John Dryden has occupied an important position in the world of English literary criticism. He is known as “the father of English criticism”. This title “the father of English criticism” has been conferred upon him by Dr. Jonson, and later critics have without hesitation endorsed this judgement, For instance, Prof. Saintsbury observed that ‘Dryden set the fashion of criticising just as Shakespeare set the fashion of dramatising.” This remark of the great critic does not conflict with his own observation that Ben Jonson was, in many respects, the first critic of England. “Jonson. with his neo-classic temper, his concern for craftsmanship and polish. and his sense of involvement in the literary scene of his day. Foreshadows in some respects, both Dryden and Pope.” Dryden inherited the liberal classicism of Ben Jonson, but his critical range is far wider and his temper more tolerant, modest and urban than that of his pugnacious predecessor. Johnson’s criticism is brief, sketchy and meager in output, and Dryden in consequence, with a more diverse literary tradition behind him, and a much greater critical output remains the true father of practical criticism in England. His own changing tastes and interests helped to make him responsive to different kinds of literary skill and of artistic conventions, thus giving him that primary qualification of the good practical critic- the ability ot read the work under consideration with full and sympathetic understanding.
Freedom from personal bias or prejudice, catholicity of taste and broadness of outlook have generally been accepted as the cardinal virtues. But it must be said to the credit of John Dryden that he was the first example of the qualities in England. His practical criticism set a noble model before his successors, which has not lost its lusture till this day. He still remains a slanding embodiment of certain qualities which are of abiding significance in the field of practical criticism. These qualities may be described as a sturdy independence in matter of literary judgement, sensitiveness to literary values in whatever form or guise they are found to be present a genuine love for the true poetic quality or excellence united to a capacity for communicating it to others with contagious warmth and enthusiasm; wide and full informed acquaintance with diverse literary works of different ages and nationalities, and an easy control over all the effective modes and tools of practical or judicial criticism comparative. historical, analytical and psychological, a freedom from pedantry, a becoming modesty, combined with an intellectual daring and sleepless vigilance to detect elements of dross which often lie intermixed with purest gold in the works even of the greatest and best known masters; and last of all, a subtle argumentative skill, with a flexible and trenchant style.
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It, however, does not mean that Dryden is faultless. As a matter of fact, he has his limitations which no reasonable student should ignore or extenuate. “There are many things that are antiquated and conventional in his discussions of literary principles…. he had his share of the literary pedantries of his age. It is also true that his opinions are at times encumbered by the respect he feels himself bound to pay to established authorities, and sometimes he concedes to lack worm and compilation, as for instance, in much of his essay on satire, on Epic or Heroic poetry and on the parallelism between poetry and painting, and, at times, he thought too highly of Rapin and Bossu among critics, and of Fairfax and Walter among poets.”
But these and other limitations which the curious critical eye might discover in the miscellaneous body of Dryden’s critical output, should not be allowed to detract from his eminence as a literary critic from the essential sanity and soundness of his position and the perspicacity of his critical insight, in his best essays, to seize upon the fundamental features of individual writers and works of literature. In an age of changing critical values and of no small confusion about true critical criteria, he was able to keep up his balance of mind and to place literary criticism on a sound and solid footing for the guidance of the later practitioners of this art, for all those whose vision is unclouded and intellect steady in pursuit of the right ways and evaluation of literary masterpieces.