33 pages • 1 hour readJohn Dryden
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A treatise staged as a dialogue among learned friends, “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” defends the state of the 17th-century English theater, the use of rhyme (“poesy”) in dramatic plays, and the work of English writers in general. Its author, John Dryden (1631-1700), was a giant among men of letters during the contentious 17th century. He composed some of the most celebrated plays, poems, and criticism of the era and was appointed Poet Laureate in 1668. He lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), which saw the execution of a king, the restoration of a king, and, in between, the establishment of a Puritan Interregnum that kept the theaters closed for more than a decade. Throughout all of this upheaval, Dryden rose to prominence with his witty, versatile, and challenging work. All citations in this guide come from John Dryden: Selected Poetry, republished by Penguin Books with a new introduction in 1985.
Dryden wrote “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” in 1665-1666 during an outbreak of the plague in which London’s theaters were again closed. Four friends—Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander—discuss the relative merits of English writing as compared to that of the ancients and the French, among others, while a naval war with the Dutch rages in the background. The friends are traveling on a barge down the river Thames, seeking a vantage point from which they can hear the battle safely. Indeed, it is the sound of cannon fire that initiates the discussion about the quality of English composition. Crites bemoans the fact that, even in the event of victory, they will be punished “in being subject to the reading and hearing of so many ill verses as he [is] sure [will] be made on that subject” (148). Lisideius seconds this objection, adding that some of these glory-hungry poets will be prepared “either way,” so “they can produce not only a panegyric upon the victory, but, if need be, a funeral elegy for the duke” (149).
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Eugenius attempts to defend the prerogatives and talents of the modern writer, but Lisideius and Crites describe the extremes of the bad poets: On the one hand is the easily satirized poet, who employs tortured language in the service of overly inflated emotions; on the other is the educated author, pompously producing poetry that “never disquiets your passions with the least concernment” (150)—verse that bores rather than inspires. Eugenius again rises to the defense: “I cannot think so contemptibly of the age in which I live, or so dishonourably of my own country” (152). Eventually, he convinces his cohort that “our poesy is improved by the happiness of some writers living” (154, emphasis added), but Crites urges the discussion to greater specificity. He wishes to prove that where dramatic poesy (i.e., poetry or verse) is concerned, the ancients—Euripides, Sophocles, Terrance, and the like—created works that are far superior to the output of the moderns. He relies on the three dramatic unities—time, place, and action—for the bulk of his argument, claiming that contemporary English plays break these rules with abandon. If a play is not set within a time frame of 24 hours, in as few places as reasonably possible, with focus on a single overarching plot, then it verges into “unnatural” territory.
Eugenius counters that since the moderns know more of science and philosophy, they are capable of reproducing nature more faithfully than the ancients. He also points out that the ancients recycled the same plots over and over again; thus, “the novelty being gone the pleasure vanished” (165). Besides, Eugenius adds, the ancients often “neglected” the three unities and relied on characters who were little more than caricatures rather than realistic portrayals. He cites the monologue as an “unnatural way of narration” and critiques the ancients’ often “abstruse” use of language (168). Crites concedes some points to Eugenius, so Lisideius steers the discussion in a different direction, asking the group to consider how the modern English theater fares in comparison to the plays produced on the continent.
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He goes on to argue that the French “have best observed” the “rules of the stage” (175), while the English have become too fond of the “tragi-comedy,” which he likens in absurdity akin to Bedlam, the infamous mental institution in London. He also argues that the English are too accommodating of battle scenes and death blows on the stage, which he claims offend the audience’s sensibilities and reason. These matters “ought either wholly to be avoided by a poet, or only delivered by narration” (184). Finally, he defends “the beauty of their [continental] rhyme” in comparison to the English (185).
Neander heartily defends the English theater against the French, which lacks “the soul of poesy, which is imitation of humour and passions” (187). He defends the tragicomedy as a balanced work of art, between gravity and merriment; indeed, he declares that it is the highest achievement yet seen on the stage. Further, the English theater adheres to the unities when necessary and prudent, straying from them when originality demands. Thus, complexity, originality, and boldness are valued, in Neander’s view. He defends both Shakespeare—who routinely disobeyed the rules of unity in his well-regarded plays—and Ben Jonson, whose play The Silent Woman Neander uses as an example of the perfection of English drama.
Finally, Crites wonders whether an underlying assumption—that rhyme is appropriate for the composition of plays—is legitimate. His argument is that “a play is the imitation of nature; and since no man without premeditation speaks in rhyme, neither ought he to do it on stage” (209). Neander responds with an impassioned defense of verse in dramatic plays (he concedes that it has no place in comedy), arguing again for flexibility—“no poet need constrain himself at all times to it” (216)—and originality. He agrees that a play should be “the representation of nature” but claims that using verse creates “a nature wrought up to an higher pitch” (218). Far from detracting from theater, poesy elevates drama to the heroic level of an epic poem. Neander concludes that the best authors, having judgment, will employ the best verse in the most appropriate circumstances. Neander has been so eagerly engaged in his response that he has not noticed that the barge has come to its landing point; the four companions disembark and go their separate ways.
By John Dryden