Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553
First published: 1932
Type of work: Critical essay
There is always interest in hearing what one great poet has had to say about an important predecessor, or what one dramatist has had to say about another, or what one influential critic thinks of an earlier critic. When T. S. Eliot wrote about John Dryden he spoke with peculiar and noteworthy authority: he was one famous poet-playwright-critic assessing another famous poet-playwright-critic.
There are many parallels between the careers and reputations of Eliot and Dryden. Both are better known for their poetry than for their plays, and both, perhaps, are as well known for their criticism (or will be, as the long-range influence of Eliot becomes clear) as they are for their poetry. Each man discarded the poetic conventions of a previous age, set the tone for an age to come, and dominated the age in which he lived. (Dryden was the great man of English letters during the last quarter of the seventeenth century; Eliot was his counterpart during the second quarter of this century.) And just as Eliot considers Dryden to be even more important for his influence than for his actual work, so too the generation after Eliot is beginning to focus more and more attention on his historical significance—his influence.
This volume consists of three separate but interrelated essays on the poetry, the plays, and the criticism of Dryden. In the first essay, the main point Eliot makes is that Dryden reformed the language by devising a naturally flowing, speaking form of speech in verse instead of an artificial and dead form. It is a misconception to think of his style as artificial. It is likewise a mistake to make too much of Dryden's debt to his predecessors, for the style was due more to his rebellion against the artificial sounds of the old verse, than to an imitation of it.
In the previous age Donne had also been a reactionary by updating the language, doing away with the conventions of the regular lyric verse of the Elizabethans, and introducing into lyric poetry a conversational flow of normal speech. But by Dryden's time the vitality of Donne's reaction had dissipated and the normal had become false. So it was left to Dryden to restore English verse to normal speech. Dryden's reformation of language, moreover, has been lasting.
Eliot is not primarily concerned in this essay with particular poems of Dryden. Of Dryden's translations he felt only that they aided in forming our present-day language almost as much as did his original poems. Eliot merely mentions the great satires, MACFLECKNOE and ABSALOM AND ACHITOPHEL. He lingers briefly over THE HIND AND THE PANTHER and RELIGIO LAICI, the two poems that kept reason even in verse, observing that in the former, which Eliot considers the greater of the two, political-religious thought is uplifted into poetry for the first and last time. Eliot's only comment on Dryden's lyrics is that, in such poems as "Song for St. Cecilia's Day" and "Alexander's Feast," he perfected the form that was not handled as well by Cowley but which he bequeathed to Gray, Collins, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Tennyson, who used it with skill. Otherwise, we would not have the ODE: INTIMATIONS OF IMMORTALITY FROM RECOLLECTIONS OF EARLY CHILDHOOD.
Although he certainly does not depreciate the poetry, Eliot considers Dryden more important for his influence, particularly on the language, than for his poetry itself. He feels that the reason why Dryden's poetry did influence other poets was the fact that he was not so great as to be unable to influence them. Shakespeare and Milton were greater poets, but because they were greater they were less imitable; they had mimics but not followers. Dryden did not overshadow all followers by being too great; therefore he could influence others. Dryden's influence, in Eliot's view, has been enormous: Dryden felt that the English were without proper speech and so he gave it to them. For this reason no one has dominated English literature for as long or as completely as Dryden.
The least important of the three essays in this volume is that which deals with Dryden as a dramatist, and this is probably a reflection of the fact that Dryden achieved greater success in poetry and criticism than he did in drama. Eliot's main interests in this chapter are, as in the first chapter, Dryden's language and his influence. Eliot wastes little time in dismissing Dryden's comedies. Instead, he gives most of his attention to Dryden's heroic dramas, discussing in turn the plays in blank verse and those in rhymed couplets.
Eliot acknowledges Dryden's skill in blank verse, particularly in ALL FOR LOVE, observing that he escaped the sour influence of the final followers of Shakespeare, with their methods of overusing everything to the point of destruction. Dryden accomplished the wonder of re-awakening. Eliot hazards the debatable opinion that blank verse dramatists have written better works when they wrote more in the style of Dryden than in the manner of Shakespeare. And yet, he says, there is not a verse in ALL FOR LOVE which carries the conversational tone of any of Dryden's best satires. This effect is accounted for by the fact that blank verse was not easy for him.
The rhymed couplet, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to Dryden's abilities, says Eliot; what Dryden could not do with the couplet simply could not be done, and his couplet is living speech. The main reason is that Dryden knew the limits of the rhymed couplet in creating dramatic effects. If Dryden's use of blank verse was an improvement over that of Shakespeare's imitators, his use of couplets was even more of an improvement, for his firm masculine couplet was better than the feathery Jacobean verse of Fletcher.
The main point Eliot wishes to make in the middle essay is this: although Dryden was not a dramatist in the natural sense, for drama was not a form of literature to which his talents were best suited, and although his plays themselves have but a limited degree of interest, his influence on the history of drama was considerable. This influence was largely negative: he killed off the worn-out Jacobean tradition, substituting for it his own form of heroic play, which was representative of the period.
Dryden's prose writings, says Eliot, are noticeably important in two ways: in the historical development of the style of English prose and in the background of English criticism. The influence of Dryden's prose style on the development of the English language was not, however, "dominant" because his prose influenced prose less than his verse probably did. Nonetheless his prose style is admirable: elegant, urbane, and finely polished. Dryden did not waver in his writing abilities; he kept a wit which overshadowed that of his contemporaries.
But what is chiefly important about Dryden's literary criticism is not the style but the fact that it is the first conscious criticism by an English poet in English on a large scale. English criticism had Dryden as its first master.
Eliot does take exception to some of Dryden's critical pronouncements, referring, for example, to his misunderstanding of the Aristotelian theory of the unities of time and place as absurd. But he explains that here, and in his strictures upon Shakespeare, Dryden's rigid appeals to authority are the outcome of a sense of form and order in conflict with the disorder of the Elizabethan stage. These, in other words, are limitations imposed upon Dryden by the age in which he lived. What is truly praiseworthy about Dryden is that in him we find an almost perfect balance between creative poet and critic.
In contrast with other great poet-critics, Dryden is what Eliot calls "the normal critic." Coleridge could not hold himself to plain criticism but ran into discourses on philosophy and aesthetics. Wordsworth was engaged in preserving his own practices, and Matthew Arnold was too busy searching for the moral lesson. Dryden's great merit as an influence in criticism is the fact that he stayed within the bounds of critical poetry. Dryden was a "normal critic" in that his only bias is in favor of common sense. In other words, his theories were all aimed at what the poet could intelligently attempt. And, concludes Eliot, Dryden stands, both as poet and critic, for he practiced in his poetry what he preached in his criticism as the great champion of sanity at a time when English poetry and criticism alike were greatly in need of sanity.
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