Fables, Ancient And Modern

by John Dryden

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Dryden is highly indebted to On the Sublime by Longinus. Discuss in the light of his views as enuciated in the Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern.

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The treatise of Longinus is widely regarded as being the first ever piece of literary criticism, and, as such, is therefore to be recognised as a key influence to other later critics such as Sir Philip Sidney and John Dryden. In particular, one key area that can be seen as transposed from On the Sublime to Dryden's Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern, is the central question of whether it is an author's genius that makes him or her able to write excellent literature, or whether it is learnt skills, such as rhyming and versification. Longinus makes it clear that both are needed in order for great literature to be written. In the following quote he refers to natural genius as "nature" and "system" denotes learnt skill and technique:

While nature as a rule is free and independent in matters of passion and elevation, yet is she wont not to act at random and utterly without system. Further, nature is the original and vital underlying principle in all cases, but system can define limits and fitting seasons, and can also contribute the safest rules for use and practice.

Longinus therefore makes the case for a happy union of natural genius and learnt skills in the creation of what he argued to be "sublime" literature. It is clear that this is something Dryden beleived to, as is evidenced by the Preface and his wide-ranging discussion of former poets such as Chaucer and Bocaccio (referred to as "Boccace" in the following quote:

Boccace comes last to be consider’d, who living in the same age with Chaucer, had the same genius, and follow’d the same studies: both writ novels, and each of them cultivated his mother tongue. But the greatest resemblance of our two modern authors being in their familiar style, and pleasing way of relating comical adventures...

Note how Dryden follows the argument of Longinus by stating that both Chaucer and Bocaccio have similar levels of "genius" or natural talent but also similar learnt skills as evidenced through their "studies." Dryden therefore shows a continuation of the original argument as presented by Longinus in arguing that truly great literature needs to be the result of both natural genius and learnt skills and technique.

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