BOOKS: THE ART OF CRITICISM: 11 FAMILIARITY

In the first place, as he [Chaucer] is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practised by few writers, and scarcely by any of the Ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace. One of our late great poets is sunk in his reputation, because he could never forgive any conceit which came in his way; but swept like a drag-net, great and small. There was plenty enough, but the dishes were ill sorted; whole pyramids of sweetmeats for boys and women, but little of solid meat for men. All this proceeded not from any want of knowledge, but of judgment; neither did he want that in discerning the beauties and faults of other poets; but only indulged himself in the luxury of writing; and perhaps knew it was a fault, but hoped the reader would not find it. For this reason, though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer; and for ten impressions which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are scarcely purchased once a twelve-month for, as my last Lord Rochester said, though somewhat profanely, Not being of God, he could not stand.

John Dryden:

Preface of `Fables Ancient and Modern' (1700)

- BUT this is olde speake! sneered Jasper when I handed the Dryden folder through the coffee-house window. Haven't you heard - every critic needs to theorise his or her own practice.

- You'd be better off watching the Chippendales: the semiotics of the body is where it's at now, said McMoon. Don't you try and historicise critical practice.

- But, I began, this is where it all started. Didn't George Watson -

- Not the good George Watson? interrupted Jasper.

- No, the other one, quoth McMoon.

- Didn't George Watson in The Literary Critics explain that "descriptive criticism" began in the 17th century with John Dryden? And since I've read his entire critical oeuvre , I intend to speak up for him.

- For Dryden?

- Yes, homage to, as T S Eliot said.

The two slouchers fell asleep and I explained.

Explained what?

Only that criticism begins with the concept of familiarity - as in familiar conversation, or that now old-fashioned term "the familiar letter" (Dryden often cast his prefaces as letters). So the easy naturalness of friends talking, sharing an idea, a silence, the soodling, doodling, negligent drawl of the spoken word, maybe savouring its droniness or skipping off at a droll tangent - so and so's affair, cures for hangovers - all these and more belong, or used to belong, in criticism. The deaths or illnesses of friends, wrinkling skin and fading memory, feelings of loneliness and anxiety, the funniest story you ever heard tell, this sort of personal stuff might find its way into critical writing.

Accidence, Yeats called the trivial bits. Meaning the mental dross and irrelevance that fills the mind of the writer sitting down to breakfast. Like toast crumbs and bits of broken eggshell, they belong in the loose seamy web of criticism. (A couple of weeks back, you said absolutely no breakfast! Jasper has just interrupted.) So let me explain that there's the heroic marching line - the critic leading us forward down a long straight road with themes to one side and imagery to the other - and there's also the kerbside shuffle, the dander, the drunken homeward stagger, the flourish of Corporal Trim's cane in Tristram Shandy:

Of course, this is to be more than fair to Dryden. Here he's engaged in elbowing a now almost forgotten poet called Abraham Cowley out of the limelight. Cowley's poems were selling steadily at the time, so Dryden is anticipating the enormous decline in his reputation which later came about - not unhelped by little shoves like this one.

The relaxed, exact idiom ("but swept like a drag net, great and small") has a deft spoken quality, and this being conversation it's not above a bit of name-dropping - Dryden boasts of the friendship he had with the wild and brilliant poet, Lord Rochester, while at the same time dissociating himself from that rake's double entendre.

But over it hangs the fact that this early type of criticism is addressed to men only. It employs "manly" and "masculine" as positive critical terms, sometimes employs sexual innuendo, and would be rendered speechless by critical essayists like Susie Bright who discuss lesbian lovemaking in their work. So there is a curious kind of continuity here, and there is also a rather contemporary distinction between the great and the good.

The "great", Dryden implies, is something so fixed and canonical that it cannot be displaced, though it need not be attended to - an anthology- piece like Wordsworth's "Daffodils" or Arnold's "Dover Beach" which is concreted into position and is simply there. Or perhaps "great" is a pro- visional critical category poised on the brink of oblivion? Something so visible we don't see it?

Not so the "good" - a poem by Clare or Clough which isn't glazed over by successive readings. Or a Jacobin novel like Godwin's Caleb Williams, which will never attain the recognition and status of Jane Austen's Emma.

Nobody reads Dryden these days, but for anyone who wants to go back to the wellspring of criticism, this exemplary writer must be read. Cautious, taciturn, possessing a sweet consensual tolerance, this ancient Jacobite found himself trapped in what he called "a stupid military state". He disliked William of Orange, but - as McMoon will say when he wakes - was that ever a reason for rejecting someone?

Next week: Prophecy

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower