Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea
Courtesy of John Dryden and Alexander Pope
John Dryden was formally educated, and like many people of means, may not have fully appreciated the advantages his education afforded him. Alexander Pope is the compelling foil for Dryden, having received no tutelage except that which he gleaned from “reading whatever he pleased” (2665). Despite these contrary educational backgrounds, the authors reach a consensus on learning and expressive thought.
Pope says, “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Springs,” suggesting that one must immerse oneself in the vast scope of all that is Knowledge, or refrain from flirting with its power, lest one becomes misguided and therefore only a scholar of little depth. This warning gives birth to his famous expression, “A little learning is a dangerous thing//…shallow draughts intoxicate the brain” (2674). If not careful, one falls into the trap of perpetuating false truths, having already deceived oneself with the “scope” of one’s perceived knowledge. Pope’s advice: ”…drinking largely sobers us again” (2674). The more we learn, the more substance and inspiration we have to draw from as artists and scholars.
At first glance, Dryden seems to run counter to this viewpoint of having external sources from which to inform-or direct-our thoughts, when considering the genius of Shakespeare. He says that “…[Shakespeare] was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature; he looked inwards, and found her there,” remarking how Shakespeare was insightful enough to reveal the elusive the mysteries of Nature with the substance of his prose. Yet, in the same breath, Dryden criticizes his form: “he [Shakespeare] is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast” (2254). How do we reconcile this seemingly juxtaposed viewpoint?
Dryden and Pope’s advice: Fashion raw talent with the trappings of Sensible Wit. By avoiding the extremes of being too flowery (and therefore lacking substance) and too bookish (and risk boring an audience with one’s pseudo-intellectualisms), a writer is ever closer to creating timeless work.
Advice for the Modern Writer
Though 17th century English analysis is vastly different from today’s world of criticism, Dryden and Pope’s view is applicable. An interesting example of where a schism between the two scholar’s philosophies concerning publishing would apply is with blog writing, a relatively new form of criticism.
Pope would shudder at the ease with which one can publish “uninformed” works, while the idea of inclusion and discussion the blogging world is founded upon would have tickled Dryden’s fancy of literary exposure as a catalyst for conversation.
Blogs are largely opinion-based, and often considered works of criticism themselves on various topics “supported” by “fact,” making them subject to scrutiny when considering their authenticity and artistry. Despite their opposing sentiments regarding blogs, both Dryden and Pope would agree that an artist wise enough to appreciate witticisms made at his expense will become the more astute for it, and so consider this jest a type of constructive criticism. If the essence of such wit escapes an artist, then the evolution of his or her artistry will suffer.
Posted by: Gigi Boudouani, Beth Felosi, Nicole Heyliger , Nicole Looper, Jeff Pearson