John Dryden, Aphra Behn, & Alexander Pope


John Dryden's Biography

(1631-1700), was the outstanding English writer of the Restoration period (about 1660 to 1700). He excelled as a poet, dramatist, and literary critic. Dryden was born in Northamptonshire, and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. He began writing after moving to London in the late 1650's. Dryden wrote only poetry at first, but later began writing plays to make a living. His finest play is All for Love (1677), an adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Dryden simplified Shakespeare's story and concentrated on the tragic passions of the two famous lovers. He also wrote the heroic drama The Conquest of Granada (1670, 1671), and the sophisticated comedy Marriage a la Mode (1672).
Dryden's best poems sprang from his involvement with political controversies. In 1668, he was appointed poet laureate and in 1670 became the royal historiographer. He became involved in political disputes between King Charles II and Parliament. A Tory, he joined the king against the Whigs. Dryden's poem Absalom and Achitophel (1681) is a brilliant political satire based on Absalom's rebellion against King David, which is described in the Old Testament. The Medal (1682) is an even more biting attack on the Whigs. His most famous poem, MacFlecknoe (1682), is a satire written in mock-epic style against a literary foe, Thomas Shadwell.
William and Mary, who were Protestants, became king and queen in 1689. Dryden refused to swear allegiance to the new rulers, and he lost his government positions. He wrote a few plays and poems after 1688, but spent much of his time translating works to support himself. Dryden also wrote much literary criticism. His best works include An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), which expresses his admiration for Shakespeare; and his preface to a collection of fables published in 1700, in which he praised Chaucer.

Dryden's "Essay on Dramatic Posey"

To begin then with Shakespeare; he was the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the Images of Nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily : when he describes any thing, you more than see it, you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation: he was naturally learn'd; he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature; he look'd inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is every where alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of Mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his Comick wit degenerating into clenches; his serious swelling into Bombast. But he is alwayes great, when some great occasion is presented to him : no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of the Poets, Quantum lent a solent,inter viberna cupressi. The consideration of this made |Mr.| Hales of Eaton say, That there was no subject of which any Poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better treated of in Shakespeare; and however others are now generally prefer'd before him, yet the Age wherein he liv'd, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Johnson never equall'd them to him in their esteem : And in the last Kings Court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the Courtiers, set our Shakespeare far above him.
Beaumont and Fletcher of whom I am next to speak, had with the advantage of Shakespeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improv'd by study. Their Plots were generally more regular then Shakespeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they understood and imitated the conversation of Gentlemen much better; whose wilde debaucheries, and quickness of wit in reparties, no Poet can ever paint as they have done. This Humour of which Ben Johnson deriv'd from particular persons, they made it not their business to describe: they represented all the passions very lively, but above all, Love. I am apt to believe the English Language in them arriv'd to its highest perfection; what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous then necessary. Their Playes are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the Stage ; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Johnsons: the reason is, because there is a certain gayety in their Comedies, and Pathos in their more serious Playes, which suits generally with all mens humours. Shakespeares language is likewise a little obsolete, and Ben. Johnson's wit comes short of theirs.
As for Johnson, to whose Character I am now arriv'd, if we look upon him while he was himself, (for his last Playes were but his dotages) I think him the most learned and judicious Writer which any Theater ever had. He was a most severe Judge of himself as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works you find little to retrench or alter. Wit and Language, and Humour also in some measure we had before him ; but something of Art was wanting to the Drama till he came. He manag'd his strength to more advantage then any who preceded him. You seldome find him making Love in any of his Scenes, or endeavouring to move the Passions ; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such an height. Humour was his proper Sphere, and in that he delighted most to represent Mechanick people. He was deeply conversant in the Ancients, both Greek and Latine, and he borrow'd boldly from them: there is scarce a Poet or Historian among the Roman Authours of those times whom he has not translated in Sejanus and Catiline. But he has done his Robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any Law. He invades Authours like a Monarch, and what would be theft in other Poets, is onely victory in him. With the spoils of these Writers he so represents old Rome to us, in its Rites, Ceremonies and Customs, that if one of their Poets had written either of his Tragedies, we had seen less of it then in him. If there was any fault in his Language, 'twas that he weav'd it too closely and laboriously in his serious Playes; perhaps too, he did a little to much Romanize our Tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latine as he found them : wherein though he learnedly followed the Idiom of their language, he did not enough comply with ours. If I would compare him withShakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct Poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or Father of our Dramatick Poets; Johnson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing ; I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.

"An Essay on Dramatic Poesy" Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpret
1. What does Dryden say about Shakespeare's lack of a formal education? What do his words tell you about his opinion of Shakespeare?
2. Identify two faults Dryden finds in Shakespeare's work and two favorable observations he makes. Why might Dryden have pointed out Shakespeare's faults?
3. How does Dryden explain the greater popularity of Beaumont and Fletcher's works over those of Shakespeare and Jonson?
4. In comparing Jonson and Shakespeare, what does Dryden note about each? In your own words, explain the distinction Dryden is making.

Evaluate and Connect
5. Why do you think Dryden cites the opinion of "Mr. Hales of Eton" and that of Sir John Suckling? Explain your answer.
6. Do you think Dryden's tone (see page R17) in this essay is appropriate? Why or why not?7. Theme Connections: How might critiquing the talents and shortcomings of various dramatists have aided Dryden in his work as a playwright? How might critiquing authors be of help to you? Explain.

Aphra Behn's Biography

Aphra lived for a time in Surinam, an experienced that inspired her first novel, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). She was married for a short time and widowed at age 25. She secured employment as a spy for King Charles II and was sent to Belgium in this capacity. The King refused to pay her return trip, however, and after borrowing the funds to return, she was thrown into debtor's prison.
After leaving prison, Aphra worked hard to make sure she was always capable of supporting herself. She became a successful London playwright and then a novelist. She wrote poetry, feeling that this form allowed her to express her "masculine" side.
Aphra's opinions were unconventional, and because she openly expressed her viewpoints in her lifestyle and through her writing, she was seen as scandalous. As scandalous as her reputation was to some, her work was well-admired by others and she earned the nickname "The Incomparable Astrea" (referring to her spy codename of Astrea) from these admirers.

Behn's "On Her Loving Two Equally"

How strong does my passion flow,
Divided equally twixt two?
Damon had ne'er subdued my heart
Had not Alexis took his part;
Nor could Alexis powerful prove,
Without my Damon's aid, to gain my love.

When my Alexis present is,
Then I for Damon sigh and mourn;
But when Alexis I do miss,
Damon gains nothing but my scorn.
But if it chance they both are by,
For both alike I languish, sigh, and die.

Cure then, thou mighty winged god,
This restless fever in my blood;
One golden, pointed dart take back:
But which, O Cupid, wilt thou take?
If Damon's, all my hopes are crossed;
Or that of my Alexis, I am lost.

"On Her Loving Two Equally" Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpret
1. According to the first stanza, why does the speaker find it hard to make up her mind?
2. What does the speaker do when she is alone with Alexis? What does she feel when she spends time alone with Damon?
3. What does the speaker do when she is near both men? What do the words she uses to describe her state at such times suggest about her personality and how she views her situation? Explain.
4. What does the speaker ask of Cupid? For what, do you think, is she actually asking?

Evaluate and Connect
5. What is the speaker's tone, or attitude toward her subject? Use details from the poem to support your ideas. (See Literary Terms Handbook, page R17.)
6. In your opinion, is the speaker's situation realistic? Do you think it is possible for someone to be in love with two people at the same time? Why or why not?

Alexander Pope's Biography

(1688-1744), was the greatest English poet of the early 1700's. His brilliant verse satires ridiculed many kinds of human follies. Pope's biting wit made him one of the most feared writers in England. Pope wrote in heroic couplets, with two rhymed lines of 10 syllables each. His polished, concise verse shows a keen feeling for sound and rhythm. Pope has become one of the most quotable poets. He wrote many famous lines, including a couplet from An Essay on Criticism that expressed his literary creed: "True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd."
Pope's career can be divided into three periods. During the first period, from about 1709 to 1715, he wrote An Essay on Criticism (1711). This witty poem about criticism and writing made him famous at the age of 23. It includes two famous lines: "A little learning is a dangerous thing" and "To err is human, to forgive divine." Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714) is the most famous mock-epic poem in the English language. In the poem, Pope satirizes the vanities of fashionable people. The Rape of the Lock tells about a pretty young woman whose lock of hair is snipped off by a suitor at a party.
During his second period, from 1715 to 1726, Pope devoted himself to translating and editing. His translation of the Greek epic poem the Iliad (1715-1720) made him financially independent. With the profits, Pope bought a villa at Twickenham in 1719, and spent most of his remaining years there writing. During his last period, Pope wrote his most serious satires. They express his belief in the value of common sense, a moral life, friendship, poetry, and good taste. An Essay on Man (1733-1734) is a long, ironic, philosophical poem. It includes the well-known line "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." Pope's four Moral Essays (1731-1735) are satirical poems in the form of letters. One of these poems lightly exposes the follies that Pope saw in women, and another ridicules people who misuse wealth.
Pope's last major work was The Dunciad (1728-1743), an attack on dunces. The poem ridicules dull writers, biased critics, overly scholarly professors, and stupid scientists. Pope particularly ridiculed the critic Lewis Theobald and the writer Colley Cibber. Pope was born in London. At age 12, he suffered a tubercular spinal infection. As a result, he grew to an adult height of only 4 feet 6 inches (137 centimeters) and developed a hunchback. Pope was extremely sensitive about his appearance.

from Pope's Epigrams

from "An Essay on Criticism"
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow drafts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

In wit, as Nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip or eye we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.

True wit is Nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.

Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such, Who still are pleased too little or too much.

Regard not then if wit be old or new, But blame the false, and value still the true.

We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.

Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.

Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.

For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

from "Moral Essays"
'Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.

from "An Essay on Man"
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.

All Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
A wit's a feather, and a chief's a rod;
An honest man's the noblest work of God.

Pope's Epigram Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpret
1. What ideas about wit do the epigrams express? Support your answer by citing specific examples from the selection.
2. According to the epigrams, which human qualities does Pope consider most important? Explain your answer.
3. How would you describe Pope's attitude toward learning? Cite two epigrams that support your view.
4. Reread the epigram on page 541 that ends 'Whatever is, is right." Explain the message you think Pope is trying to convey in this epigram.

Evaluate and Connect 5. Look back at the sayings you listed for the Reading Focus on page 539. Which of Pope's epigrams would you add to your list? Why?
6. What view of human nature do Pope's epigrams seem to suggest? Support your answer using specific examples from the epigrams. Do you agree with this view? Give reasons for your answer.
7. If you were writing epigrams for today's audience, what topics would you write about? Why? Try to write one on your own.
8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined the epigram as "A dwarfish whole, / Its body brevity, and wit its soul." How does his definition describe Pope's epigrams?

from Pope's "Essay on Man"

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

from An Essay on Man Discussion Questions

Recall and Interpret
1. What advice does the speaker offer in lines 1-2? What attitude toward God do these lines convey?
2. To what is the human condition compared in line 3? What does this metaphor (see page R9) tell you about humanity's "middle state'?
3. In your own words, explain the attitude expressed in the poem toward human nature.

Evaluate and Connect
4. What is the main idea, or theme of the poem? Cite examples that help develop this theme. (See Literary Terms Handbook, page R16.)
5. Do you agree with Pope's description of people? In your opinion, does the description still apply today? Explain your answer.
6. In An Essay on Man, Pope remarks that humans are "the glory, jest, and riddle of the world." Give an example from history of how humans have been (1) the "glory," (2) the "jest," and (3) the "riddle" of the world. Explain.