In 1668 Dryden published his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, "the most elaborate and one of the most attractive and lively" of his works.It is a literary debate with a dramatic touch, a conversation among four friends, Crites (Dryden's brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard), Lisideius (Sir Charles Sedley), Eugenius (Lord Buchurst), and Neander (Dryden himself)- They are drifting in a barge down the Thames while waiting to hear the news of the great naval battle with the Dutch on June 3, 1665. The main purpose of the essay is "to vindicate the honour of our English writers from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them."
The significance of the Essay lies in pioneering a systematic theory of drama. Before Dryden, the English had no native criticism on drama worth the whole. There were a few astray jottings by Sidney and Ben Jonson, yet they were all followers of the ancients. They did not develop their own theories or views, but more or less tried to interpret the views of the ancients or else were satisfied with their repetition in a new form. They were simply pouring old wine in new bottles. It was Dryden who first of all started a brewery of literary criticism and made serious efforts to develop a theory of drama by discussing ancient, contemporary French and English drama and by comparing the works of various individual English dramatists and the foreign dramatists. He gave new insights on tragedy and comedy alike. Above all he established the superiority of English drama. Dryden also sorts out the problem of medium in drama— he discusses blank verse Vs. rhyming verse and recommends the use of rhyming verse.
The main outline of the discussion is quite clear. The speaker who first develops his view at length, Crites (standing, perhaps, for Dryden's brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard), expounds the extreme classical view that the Greeks and the Romans fully discovered and illustrated those reasonable and perennial rules to which the modern drama must conform. In the really minor issue between the "last age" and "the present" in England, he maintains the superiority oi the "last age" in making plays, but is nearly ready to recognize the new degree of correctness in versification achieved by Waller and Denham. The second person to speak at length, Eugenius (perhaps Dryden's friend Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst), takes the negative position that the ancient poets failed badly in their illustration of the rules prescribed by their critics. The implication is that the moderns have actually best illustrated the rules, but there is little effort to adduce positive evidence forthis view. Then thirdly, Lisidius (or Sir Charles Sedley, a younger wit of the day) accepting the same premises as Crites and Eugenius that the classical rules for the imitation of nature are indeed the fundamentals of correct dramatic creation, advances the argument that perfect realization of the rules is not to be found in the contemporary English drama, but in the French. Thus Dryden gives expression to three leading kinds of classicism through these characters, letting them talk themselves out, and it is not until this late point in the Essay that the main pivot of the argument occurs—with the entrance of Neander (the new man, Dryden himself). He upholds the superiority of the English drama over the French, and of rhyme over blank verse. The four speakers hardly agree to anything, and having reached their destination part with mutual courtesy. The readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
The four speakers in the Essay are objective representatives of four different points of view. They are symbolic figures representing the different ideas popular in the day. The essay significantly is the 'first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing' (Dr. Johnson). It established the fashion of criticising, the fashion of aiming at delight, at truth, at justice, at nature, at poetry, and letting the rules take care of themselves.
Of the forms of poetry, drama claimed most of Dryden's attention. France in his day had shown to the rest of Europe to what magnificent use the classical rules of drama could be put. In their plays the unities were carefully observed—of time and place no less than that of action, the mixture of the tragic and the comic was scrupulously avoided, and scenes repugnant to sight or putting a too heavy strain upon the spectator's power of belief were reported rather than acted. The English stage consequently, appeared inferior by comparison; even the great Elizabethans appeared shorn of their greatness. It was to clear this mist that Dryden wrote the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, in which while the contribution of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern France, to the dramatic form is duly acknowledged, the professed object of the writer is 'to vindicate the honour of our English writers from the censure of those who unjustly prefer the French before them.' In the person of Neander therefore he subjects the classical rules of drama to a close scrutiny. The special value of the Essay lies in the assertion of the native honour.
Why the Essay of Dramatic Poesy is a manifesto, a work of legislative criticism is because it contains author's judgements and pronouncements, which besides being descriptive in nature are also of legislative in character. Like many other Renaissance critics, Dryden, when he tries to theorize about poetry, is never so happy as when he eats his cake and has it too: he praises Elizabethan drama for its irregularity alike. But there are better things to follow.
One of the most conspicuous merits of the Essay is that it constantly refers to particular writers and specific works. Here for the first time in the history of English criticism we get a sustained critical analysis of one play (Jonson'sSilent Woman)as a testcase. This 'Examen' makes Dryden the first exponent of practical criticism. The passage containing a comparison between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson is the first English example of sustained 'comparative criticism.' Dryden's chief merit as a critic was that he employed different critical approaches to different kind of works. "He would never have analysed Shakespeare the way he analysed Jonson, for he knew that they were doing different sort of thing. (David Daiches). His stretches of the Elizabethan dramatists have been called "the dearest moments in the history of national self-appreciation."
(Wimsatt and Brooks).
The Essay represents Dryden's progressive view of literature. He feels that a high degree of involvement exists between writer, reader, and society and that the genius of every age is different. What pleased the Greeks may not satisfy the English taste. In this respect he is more liberal than Sidney or Ben Jonson or any of the continental neo-classical critics.
Another merit of the Essay pointed out by Professor Saintsbury is that it demonstrates Dryden's scholarship, wide reading and originality. Though Dryden confessed later in his Defence of an Essay that the Essay of Dramatic Poesy was ' for the most part borrowed from the observations of others', yet the borrowed ideas neither detract from nor add up to the sum of its achievement. On the whole the Essay shows Dryden's gift of free speculation and independent judgement, fostered by his patriotic fervour and catholic temper. It also displays his wonderful genius for clever argument and lucid reasoning.