A Critical Evaluation of Dryden in The ‘Lives of Poets’ by Samuel Johnson

Updated July 2, 2022

It is extremely insightful to see Dryden in ‘Lives of Poets’ composed by Samuel Johnson. Samuel has credit of being the first lexicographer of the English language. He was the most dominating figure in the literary and cultural domain of England in the second half of the 18th century. Under ‘Lives of Work’ he has written a comprehensive biography of John Dryden (1631-1700).

‘Live of Poets’ is popular alter ego to the Johnson’s most admirable work titled “Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets” which features 50 poets. Dr. Johnson writes that Dryden’s Heroic Stanzas on the “Late Lord Protector” is sufficient to raise great expectations of the rising poet.

You will find Dryden in The Lives of Poets in many versions of him. And, it signifies him not only as a poet of stature but also as satirist, dramatist, didactic poet, essayist, translator, controversialist, and critic.

Dryden as a Dramatist in the “Lives of Poets”

In the beginning, Dr. Johnson writes about Dryden’s plays. Johnson writes that Dryden’s first work for the stage was “The Wide Gallant” but the work was so much disapproved that the poet had to completely change it. In 1664, Dryden published ‘The Rival Ladies’. It was his first work where the poet wrote an essay on dramatic rhyme.

This tradition of publishing a preface became extremely popular in the later years. Later, Dryden became known for writing preface of criticism as a prologue to every play. His prologues were valued high and many plays by other writers faced opposition because they had been published without a couple of verses from Dryden.

Though, Samuel Johnson mentions in the biography that Dryden “began and ended his dramatic labours with ill success”, he praises “Don Sebastian” (1690) and mentions that this play contains “passage of excellence universally acknowledged”. Dr. Johnson writes that Dryden’s last play, “Love Triumphant” came out in 1964.

During the same time when Dryden was writing for the stage, Dr. Johnson says that he took out time to create other works such as “Absalom and Achitophel (1681), “Mac Flecknoe” (1682), “The Medal” (1682) and others. He writes that Dryden “produced sentiments not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies’ and most of the works by Dryden are effects of vigorous genius operating upon large materials.

John Dryden as a Poet in the “Lives of Poets”

In the Lives of Poets, Samuel Johnson throws considerable light on Dryden’s poetic skills. He mentions poems like “Absalom and Achitophel”, ‘The Medal’ and ‘Religio Laici’ while analyzing the poet. Samuel Johnson considers “Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Wonders” (1667) is Dryden most elaborate work. This was written in “Heroic Stanzas of four lines”. Dr. Johnson also goes on to say that Dryden displayed his knowledge with pedantic ostentation. But he also praises Dryden’s poetry for establishing “triplets and Alexandrine” as a material style.

Additionally, Dr. Johnson believes that Dryden ‘enriched his language with a variety of models’. As far as the qualities of Dryden as a poet are concerned , Dr. Johnson writes that the English writers owe to him “the improvement perhaps the completion, of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments”.

Johnson writes in the biography that Dryden’s poem on the death of Mrs. Killegrew is undoubtedly the noblest ode that our language ever has produced. Dr. Johnson believes that almost all poems of Dryden were occasional and thus the ‘narrowness of his subject’ restricted his works from reaching great heights.

Moreover, Johnson points out the flaws in Dryden’s Poetry. He criticizes the unevenness of Dryden’s compositions and the poet’s negligence. Johnson believes that Dryden had “more music than Waller, more vigour than Denham, and more nature than Cowley”. Hence, according to Dr. Johnson, Dryden considered himself better than his contemporaries and did not labour to rise above his imperfections. Finally, Dr. Johnson also quotes a couple of lines by Pope that, according to him, aptly justify the qualities of Dryden as a Poet:

“Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join,
The Varying verse, the full-resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine.”

Johnson’s Estimate of Dryden as a Critic

Dr. Johnson credits Dryden for giving the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing through his “Essay of Dramatic Poesy”. It is in the form of discussion between four characters, one of whom is Dryden himself (Neander), Eugenius, Crites and Lisideius.

Johnson writes that Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic poetry” (1668) was ‘an elegant and instructive dialogue’. Johnson goes on to record the early years of Dryden’s writings in which he was mostly involved in attacking and counterattacking his contemporaries.

Samuel remarks that “Dryden may be properly considered as the father of English Criticism”. According to Dr. Johnson, one of the first pieces of the criticism written by Dryden was the dialogue on Drama. The critic calls the portrait of English dramatists by Dryden “exact without minuteness and lofty without exaggeration”.

Johnson further says that Dryden’s criticism has the majesty of a queen. The critic also remarks that Dryden’s works abound with knowledge, and sparkle with illustrations and show that the poet possessed “great stores of intellectual wealth”. Hence, the critic acknowledges Dryden as ‘the father of English criticism’. But he has also enlisted the various qualities that he found in the poet.

Johnson’s Evaluation of Dryden as a Satirist

Dr. Johnson has presented his ideas on various poems written by Dryden. He writes about Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel’ that is a ‘memorable satire’ written to support of ‘public principles’. According to Dr. Johnson, the poem presents a skillful variety of sentiments and characters.

This should be seen as unique among numerous other English compositions for its satire. But the critic also says that the original structure of this poem was defective and some lines lacked elegance. Dr. Johnson remarks that this work of Dryden was “a long poem of mere sentiments’ and the subject of the poem was limited.

In this biography, Dr. Johnson calls ‘The Medal’ one poem that explicitly shows Dryden’s skill of ‘both of humorous and serious satire’. Dryden has written this poem on a medal that had struck on Lord Shaftesbury during his escape from a prosecution.

Dr. Johnson admires the ‘Skillfully Delineated’ central character in this poem but feels that its structure lacks “multiplicity of agents”. The critic believes that ‘The Medal’ reflects ‘a desire of splendor without wealth’ because its subject did not provide the space for the poet to expand the poem’s splendor.

Evaluation of Dryden as a Didactic Poet

Dr. Johnson further writes that ‘Religio Laici’ is almost the only work by Dryden that showcases the poet’s true genius. It is the didactic poetry of John Dryden. Johnson mentions that the poet made very frequent use of mythology, and sometimes connects religion and fable too closely without distinction.

Samuel Johnson calls this poem a composition of great excellence. He also praises Dryden’s metre in this poem. Dr. Johnson had previously mentioned that Dryden knew how to choose the flowing and the sonorous words. In ‘Religio Laici’, Johnson feels that the metre balances the force and expressiveness of the argument that Dryden has Presented.

Dr. Johnson has also praised Dryden’s metre in ‘The Hind and the Panther’. Quoting some lines from this poem published in 1687, Samuel Johnson writes that these were “Lofty, elegant and musical’.

Samuel Johnson believes that Dryden’s heroic stanzas show a mind replete with ideas” and vigorous thoughts. He believes that Dryden’s direction is ‘elegant and easy”. Dr. Johnson believes that it was Dryden’s genius to mingle science into poetry and ideas of philosophy into verse.

He writes that in Dryden’s poem called “Coronation’, the poet has showcased great power in his abilities to unite the most unsociable matter. Johnson admired Dryden’s magnificence but also believed that his comparisons sometimes suffered from extravagance of his fictitious and hyperboles.

Evaluation of John Dryden as a Translator

When Johnson describes Dryden’s translation of Virgil, he mentions a quote by Pope that said that Dryden had produced ‘The most Nobel and spirited translation that I know in any language”. Johnson believes that Dryden may have chosen some subjects that did not inspire the highest poetical excellence but he was always embellishing our language.

Johnson has written in this biography that Dryden’s predominant power was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. According to Dr. Johnson, Dryden’s works generated splendid novelty for the ear but not emotions for the heart.

In this way, Johnson’s mature, most important and extremely significant work ‘Lives of poets’ not only gives a critical estimate of Dryden but also illustrates his own capacities as a critic and biographer.

Beyond Dryden in Lives of Poets Under Literature Reads

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