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Discourses on Satire and on Epic Poetry

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(1888)


Editor: Henry Morley




Dryden's discourses upon Satire and Epic Poetry belong to the latter years of his life, and represent maturer thought than is to be found in his "Essay of Dramatic Poesie." That essay, published in 1667, draws its chief interest from the time when it was written. A Dutch fleet was at the mouth of the Thames. Dryden represents himself taking a boat down the river with three friends, one of them his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, another Sir Charles Sedley, and another Charles Sackville Lord Buckhurst to whom, as Earl of Dorset, the "Discourse of Satire" is inscribed. They go down the river to hear the guns at sea, and judge by the sound whether the Dutch fleet be advancing or retreating. On the way they talk of the plague of Odes that will follow an English victory; their talk of verse proceeds to plays, with particular attention to a question that had been specially argued before the public between Dryden and his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard. The question touched the use of blank verse in the drama. Dryden had decided against it as a worthless measure, and the chief feature of the Essay, which was written in dialogue, was its support of Dryden's argument. But in that year (1667) "Paradise Lost" was published, and Milton's blank verse was the death of Dryden's theories. After a few years Dryden recanted his error. The "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" is interesting as a setting forth in 1667 of mistaken critical opinions which were at that time in the ascendant, but had not very long to live. Dryden always wrote good masculine prose, and all his critical essays are good reading as pieces of English. His "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" is good reading as illustrative of the weakness of our literature in the days of the influence of France after the Restoration. The essays on Satire and on Epic Poetry represent also the influence of the French critical school, but represent it in a larger way, with indications of its strength as well as of its weakness. They represent also Dryden himself with a riper mind covering a larger field of thought, and showing abundantly the strength and independence of his own critical judgment, while he cites familiarly and frequently the critics, little remembered and less cared for now, who then passed for the arbiters of taste.



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