1672
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Of Heroique Plays. An Essay.

The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards: in Two Parts. Acted at the Theater-Royall. Written by John Dryden Servant to his Majesty.

John Dryden


John Dryden defends romance machinery in heroic poetry in answer to the essays of William Davenant and Thomas Hobbes on Gondibert: "For my part, I am of opinion, that neither Homer, Virgil, Statius, Ariosto, Tasso, nor our English Spencer could have form'd their Poems half so beautiful, without those Gods and Spirits, and those Enthusiastick parts of Poetry, which compose the most noble parts of all their writings."

Samuel Johnson: "Dryden may properly be considered as the father of English criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition. Of our former poets, the greatest dramatist wrote without rules, conducted through life and nature by a genius that rarely misled, and rarely deserted him. Of the rest, those who knew the laws of propriety had neglected to teach them" Lives (1779-81) in Moulton, Library of Literary Criticism (1901-05) 2:492.

Percival Stockdale: "I cannot deny myself the pleasure of extracting a masterly piece of criticism from his preface to the Conquest of Grenada, which is an essay on heroick plays. It warrants the 'potestas quidlibet audendi,' which Horace allows to poets; it warrants Milton's persons of sin and death; and all such representations; when they are finely, or nobly invented; and when they are formed, and conducted with vigour, and consistency of imagination. — 'For my part, I am of opinion that neither Homer, Virgil, Statius, Tasso, nor our English Spenser, could have formed their poems half so beautiful without those gods, and spirits, and those enthusiastick parts of poetry, which compose the most noble parts of all their writings. And I will ask any man who loves heroick poetry (for I will not dispute their tastes who do not) if the ghost of Polydorus, in Virgil; the enchanted wood, in Tasso; and the bower of bliss, in Spenser (which he borrows from that admirable Italian) could have been omitted, without taking from their works, some of the greatest beauties in them'" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 1:363-64.

Thomas Babington Macaulay: "His plays, his rhyming plays in particular, are admirable subjects for those who wish to study the morbid anatomy of the drama. He was utterly destitute of the power of exhibiting real human beings. Even in the far inferior talent, of composing characters out of those elements into which the Imperfect process of our reason can resolve them, he was very deficient. His men are not even good personifications; they are not well-assorted assemblages of qualities. Now and then, indeed, he seizes a very, coarse and marked distinction; and gives us, not a likeness, but a strong caricature, in which a single peculiarity is protruded, and every thing else neglected; like the Marquis of Granby at an inn-door, whom we know by nothing but his baldness; or Wilkes, who is Wilkes only in his squint. These are the best specimens of his skill. For most of his pictures seem, like Turkey carpets, to have been expressly designed not to resemble any thing in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth" "Dryden" Edinburgh Review 47 (January 1828) 23.

Edmund Gosse: "The Essay on Heroic Plays, prefixed to the Conquest of Granada (1672), is one of the few writings of the period which we may sincerely wish had been longer; the poet fears he has been tedious in his apology for his strange experiment, but the fact is he has been tantalisingly brief; at the close of the same play he gives us, however, a Defense of the Epilogue, in which he is not a little tart in analysing the irregularities of the Elizabethans" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 91-92.

Herbert E. Cory: "His first reference to Spenser occurs in a preface Of Heroic Plays, published in 1672 with an edition of The Conquest of Granada, where he merely cites The Faerie Queene in support of the use of gods, spirits, and 'enthusiastic parts' in poetry. In his youth Dryden, like many young writers, was a victim of the poets of his own generation. His early servitude to the conceit-hunters is well known. He himself tells us in his Dedication of the Spanish Friar (1681), that he once thought 'inimitable Spenser a mean poet in comparison of Sylvester's Du Bartas.' But he came to dub the idol of his callow days a writer of 'abominable fustian'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 114.

H. T. Swedenberg: "His belief, as he later says, is in the popular conception of the probable, a probability which arises from the vulgar belief in magic and the marvelous" Theory of the Epic in England (1944) 56.

Reginald Berry: "This defense was one aspect of his attempt in the 1660s and 1670s to create a species of heroic drama appropriate to his time by accommodating the epic form to the demands of the stage. The mediating factor is romance, which he could have derived from his reading of French prose heroic romances (eg, de Scudery or La Calprenede) but more likely from The Faerie Queene" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 228.




Lucan us'd not much the help of his heathen Deities, there was neither the ministry of the Gods, nor the precipitation of the Soul, nor the fury of a Prophet (of which my Author speaks) in his Pharsalia: he treats you more like a philosopher, than a Poet: and instructs you, in verse, with what he had been taught by his Uncle Seneca, in prose. In one word, he walks soberly, afoot, when he might fly. Yet Lucan is not alwayes this Religious historian. The Oracle of Appius, and the witchcraft of Erictho will somewhat attone for him, who was, indeed, bound up by an ill-chosen, and known argument, to follow truth, with great exactness. For my part, I am of opinion, that neither Homer, Virgil, Statius, Ariosto, Tasso, nor our English Spencer could have form'd their Poems half so beautiful, without those Gods and Spirits, and those Enthusiastick parts of Poetry, which compose the most noble parts of all their writings. And I will ask any man who loves Heroick Poetry, (for I will not dispute their tastes who do not) if the Ghost of Polydorus in Virgil, the Enchanted wood in Tasso, and the Bower of bliss, in Spencer (which he borrows from that admirable Italian) could have been omitted without taking from their works some of the greatest beauties in them. And if any man object the improbabilities of a spirit appearing, or of a Palace rais'd by Magick, I boldly answer him, that an Heroick Poet is not ty'd to a bare representation of what is true, or exceeding probable: but that he may let himself loose to visionary objects, and to the representation of such things, as depending not on sence, and therefore not to be comprehended by knowledge, may give him a freer scope for imagination. 'Tis enough that in all ages and Religions, the greatest part of mankind have believ'd the power of Magick, and that there are Spirits, or Spectres, which have appear'd. This, I say, is foundation enough for Poetry: and I dare farther affirm that the whole Doctrine of separated beings, whether those Spirits are incorporeal substances, (which Mr. Hobbs, with some reason thinks to imply a contradiction,) or that they are a thinner and more Aerial sort of bodies (as some of the Fathers have conjectur'd) may better be explicated by Poets, than by Philosophers or Divines. For their speculations on this Subject are wholy Poetical; they have onely their fancy for their guide, and that, being sharper in an Excellent Poet, than it is likely it should in a phlegmatick, heavy gown-man, will see farther, in its own Empire, and produce more satisfactory notions on those dark and doubtful Problems....


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