1701
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry: The Epistle Dedicatory.

The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry. A Critical Discourse in Two Parts.

John Dennis


The conclusion of the dedicatory epistle to John Sheffield takes up the literary competition between the English and the French. John Dennis concludes that, despite a more sounding language, the "gothick" irregularity of English works hinders their reception abroad: "This is plain, that Moliere, Corneille and Racine and Boileau are known in a manner to all the Christian World, whereas Spencer and Milton, Ben Johnson and Shakespear, are Strangers, as it were, to all the World, excepting the Subjects of Great Britain" Sigs A5-A5v.

Richard Blackmore: "equal to Boileau in poetry, and superior to him in critical abilities" in Russell, Book of Authors (1860) 126.

George Saintsbury: "If John Dennis had been acquainted with the poetry of Tennyson (at which he would probably have railed in his best manner, in which he would certainly have detected plagiarisms from the classics), he too might have applied to himself the words of Ulysses, 'I am become a name.' Everybody who had the very slightest knowledge of English literature knows, if only in connection with Dryden, Addison, and Pope, the surly, narrow, but not quite ignorant or incompetent critic, who in his younger and more genial days admired the first, and in his soured old age attacked the second and third. But it may be doubted whether very many persons have an acquaintance, at all extensive, with his works. They were never collected; the Select Works of John Dennis mainly consist of his utterly worthless verse. Much of the criticism is hidden away in prefaces which were seldom reprinted, and the original editions of which have become very rare. Even good libraries frequently contain only two or three out of more than a dozen or a score of separate documents: and though the British Museum itself is well furnished, it is necessary to range through a large number of publications to obtain a complete view of Dennis as a critic" History of English Criticism (1911) 164.

Hoxie Neale Fairchild: "True religion, Dennis insists, is not the enemy of the human passions. Her aim is rather to restore that harmony between reason and passion which was shattered by the sin of Adam" Religious Trends in English Poetry (1939) 1:186.

The complete title of the volume is "The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry. A Critical Discourse in Two Parts. The First shewing that the principal Reason why the Ancients excell'd the Moderns in the greater Poetry, was because they mix'd Religion with Poetry. The Second, proving that by joining Poetry with the Religion reveal'd to us in Sacred Writ, the Modern Poets may come to equal the Ancients."




.... Your Lordship knows, that it was towards the Beginning of the last Century, that the French, a subtle and discerning Nation, began to be sensible of this, and upon it several of their extraordinary Men, both Poets and Philosophers, began to cultivate Criticism. Upon which there follow'd Two very remarkable Things. For, first, the Cultivating of the Poetical Art, advanc'd their Genius's to such a Height as was unknown to Prance before; And, secondly, the appearing of those great Genius's, was very instrumental in spreading their Language thro' all the Christian World; and in raising the Esteem of their Nation to that degree, that it naturally prepar'd the Way for their Intrigues of State, and facilitated the Execution of their vast Designs.

My Lord, these Alterations happen'd in France, while the French reform'd the Structure of their Poems, by the noble Models of ancient Architects; and your Lordship knows very well, that the very contrary fell out among us; while, notwithstanding your Generous Attempt to reform us, we resolv'd, with an injudicious Obstinacy, to adhere to our Gothick and Barbarous Manner. For, in the first Place, our Stage has degenerated, not only from the Taste of Nature, but from the Greatness it had in the Time of Shakespear, in whose Coriolanus and Cassius, we see something of the Invincible Spirit of the Romans; but in most of our Heroes which have lately appear'd on the Stage, Love has been still the predominant Passion, whether they have been Grecian or Roman Heroes; which is false in Morality, and of scandalous Instruction, and as false and absurd in Physicks. For Ambition makes a Man a Tyrant to himself, as well as it does to others; and where it once prevails, inslaves the Reason, and subdues all other Passions. And it was for this very Cause, if your Lordship will allow me to make this Digression, that in the Two Tragedies that I writ myself, I made Love a subordinate Passion, and subjected it in the one to Glory, and in the other to Friendship; that so I might make them fit to entertain the wisest of our Sex, and the best and most virtuous of the other. And it is impossible to tell you with what extreme Satisfaction, I heard that the last of them was not displeasing to You.

But, Secondly, At the same Time, that the French has been growing almost an universal Language, the English has been so far from diffusing itself in so vast a manner, that I know by Experience, that a Man may travel o'er most of these Western Parts of Europe, without meeting with Three Foreigners, who have any tolerable Knowledge of it. And yet the English is more strong, more full, more sounding, more significant, and more harmonious than the French. I know very well, that a great many will be unwilling to allow the last; but I appeal to your Lordship, if this is not a convincing Proof of it, that we have Blank Verse which is not inharmonious, and the French pretend to no Poetical Numbers, without the Assistance of Rhime.

But it may perhaps be alledg'd, that the Reason why the French has got the Advantage of our Language, is partly from their Situation on the Continent, partly from the Intrigues and Affairs which they have with their Neighbours, and partly, because their Language has more Affinity with one of the Learned Languages. But to this I answer, That the Germans are as advantageously seated as the French, for diffusing their Language; and the Spanish Tongue is rather nearer related to the Latin than is the French; and all the World knows, that towards the Beginning of the last Century, the House of Austria, was full as busie with their Neighbours, as the House of Bourbon is now; and yet then neither the German nor the Spanish Tongue made any considerable Progress. I will not deny, but that the Situation and Affairs of the French, may have been of Advantage to them in the diffusing their Language; but 'tis certainly, the Learning of any Nation that is most instrumental in it. I make no doubt, but that in Learning, which is useful and necessary, and barely solid, without Ornament, we far surpass the French. Our practical Physicians have more Reputation than theirs, even in France itself; and our practical Divines, have acquir'd more Fame, throughout the Northern Countries of Europe, than either the Natives of those Places, or any of the Modern French Divines, whether they are Reform'd or Papistical. And this last, is therefore the more considerable, because they writ in our Mother Tongue, whereas the Physicians have employ'd a learned Language. But I am very much inclin'd to believe, that 'tis the Polite Learning of any Nation, that contributes most to the extending its Language, and Poetry is the Branch of Polite Learning, which is the most efficacious in it. In order to the proving this, I desire your Lordship's Leave, to examine who they are, who are most instrumental, in making a Language pass the Bounds which confine the Original Speakers of it. And they seem to me to be the Gentlemen of Neighbouring Nations, who have Time and Opportunity to visit Foreign Countries, and are capacitated by their Fortunes and their Educations, to cultivate Languages, which they were not born to speak. For, besides that these are the Persons who are the most capacitated to learn them, they have, by the Variety and Multiplicity oft their Conversation, most Opportunities to spread them. Now the Motives that for the most Part incite Gentlemen to Study, are Two, Pleasure and Vanity. But Pleasure and Vanity, will find their Account abundantly more in Polite Learning, than in Literature which is barely Solid. For, Polite Learning is more easy, and has more of Imagination in it, and instructs them much better how to varnish their Defects, and render them agreeable to one another. 'Tis chiefly then, the Polite Learning of any Nation, that ingages the Gentlemen of foreign Countries to apply themselves to study the Language of that Nation. But even of Polite Learning, Poetry appears to be the most agreeable, and most attractive Branch, because it is the most moving. And we find by Experience, that in the Learning of those Languages which have been most generally known, Poetry has made a very considerable Figure. Gentlemen then, in all likelihood, will apply themselves most eagerly to the Study of that Language, whose Poetry is very agreeable to them. But that Poetry must be most agreeable to the Generality of Gentlemen, which is most moving, and most instructive. For, tho' Gentlemen study to please themselves, yet if they are Men of Sense, they will not be for empty Pleasure, but will endeavour to be instructed and delighted together. Besides, when Gentlemen begin to study the Poetry of any Language, the first thing they understand is the reasonable Part of it. For the Fineness of the Imaginative Part, which depends in great measure upon Force of Words, and upon the Beauty of Expression, must lie conceal'd from them in a good Degree, till they are perfect in the Language. Thus the Poetry of that Language, which is most reasonable and most instructive, must, in all likelihood, have most Attraction for the Gentlemen of neighbouring Nations; and we have shewn above, that that is the most reasonable, and most instructive Poetry, which is the most Regular.

My Lord, upon this Foot it is easy to determine, whether our Poetry or the French, has most Attractions for the rest of Europe. This is plain, that Moliere, Corneille and Racine, and Boileau, are known in a manner to all the Christian World; whereas Spencer and Milton, Ben Johnson and Shakespear, are Strangers, as it were, to all the World, excepting the Subjects of Great Britain. I believe that our Language, by reason of the Dependence that it has upon the Saxon, is not very difficult to be learnt by the People of the Northern Countries; and in short, many of their Clergy have learnt enough of it, to make their Advantage of our Ecclesiastical Writings. But both they and their Gentlemen, are almost wholly Strangers to our Poetry, whereas the French Poets are extremely well known to them. But here some angry People will immediately ask, If I affirm, that our own is inferior to the French Poetry? To satisfy both them and the Truth, I am oblig'd to declare (at the same Time, submitting this Matter to be decided by your Lordship, in the last Appeal) That I believe we have naturally more Force, and more Elevation shall the French; That several Things in Shakespear, are superior to any which the French Theatre has produc'd; and that in some little Poems, which either requir'd no Symmetry, or were writ by those who very well knew how to practise it, we are absolutely superior to them; That at last I am not so much delivering my own Thoughts, as the Opinions of others; That the very Design I have, even in affirming what I do, is to do what lies in my little Capacity, to put our Writers in a Way to make our Neighbours, and with them all Europe, sensible of the Advantage which we have by Nature; That even our natural Force must receive Accession from Art, and augment in proportion as the French has done; That both our Force and our Spirit, will, in all likelihood, be augmented by Skill, as Address in the Use of our Weapons, very often adds both to our Force and Courage: That a Poem with a Fable, is like a Human Body, and that the Weakness of any one Part, influences and disables, in some degree, those which in themselves are strong; That if we are not shock'd at our own Irregularity, 'tis because it has the Advantage of long Habitude; for we have been us'd to it from our Infancy; but that to our Neighbours, who have constantly been us'd to Art and Conduct, it must seem as aukward, and as disagreeable, as our Gothick Cathedrals, would to those Italians, who have always frequented St. Peter's; and that what I barely call Irregular here, would be term'd by them Indecent, Immoral, Unjust, Unreasonable, Unnatural. In fine, I appeal to your Lordship, whether the French Dramatick Writers, are not believ'd superior to the English, by all the rest of Europe; tho' at the same Time, I am convinc'd, that our Writers, having naturally more Elevation, and our Language more Harmony than theirs, and both our Writers and Language more Force; we want only Art, to make ourselves as superior to them in Poetry, as we formerly were in Empire.

And here, my Lord, I fancy that I see the Enemies to Regularity in a little Confusion; they are too well satisfied of your Lordship's Ability and Impartiality, to decline your Jurisdiction; and they cannot but remember, to their Sorrow, that you have formerly given the Cause against them.

Upon Supposition then, that for the Future, they will instruct themselves in the Poetical Art; I must leave it to your Lordship to determine, Whether the following Treatise may be of any Service to them, and give them still another Advantage over the French, by directing them to choose, or to manage their Subjects, in such a manner, as may make them most susceptible of Poetry; and that is to find, or make them Religious; a Piece of Criticism, which has I know not how, escap'd all the French Criticks.

Your Lordship knows very well, that some of them, as for instance, Boileau discerning the actual Pre-eminence of the Ancients, have fondly believ'd, that they were superior to us by Nature; and that others, as Perrault, very justly disdaining to own such a natural Superiority, have very unjustly deny'd their actual Pre-eminence. The first Part of the following Treatise, was intended to shew, that the Ancient Poets had that actual Pre-eminence, but that they deriv'd it from joining their Religion with their Poetry; upon which I believe, they were thrown at first by Chance. The Design of the second Part is to shew, That the Moderns, by incorporating Poetry with the Religion reveal'd to us in Sacred Writ, may come to equal the Ancients. But Two Things must always be suppos'd; the one, That the Poets have Force and Skill equal to the Subjects they treat of; and a Sacred Subject requires ten Times more of both, than a Prophane one. The other is, That this is not to be extended to those sorts of Poetry, in which the Moderns cannot possibly make use of their Religion, with the same Advantage, that the Grecians and Romans employ'd theirs, as Epic, Pastoral, and Amorous Poetry.

My Lord, The ultimate End of the ensuing Discourse, is to shew, That the Intention of Poetry, and the Christian Religion, being alike to move the Affections, they may very well be made instrumental to the Advancing each other. I have Reason to believe, that this Design will not be unacceptable to your Lordship, not only upon the Account of Religion itself, but as you are an Encourager of Arts, and a great Statesman, who knows, that the bare Endeavour to advance an Art among us, is an Effort to augment the Learning, and consequently the Reputation, and consequently the Power, of a great People; That the Flourishing of the establish'd Religion, must have a necessary Influence upon the Publick Prosperity; That he who does any Thing to recommend Christianity to the Minds of others, endeavours to promote the Common Good; as, on the other side, he who breaks in upon the Revelation, makes a dangerous Attempt, not only upon the Constitution, but upon Government in general; That there never was, nor ever can be, any flourishing Government without a Reveal'd Religion; That several Englishmen have lost, together with the Religion of their Ancestors, their Honour, their Integrity, and their Publick Spirit; and, that open and avow'd Deism has grown up among us, together with abominable Corruptions, not only in the Manners of Private Men, but in the Administration of Publick Affairs.

But now, my Lord, I have been so intent upon my Cause, that it has almost made me forget, that for my having detain'd you so long, I ought to beg Pardon, not only of your Lordship, but of your Friends and the Publick. That by writing this, I am guilty of diverting you from writing or speaking yourself, something which is much more important, either at Home, or in that Illustrious Assembly, of which you are so solid and shining an Ornament. I humbly desire of your Lordship, to excuse the Liberty I have taken, and to believe, That I am, with the profoundest Respect,

My LORD,

Your Lordship's most Oblig'd,

Most Humble, and most

Obedient Servant,

JOHN DENNIS.


[sigs A2v-A8]