Fables, Ancient And Modern

by John Dryden

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Discuss Dryden's role as a critic in English literary criticism, referencing his Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern.

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What distinguishes the work of Dryden from others is his keen intelligence and his comprehensive knowledge of contemporary literature and literature from the past, both English literature but also classical authors from Ancient Greece and Rome. This gives his work a scope that is based on authority and knowledge, and Dryden is always careful to support his claims and opinions through apt references to a whole range of texts and thinkers. Note, for example, the following quote, in which he makes his preference for Chaucer as a poet clear:

I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and, therefore, speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practiced by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace.

Note the comprehensive vision of Dryden as a critic in this quote. Part of his strength as a critic lies in his ability to position Chaucer within the panoply of past poets and to identify both points of comparison and divergent points between him and other masters such as Homer and Horace. He identifies central points that distinguish Chaucer and is able to compare those points to the work of other artists. Although in the Preface he makes his partiality towards Chaucer absolutely clear, at the same time there is no sense in which this is based on unreasoned prejudice, as at every stage Dryden is careful to offer proof and extensive argument to support his views.

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