One of the most significant attempts to pursue literary theory between Sidney and Peacock, Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesy provides a thoughtful, if not systematic, account of neo-classical ideas. The frame of Dryden’s dialogue describes the party of four discussing literature while on a pleasure excursion as the British battle the Dutch at the mouth of the Thames. This dramatic situation not only emphasizes the provisional character of the “essay” form emphasizing relativism, dynamic truth, and a social nexus; it also introduces the patriotic motif that will be significant to Neander’s value judgments.
Dryden’s fundamental error is his acceptance from his classical antecedents of the notion that art is imitation. He links his literary values to this unconvincing basic concept. Now even in common sense terms there would be little point in seeking to imitate a reality which is itself fully manifest always. Were art mimesis alone, it would never have taken such a central role in human culture. Plato would have been quite right in maintaining that art could only be second-rate were the imitation of lived reality its goal. He might have thought, though, that just as his form or idea of a chair or of love is related to, but not identical with, the chair in my living room, a chair or an affection represented in art will be similarly different from their kin in lived experience, though art’s image is richer in information. Whereas Plato’s “ideas” are simply generalizations, though weighted in the end with the burden of ultimate reality, art’s images suggest at once an individual object and the sum of its occurrences in the reader’s experience, as well as a host of implied, allusive, and symbolic associations.
The representation of art not as imitation (a mirror in Abrams’ terms) but as creation (a lamp) is a Romantic one. As most of our assumptions remain Romantic today, Dryden’s ideas will find little sympathy from the modern reader. The very idea of “decorum,” which he assumes, has hardly survived into our time in which attempts to violate decorum are part of the stock in trade of the off-Broadway theater. As he finds the French style, so admired by Lisideius, “icy” with the beauty of a “statue” not a play (as though a statue could not be moving), we suspect that Dryden may have the same intuitive reactions as we, though he is bound to express them in terms acceptable to his theory. This assumption is strengthened by Dryden’s insightful analysis of The Silent Woman and his preference for Shakespeare over the more academic Jonson in contrast to many of his generation.
Yet he then uses this same measure of faithfulness to nature and realism to justify what seem to us moderns as assertively artificial conventions. The notion of the “unities” figures prominently in the discussion, though the author is aware that its strict observance is based neither on Classical precept nor example. Indeed, he finds the French playwrights often violating the rules. What will strike the contemporary reader as odd is that to Dryden, the unities are good because they enhance verisimilitude: one place need not change into another, nor need time be manipulated. The very conventions that would seem to signal a highly conventionalized, unrealistic style are for him the opposite. Now, of course, no one could mistake the doings of actors on a stage for anything other than “fictional,” and the same is true a fortiori for words on a page. Neither competes with lived experience. The observer evaluates each in entirely different terms. When plays or poems are composed according to rule or convention, the first bit of information the consumer receives from the rule is in fact the work’s artificiality, its fictional character.
Lisideius’ definition of drama, later adopted in shorter form by Neander is “a just and lively Image of Humane Nature, representing its Passions and Humours, and the Changes of Fortune to which it is subject; for the Delight and Instruction of Mankind.” Yet Dryden knows no likelier source for pleasure than plausibility, as though we do not also find entertainment in the unexpected, the wholly fantastic, in formal patterns and a host of other sources. While discussing the propriety of fights and “tumult” on stage, Neander sensibly comments that, if he can accept that the figures before him are kings and princes, he can equally accept that they strike blows in earnest, not to mention the supernatural pagan deities in Corneille. Where, then, is the boundary of the suspension of disbelief?
Just as there is an inevitable relation but no direct correspondence between the literary description and the thing described, there can be no point before unintelligibility at which the gap between the two is too large.
Dryden does no better with the other Horatian end of poetry: instruction. In his reductive view, this involves setting out the morally, perhaps in the end religiously, proper behavior for the benefit of the reader. His faith in the standard of imitation blinds him to any notion of art’s unique ability to investigate contradictions, ambiguities, ambivalences, and the unknown.
Yet, in spite of our dissent from his conclusions, he has in this dialogue created a memorable scene in which the cultivated idlers toss ideas between them on a lazy afternoon, leaving sea battles to others, however satisfying one’s own nation’s victory may be. What better use for the human consciousness? And surely Britain’s rule on the waters must have seemed to reinforce the claims of her poets. One may regret the erosion of ancient authority whose decline has been more rapid than that of the British Navy in the years since Dryden, but perhaps critics have approached a bit closer to the grand and chryselephantine image of the muse herself in the sancta sanctorum of the reader’s mind.