John Dryden: The Poet, the Dramatist, the Critic Critical Essays

T. S. Eliot

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)