Fables, Ancient And Modern

by John Dryden

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In the preface to Fables Ancient and Modern, why does Dryden give Chaucer precedence over Ovid?

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In this Preface Dryden deliberately compares Ovid to Chaucer as he believes these two poets have a great deal in common, and for this reason he chose to translate examples of the work of both poets to enable his reader of this work to draw their own conclusions about the relative merits of these poets. However, in his Preface, he clearly states that he favours Chaucer over Ovid. Dryden is very clear to state that he is biased towards Chaucer, but he also appeals to the reader to support his view that Chaucer is superior. Note how he establishes the difference between them in this following remark:

Both of them understood the manners, under which name I comprehend the passions, and, in a larger sense, the descriptions of persons, and their very habits; for an example, I see Baucis and Philemon as perfectly before me, as if some ancient painter had drawn them; and all the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, their humors, their features, and the very dress, as distinctly as if I had supp’d with them at the Tabard in Southwark; yet even there too the figures of Chaucer are much more lively, and set in a better light: which tho’ I have not time to prove, yet I appeal to the reader, and am sure he will clear me from partiality.

Dryden thus argues that both Ovid and Chaucer are distinguished in their understanding of the different emotions and characteristics belonging to humans, and both are able to create characters so convincing that the reader feels as if they are known to them personally. However, the crucial difference, for Dryden, is that the characterisation of Chaucer's characters are that much more vivid than Ovid's characterisation, as good as it is. Dryden therefore bases his opinion that Chaucer is superior on this argument, even though he states he has "not time to prove" it. What is clear, however, is that Dryden offers his opinion up to the reader and gives them the chance to make their own mind up; the subsequent text of which this is the preface includes examples of both poets' work and the reader is thus free to "clear" Dryden from "partiality" or not, as the case may be.

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