Sidney, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Shelley, Arnold
Sidney, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Shelley, Arnold
Three traditions of critical thought mingle in
· The Horatian-Aristotelian combination current in Italian poetics. Aristotle is seen as a support to Horace, but on the whole he is not a major influence on his own yet. The first English version of Horace's Art was published in 1567; later, Ben Jonson was to make his well-known verse rendering. Horace reaches
directly; we do not know whether it is the same with Aristotle. He certainly
knew some of his Italian commentators. Sidney
· The classical rhetorical tradition, whose main figure is
. This tradition had lived on during
the Middle Ages in the trivium. Following a medieval tradition and
encouraged by Cicero ,
the Humanists subsume poetry under rhetoric. Poetry is seen by many as a
variant of ornamented prose. In Cicero ,
Ascham and Wilson present this account. England
opposes it: he sees rhetoric as merely a "serving science," an
instrument of other disciplines. Poetry is more than rhetoric: it is a special
kind of knowledge and creation for Sidney ,
even though he is careful to make poetry the vehicle of morality and religion. Sidney
· The Platonic, or rather the neo-Platonic tradition as transmitted by Boethius and Ficinus. These neo-Platonists admit that the beauty of objects is a way of ascending towards the divine beauty.
We may recognize in
a Horatian background reinforced by Aristotelian and Ciceronian technicalities
as well as by the Platonic Ideal. The plan of the Apology is as follows: first
an encomium of poetry in humanist terms, underlining the authority of the
ancients. There follows a comparison between poetry and other disciplines of
knowledge, with a refutation of the current objections against poetry, a
discussion of poetic forms, and lastly, an examination of the state of English
Poetry: Its nature and aims
To Sidney, a man with an acute political and religious sense, the highest sciences are those which teach virtuous action in the political or the ethical sphere. These are history and moral philosophy. Theology he refuses to consider alongside human learning; it has for him a sphere of its own outside which it cannot stand comparison. His comparison of poetry with history and with philosophy is based on Scholastic psychology, which distinguishes three main faculties in the human mind: imagination, reason, and memory. The different kinds of learning are directed to one or another of these faculties:
enriching of memory (i.e. history), enabling (or strengthening) of judgment (i.e. philosophy), and enlarging of conceit (i.e. poetry).
Enlarging of conceit: that is, expanding the human mind and improving ideas. In order to present this concept in a lively way,
depicts character-sketches of the historian and the philosopher which are close
to caricatures. Sidney
During the Renaissance there was not much theorising on metaphysics, but there was an acute interest in applied philosophy. "Much of Renaissance achievement lay in diffusing over all human activities the intense, highly specialised acquisitions of philosophy in medieval times" (Shepherd 31).
presents a typical
Renaissance attitude in seeing the man of letters as the model for learning,
and not the abstract philosopher, who is caricatured as a mixture of Scholastic
pedant and minor Greek philosopher. Practical, useful and effective knowledge,
leading to action, is valued more highly than abstract theory. Sidney
The Humanists tend to establish comparisons between history and poetry. We saw that Castelvetro defined poetry as an imitation of history; Lorenzo Valla sees in history the source of both poetry and philosophy. Sometimes these opinions are reversed, but all the disciplines are seen as closely related. History is valued for its rhetorical power, apart from its factualness. It is seen as a school of examples and morals. And of course there is an increasing political, nationalistic interest in the writing of history.
One main argument for
defense of poetry is that all sciences depend on nature, but that poetry is a
higher activity than science. All sciences are dependent on nature, but poetry
builds a nature of its own: Sidney
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the heroes, demigods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
We see that poetry presents a "golden world", that is, an ideal world which brings out the potentialities of the real one. According to this conception, poetry gives examples, but not merely in the way of allegory, veiled theology or moral philosophy. "To
. . . poetry was an exercise of the
free creative faculty, in which the poet transcended the limitations of actual
life, yet succeeded by means of his fictions in giving a delightful and
inspiring revelation of ideal and universal truth." It is, fundamentally,
a neo-Platonic position. Sidney
does not see that this idea is contrary to Plato's views. At first sight, the
theory is not too far from Aristotle's, though it seems to lean more to the
side of idealization --Aristotle also accepts realistic poetry. Sidney quotes Aristotle
to support his idea that poetry works with universal concepts, and not with
particulars, that it aims at universal value. But while Aristotle's universals
are generally cognitive, Sidney 's
universals are moral. Sidney 's
theory of poetry as the production of another nature derives from Scaliger, but
religious and transcendental overtones coming from neo-Platonism theories of
the ideal world. Sidney
Many of the scholastic accounts of poetry gave it a humble place among the sciences, and often equated fiction with lies. For instance, Conrad of Hirsau praises Virgil in the following terms:
There has never been a [greater] author in terms of style and metre, and no one, when he ought to have told the truth, nevertheless lied in a more polished and civil fashion.
main arguments in defense of poetry is his riposte to the accusation that
poetry is a kind of lie: Sidney
The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false . . . . But the poet (as I said before) never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes . . . . And therefore, though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not.
In fact, according to the main argument of
theory, the discovery of inherent reason within nature produces an imitation
which betters nature, but the notion of creation ex nihilo is absent.
The poet's activity is not seen as one of creation; it is rather a discovery or
recognition of a pattern which was already there in an imperfect way. It is
arguable, though, that Sidney
does not develop a fully consistent view of the relation between poetry and
reality. And of course poetry may be badly used, and not help us in discovering
the truth: it may deal with phantastiké, with unworthy objects, instead
of guiding us along the patterns of God's creation. As any instrument, poetry
is dependent on the moral nature of he who uses it. Sidney
Sixteenth-century interpretations of Aristotle and Horace lean towards didacticism; it is always Horace's third possible aim for poetry (to please and teach) which is quoted, repeated and emphasized (although there are some exceptions to this view, like Castelvetro).
But the main characteristic of poetry is its power to move. Moving has two senses: stirring the emotions of the reader and inducing him to action. To move does not mean to perturbate the hearer in any way, but rather to persuade him to do something.
would agree with Puttenham's claim that poets from the beginning were the best
persuaders and their eloquence the first rhetoric in the world. Sidney
Moving is a higher aim than teaching, because its effects are seen in actual action. We may think here of this threefold aim of poetry (teach, delight and move) similar those set by
to the accomplished orator. The Christian reformulation of this doctrine by Cicero had set as
the sole aim of the discipline to move men to holiness. Renaissance theory of
literature still shows a strong rhetorical influence in seeing moving and
conviction as the main end of poetry. Since poetry is more moving than both
philosophy and history, poetry for St. Augustine
"in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman." The idea
that poetic style is more affective and moving, that it is more fit to lead the
emotions of people who cannot reach the abstractions of philosophy, is a
commonplace of medieval scholasticism. According to Henry of Sidney , in the speculative sciences, where the main
aim is the illumination of the intellect, one must proceed by way of proof and
in a subtle manner, but in moral matters, where the goal is an upright will and
that we should become good, one must proceed by persuasion and use of figures. Ghent
Sidney dismisses (as Scaliger before him) Plato's condemnation of the poets in the Republic, and commends instead what he believes to be the praise bestowed on the poet in Ion, even though he points out that the claim of divine inspiration is excessive. It is characteristic of Renaissance theorists that they tend to present Plato as a defender of poetic inspiration; for them, Plato condemned only the abuse of poetry.
does not favour much any theory of inspiration. The Roman name given to the
poets, vates or prophets, he adduces as a proof of reverence bestowed on
them, but acknowledges that in itself it is superstitious. Sidney
There is a tendency in neo-Platonism to draw a parallel between human and divine creation: "What God creates in the world by His thought man conceives in himself by intellectual act and expresses it in language, puts it into his books and makes a copy of it using earthly materials" (Shepherd 62). How is this to be effected? Ronsard, Tasso, Puttenham, Chapman, and many other poets and critics in the Renaissance advocate the old inspirationalist theory in Ion, which at the time is taken to be an exaltation of poetry, and speak of the "divine fury" of the poet. "Possessed by this fury, a poet's spirit was thought to rise to a direct awareness of the divine harmony and acquire a supernatural wisdom." Willis notes that poetic fury is not to be understood as pathological madness, but rather as a state of exaltation induced by intense concentration. Others speak of direct divine inspiration. For Spenser, poetry was no art, but a divine gift and heavenly instinct, not to be gotten by labour and learning, but adorned with both, and poured into the wit by a certain enthousiasmos and celestial inspiration.
Giordano Bruno wrote in
and dedicated to England
his work De gli Eroici Furori. But the dedication, though not as
unwelcome as Stephen Gosson's, was equally misapplied, because Sidney himself
did not adhere to these doctrines of inspiration and had satirized them in Astrophil
and Stella: Sidney
I never drank of Aganippe well,
Nor ever did in shade of
And muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit
Some do I hear of poet's fury tell,
But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it. . . .
(from Sonnet 74)
Poetry, then, is a vocation, a rational activity, not a divine gift in any other sense than the reason common to men is divine. But "orator fit, poeta nascitur": poetry must lead, and not be led. It is an "unelected vocation," and one which ought to be a demanding one, Sidney implies as he exhorts his fellow-poets to more self-discipline. More work and less heroic fury: this is
classicist advice. Sidney
But there are more romantic elements than this in
's theory of poetry than this counsel
would warrant. Towards the end of the Apology, Sidney complains that in the lyrical poets of
his time Sidney
finds a general lack of energy which betrays a lack of passion: many of such writings as come under the
banner of unresistible love, if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they
were in love. Sidney
Persuasion may be the end of love lyrics, but to persuade one must move, and one does not move by mere imitation and study, without energy. Persuasion is therefore linked to expression and to a renewal of the rhetorical tradition.
conventional rhetorical ornaments becayse they work against the main aim of
poetry: worn-out resources are no longer convincing. The poet must find a new
and more vivid expression, something which only the poet's personal experience
and subjective enthusiasm can provide. This conception is not much stressed in
the Apology, but it is a suggestive theme in Astrophil and Stella: Sidney
Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show,
That the deare She might take some pleasure of my paine:
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pitie winne, and pitie grace obtaine,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertaine:
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitfull showers upon my sunne-burn'd braine.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay,
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Studie's blowes,
And others' feete still seem'd but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speake, and helplesse in my throwes,
Biting my trewand pen, beating myself for spite,
"Foole," said my Muse to me, "looke in thy heart and write."
This poem is written at the start of a tradition which favours original invention over imitation of previous authors, a tradition which will not come to the foreground of literary theory until the Romantic age. It is significant that we find this statement in a poem, and not in
purposed theoretical formulation of his poetic principles; sometimes a writer's
theory and his practice are not completely coordinated. In the Apology
the classical tradition is given a much more prominent role. And it is only feeling
that Sidney is
favouring; of imagination he is more distrustul, because he links it to
pestilent desires. Sidney
In the Apology, the poet is dealt with only as an embodiment of his art.
does not pay much
attention to the personality of the poet, and is not much concerned with his
mental states. The poet has the dignity of his craft, his ideal must be one of
great seriousness. He has the public role of a teacher, which he is to perform
in the activities of his life as a courtier, after the ideal formulated by
Castiglione and Elyot. Being a courtier is not a restricted ideal at that time:
the ideal courtier is a man of learning, a man of fashion, good manners and
witty conversation, a lover, a politician and a warrior. Sidney
The poet is not committed to publication. The aristocrat Sidney favours the kind of restricted and privileged audience he enjoyed during his lifetime; the Apology itself was designed for restricted circulation in courtly circles. At the end of the treatise,
indulges in a half-serious, half-playful call to the reader, asking him to
become a defender of poetry, too: Sidney
Thus doing, your name shall flourish in the printer's shops; thus doing, you shall be of kin to many a poetical preface; thus doing, you shall be most fair, most rich, most wise, most all, you shall dwell upon superlatives.
The Poem: Genres
Each genre has its own end and its own merit: pastoral, for instance, is interpreted by
as an essentially allegorical genre which sings of virtue and politics under
cover of tales. This is certainly the case in Spenser's Colin Clout and
in Sidney 's Sidney . Elegy
sings the evils of the world, iambic poetry (the epigram) decries
villainy, and satire makes us reflect on our own folly. Arcadia
Comedy imitates the common errors of life. Through it we get an experience of vice and learn the effects which are to be expected from it. It shows evil characters and doings, but that does not mean that it teaches evil;
compares it to a mirror which must show truth: this means that it is a
realistic genre, instead of an idealized one like tragedy and epic. Sidney
Tragedy is interpreted by
in the standard fashion of his age: it
shows the uncertainty of human fortune, and gives advice to kings and tyrants.
To this medieval idea, he adds the Aristotelian idea that the function of
tragedy is to cause pity and fear, or, as he puts it, "admiration and
conmiseration." But the emphasis is on moral teaching rather than on
emotional catharsis, and so the theory not quite Aristotelian. Sidney expounds the doctrine of the unities
of space and time, which had been developed in the continent by Robortello,
Scaliger, and Castelvetro; but he presents these rules as sensible
recommendations rather than as inviolable precepts. Sidney
Lyric is rated in the Apology rather more highly than in other Renaissance treatises, maybe because Sidney himself was an outstanding practitioner of the genre. Anyway, there is a general move in the Renaissance to recognize the seriousness of lyric poetry. The aim of lyric is for
praise virtue, give moral precepts and sing the praise of God; it teaches
honourable enterprises and is the enemy of idleness. It is striking that most
of Sidney 's
lyrical production (and most of what we consider lyric poetry) falls outside
this definition. As we can see, Sidney
is so eager to demonstrate the didactic purpose of all genres that he distorts
actual practice. But in Sidney 's
own poetry we can find the traditional objectives of instruction and delight
combined with a more urgent affective goal, which touches the poet himself. The
close link between lyric and subjective feeling is clearer in Sidney 's poems than in his treatise,
althought here he insists on the need for sincerity and he condemns the
tendency to rhetorical and insincere forms. He calls for a less elaborated,
more direct lyrical style. Sidney
Like most Renaissance theorists,
places epic poetry foremost in his list of genres. The model to follow
is the Aeneid. Heroic poetry moves men with example and makes virtue
triumph. It is the most idealized of all the genres, and therefore the closest
to the essence of poetry within Sidney 's
conception. It was surely his early death what prevented Sidney from attempting the writing of a
protestant epic, a work which would have fulfilled all the ideals of poetic
relevance and high seriousness that the neo-Classical theory ideally demands
from literature. Sidney
The Poem: Prosody and Diction
It results from
definition of poetry that verse form is ancillary, not essential to poetry, as
Minturno had held against Scaliger. Verse is the most adequate form for poetry,
since it is more harmonious and dignified, but It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a
poet, no more than a long gown maketh an advocate. Sidney
Imaginative writings in prose can also be called poetry. Metre is appropriate because it reflects the harmony of the Universe. It is also a good mnemonic resource and helps poetry in teaching; besides, it favours the alliance of poetry with "divine music." But in the last analysis it is only an ornament, not a necessity. It is "feigning" together with teaching that makes a poet, and not verse. A shortcoming of this way of putting it is that verse seems something which is added to a pre-existing meaning, instead of helping to constitute that meaning.
The rhythm of modern verse, he says, is based on "number, with some regard of the accent," and on rhyme.
was one of several poets who tried to adapt the Classical measures to English.
One reason is that he was aware of the danger that the mechanical necessity of
rhyme may distort the coherence of the poem. Like Gascoigne, Sidney argues that rhyme must be founded on
reason. In submitting sound to sense, a writer declares the rationality of
In spite of his defense of classical poetry,
views are not extreme. He accepts and uses rhyme, and he believes that the
English language is fit for both types of versification, the classical and the
modern one, because of the free position of the accent in its vocabulary (as
compared to French, for instance). He seems to think that classical verse can
be adapted to English substituting accent for quantity. Other attempts at using
classical prosody in English were a failure, because the English ear perceives
accentual and even syllabic rhythm as more significant than any metrical
pattern resting on an alternation of long and short vowels. Sidney
There were two general attitudes to style current in
's time: Sidney
· That good style consists in an elaborate, difficult and ornamented language, different from the simplicity of everyday speech.
· That the best style is simple and direct, that ornaments only serves to hinder the clarity of truth.
In rhetoric as well as in poetry,
leans moderately to the second position. He opposes the extremely ornamental
diction of Euphuism, even though he advocates a polished aesthetic use of
language. Words, he thinks, should remain transparent and be comprehensible to
the hearer. The ideal is (as in similar proposals in Sidney , Italy , or France ) that of
the conversational speech of courtiers, in which art is used to hide art,
instead of showing it, and the result is both simple and polished. The
rhetorical tradition of Cicero and Demosthenes, Spain believes, will no longer carry out the
aim of poetry, which is to persuade, because its resources are now evident:
there is a surfeit of rhetoric. Conviction will only come through sincerity,
and this cannot exist together with rhetoric. However, Sidney himself did not
always write according to the principles he preached. His novel Sidney (1580),
inspired in Sannazaro and Montemayor, is written in a florid style which
often out-Lylies Lyly. Arcadia
In the Apology we find one of the earliest surveys of English literature. Apart from the usual complaints that poetry has fallen from an earlier state of preeminence and that contemporary poets are cold and rhetorical, Sidney presents us with the "great tradition" of English poetry up to his time: among medieval poets he values Chaucer (though he mentions Troilus and Criseyde rather than The Canterbury Tales), and he shows an appreciation for medieval romances and ballads uncommon in a Humanist. Among his contemporaries he praises the Earl of
and Spenser, though he does not approve of the archaic diction of the latter.
As concerns drama, he complains that English tragedies and comedies, even the great Gorboduc , are faulty as to the classical rules of space and time: the English stage is fond of dramatizing many episodes which should instead be narrated in a messenger speech, or suppressed altogether by plunging in medias res. He calls for a strict verisimilitude of the action represented on the stage, and for less reliance on the fancy of the spectator. Besides, he says, Englishmen are too fond of farce, and spoil their tragedies by turning them into tragicomedies. The aim of the stage (even in the case of comedy) for
is to produce
delight, rather than laughter: Sidney
delight we scarcely do but in things that have a convenience to ourselves or to the general nature; laughter almost ever cometh of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature.
Comedy is more polished and intellectual than farce. It makes us laugh by exposing human foibles, not through mere clowning; laughter should come from its satiric aspect. As to tragicomedy, it is not rejected outright; only the sudden breaches of tone which spoil the tragic effect. The test is the emotional effect, the quality of the dramatic illusion produced, not a blind submission to the rules.
Dryden was the major literary figure in both literature and criticism of during the Restoration and later 17th century, and the most influential critic of the whole century. Criticism during the Jacobean age and the Commonwealth will fail to justly appraise or even recognize the great works of the age. It is an undeveloped genre, and the information about literature often consists of a "roll-call" of authors, a bare list of names and works with some laudatory comment appended to them. There is not even a single detailed study or commentary of a literary work. Dryden will do much to change this situation; his success is also the success of criticism in English letters.
Being a writer as well as a critic, Dryden always wrote criticism to some practical end concerning his own works. Much of his critical work is to be found in prefaces to his own works. Besides, he was a professional writer. He was not a nobleman writing for his pleasure: he had to live from his work and in the age he wrote in this meant that he had to find some patron or other to take him under his protection. He had to flatter, and this explains not only the nature of his writing, but also sometimes that of his criticism. Sometimes his reasoning is flawed by this need to flatter. As in the critics we have studied up to now, we find in Dryden an interest in the general issues of criticism rather than in a close reading of particular texts (although he will provide one of the first of such readings, that of Jonson's The Silent Woman). He wants to rely on both authority and common sense, and often seems at a loss when the two seem to go against each other. We call Dryden a neoclassical critic, just as Boileau, although in fact there are wide differences between them. Dryden meditates on the neoclassical rules, which he feels to be right in the main, but then he also wants to find a critical justification for the great tradition of English poetry, which lay beyond those rules. It is to his credit that he thought over the principles of French neo-Classicism and did not apply them mechanically to the English letters. According to T.S. Eliot, Dryden's great work consists not so much in the originality of his principles as in having realized the need to affirm the native tradition, as opposed to the overwhelming French influence. His best-known work, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, partly reflects this tension in Dryden's commitments. Its dialogue form has often been criticized as inconclusive, but actually, as in most dialogues, there is a spokesman more weighty than the others. Dryden carries about his task with efficiency, stating his own ideas but leaving some leeway for difference of opinion. Neander's overall statement on the rules is that they can add to the perfection of a work, but that they will not improve a work which does not already contain some degree of perfection or genius in it. And we may find writers like Shakespeare, Dryden believes, who did not follow the rules but are nevertheless obviously superior to any "regular" writer. Shakespeare disconcerts Dryden, who recognizes his superiority but is more at ease with Ben Jonson. In Dryden, then, we find a "liberal" neoclassicist, although he is most coherent when he is dealing with that which can be understood and reduced to rule. His relaxation is to a great extent both a refusal to believe in the universal application in the neoclassic principles and an inability to provide new and more comprehensive principles. Because his most cogent statement on the rules (following Rapin) is that
1. [i]f the rules be well considered, we shall find them to be made only to reduce nature into method . . . they are founded upon good sense and sound reason, rather than on authority.
Dryden is not a great analyst of texts or an important literary historian, but some of his works are significant steps in the development of both directions in criticism. Dryden's importance as a critic comes from his place in history at the start of the long neoclassical era, whose principles he helped determine; he contributed a great deal to raise the standards of criticism and to define the role of the discipline. As he says himself,
2. they wholly mistake the nature of criticism who think its business is principally to find fault. Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant a standard of judging well; the chief part of which is to observe those excellences which should delight a reasonable reader.
And of course his ideas also give us insights into his own work.
The way the work is "moulded to shape" is through "fancy moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be distinguished and then either chosen or rejected by the judgement." In Dryden, and indeed in all the 18th-century critics after him, fancy is sometimes synonymous with imagination and sometimes identified as a special kind of imagination. "Wit" is also used to refer to this faculty. Fancy and imagination will become different concepts in Coleridge. So we have two opposite principles at work in the writer's mind: fancy and judgement (cf. the different accounts of the creative process in Sidney, Bacon, and Hobbes). We may note that fancy is subordinate to judgement, although it seems to be assigned a more relevant role than in Hobbes' theory. Fancy is synthetic, while judgement is analytic, as Hobbes had said and Locke will reaffirm.
Of course, Dryden has to give fancy its due in the composition of a work. But it is something he mistrusts. It is too lawless, and there is a danger that it may get out of hand. Strictures placed during the process of composition, such as the rules or the use of rhyme, are a good means to restrict the impulse of fancy and allow judgement to become dominant. While writing, "fancy, memory and judgement are then extended in the rack" (Orrery 2). Writing is a painstaking activity, one which demands the utmost of the writer's capabilities.
In the preface to his poem Annus Mirabilis (1667), Dryden gave an account of the phases of the creative process, which we can profitably compare with the inventio , dispositio and elocutio of classical rhetoric. To compose an epic poem, he says, a poet needs wit. "Wit" in the eighteenth century did not suggest the gift of the quick repartee or the bon mot, as it does today; rather, it stood for the creative faculty of the human mind, above all the aspect defined by Hobbes as "fancy," the ability to see the resemblances between different objects. Dryden defines wit as imagination, as the ability to find the right memory or the right metaphor we are looking for:
3. But to proceed from wit in the general notion of it to the proper wit of an heroic or historical poem, I judge it chiefly to consist in the delightful imaging of persons, actions, passions, or things . . . it is some lively and apt description, dressed in such a colours of speech, that it sets before your eyes the absent object, as perfectly and more delightfully than nature. So then, the first happiness of the poet's imagination is properly invention or finding the thought; the second is fancy, or the variation, deriving or molding of that thought, as the judgement represents it proper to the subject; the third is elocution, or the art of clothing and adorning that thought so found and varied, in apt, significant and sounding words: the quickness of the imagination is seen in the invention, the fertility in the fancy, and the accuracy in the expression.
Writers in dramatic style, such as Ovid and all playwrights, must excel in invention and fancy; those speaking in his own voice, like Virgil, must cultivate their expression. So, there are different creative faculties in the human mind, and each kind of work may demand a special development of one or other. Dryden feels at times the need to specialize: he wrote works in practically all genres except the novel, but he seems to think that each writer excels in a particular kind of writing. He complains that the Ancients were either tragedians or comedians, and that it is easier to attain perfection in this way, writing only the kind of thing one does best. This natural gift has to be controlled by technique. The good writer must be a born genius (here Dryden refers us to Longinus), and he must know the emotions he is depicting. But he must not be carried away by them because probably the audience would not follow him. Dryden believes that poetry is an art for witty men, and not for madmen. Passion would blur the differences between characters, and it is judgement which keeps them separate. We can compare this analytical labor of the judgement to Hobbes once again. Dryden's interest in the successful objectification of the poet's emotions is an interesting pre-figuration of later aesthetic theories (e.g. Schopenhauer's).
Of course we have the classical models to guide us. To copy their ways is not a fault, rather a virtue. In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy we find this phrase as a commendation of Ben Jonson: "He was not only a professed imitator of Horace, but a learned plagiary of all the others".
But true imitation must be original and improve the models. Dryden believes that poetry has a historical development, and he wishes "that poetry may not go backward, when all other arts and sciences are advancing." We may profit from the models and the experience of the ancients and try to go beyond them. All great writers have borrowed from others, without their being less original for it. He traces the Homeric influence in Virgil, for instance. The neoclassical era is not particularly sensitive to originality and invention, but nevertheless Dryden believes that other things being equal, originality is to be preferred to good imitation, and is a greater proof of genius.
One word on the subject of progress in literature: Dryden, as many other critics of his time, seems to believe in a cyclical alternation of barbarian ages with ages of refinement and progress. They believe themselves to be in the equivalent of the
Roman Empire. Shakespeare is
Dryden's Homer, and Jonson is his Virgil. He does not seem to believe that the heights
of the classical age can be reached again; even the language is too unstable
for great works and inferior to Greek. Like Pope, Dryden believed that writing
in English is like writing on sand, compared to the writing on marble of the
Rhyme is for Dryden something more than a mere ornament. It is a way of consciously controlling the process of composition: because of the superior attention it requires, rhyme demands a greater consciousness on the part of the poet, and less abandonment to the inspiration of his fancy. Rhyme
4. bounds and circumscribes the fancy. . . . the fancy then gives leisure to the judgement to come in, which, seeing so heavy a tax imposed, is ready to cut off all unnecessary expenses" (Dryden, Orrery 6).
Rhyme, then, is not a mere "embroidery of sense," it is a means of clarifying the thought.
We shall see that Dryden initially favoured the use of rhyme in plays when the appropriateness of this convention coming from
is being debated. Verse is
right; it is only unnatural when it is forced. Rhyme is superior to blank
verse, which Dryden believed was invented by Shakespeare. Paradoxically, he
recognizes that it is blank verse which is the tradition natural to English.
However, Dryden's statement on rhyme does not end here. We may note that he
accepts blank verse in the less serious types of plays. And in later years, he
was to modify his views, and he came to recognize that blank verse was a suitable
vehicle for serious drama. In the prologue to Aureng-Zebe (1676), he
admits to growing "weary of his long-loved mistress, rhyme" and
recognizes Shakespeare's superiority. And in the preface to All for Love
(1678), an imitation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, he admits
that blank verse is more suitable for a Shakespearean imitation, even if it is
a tragedy. France
Maybe the neoclassical preference for the heroic couplet is the reason for this change: couplets of alexandrines, the staple of French classical drama, are all right for the French language, but the English heroic couplet does not lend itself so easily to the portrayal of conversation. It is best fit to long series of meditative or essayistic verses, and it is here where it will triumph; English drama reverts to blank verse and then to prose.
Dryden also writes a miniature history of modern prosody. Although he is a bit patronizing on Chaucer, he is readier than most people in his age to recognize his genius. However, at the time Chaucer's language was still unknown (Dryden laughs at the first news of a reconstruction of Chaucer's regular metrics in the preface to his translation), so Dryden does not recognize his merits as a versifier, and considers Waller and Denham (who are minor poets from our point of view) to be the first great versifiers of the English language. Waller is the inventor of the couplet: he "first showed us to conclude the sense most commonly in distychs" (Orrery 5). Dryden will insist on the connection between form and sense: in this way form will impose itself directly on sense. Couplets and quatrains must contain a unit of sense. On the other hand, he opposes the strict equality of syllables in all lines, a reasonable thing to do, since stressing certain weak syllables and making them count for measure is unnatural to English.
Dryden opposes Aristotle in believing that the soul of a play is not to be found in its plot, but rather in its author's language, in diction and thought. Dryden wants a literature written in a pure language, one which is free from neologism and pedantry alike. However, he accepts coinages from Latin. Like Swift whose complaints will be much the same, he longs for an academy with an authority to decide on linguistic matters.
We find in the age of Dryden a growing reaction against the Ramist conception of rhetoric. If rhetoric is just an addition of ornamental words, it is better to do away with it. The Cartesian and the empiricist ideas coincide here. Fancy will seen as something which plays with words, while judgement defines the real relationships between things. One of the most notable phenomena of the age is the definition of the language of science in opposition to rhetoric. The Royal Society inspires the works of John Wilkins (Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, 1668) and Thomas Sprat, who advocates a "mathematical plainness" in style: one word, one thing. These ideas will be satirized in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, where the wise men in Laputa carry with them all the objects they want to speak about and merely point to them. For Locke, the most influential philosopher during the eighteenth century, eloquence misleads judgement, instead of directing it. All these writers mistrust literature, poetry, rhetoric, which they consider empty words. There is a growing emphasis on reason which will be felt in literary theory as well.
Dryden discusses character and plot as technical difficulties faced by the writer, sometimes working one against the other. This conception is very characteristic of British criticism. We can compare it with E. M. Forster's account in Aspects of the Novel (1927), which describes how the plot seems to lead the writer in one direction and the characters in a different one. For both Forster and Dryden, it is the poet's art to respect both the decorum of the characters and the causally necessary, natural solution to the plot. The writer, Dryden says, is like a god to his characters, having prescience and power of determination. But it is difficult to use them in a way altogether convincing, working as a whole.
We may note that decorum and rule are for Dryden a means of giving formal integrity to the work: that is, they are not only content, but form as well; their aim is not to depict the world as it is, but to give unity to the work. Dryden, like many later critics, is conscious of two different tendencies present in a work: although he does not use these terms, we might call them the mimetic tendency (the relationship between an element in the work and reality) and the structural tendency (the coherence of the work imposing its own conventions, the concern for formal integrity).
He opposes the strongly conventionalized characters and plots of Roman comedies, asking for a wider imitation of nature, although he also appreciates the advantages of patterning and of structural simplicity in current French plays, and he believes some of Shakespeare's plays to be "ridiculously cramped" with incident. But the interest of the plot and the characters is also to be found in variety and not simply in a well-defined structure. In variety we recognize real life, and this is one of the advantages of the English approach to dramatic art.
The story itself is the least important part of a poet's work, the one which lends it most easily to imitation. It is a material which must be worked on, finding suitable characters and style. Aristotle, Dryden points out, placed plot first of all elements in a play as the basis on which the others are built, and not as the most important one to determine the quality of a play. For Dryden, it is the characters' language which is the most important element in a play.
Dryden repeats Aristotle's theory on the unity of action, but understanding it in a wider sense than many neoclassical critics. There can be unity in a play with two lines of action, if they are causally linked. Dryden introduces in English criticism the criterion of unity used by Corneille, the contrast between the suspense of the partial actions and the final repose of the mind of the audience when the whole of the action is completed. He demands that beginning, middle and end follow each other in a necessary way:
5. a fable ought to have a beginning, middle, and an end, all just and natural, so that that part which is the middle, could not naturally be the beginning or end, and so of the rest: all are depending on one another, like the links of a curious chain.
This does not happen, he says, in Spanish plots;
6. as in perspective, so in tragedy there must be a point of sight in which all the lines terminate; otherwise the eye wanders, and the work is false ("Grounds" 167).
It is the moral that directs the whole action of the play to one centre.
Dryden also repeats Aristotle's doctrine on characters. Manners must be apparent (shown in action and discourse), suitable, resemblance, and constant. Characters derive from manners, but they must be a suitable composite of manners, and not be grounded on a single trait. We may compare this conception, once again, to E. M. Forster's well-known opposition between flat and round characters (Aspects of the Novel).
In 1663, a Frenchman called Sorbière published a book on
which he made fun of the state of both the science and the arts in that country.
Thomas Sprat, of the Royal Society, answered back with a treatise on the new
science which was being developed in England . Dryden wrote his Essay
of Dramatic Poesy (1668), a meditation on the nature and conventions of
drama which was an answer to Sorbière (who had criticized English drama for not
following the unities) as well as to French dramatic theory and practice in
general. It is a defense of the English theatrical ways, presenting them at
least as an alternative to the classical and the French styles. Something can
be said for them, and not just against them, and we may well think that
Neander's arguments for English drama are the strongest. However, it is not
clear which is the drama Dryden is defending, because he answers Sorbière's
attack against current English theatre with an appeal to Ben Jonson and
Shakespeare, the writers of the "last age", fifty years his
predecessors. Dryden's comments on earlier playwrights are important not only
in themselves, but also because they are at the start of a tradition of
valuation of English literature, "dearest moments in the history of
national self-appreciation" for Sampson. Dryden set the rules for
Shakespearean criticism for the next century and a half; and if his admiration
for Ben Jonson seems excessive to us now, we still use many of his views of the
differences between both writers, in whom he saw an entirely different force at
work. For us, there is little doubt that French drama in Dryden's time was
superior to whatever was being written in England and to anything written for
the English stage for centuries afterwards; Molière, Corneille and Racine are
far better playwrights than the Restoration comedians (Congreve, Vanbrugh,
Sedley, Wycherley) and they are above Dryden himself as a tragedian. England
In any case, Dryden expounds in a fair enough way the reasons for and against the dramatic practice of both countries, as well as of that of the Ancients, and re-states the classical doctrine on drama. Dryden retains an openness to contrary argument which almost approaches scepticism, although it would be more accurate to define his views as probabilistic rather than sceptic (Wimsatt and Brooks 193). Dryden was accused of inconclusiveness, and he retorted with the Defence of an Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and there he alludes to the Aristotelian difference between demonstrative and probabilistic arguments: the latter Aristotle had said to be proper to rhetoric. It is up to the talent of each fictional speaker to convince us of the rightness of his opinions. They are Crites, Eugenius, Lisidius, and Neander. Although Neander is generally recognised as Dryden's spokesman and as the more cogent speaker of all, all are allowed to have their say, and the dialogue is not brought to a conclusion through the victory of Neander's argument: we leave the four friends still debating the issues. And in the Defence of the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Dryden says that his argument is not demonstrative but probabilistic: it is up to the reader to decide which of the speakers he will side with. Crites defends and extreme Classicist position, although he is not blind to the merits of modern versification. Lisideius and Eugenius accept the same Classical premises as Crites, but say that modern poets have profited from the experience and imitation of the Classics and follow rules more exactly. Lisideius adds that the rules have been best followed by French drama, which is to be regarded as the model. Neander ("new man") insists on the need of liveliness-which he feels is lacking in Classical and French plays-rather than plain verisimilitude. He approves as well of Corneille's phrase, "il est facile aux speculatifs d'estre severes," and he is concerned with the excessive rigidity that critical principles, divorced of actual dramatic practice, tend to impose on drama.
The three unities, Dryden observes, ought to be followed in all regular plays. But he is tolerant enough with plays which are moderately irregular.
In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Crites repeats the account of the unities given by Corneille (without his qualifications on the difficulty of the enterprise). The unities aim at verisimilitude; the space and time of representation must be as close as possible to those of the feigned action. Any distortion must be supposed to fall between the acts, plots have to begin "in medias res", narration must be restricted to events simultaneous with the action if possible, etc.
In time we find that the coincidence of times works all right in dealing with the precipitate events at the conclusion of a play, but makes the complication seem artificial or else rely too much on narrative.
Dryden follows Corneille in showing how the unities of space and time are mutually related, and regularity in one favours regularity in the other. This may be helped through the "liaison des scènes." Place (and time, too) remains the same inside each act,
7. and that you may know it to be the same, the stage is so supplied with persons that it is never empty all the time. (Dramatic Poesy 28).
But the view of the question give by Crites is much qualified in the debate by the advocates of the moderns. The disadvantages of regularity are pointed out: there is a danger of narrowness and monotony. The "liaison des scènes" is only possible in French plays because their plots contain little action and their scenes are very long. This also demands an excessive use of monologue, which is unnatural. One main end of theatre, delight, is not sufficiently attended to in Greek or French plays.
Dryden held an interesting debate with his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, on the property of rhyme in plays and its relationship to verisimilitude. Howard opposed the use of rhyme, which he believed to break the illusion of reality which any play ought to produce. Dryden defended the use of rhyme. He believes that the end of a play is not so much to give a faithful imitation of human life as to give a heightened image of reality. Rhyme works in that way: it guides the attention and gives greater tightness to speeches. Besides, Dryden says, blank verse (which was proposed by Howard as a substitute for rhyme) is not "natural," either. Howard based his attack on rhyme on the principle that if a play is to trick our minds into a fictive reality, then the use of rhyme worked against that, because men do not speak in rhyme; we will not believe that it is the character who is actually speaking. Dryden's answer is categorical: we are never tricked in a play into believing that we are facing a real scene; and it is the author, not the characters, whom we consider to be speaking in the last analysis. In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, even Crites acknowledges that dramatic verisimilitude deceives us because we desire to be deceived, and that we know all the time that we are being deceived. We will have to keep this in mind when we discuss the definition of the audience's role as a "willing suspension of disbelief" in nineteenth-century criticism.
Howard was also against following of the three unities, also for the sake of verisimilitude: he believed that too much use must be made of coincidence to concentrate an action in so restricted a space and time. Paradoxically, Dryden holds the opposite: the unities produce an effect of verisimilitude.
Actually, Dryden's position is not incoherent; only, verisimilitude as such is not the only thing at stake here. Howard, we may note, is for a relaxation of the formalities of theatre: no rhyme, no rules, whereas Dryden appreciates the value which they have in the making of a work of art, because of the tightness they impose on experience, the concentration, the dramatic intensity, the heightened attention of the audience. Dryden sees that the essence of art is more than just imitation of real life. Drama is not trompe-l'il, that extreme of mimetic trickery. Verisimilitude is all right, it is relevant to the question, but we need something more than just verisimilitude, something which rhyme and a concentrated action help to shape. A tragedy is always natural as a tragedy:
8. The plot, the characters, the wit, the descriptions, are all exalted above the level of common converse, as high as the imagination of the poet can carry them with proportion to verisimility. (Dramatic Poesy 71)
Verse, then, is natural to tragedy, even if it is not natural to life:
9. Verse, 'tis true, is not the effect of sudden thought; but this hinders not that sudden thought may be represented in verse. (72)
In his definition of a play in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Dryden says it is
10. a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind. (25)
So, once again we meet a version of the Horatian ""productive delight." Elsewhere Dryden writes:
11. these two ends may be thus distinguished. The chief end of the poet is to please, for his immediate reputation depends on it. The great end of the poet is to instruct, which is performed by making pleasure the vehicle of that instruction; for poetry is an art, and all arts are made to profit. (Answer to Rhymer 148)
But in later pronouncements, Dryden asserts that
12. delight is the chief, if not the only end of poesy; instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poesy only instructs as it delights,
or that instruction is the end of tragedy,
13. but in comedy it is not so; for the chief end of it is divertisement and delight, and that so much, that it is disputed . . . whether instruction be any part of its employment.
Dryden does not believe comedy to be grounded on any serious principle such as moral instruction. Here Dryden sides with Heinsius in declaring that comedy has amusement and delight as its only aim, far from the serious concerns of tragedy. Comedy works not on the best impulses of the audience, but on the worst, making them laugh. The pleasure coming from comedy is a "malicious pleasure"; comedy may instruct, but it is a secondary purpose: its main duty is to please. But he often changed opinions on this subject, alternately stressing or playing down the responsibilities and moral requirements of drama. In this sense he is not the typical neoclassical critic. The general attitude towards comedy is that it ought to provide moral instruction. Sidney and Jonson had even defended comedy without laughter. Others defend, of course, laughter, such as Molière and Pope. Dryden affirms that Ben Jonson did not require creative wit, being satisfied with humour. He believes that as far as wit is concerned, modern playwrights are superior to Jonson. His characters are funny, but not witty. They do not make us laugh willingly: we laugh at them. They are at once more realistic, and more approximate to real conversation. Dryden distinguishes between a comedy of wit and a comedy of humours, and he prefers a mixture of the two.
In A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, written in his old age (1693), Dryden asserts that pleasure is only a secondary end to poetry. It is only a means to the real end, which is instruction. Conversely, the aim of the poet is to please, but not everything that pleases is good. Dryden believes that the quality of a work is inherent to it, that it comes from its having certain qualities; he mistrusts to some extent the judgement of the audience. The dramatist must not be a slave to the taste of the audience.
So we find in Dryden all the gamut of combinations between the poles of delight and instruction. Instruction comes unconsciously from the admiration produced by the events in the plot. The soul of the spectator is wound insensibly into the pratice of that which it admires.
In the late 1670s, Dryden receives strong influence from the French critics Boileau, Rapin and Le Bossu, and also from the extreme classicism of another Englishman, Rymer. In his Tragedies of the Last Age, Thomas Rymer had introduced the term "poetic justice" and had insisted that it had to be respected in all plays. Many were ready to agree with him for a long time, such as Dennis, and Addison, who still exaggerate the concept. Rymer launched some silly attacks on Shakespeare, criticizing him for his moral faults and his ignorance of the unities. Dryden had a respect for Rymer which we cannot understand today: but then we must not forget that Dryden himself was a great rewriter and "improver" of Shakespearean plays (All for Love, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, etc.). But Dryden, while accepting poetic justice, is not an extreme advocate of it. And he makes some interesting observations on the conflicts it arises in tragedy, when it runs against sympathy. The aim of tragedy is to instruct by example. Dryden proposes love as the most suitable theme to move the pity of the audience, a subject which "was almost unknown to the Ancients." The poet must labour to arouse pity for the criminal, and not for the victim, and terror must come from the punishment of the criminal we pity: this idea introduces some complexity beyond the simplicity of poetic justice.
We may note that the favourite theatrical emotions of the Neoclassic age, when a new ethics of benevolence is developing, are poetic justice, pity, melodrama, the pleasure of compassion of injured innocence. All are in direct opposition to Aristotle's catharsis and his basic requirements for tragedy. Now a sentimentalized version of catharsis is fashionable : it is understood to be the abating of pride and anger through fear and pity. The stage is ready for the development of sentimental drama and bourgeois tragedy or melodrama (George Lillo, The London Merchant, 1731; Richard Steele, The Conscious Lovers, 1722).
Dryden wrote a long essay on satire: A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693). He follows Horace and the French critic Dacier, who had undertaken a similar enterprise before.
Dryden's definition of satire, following Daniel Heinsius, has a strong Aristotelian flavour:
14. Satire is a kind of poetry, without a series of action, invented for the purging of our minds; in which human vices , ignorance and error, and all things besides, which are produced from them, in every man, are severely reprehended; partly dramatically, partly simply; but for the most time figuratively and occultly. . . . It ought only to treat of one subject; to be confined to a particular theme, or, at least, to one principally (Satire 268- 269).
Satire is not libel or slander: it is concerned with the castigation of universal vice through its manifestation in individuals (cf. A's comedy vs. lampoon or poetry vs. history). Nevertheless, satires will still be concerned with attack to particular persons on concrete occasions (f.i., Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel ).
Dryden traces the independent development of satire in
and Greece , the similar restrictions placed by law
upon it, the influence on Roman satire not of Greek satire, but of Greek Old
Comedy. He classifies the types of satire, following those previous writers,
according to the poet who first developed them. We have then Menippean (or
Varronian) satire, which mixes verse with prose and serious philosophical
matters with pleasantries, parodies and obscenity. The term became popular once
more with Northop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. Frye expands the term to
include works of intellectual or philosophical parody and disquisition such as
Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rome 's Anatomy of Melancholy,
Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Voltaire's Candide, Swift's Tale
of a Tub and Gulliver. Burton
The other main styles in satire were developed by Persius, who writes invective and insults against vice rather than satire, and above all by Horace and Juvenal. Horace is more profitable, and Juvenal more delightful. Also, they castigate different things: Horace folly, Juvenal vice. Horace's instructions are more general:
15. [Horace] had found out the skill of Virgil, to hide his sentences to give you the virtue of them without showing them in their full extent, which is the ostentation of a poet, and not his art" (Satire 256).
However, Dryden finds that Horace's wit is insipid, and that Juvenal is sharper. Horace specializes in fine mockery, Juvenal is more direct and pungent. Dryden's conclusion is that although Horatian satire is the best kind of satire, both in tone and in objects, Horace has carried it to less perfection than Juvenal, who writes more successfully an inferior kind of satire.
Dryden's creative work shades off into his imitations and his translations. He was not only an important translator in his age, but also a theoriser of translation, above all in his later years. He translated from Boileau to Chaucer an Boccaccio (Fables ).
In the preface to his translation of Ovid's Epistles (1680), he distinguishes three kinds of translation (a distinction similar to that made by Ascham in his Schoolmaster ):
· metaphrase is "turning an author word by word and line by line from one language into the other." This is not always possible, and moreover the sense is often obscured.
· paraphrase is "translation with latitude," which nonetheless preserves the original sense.
· We have imitation when the author abandons both the words and the sense of the original whenever he thinks it fit. There are some authors who cannot be translated, only imitated. Indeed, it is impossible, he says, to translate poetry literally. We must keep to the most faithful translation whenever we can, but this is not always possible. So, the translator of poetry must be a poet as well as an accomplished speaker of both languages.
16. A translator is to make his author appear as charming as possibly he can provided he maintains his character, and makes him not unlike himself. (195).
It is a difficult enterprise, and the good translator has a previous experience both as critic and creator.
The age Pope writes in already accepts wholeheartedly the neoclassical principles which Dryden was still at pains to diffuse. Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) is the English equivalent of Boileau's Art poétique in
re-statement of the neo-Classical principles when they already are generally
known. It was his first important work (after the Pastorals and France ; just before The
Rape of the Lock) and it is a perfect example of the kind of poetry Pope
mastered: pointed, epigrammatic, aphoristic and not at all lyrical. Windsor Forest
Pope's essay is modelled after the verse epistle of Horace and Boileau's Art poétique : it also follows a long line of imitations of these in
( Britain , Mulgrave,
Roscommon, Granville, Wesley). But, unlike them, it does not purport to deal
with literature; Pope's aim is to give advice to critics on evaluation,
and not to writers on composition. "Nevertheless he must establish the
principles of sound artistic practice" ( Rochester Adams
277) according to which poetry is to be judged; so, he will also focus on
poetry. And, as a matter of fact, he thinks that only writers qualify for the
role of critics:
Let such teach others who themselves excel
And censure freely, who have written well.
He defines the intellectual and moral characteristics of the good critic. For instance, the critic must not pay excessive attention to small faults; he must appreciate what is good, irrespective of its being old or new , foreign or national. He must control his obsessions and not sacrifice his judgement "to one loved folly "; he will seek to appreciate, rather than to find fault; he will avoid the extremities of novelty and tradition, etc. "Certainly what Pope recommends to the critic is superior to the varieties of critical narrowness that he draws up for censure" (Adams 237).
In the third part of the essay, Pope points out the moral virtues required in the critic. Knowledge is not sufficient: honesty is needed, too, and humility in putting forward his judgement, taking care not to offend: "Without good breeding truth is disapproved." A good critic must have a sense of proportion, and know when to forbear criticising a great writer, while foolish critics will assail him with importunities:
Nay, fly to the altars, there they'll talk you dead
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Earlier on in the essay, the main advice given to the critic is not to set his pride against the author; to try to understand first the author's spirit and then judge accordingly. We must know a poet's culture, religion, etc. before we attempt to judge him. The Augustan age was scarcely a historically conscious period. It was given to the admiration of neoclassical models as eternal standards, instead of seeing aesthetic conventions as historically relative. Pope's observations in the Essay on Criticism and in his "Preface to Shakespeare", although they do not amount to a historicist perspective, show some degree of historical consciousness.
Finally, to understand an author we need to understand his intentions. Few would disagree with that now, but in Pope this hides a further assumption: that the author cannot accomplish more than he intends. That is, that art is conscious and wilful; all must "stoop to what they understand." This is again the old Horatian idea that writing well comes from thinking well, and that writers must measure their strength before attempting certain subjects. But Hobbes's empiricist principle that "only that must be written which is perfectly understood" is not far away. And with this we can no longer agree in this age of Marxist, Structuralist and Freudian thought, where much of our behavior, even in writing literature, is accounted for by means of unconscious ideologies and hidden drives.
Like Hobbes and Dryden, Pope mistrusts imagination: it misleads understanding, and only understanding, judgement, can make a successful work of art for him. Judgement makes a writer follow nature, which is always the same for Pope. Following nature means understanding the rules and writing according to them. This is because Pope sees the rules as a product of Nature; they are a self-imposed restraint:
Those rules of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized:
Nature, like liberty, is but restrained
By the same laws which first herself ordained.
And, as the Ancients were the ones who followed the rules best, "To copy nature is to copy them." For Pope, there is no possible difference between experience and imitation; here he is thoroughly neoclassical in the narrowest sense. He sees culture (the rules) as a part of nature, while the pre-Romantic writers of the XVIIIth century have a primitivistic tendency; they see nature as something which man has alienated himself from through culture. Nature and rule, nature and culture, nature and manners, become then opposite terms. For Pope, nature and manners are nearly synonymous.
However, Pope is not only inspired by Horace, but by Longinus as well, the "critic with a poet's fire," the most romantic of classical critics. He recognises that there are beauties which cannot be reduced to rule:
Some beauties yet no precept can declare
For there is a happiness as well as care
Music resembles poetry; in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach.
Sometimes, "license is a rule." And it is true that Pope comes close at times to the Longinian admiration of sublimity which can jump over the rules guided by genius alone. The rules must be respected, but they can be occasionnally broken:
Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend
And rise to faults true critics dare not mend.
But this is a risky thing to attempt, and Pope seems to be trying to justify the ancients everywhere while keeping the moderns withing the boundary of rule.
Another piece of advice is to learn to judge the work as a whole, and not its isolated parts; to appreciate the true merits of a work, and not the superficial ornaments like good sound or a good style with no content. The harmony between sound and sense finds in Pope's view its most finished instance in the figure of imitative harmony :
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense;
The sound must seem an echo to the sense .
Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:
Whe Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow.
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Here Pope takes care to exemplify in his own poem the effects or defects he wants to point out, in bad poets, with examples of imitative verse on monosyllabic lines, hiatus or bad rhyme:
These equal syllables alone require,
Though oft' the ear the open vowels tire;
While expletives their feeble aid do join
And ten low words oft' creep in one dull line:
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
With sure returns of still expected lines
Where'er you find "the cooling western breeze"
In the next line, it "whispers through the trees"
If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep"
The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep"
These lines seem to imply that poetry must avoid clichés and that one of the worst enemies of poetry is bad poetry, or even predictable poetry. Poetry should surprise with its wit and its innovative use of words and images.
Pope tries to practice what he preaches. Every principle and commonplace of criticism is given a witty and catchy formulation, and we may feel that Pope's own Essay on Criticism follows his requirement for "true wit":
True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
. . . something. . . .
That gives us back the image of our mind.
Wit, then, is the crown of nature, and not something alien to it. This definition of wit, with its peculiar setting of familiarity against novelty, can be traced to a Horatian source, but it was criticized by Samuel Johnson, who believed that Pope has reduced "wit" from strength of thought to happiness of language. But this is not Pope's doing: the term was already evolving from its original meaning towards a lighter and more frivolous one.
Nevertheless, Pope's neoclassical concepts are too limited to allow a real analysis of poetic effect. Form is not important in itself, Pope says, but only with respect to subject matter: "Expression is the dress of thought" and so it must be suitable, not uniformly bright,
For diff'rent styles with diff'rent subjects sort
As several garbs with country, town, and court.
Pope's sartorial metaphors have often been criticized, because they betray him into denying what he is trying to assert: that there is an organic relationship between style and content. Defining style as a dress, as something which exists apart from the thing it covers, is not the best way to do it, but we must note that Pope is very careful in not using too much the word "ornamental" (cf. Dryden, Sprat and the decay of rhetoric), and he takes care in his poetry not to be too much "ornamental." Anyway, the definition of language as a kind of dress for thought is not Pope's own: it is commonplace until the Romantic age, when it will be severely criticised.
Just as Horace and Boileau had written a short history of literature, Pope ends his Essay with a short history of criticism, and he ends his essay with the hope that "wit's fundamental laws" will take root in
a country which has bravely resisted the invasion of culture. He sees in
Boileau the summit of modern criticism, and lets us conclude that he himself is
the cornerstone of English criticism-which he was. England
Johnson was a poet, biographer, lexicographer, and an essayist on criticism and morals (The Rambler , The Idler ); he was the most influential literary figure of his lifetime in
and he is the hero of one of the most acclaimed biographies ever written, his
friend Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson . England
Johnson is the last important critic of the neoclassicism, in an age where pre-Romantic ideas are more widely accepted than neoclassicism. Johnson is usually less dogmatic and more eclectic than Pope in his assertion of the neoclassical values. Moreover, sometimes Johnson's claims are contradictory: for instance, he wants at once realism and poetic justice on stage. He is not a consistent theorist, but rather a practical critic of penetrating insights, honesty and common sense. In Johnson we can witness both the dead weight of a tradition and the signs that a new conception of literature is emerging. Johnson had a strongly classical mind, and a great desire for order and coherence. But he had very little patience with whatever he perceived to be false, useless or pretentious, and he made short work of many neoclassical prejudices. He has become an emblematic character among literary critics, as a personification of English common sense and distrust of vague abstractions or fantastic theoretical systems. One anecdote told by Boswell exemplifies this hard-core common sense, with both its advantages and its limitations. The following anecdote from Boswell exemplifies this hard-headed no-nonsense theory, which has its limitations as well as its virtues:
1. After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus." (Boswell 162)
A large part of Johnson's criticism consists in rejecting what he sees as logical absurdities either in criticism or in literature. His common sense leads him some times into narrowness, because he tends to interpret poetical or critical conventions too literally; no doubt he also does away with a lot of nonsense and rubbish.
One main critical statement is the preface to his edition of Shakespeare's works. His judgement on Shakespeare is similar to Dryden's. He recognizes his greatness in spite of being unable to reduce him to his principles, and in spite of his admiration is often narrow in judging him: he complains that Shakespeare is not moral enough, that he cares so much to please and to portray life that he seems at times to be writing without moral purpose. He also complains that Shakespeare has no sense of geography or history, and too often puts high-sounding speeches in situations where they are out of tune. And he has a pernicious love for puns which makes him spoil his best effects. Shakespeare is ready to abandon all artistic purpose for the sake of wordplay. Besides, he adds, Shakespeare's plays are incorrectly designed and he does not submit to decorum. But Shakespeare remains the greatest: with all his defects, he is a force of nature which no careful writer can hope to surpass.
However, Johnson was the one who rejected once and for all the doctrine of the unities; Shakespeare, he says, was right in paying no attention to them. Johnson rejects classical dramatic doctrine in the name of common sense, the same common sense that was said by Dryden and Pope to have established it. He maintains the unity of action, but sacrifices the unities of time and place to the higher pleasures of variety and instruction, which are best attained without them. He also accepts tragicomedy, as being more pleasurable than both tragedy and comedy, and having the same didactic potential. "I am almost frightened at my own temerity," Johnson says.
His main work in practical criticism is found in The Lives of the Poets (1777), dealing with Savage, Cowley, Milton, Gray, Dryden and Pope, among many others. There is a balance of biography and criticism in this work, as Johnson is interested not merely in the poet, but in the man as a whole. This is already revealing of a new attitude towards poetic creation. We may note that he is sound enough while writing on neoclassical poets, seeing their defects as well as their merits, but that his prejudices as a Royalist make him undervalue Gray, who was a democrat and a pre-Romantic, and
, a Puritan and regicide. Milton
Didacticism is still important for Johnson. Fiction he defines as "truth invested with falsehood." Witness also his definition of poetry:
2. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.
In an essay on fiction Johnson grounds critical judgement on morality. Realism can be dangerous if it is not moral. Not everything in nature is fit for representation: art must imitate only those parts of nature which are fit for imitation. The artist must polish real life and offer us an ideal image. Vice, if it is shown, must inspire disgust.
In his novel Rasselas , Johnson further develops his ideas on imitation:
3. The business of a poet . . . is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind.
The poet must not only have a wide knowledge, but also magnify his attention to have an increased perception of similarities in nature; they must be free of prejudice and must be able to rise to eternal and transcendent truths.
4. He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and place.
In his Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson asserts that
5. Nothing can please many, or please long, but just representations of general nature.
Shakespeare is a "faithful mirror of manners and of life," but what he shows are not particular manners: he depicts not the individual, but the species. This idea has of course a long Aristotelian and neo-Platonic ancestry; it is being strongly emphasized at the time by Reynolds in his discourses on the theory of painting (Discourses on Art, 1770-86). Poets or painters should concern themselves with the representation of "general nature", rather than particular experience; oddities or personal whims (Tristram Shandy is one of Johnson's examples) will not do. Particulars are that which is limited to a given age or place (Johnson : the Puritans in
's Hudibras ). Universal is that
which is common to all ages and countries. In opposing the elaborate conceits
of the metaphysical poets, Johnson asserts that "great thoughts are always
general." The passage describing "metaphysical wit" is one of
the best known passages in the English critical tradition: Butler
6. Wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, [the metaphysical poets] have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. (Life of Cowley).
Sublimity or greatness in poetry is for Johnson dependent on essentials, and not to details (cf. Longinus against picturesque detail as detracting from sublimity). This is opposed to the ideals of the Romantic critics that will follow immediately after him. The Romantics would rather insist on dwelling on particular experience and on minute detail as its proof. But in fact the opposition is less acute than it looks at first sight: the neoclassical standard of universality, of "general nature," is never well defined; it subsumes many different concepts (ideality, actual frequency, intelligibility, essence, etc.). Johnson's "species" or generality which must be examined by the poet is not a Platonic universal, but rather a generalization from the average sense experiences. This we must associate to his demand that the poet have an encyclopedical knowledge, and write free from the prejudice of his age and nation. While for the neo-Platonics the knowledge of general ideas is achieved through some kind of direct inspiration, through their inborn presence in the mind of the poet, Johnson insists on the need of long experience in the world before being able to deal with general truths. This is in the spirit of empiricism. His reaction against the rules, too, is in the spirit of empiricism: here he appreciates "nature" over "convention", and opposes those critics who can't distinguish between the two.
Johnson is remarkably sensitive to the feelings of the public. His discussions of drama are usually grounded on the feelings or effects of the audience: he says that the difference between a tragedy or a comedy depends on their effect, not their structure. Johnson thinks that the common public is usually right on issues which have been long debated. Even his own definition of wit, the one he prefers over metaphysical wit, is dependent on general consensus and common experience:
7. If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed, to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen.
Johnson may have endorsed the principles of Neoclassicism, but in reality he is a transitional critic, and he is not alien to the influence that empiricist philosophy has on critical thought in this age. And his personal taste often reveals a sensitivity towards detail, the picturesque and the individual (for example, biography and personal morality, as opposed to philosophy) which appears obscured in his theories. There is often a gap between Johnson's theoretical concepts and his actual critical judgements: his judgements seem to be independent of the theories he is supposed to be applying. For instance, he repeats the traditional Neoclassic view of style as ornament. He defends the ideas of different levels of style, of specifically poetic diction. But in practice he also holds a different, more modern conception of style. In Johnson's practical criticism, style is seen as a way of perceiving the world. This can be seen above all in his rejections of poetic clichés and worn-out, trite expressions which derive from previous literature and not from personal experience.
This is in the line of the general shift form a conceptual, taxonomic view of style (that best exemplified by Ramism) to the perceptual, experiential view of literature which is foreshadowed in the concern of the late 17th century for a more intelligible and persuasive oratorical style, a view which is developed by the aestheticians of the 18th century and surfaces in the Romantic movement. Poetry makes familiar things new and new things familiar (Cf. Horace, but Wordsworth and Shklovski too) by creating an image of a mind in action. Johnson says that art is imitation, and that we can imitate either the object perceived or the process of perception. His criticism of the metaphysical poets is that their works imitate neither the object nor its impression. This "mimetic principle" is often used by Johnson as a criterion of unity, when he is opposing the intrusion of mannered styles.
So, Johnson is superficially a neoclassical critic, above all in his explicit theoretical statements. But in his personal taste and his practical criticism, we can see that he is in fact a transitional critic, just like many others which will be dealt with now. "His stylistic criticism, and probably in some degree his personal taste, reveal the strain of a contradiction which he did not perceive." This is to a certain extent the contradiction of his age; we will see now the emergence of this new literary standard in the esthetic though of many other writers apart from Johnson.
Shelley is the most accomplished instance of the second generation of Romantic poets, leading a scandalous life and adhering to any suspicious doctrine he found, from atheism to political revolution or vegetarianism. He wrote A Defense of Poetry
On the model of
Apology (also called The Defence of Poesy), as an answer to Peacock and to all
the scientist movement which disparaged poetry. Poetry reveals the order and
beauty of the universe. "Shelley's Defense of Poetry makes perhaps greater
claims for the poet than anyone had ever dared" ( Sidney Adams
490). In this work, "strains of 18th-century primitivism mingle throughout
with a Germanically-colored romantic excitement about the immediately spiritual
and morally plastic power of the poet" (Wimsatt and Brooks 419).
"Beginning with the familiar Romantic distinction between imagination (synthesis) and reason (analysis), Shelley proceeds to attribute to the products of imagination immense spiritual and cultural powers" (
490). To start with, reason is merely contemplative, while imagination is
creative: "Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitude
of things. Reason is to the imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the
body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance". Poetry he
defines as "the expression of the imagination" ; it was born
when man was born. Man has in him this creative principle, or rather, this
ability to tune up with the universe, but it is present in the poet in a
greater degree (cf. Coleridge, ).
The poet is "more delicately organized than other men" (512; cf.
Coleridge, Richards). Poetry is not a question of the will, but of inspiration.
Shelley believes in inspiration: the poet's activity is the manifestation of
some hidden cosmic creative force. He uses Plato's image of the magnetized
rings and Coleridge's image of the Aeolian harp to express this. Indeed, the
real poetry is not that which we can find in the poem; it is rather the very
experience or inspired trance of the poet: "when composition begins,
inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has
ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original
conceptions of the poet" . So, Shelley's definition of poetry is not
formalist or textual; it is based on the experience of the poet, not on
characteristics of the text or the experience of the reader: "Poetry is
the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best
Poetry immortalizes the best of man. "Poetry redeems from decay the visitation of the divinity in man" .
It is to be noted that the poet experiences his vision in some degree, but he is also instrumental to it: poetry goes far beyond the poet, as we can gather from the enthusiastic eulogy of the poet which concludes the Defense , and which is in the best "divine madman" tradition :
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which ring to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
So, the poet is something like the unconscious voice of nature; a poetical formulation of this doctrine can be found in Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which is a kind of "romantic Ars poetica " (Wimsatt and Brooks).
The poet also sows the seeds of social revolution. In ancient times he was a legislator and a prophet; and even now, the poet sees the future in the present and understands the the spirit of events, sees more profoundly than his contemporaries. At times, Shelley seems to believe seriously that all original thought has to be expressed in metre; and for him, Shakespeare or
are among the
greatest of philosophers. A poet delights, instructs and moves: but this he
does not do in a purposive way. Poetry is not a kind of discourse directed
towards the public; rather, the poet sings in solitude, and is overheard by
other men (cf. Mill). And poetry is not, as Peacock (and Plato) seems to
suppose, identical in end with history or science, only more imperfect. The
real value of a poem is not in the portrayal of particular things, but in the
poetical quality which idealizes them. This poetical quality may appear in the
whole poem, in a part, or even in a word. And the external form used to convey
this quality may be rude, barbarous or immoral: but this does not affect the
nature of the poetry. Poetry has a quality of its own: it is not a mirror of
reality, like history; rather, it is a beautifying mirror: through poetry, we
see the infinite in the finite. "A poet participates in the eternal, the
infinite and the one; as far as relates to his conception, time and place and
number are not" . Poetry does not teach in the same way as science:
"poetry acts in another and diviner way. It awakens and enlarges the mind
itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations
of thoughts." The poet provides men with the creative faculty to imagine
that which they already know conceptually (cf. Milton 's "moving"). Sidney
The functions of the poetical faculty are twofold; by one it creates new materials of knowledge and power and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good.
The creative activity of the poet is manifested in his work on language. The poet is the maker of language: "he helps remake the world by reconstructing the form through which we see it." The life of language springs from the perception of relationships between things, from metaphor. Shelley combines remarkably Vico's and Sidney's views when he says that "in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry" . But metaphors die after a certain time, the relationship ceases to be perceived and language becomes disorganized, "and then , if no poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse" . Poetry makes us perceive the world anew by making us feel what we perceive; it removes "the film of familiarity from experience; "It recreates the universe, after it has been annihilated in out minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration."
Shelley offers a number of other definitions of poetry and poetic creation that are vague and romantically all-inclusive . . . . Almost anyone who expresses a profound thought is classifiable as a poet under one or another of his definitions. It would seem that poetry is an activity of which a poem is but one of many possible products. (
He is not sure whether he wants to give to all artists the name of poets, or to claim that poets invented all the other arts; this is plausible, he says, because language, the material of poetry, is nearer to us than the materials of other arts; language is a kind of arbitrary outpouring of human imagination. Indeed, he sees poetry as the source of all invention, a kind of all-inclusive knowledge, the closest human analogue to real creation. Here we find the essential difference between Shelley's defense and that of
Sidney in all his talking about the teaching and persuading power of poetry would never dream that poetry was teaching or persuading any doctrine which it did not discover in some legislative competent authority outside itself, either Scriptural revelation or ethical philosophy. With Shelley just the opposite is true. (Wimsatt and Brooks 422-423)
Admittedly, he pushes this argument too far. Shelley is at his best on his remarks on poetry as a language-creating activity which makes us see the world anew. Shelley's Defense is remarkable by its enthusiastic synthesis of many Romantic positions; on the whole it is both extreme and not radically original, but its faith and its imagery make it a forceful statement of the Romantic view of poetry.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic, was 'the first modern critic' , and could be called 'the critic's critic', being a champion not only of great poetry, but of literary criticism itself. The purpose of literary criticism, in his view, was 'to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas', and he has influenced a whole school of critics including new critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism, and through his touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism.
T. S. Eliot praised
The social role of poetry and criticism
To Arnold a critic is a social benefactor. In his view the creative artist, no matter how much of a genius, would cut a sorry figure without the critic to come to his aid. Before
Cultural and critical values seem to be synonymous for
To Arnold poetry itself was the criticism of life: 'The criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty', and in his seminal essay The Study of Poetry' 1888) he says that poetry alone can be our sustenance and stay in an era where religious beliefs are fast losing their hold. He claims that poetry is superior to philosophy, science, and religion. Religion attaches its emotion to supposed facts, and the supposed facts are failing it, but poetry attaches its emotion to ideas and ideas are infallible. And science, in his view is incomplete without poetry. He endorses Wordsworth's view that 'poetry is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science', adding 'What is a countenance without its expression?' and calls poetry 'the breath and finer spirit of knowledge'.
As a critic Arnold is essentially a moralist, and has very definite ideas about what poetry should and should not be. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas, he says, is a poetry of revolt against life, and a poetry of indifference to moral ideas is a poetry of indifference to life.
Aristotle says that poetry is superior to History since it bears the stamp of high seriousness and truth. If truth and seriousness are wanting in the subject matter of a poem, so will the true poetic stamp of diction and movement be found wanting in its style and manner. Hence the two, the nobility of subject matter, and the superiority of style and manner, are proportional and cannot occur independently.
Arnold took up Aristotle's view, asserting that true greatness in poetry is given by the truth and seriousness of its subject matter, and by the high diction and movement in its style and manner, and although indebted to Joshua Reynolds for the expression 'grand style', Arnold gave it a new meaning when he used it in his lecture On Translating Homer (1861):
I think it will be found that that the grand style arises in poetry when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with a severity a serious subject.
Even Chaucer, in
Return to Classical values
He urged modern poets to look to the ancients and their great characters and themes for guidance and inspiration. Classical literature, in his view, possess pathos, moral profundity and noble simplicity, while modern themes, arising from an age of spiritual weakness, are suitable for only comic and lighter kinds of poetry, and don't possess the loftiness to support epic or heroic poetry.
Preface to Poems of 1853
In the preface to his Poems (1853) Arnold asserts the importance of architectonics; ('that power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes') in poetry - the necessity of achieving unity by subordinating the parts to the whole, and the expression of ideas to the depiction of human action, and condemns poems which exist for the sake of single lines or passages, stray metaphors, images, and fancy expressions. Scattered images and happy turns of phrase, in his view, can only provide partial effects, and not contribute to unity. He also, continuing his anti-Romantic theme, urges, modern poets to shun allusiveness and not fall into the temptation of subjectivity.
He says that even the imitation of Shakespeare is risky for a young writer, who should imitate only his excellences, and avoid his attractive accessories, tricks of style, such as quibble, conceit, circumlocution and allusiveness, which will lead him astray.
Shakespeare's excellences are 1)The architectonic quality of his style; the harmony between action and expression. 2) His reliance on the ancients for his themes. 3) Accurate construction of action. 4) His strong conception of action and accurate portrayal of his subject matter. 5) His intense feeling for the subjects he dramatises.
His attractive accessories (or tricks of style) which a young writer should handle carefully are 1) His fondness for quibble, fancy, conceit. 2) His excessive use of imagery. 3) Circumlocution, even where the press of action demands directness. 4) His lack of simplicity (according to Hallam and Guizot). 5) His allusiveness.
As an example of the danger of imitating Shakespeare he gives Keats's imitation of Shakespeare in his Isabella or the Pot of Basil. Keats uses felicitous phrases and single happy turns of phrase, yet the action is handled vaguely and so the poem does not have unity. By way of contrast, he says the Italian writer Boccaccio handled the same theme successfully in his Decameron, because he rightly subordinated expression to action. Hence Boccaccio's poem is a poetic success where Keats's is a failure.
A modern writer might complain that ancient subjects pose problems with regard to ancient culture, customs, manners, dress and so on which are not familiar to contemporary readers. But
The Function of Criticism
It is in his The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1864) that
The Study of Poetry
In The Study of Poetry, (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series, in support of his plea for nobility in poetry,
In The Study of Poetry he also cautions the critic that in forming a genuine and disinterested estimate of the poet under consideration he should not be influenced by historical or personal judgements, historical judgements being fallacious because we regard ancient poets with excessive veneration, and personal judgements being fallacious when we are biased towards a contemporary poet. If a poet is a 'dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best . . . enjoy his work'.
As examples of erroneous judgements he says that the 17th century court tragedies of the French were spoken of with exaggerated praise, until Pellisson reproached them for want of the true poetic stamp, and another critic, Charles d' Héricault, said that 17th century French poetry had received undue and undeserving veneration.
He also condemns the French critic Vitet, who had eloquent words of praise for the epic poem Chanson de Roland by Turoldus, (which was sung by a jester, Taillefer, in William the Conqueror's army), saying that it was superior to Homer's Iliad. Arnold's view is that this poem can never be compared to Homer's work, and that we only have to compare the description of dying Roland to Helen's words about her wounded brothers Pollux and Castor and its inferiority will be clearly revealed.
The Study of Poetry: a shift in position - the touchstone method
Arnold's criticism of Vitet above illustrates his 'touchstone method'; his theory that in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose.
From this we see that he has shifted his position from that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said, 'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'.
From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast . . . '. From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile . . . '. From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome . . . '
The Study of Poetry: on Chaucer
The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition.
Some say that the fluidity of Chaucer's verse is due to licence in the use of the language, a liberty which Burns enjoyed much later. But
The Study of Poetry: on the age of Dryden and Pope
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for 'sweetness of poetry'.
Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract 'the dangerous prevalence of imagination', the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose.
Hence we can regard Dryden as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century. Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason.
As for poetry, he considers Gray to be the only classic of the 18th century. Gray constantly studied and enjoyed Greek poetry and thus inherited their poetic point of view and their application of poetry to life. But he is the 'scantiest, frailest classic' since his output was small.
The Study of Poetry: on Burns
Although Burns lived close to the 19th century his poetry breathes the spirit of 18th Century life. Burns is most at home in his native language. His poems deal with Scottish dress, Scottish manner, and Scottish religion. This Scottish world is not a beautiful one, and it is an advantage if a poet deals with a beautiful world. But Burns shines whenever he triumphs over his sordid, repulsive and dull world with his poetry.
Perhaps we find the true Burns only in his bacchanalian poetry, though occasionally his bacchanalian attitude was affected. For example in his Holy Fair, the lines 'Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair/ Than either school or college', may represent the bacchanalian attitude, but they are not truly bacchanalian in spirit. There is something insincere about it, smacking of bravado.
When Burns moralises in some of his poems it also sounds insincere, coming from a man who disregarded morality in actual life. And sometimes his pathos is intolerable, as in Auld Lang Syne.
We see the real Burns (wherein he is unsurpassable) in lines such as, 'To make a happy fire-side clime/ to weans and wife/ That's the true pathos and sublime/ Of human life' (Ae Fond Kiss). Here we see the genius of Burns.
But, like Chaucer, Burns lacks high poetic seriousness, though his poems have poetic truth in diction and movement. Sometimes his poems are profound and heart-rending, such as in the lines, 'Had we never loved sae kindly/ had we never loved sae blindly/ never met or never parted/ we had ne'er been broken-hearted'.
Also like Chaucer, Burns possesses largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity. But instead of Chaucer's fluidity, we find in Burns a springing bounding energy. Chaucer's benignity deepens in Burns into a sense of sympathy for both human as well as non-human things, but Chaucer's world is richer and fairer than that of Burns.
Sometimes Burns's poetic genius is unmatched by anyone. He is even better than Goethe at times and he is unrivalled by anyone except Shakespeare. He has written excellent poems such as Tam O'Shanter, Whistle and I'll come to you my Lad, and Auld Lang Syne.
When we compare Shelley's 'Pinnacled dim in the of intense inane' (Prometheus Unbound III, iv) with Burns's, 'They flatter, she says, to deceive me' (Tam Glen), the latter is salutary.
In his sonnet On Shakespeare he says; 'Others abide our question. Thou are free./ We ask and ask - Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge'.
For all his championing of disinterestedness,
It was also unfair of
As we have seen, as a classicist
As we have seen, later critics praise
In spite of his faults,
Eliot is also indebted to
In an age when cheap literature caters to the taste of the common man, one might fear that the classics will fade into insignificance. But
In the present day with the literary tradition over-burdened with imagery, myth, symbol and abstract jargon, it is refreshing to come back to