“An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” by Dryden in Restoration Age (1660- 1700)

Updated June 30, 2022

“An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” is dialogue based prose work to defend ‘drama’ by John Dryden (1631- 1700), the father of modern English poetry and criticism. Dryden dominated literary life in England during the last four decades of the seventeenth century. He was a great poet, critic, dramatist, satirist and translator. Samuel Johnson in “the Lives of English Poets” calls him the father of English Criticism.

Dryden earned fame of being one of the chief founders of modern prose style- logical, exact, based on the exercise of reason rather than on the excitement of emotion.  “An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” by Dryden marks the beginning of a new era in English literary criticism. In his estimate of Elizabethan dramas, he attains the highest level of pure criticism. He judged the Elizabethans not by literary standard of a school but by the higher standards of literary judgement i.e. the appreciation of positive literary excellences.

“An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” [Essay of Dramatic Poesie], was published in the year 1668. Here Dryden takes up the subject that Philip Sidney had set forth in his “Defence of Poesie” (1579) and attempts to justify drama as legitimate form of Poetry comparable to the Epic. The publication of this treatise marks the beginning of a new era in English literary criticism. It is in the form of a dialogue among four interlocutors named Crites, Eugenius, Lisideius and Neander.

Summary of “An Essay on Dramatic Poesy”

Dryden’s “An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” is in the form of a dialogue among four (interlocutors) named Crites, Eugenius, Lisideius and Neander. These four interlocutors represent four real literary scholars of the day. Crites is Sir Robert Howard, Eugenius is Charles Sackville, Lisideius is Sir Charles Sedley and Neander is Dryden himself.

Crites is made to defend the Ancients; Eugenius speaks for the Moderns; Lisideius for the French and Neander for the English dramatists of the last age. The essay develops through long dialogue amongst these four interlocutors.

The Remarks of Crites 

Crites has been represented as the spokesman for the Ancients. He seeks to establish the superiority of the Ancient dramatists over the Moderns. He says that Ancient Greek dramatists were the earliest dramatists who could be said to be the founders of the dramatic genre in Europe. It was in Greece that drama, especially tragedy, rose to the level of maturity.

Drama and dramatists were highly esteemed in Greece and this attitude gave great encouragement to the dramatists. But in England, dramas and dramatists were condemned and dramatic performances were banned during the Puritan Age. The Ancient Greek dramatists followed nature in writing the performing drama as a literary genre. Therefore, there is naturalness and reality in their dramatic art.

Crites believes that the Ancient dramatists are standard as models and ideals for the Modern dramatists. The Modern dramatists only follow rules and poetics as laid down by the Ancients. He also believes that the Ancients first gave the concept of the three dramatic unities and brought them into practice. In the use of language, style, figures of speech and other literary devices also, the Ancients are superb and the Moderns are only imitators of the Ancients.

The Remarks of the Eugenius

Eugenius represents the Moderns. He says that the Ancients had many defects but these were removed by the Moderns. The Moderns also improved the rules and practices of the Ancients. The division of the plot into Protasis, Epitasis, Catastasis and Catastrophe by the Ancient was not always possible. Their tragic plots were always hackneyed and confined to the tales of Thebes and Troy.

The plots and characters of the comedies were stock type. The dramatic unities were also not observed by the Ancients and sometimes their observance led to absurdities. They used excess of speech at the cost of action. Very often, the Ancient dramas are found lacking in poetic justice. Their plot displayed more of honour and melodramatic effects than of love, pity and compassion. In this way, Eugenius finds that Moderns are better than the Ancients.

Remark of the Lisideius 

Lisideius represents the French dramatists. He says that the French dramatists are superior to the Ancients and the Modern dramatists on the many grounds. The French dramatists especially Richelieu and Corneille had become unrivalled in Europe. Their observance of the three unities was better than and superior to the Ancients and Modern dramatists.

They wrote tragedies and comedies and, they derived their plots from popular incidents and episodes of history. Therefore, the characters of their plays are life like and convincing. Their narrative skill is superb. Their plot development is more natural and logical and they use beautiful rhyme rather than blank verse. In this way, Lisidius establishes the superiority of French dramatists.

Remark of the Neander (Dryden himself)

Neander, Dryden himself defends England and Liberty. He establishes the superiority of English dramatists over the Ancient Greeks and French dramatists. He says that the English dramas have naturalness while French plays are artificial. The French plays are not true picture of life. Unlike the French dramatists, he defends the English practice of writing tragic- comedies.

The juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic scenes produces the much desired dramatic relief. It also produces variety and relief from monotony. Unlike the French, who deal with a single theme, the English have a variety of taste and themes. They also introduced a large number of characters of different tastes and temperament.

A regards showing violence on the stage, Dryden believes that such scenes have become part of the English tradition. He also asserts that the French are guilty of showing too little action on the stage if the English dramatists are criticized for showing too much with of it. Then he says that the French dramatists have bound themselves too much with the rules. The English dramatists enjoy freedom which gives an air of freshness to the plays. Therefore, the English dramatists are superior to the French.

Views on Rhyme in Drama within An Essay on Dramatic Poesy

Neander hails Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Beaumont, and Fletcher. He also takes up the controversy over rhyme and blank verse. He says that rhyming verse is more natural and effective than blank verse. In his discussion, he discusses the three unities i.e. the Unity of Time, Unity of Place, and Unity of Action. He finds that the English dramatists notably Shakespeare did not always observe the three unities.

In this way, we find that “An Essay on Dramatic Poesy” is a witticism (a clever remark) of critical views. It shows Dryden as one of the greatest critics in the history of English literature. Samuel Johnson in “the Lives of English Poets” calls Dryden the father of English Criticism.

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