the application essay on dramatic poesy by john dryden a Proverb or a Custom, yet a thing well said will be wit in all Languages; and though it may lose something in the Translation, yet, to him who reads it in the Original, 'tis still the same; He has an Idea of its excellency, though it cannot pass from his mind into any other expression or words then those in which he finds it.

Parmeno to mock the softness of his Master, lifting up his hands and eyes, cryes out as it were in admiration; Hui! And Ovid once so modestly, that he askes leave to do it: Si verbo audacia detur Haud metuam summi dixisse Palatia coeli.

But to do this alwayes, and never be able to write a line without it, though it may be admir'd by some few Pedants, will not pass upon those who know that wit is best convey'd to us in the most easie language; and is most to be admir'd when a great thought comes drest in words so commonly receiv'd that it is understood by the meanest apprehensiions, as the best meat is the most easily digested: So that there is this difference betwixt his Satyres and Doctor Donns, That the one gives us deep thought in common language, though rough cadence; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words: Had Cain been Scot God would have chang'd his doom; Not forc'd him wander, but confin'd him home.

This is wit in all languages: The Master piece of Seneca I hold to be that Scene in the Troades, where Vlysses is seeking for Astyanax to kill him; There you see the tenderness of a Mother, so represented in Andromache, that it raises compassion to a high degree in the Reader, and bears the nearest resemblance of any thing in their Tragedies to the excellent Scenes of Passion in Shakespeare, or in Fletcher: