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An Essay of Dramatic Poesy/Preface

PREFACE.


It is interesting to note that the same cause—the great plague of 1665—which drove Milton from London to the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St. Giles, and there gave him leisure to complete the Paradise Lost, obliged Dryden also—the theatres being closed—to pass eighteen months in the country,—'probably at Charlton in Wiltshire,' says Malone,—where he turned his leisure to so good an account as, besides writing the 'Annus Mirabilis,' to compose in the following Essay the first piece of good modern English prose on which our literature can pride itself.

Charles II, having been much in Paris during his exile, had been captivated by the French drama, then in the powerful hands of Corneille and Molière. In that drama, when prose was not employed, the use of rhyme was an essential feature.

Dryden and others were not slow to consult the taste prevailing at Court. His first play, The Wild Gallant, was in prose; it is coarse and not much enlivened by wit, and it was not well received. In his next efforts Dryden took greater pains. He seems to have convinced himself that the attraction of rhyme was necessary to please the fastidious audiences for which he had to write; and after The Rival Ladies, which is partly in rhyme partly in blank verse,—and The Indian Queen (1664), a play entirely rhymed, in which he assisted his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard,—he brought out, early in 1665, his tragedy of The Indian Emperor, which, like The Indian Queen, is carefully rhymed throughout. In the enforced leisure which his residence at Charlton during the plague brought him, he thought over the whole subject, and this Essay of Dramatic Poesy was the result.

In the course of time Dryden modified more or less the judgment in favour of rhyme which he had given in the Essay. In the prologue to the tragedy of Aurungzebe, or the Great Mogul (1675), he says that he finds it more difficult to please himself than his audience, and is inclined to damn his own play:—

Not that it's worse than what before he writ.
But he has now another taste of wit;
And, to confess a truth, though out of time,
Grows weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme.

Passion, he proceeds, is too fierce to be bound in fetters; and the sense of Shakspere's unapproachable superiority,—Shakspere, whose masterpieces dispense with rhyme,—inclines him to quit the stage altogether. Nevertheless his original contention,—however under the pressure of dejection, and the sense perhaps of flagging powers, he may afterwards have been willing to abandon it,—cannot be lightly set aside as either weak or unimportant; a point on which I shall have something to say presently.

Five critical questions are handled in the Essay, viz.—

1. The relative merits of ancient and modern poets.

2. Whether the existing French school of drama is superior or inferior to the English.

3. Whether the Elizabethan dramatists were in all points superior to those of Dryden's own time.

4. Whether plays are more perfect in proportion as they conform to the dramatic rules laid down by the ancients.

5. Whether the substitution of rhyme for blank verse in serious plays is an improvement.

The first point is considered in the remarks of Crites (Sir Robert Howard), with which the discussion opens. In connexion with it the speaker deals with the fourth point, assuming without proof that regard to the unities of Time and Place, inasmuch as it tends to heighten the illusion of reality, must place the authors who pay it above those who neglect it. Eugenius (Lord Buckhurst) answers him, pointing out the narrow range of the Greek drama, and several defects which its greatest admirers cannot deny. Crites makes a brief reply, and then Lisideius (Sir Charles Sedley) plunges into the second question, and ardently maintains that the French theatre, which was formerly inferior to ours, now,—since it had been ennobled by the rise of Corneille and his fellow-workers,—surpasses it and the rest of Europe. This commendation he grounds partly on their exact observance of the dramatic rules, partly on their exclusion of undue complication from their plots and general regard to the 'decorum of the stage,' partly also on the beauty of their rhyme. Neander (Dryden) takes up the defence of the English stage, and tries to show that it is superior to the French at every point. 'For the verse itself,' he says, 'we have English precedents of older date than any of Corneille's plays.' By 'verse' he means rhyme. He is not rash enough to quote Gammer Gurton's Needle and similar plays, with their hobbling twelve-syllable couplets, as 'precedents' earlier than the graceful French Alexandrines, but he urges that Shakspere in his early plays has long rhyming passages, and that Jonson is not without them. At this point Eugenius breaks in with the question, Whether Ben Jonson ought not to rank before all other writers, both French and English. Before undertaking to decide this point, Neander says that he will attempt to estimate the dramatic genius of Shakspere, and of Beaumont and Fletcher. This he does, in an interesting and well-known passage (p. 67). He then examines the genius of Jonson with reference to many special points, and gives an analysis of the plot of his comedy, Epicene, or the Silent Woman; but he gives no direct answer to the question put by Eugenius. To the English stage as a whole he will not allow a position of inferiority; for 'our nation can never want in any age such who are able to dispute the empire of wit with any people in the universe.'

Crites now introduces the subject of rhyme, which he maintains to be unsuitable for serious plays. His argument, and Neander's answer, take up the rest of the Essay.

The personages who conduct the discussion are all of a social rank higher than that to which Dryden belonged. Sir Robert Howard, the son of the Earl of Berkshire, assumed the poet's lyre or the critic's stylus with an air of superiority which showed that he thought it a real condescension in himself, a man of fashion, to herd with the poverty-stricken tribe of authors. This tone is very noticeable in the Preface to The Duke of Lerma, which Dryden answered in his Defence of the Essay. Sir Charles Sedley was a well-known Kentish baronet, and Lord Buckhurst, soon to be the Earl of Dorset, was heir to the illustrious house of Sackville. It is perhaps in contrast to the social distinction of his friends that Dryden modestly calls himself 'Neander,' which may be taken to represent 'novus homo,' a man of the people, desiring to rise above his station.

This question as to the value of rhyme in dramatic poetry is by no means an obsolete or unprofitable inquiry; it still exercises our minds in the nineteenth century; it has received no permanent, no authoritative solution. It is usually assumed that Dryden was altogether wrong in preferring the heroic couplet to blank verse as the metre of serious dramas; and his own subsequent abandonment of rhyme—foreshadowed, as we have seen, in the prologue to Aurung-zebe—is regarded as an admission that his argument in favour of it was unsound. And yet much of what he says in defence of rhyme appears to be plain common sense and incontrovertible, and to deserve, whatever his later practice may have been, a careful consideration. After all, if the heroic rhyming plays of Dryden, Lee, and Etherege have found no successors, has not blank verse also notoriously failed, however able the hands which wielded it, to become the vehicle and instrument of an English dramatic school, worthy to be ranked alongside of the great Elizabethans? Since Dryden's, the only supremely excellent plays which English literature has produced are Sheridan's; and these are comedies, and in prose. Coleridge, Young, Addison, Byron, Shelley, Lytton-Bulwer,—all attempted tragedy in blank verse; and none of their tragedies can be said to live. The fact is, that the amazing superiority of Shakspere, lying much more in the matter than in the form of his tragedies, makes us ready to admit at once that blank verse is the proper metre for an English tragedy because he used it. We do not see that the ensemble of the facts of the case,—viz. that no Elizabethan blank verse tragedy, besides those of Shakspere, can be endured on the stage now, and that those of later dramatists have not been successful,—might lead us to the conclusion that Shakspere triumphed rather in spite of blank verse than because of it.

Rhyme is merely one of the devices to which the poetic artist has recourse, for the purpose of making his work attractive and successful. Whether we take style, or metre, or quantity, or rhyme, the source of the pleasure seems to be always the same,—it lies in the victory of that which is formed over the formless, of the orderly over the anarchic,—in the substitution of Cosmos for Chaos,—in the felt contrast between the flat and bald converse of common life, and the measured and coloured speech of the orator or poet. Style belongs to prose; metre, quantity, and rhyme to poetry. Metre is the arrangement of the words and syllables of a composition into equal or equivalent lengths, the regular and expected recurrence of which is the source of a peculiar pleasure. Quantity is an improvement which can only have sprung up among those whose ears had long been trained in the strict observance of metre. By Quantity is meant the volume, or time, or weight of a syllable. A 'false quantity' consists in giving to a syllable a sound larger, longer, and heavier,—or on the other hand smaller, shorter, and lighter,—than that which the ear expects. It is obvious that constant study and observation would tend to determine the quantity of all syllables which it was possible to use in poetry; and not their natural quantity only, i.e. the weight which they had when standing alone, but also the quantity given them by their position before other syllables. This work of quantifying—as it may be called—after being carried to great perfection among the Greeks, was by them imparted to the Romans. Then it was that, 'horridus ille Defluxit numerus Saturnius,' the rough stumbling measure of Naevius and earlier poets went into disuse, and metre perfected by quantity, in the various moulds,—hexameter, elegiac, alcaic, &c.,—which Greek invention had created, took its place.

Crites rightly extols the metre and quantity of the ancients; his mistake is in inferring, because the ancients did not use rhyme, that therefore it should be eschewed by the moderns. Neander, or Dryden, states correctly enough that when Roman society was broken up, and the Latin tongue, upon the invasions of the Barbarians, had become corrupted into several vernacular dialects, whence gradually emerged the new languages of southern Europe, the niceties of quantity were obscured or forgotten, and some new attraction was felt to be necessary by the poetic artist in order to supply its place. This attraction was found in rhyme.

Attraction may however be studied too exclusively; there may be too much ornament as well as too little. Poetry, by presenting ideas in a beautiful dress, aims at making them loved. But the ideas themselves are the main consideration, and if the dress is too much obtruded,—if it attract attention for its own sake and not for the sake of what it clothes, a fault is committed, and a failure incurred. As Aristotle considered (Poet. IV) that the elaborate Greek metres were unsuited for tragedy, and that the iambic trimeter, as 'nearer to common discourse,' was its proper instrument, so it is quite possible that in modern dramatic verse rhyme may fix the attention too much upon the manner of saying a thing, when the thing itself ought to concentrate upon it the thoughts and feelings of the spectators. But this extreme, owing to the difficulty and toil which finding rhymes imposes on the author, is less often met than its opposite. For one rhyming play which errs by excess of ornament, there are ten plays in blank verse which err by being flat and dull. Shakspere in his best plays observes the true mean, making his blank verse so rhythmic and beautiful that the hearer requires no other ornament; while by rejecting rhyme he avoids the danger of weakening that interest which should be excited by the plot and the characters. When such blank verse as the following can be had, no one will ever ask for rhyme: —

Forbear to sleep the night, and fast the day,
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And him that slew them fouler than he is;
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

But when long passages are given us such as —

There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
Who, inward search'd, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour's excrement
To render them redoubted, &c., &c.—

then, since the thoughts are neither supremely interesting in themselves, nor presented with supreme force or skill, the hearer is apt to grow weary, and to ask from the form of the verse that entertainment which he does not derive from the substance. In other words, he would, consciously or not, be glad of rhyme if he could get it.

There seems good reason to think that the French masterpieces of the seventeenth century would not, if they were not rhymed, hold their ground on the modern stage. With us, Shakspere's amazing genius enables us, even without the aid of rhyme, still to enjoy his plays; but this is true of no other dramatist of that age.[1] In his work on the Elizabethan dramatists, Charles Lamb produced passages from some of the best plays of all the principal authors; but it must be owned that they make no great impression. For this there are indeed other causes;—the wit is not such as amuses at the present day; the passion is rather Italian or Spanish than English;—but it is also true that the story is seldom sufficiently interesting, or the thoughts sufficiently striking, to enchain our attention for their own sakes, apart from the pleasure given by rhyme. On the other hand, in reading such a collection as Mr. Palgrave's Golden Treasury, all of us are conscious of the continued presence of pleasurable feeling. What reason can be found for this difference of impression, except that rhyme,—and often exquisitely managed rhyme,—is present throughout Mr. Palgrave's collection, and absent throughout Lamb's collection? If the English serious drama, expressed in blank verse, had continued to make progress from the beginning of the seventeenth century, and were in a flourishing condition at the present time, Dryden's plea for rhyme, since it might seem to have been disproved by the event, might well be rejected. But the English serious drama[2] at this moment is in such a low condition as to be almost non-existent. It seems therefore to be a question open to argument whether, in spite of the success,—due to exceptional power,—of Hamlet or King Lear, Dryden was not right in holding that the average dramatist could not safely dispense, if he wished permanently to please English audiences, with the music and the charm of rhyme.

The Defence of the Essay of Dramatic Poesy appeared later in the same year, 1668. After the publication o( the Essay, Sir Robert Howard printed his tragedy of The Duke of Lerma, in the preface to which (printed by Malone in his collected edition of Dryden's prose works) he attacked with blundering vehemence the poet's argument on behalf of rhyme. Dryden seems to have been much nettled, and in this sharp and masterly reply he exposes the blunders, and makes short work of the arguments, of his brother-in-law. This Defence was prefixed to the second edition, just at that time called for, of The Indian Emperor. But Dryden must have been unwilling for many reasons to let this passage of arms ripen into a formal quarrel. From later editions of The Indian Emperor he suppressed the preface, and forbore ever to publish it in a separate form. It was not again printed till after his death.

Three editions of the Essay of Dramatic Poesy were published in the author's lifetime; see page 8. Since 1700 it has been three times reprinted; first by Robert Urie in his Select Essays on the Belles lettres, Glasgow, 1750; secondly, by Malone in his edition of Dryden's prose works (1800); and lastly, by Sir Walter Scott in his general edition of all Dryden's works, published in 1808[3].

  1. Massinger's New Way to pay Old Debts is perhaps the only exception to the statement in the text.
  2. Of course I am not speaking of chamber pieces, but of plays intended for the stage.
  3. And now in course of republication under the superintendence of Mr. Saintsbury.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.