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

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