The Poetical Works of John Dryden, Vol II

John Dryden
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John Dryden
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Title: The Poetical Works of John Dryden, Vol II
With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes
Author: John Dryden
Release Date: March 15, 2004 [EBook #11578]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Jayam Subramanian and PG Distributed
With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes,

In our Life of Dryden we promised to say something about the question,
how far is a poet, particularly in the moral tendency and taste of his
writings, to be tried--and either condemned or justified--by the
character and spirit of his age? To a rapid consideration of this question
we now proceed, before examining the constituent elements or the
varied fruits of the poet's genius.
And here, unquestionably, there are extremes, which every critic should
avoid. Some imagine that a writer of a former century should be tried,
either by the standard which prevails in the cultured and civilised
nineteenth, or by the exposition of moral principles and practice which
is to be found in the Scriptures. Now, it is obviously, so far as taste is
concerned, as unjust to judge a book written in the style and manner of
one age by the merely arbitrary and conventional rules established in
another, as to judge the dress of our ancestors by the fashions of the
present day. And in respect of morality, it is as unfair to visit with the
same measure of condemnation offences against decorum or decency,
committed by writers living before or living after the promulgation of
the Christian code, as it would be to class the Satyrs, Priapi, and
Bacchantes of an antique sculptor, with their imitations, by inferior and
coarser artists, in later times. There must be a certain measure of
allowance made for the errors of Genius when it was working as the
galley-slave of its tradition and period, and when it had not yet received
the Divine Light which, shining into the world from above, has
supplied men with higher æsthetic as well as spiritual models of
principles, and revealed man's body to be the temple of the Holy Ghost.
To look for our modern philanthropy in that "Greek Gazette," the Iliad
of Homer--to expect that reverence for the Supreme Being which the
Bible has taught us in the Metamorphoses of Ovid--or to seek that
refinement of manners and language which has only of late prevailed

amongst us, in the plays of Aristophanes and Plautus--were very
foolish and very vain. In ages not so ancient, and which have revolved
since the dawn of Christianity, a certain coarseness of thought and
language has been prevalent; and for it still larger allowance should be
made, because it has been applied to simplicity rather than to
sensuality--to rustic barbarism, not to civilised corruption--and carries
along with it a rough raciness, and a reference to the sturdy aboriginal
beast--just as acorns in the trough suggest the immemorial forests
where they grew, and the rich greenswards on which they fell.
In two cases, it thus appears, should the severest censor be prepared to
modify his condemnation of the bad taste or the impurity to be found in
writers of genius--first, in that of a civilization, perfect in its kind, but
destitute of the refining and sublimating element which a revelation
only can supply; and, secondly, in that of those ages in which the lights
of knowledge and religion are contending with the gloom of barbarian
rudeness. Perhaps there are still two other cases capable of
palliation--that of a mind so constituted as to be nothing, if not a mirror
of its age, and faithfully and irresistibly reflecting even its vices and
pollutions; or that of a mind morbidly in love with the morbidities and
the vile passages of human nature. But suppose the case of a writer,
sitting under the full blaze of Gospel truth, professedly a believer in the
Gospel, and intimately acquainted with its oracles, living in a late and
dissipated, not a rude and simple age--possessed of varied and splendid
talents, which qualified him to make as well as to mirror, and with a
taste naturally sound and manly, who should yet seek to shock the
feelings of the pious, to gratify the low tendencies, and fire to frenzy
the evil
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