1711
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Reflections upon An Essay upon Criticism.

Reflections critical and satyrical, upon a late Rhapsody call'd, An Essay upon Criticism. By Mr. Dennis.

John Dennis


John Dennis ridicules Alexander Pope's concern (which he shared with and adapted from Horace) for the stability of language. Against Pope, Dennis maintains that while language changes, the standard of linguistic harmony is fixed, and that poets who write during a classical age will therefore not go out of date as long as the language survives. For this reason, Chaucer, who wrote while the harmony of poetry was immature, is out of date, while "Spencer is obsolete, yet is still renown'd" — because, presumably, his numbers are accurate despite his antiquated diction.

Whatever the merits of the argument, Dennis is notable for thus placing Spenser, who wrote before Waller and Denham, among the modern poets. Believing this, an eighteenth-century writer might imitate Spenser rather than simply modernize or refine him; as indeed writers like Congreve and Prior had already done to general applause. "Young Mr. Bayes" is adapted from the term of abuse applied to Dryden in The Rehearsal.

William Lisle Bowles: "Let me be here indulged in speaking somewhat more particularly of this extraordinary man. At the time of the first appearance of Pope as a poet, he had long been considered as the most learned critic of the age. In his youth he had associated with the first characters, particularly Congreve, &c. He had corresponded once with Dryden, who seems to bear the most willing testimony to his acquirements and talents. Even after the declared hostility of Pope, those who most favoured the cause of the rising bard, did not speak with disrespect of the veteran critic. Dennis, no doubt, considered, that the grounds which the young candidate for fame had gained, himself lost; and an additional sting was, therefore, given to his severity" Works of Pope (1806) 1:xxxv.

Thomas De Quincey: "I once collected his ridiculous pamphlets to oblige Wordsworth, who (together with S. T. C.) had an absurd craze about him" in Dennis, Critical Works, ed Hooker (1939) 2:lxxii.

Edmund Gosse: "Dennis has been resolutely misjudged, in consequence of his foolish attitude towards his younger contemporaries in old age, but in his prime he was a writer of excellent judgment. He was the first English critic to do unstinted justice to Milton and Moliere, and he was a powerful factor in preparing public opinion for the literary verdicts of Addison" Short History of Modern English Literature (1897) 200.




In the 28th Page there are no less than two or three Absurdities in the compass of four Lines.

Now length of Fame our second Life is lost,
And bare Threescore is all ev'n that can boast.
Our Sons their Fathers failing Language see,
And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be.

Now what does young Mr. Bayes mean by "our second Life," and by "bare Three-score"? If he speaks of himself, and means threescore Days, he means too much in Reason: But if he speaks of Chaucer, Spencer, and Shakespear, and means threescore Years, he means too little in Conscience. 'Tis now a hundred Years since Shakespear began to write, more since Spencer flourished, and above 300 Years since Chaucer died. And yet the Fame of none of these is extinguish'd. The Reason that he gives for this is false too.

Our Sons their Fathers failing Language see,

Mr. Waller may suffice to shew the Falsity of this. 'Tis above threescore Years since that Gentleman began to write, and yet his Language is still good and new. Thus we find that the Assertion is false here, the Reason of it false; and we shall find anon that the Inference is false too.

And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be;

That is, shall grow obsolete and neglected, and be either forgot, or be read but by a few.

Whether the Language of Mr. Dryden will ever be as obsolete as is at present that of Chaucer, is what neither this Author nor any one else can tell. For ev'ry Language hath its particular period of Time to bring it to Perfection, I mean to all the Perfection of which that Language is capable. And they who are alive cannot possibly tell whether that period hath happen'd or not: If that period has not yet happen'd; yet 'tis not the Obsoleteness of Language which makes a Poet fall from the Reputation which he once enjoy'd, provided the Language in which that Poet wrote was at the Time of his Writing come to be capable of Harmony. For Spencer is obsolete, yet is still renown'd. That which makes an Author fall from his former Reputation, is, says Boileau, in his seventh Reflection upon Longinus, his not having attain'd to that Point of Solidity and Perfection, which are necessary to give a never dying Esteem to his Works. For Example, says he, the Latin Tongue in which Cicero and Virgil wrote, was already very much alter'd in the Time of Quintilian and of Aulus Gellius; and yet Cicero and Virgil were more esteem'd when those Criticks wrote, than they were in their own Age, because they had as it were by their Writings fix'd the Roman Language, having attain'd to that Point of Solidity and Perfection which I have mention'd above.

If we reflect upon that miserable Tast which reigns now among our Readers, and that want of Genius which is so deplorable in our present Writers, and that Tast and Genius daily more and more decline, we may without being Prophets foretel, according to the foremention'd Observations of the Solidity and Perfection of Poems, that the Language is not like to alter to the Disadvantage of those Poets, whose Works are the only Remains of them here below. But be that as it will, yet this is certain, that Mr. Dryden had one Quality in his Language, which Chaucer had not, and which must always remain. For having acquir'd some Justness of Numbers, and some Truth of Harmony and of Versification, to which Chaucer thro' the Rudeness of the Language, or want of Ear, or want of Experience, or rather perhaps a mixture of all, could not possibly attain, that Justness of Numbers, and Truth of Harmony and of Versification can never be destroy'd by any alteration of Language; and therefore Mr. Dryden whatever alteration happens to the Language, can never be like to Chaucer.


[pp. 18-20]