John Dryden's Fables, Ancient and Modern: Preface to the Fables: General Discussions

“If by the people you understand the multitude, the hoi polloi, 'tis no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong; their judgement is a mere lottery.”-John Dryden (1631 - 1700) English poet, playwright, and literary critic. "Of Dramatick Poesy"

The celebrated Preface to the Fables, one of his most important essays, is commonly regarded as one of the masterpieces of English criticism, and appeared a few months before Dryden's death in 1699. Read More about Age of Dryden This was prefixed to a volume of translations and adaptations, which bore the title Fables, Ancient and Modern, translated into Verse from Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer: with Original Poems. The Preface as it stands is chiefly a criticism of Chaucer, renowned for its catholicity of taste, but it contains also comparisons of the different poets named in the title, and a defence of his own conduct from charges made against him by Blackmore, Milbourn, and, particularly, Jeremy Collier, whose Short View of the Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) had attacked the plays of Dryden, among others.

The Preface illustrates the general character of Dryden's criticism; like all his other pieces, it is occasional, and seems to indicate the things that he was interested in and the principles that he devised and employed. Read More about Criticism  It is a very interesting study to trace the change in material and the critical principles which these prefaces show, and for this study Mr. W. P. Ker's Essays of John Dryden is a valuable book.

In this particular essay are to be noted the pleasure that Dryden evidently has in literature, his desire to show the letters of his country in the best light, his catholicity of temper, and the gentlemanly discursiveness of his style. Read More about Criticism  The principles which he enunciates in passing are interesting: the favor of the reader, common-sense, and moderation, are evidently the Chief court of appeal, but he also recognized ideas of growth in language and the necessity of moral standards. Read More about Age of Dryden   Once only, and then in a vague way (p. 198) he cites authority that of Aristotle.
Dryden employs a method of comparison, balancing Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Ovid, Chaucer and Boccaccio, Chaucer and Horace and Virgil. Read More about Criticism  The material comprises facts of life, of personality, of time and place, of character, of learning, of style, of invention, of imagination, of structural design (which Dryden regards as very important in the determination of the result), of understanding of the subject, of verisimilitude, of dramatic naturalness and taste, of good sense and judgment, the "following of nature," of style and verse and harmony, and such things. Read More about Age of Dryden    Under some of these heads his facts are wrong, as in his attributing of Piers Ploughman to Chaucer, and his strictures on Chaucer's verse, and, in general, his knowledge does not, in all ways, correspond to our own (cf. Lounsbury's Studies in Chancer, for a more modern view of the facts), but wherein he fails is because of deficient knowledge rather than by reason of unsound judgment on the evidence ; in both knowledge and taste he was, as we are fond of thinking, far in advance of his age.
Let's Find out the Answers:
  •  Make an analysis of the topics of Dryden's essay. Point out any other principles besides those enumerated that you have noticed, and also show the points of comparison on which the critical findings rest. What does Dryden say with regard to the relative value of these points of interest?
  • What does he say of "conceits," and how sound are his reasons?
  • Compare the present essay with the Epistle Dedicatory to the Rival Ladies (1664, Ker, Vol. I., p. i) with a view to showing the difference of material in each. With the preface to Annus Mirabilis (1666, Ker, Vol. I., p. 10).
  • With the essay on Heroic Plays (1672, Ker, Vol. I., p. 148), and others. Compare it, in point of material, critical principles, appeal to authority, method of arriving at judgments, and form, with the celebrated Essay of Dramatic Poesy, 1668.
  • Compare Dryden from these points of view with preceding and succeeding critics, such as Sidney, Ben Jonson, Addison, and Samuel Johnson.                                        
 Ardhendu De  Ref: Criticism in English Poetry, Chapter, Dryden- M. A. Goodman and F. N. Chorean