BOOKS: THE ART OF CRITICISM: 11 FAMILIARITY
Sunday 19 March 1995
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.
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
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Fifty Shades of Grey trailer released: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
- 2 Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
- 3 50 books for students to read this summer: From Ernest Hemingway to Gillian Flynn
- 4 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 5 Rebecca Hall on her film career so far: ‘I’ve played too many repressed neurotics’
Hercules, review: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson takes centre stage in preposterous movie
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer released: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Game of Thrones Sansa Stark actress Sophie Turner stars in Bastille's 'Oblivion' video
50 Shades of Grey movie trailer declared sexy and sexist on Twitter
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia