Poets as critics

August 28, 2016


Portrait of Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller. — Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller. — Wikimedia Commons

The most instructive literary criticism — which illuminates the work of writers by revealing those aspects of their craft that elevate a given subject matter into art and, in the process, establishes the essential principles on which great literature is founded — has been written by some of the finest poets, and is a tradition that goes back over 2,000 years to Horace’s Ars Poetica and in English to Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (1595). In the 17th century, the major poets wrote a lengthy preface highlighting their critical thinking when publishing a new work, a practice that was later adopted by novelists, of whom Joseph Conrad and Henry James produced definitive essays concerning the form of the novel. It is the poets, however, who have remained studiously drawn to a critical analysis of poetical creation in the wider context of art in general, and of some of the earliest prefaces in English literature, those by John Dryden (1631-1700) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744), are of fundamental importance.

A preface allowed the writer a chance to answer criticisms of an earlier work or address some hotly debated issue of the time, and, most importantly, gave the writer a platform from where to broadcast a justification of his or her style, which might be perceived as confusing or obscure or significantly at variance from that of their contemporaries. Of course, this was a self-promoting opportunity that allowed a mediocre writer to claim an airy notion of his avant-garde genius — because there’s nothing easier than to give a pompously profound interpretation to a pile of clichés — but for the serious writer, the preface could serve as a declaration of independence from the dull and repetitive practice of one’s contemporaries.

In the preface to his play, All for Love (1678), Dryden, writing in the curious spelling and punctuation of his time, states: “Poets themselves are the most proper, though I conclude not the only Critiques. But till some Genius as Universal, as Aristotle, shall arise, one who can penetrate into all Arts and Sciences, without the practice of them, I shall think it reasonable, that the Judgment of an Artificer in his own Art should be preferable to the opinion of another man.” It is a declaration that will lend authority to the critical writings of succeeding master artificers among the poets, such as that by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the 20th century.

John Dryden and Alexander Pope’s expressions of what constituted a great poem set an example that has been followed by several modern poets writing in English

Dryden adds an important qualification to the kind of poet whose judgement is to be trusted: we must disregard the criticism of poets who are “brib’d by interest, or prejudic’d by malice”; for too often a portentous critical posturing is merely a veil drawn across shameful self-promotion or the seizing of an occasion to attack another writer whose success diminishes one’s own.

Then there is “the Crowd”, as Dryden calls the majority of readers, who have “a gross instinct, of what pleases or displeases them”; these are people, and they are the majority in any age, who come to a new work with their minds made up, who are often heard to say “I know what I like”, implying that anything that does not fall into the pattern of their preconception is to be scornfully avoided as if it were a vile breath in an atmosphere of perfumed air; among them each individual is convinced that his is the correct instinct, one that overrides any differing critical appraisal, and rejects originality that is expressed as formal experimentation.

Next, Dryden shoves aside the hordes of untalented writers with an elegantly expressed, nasty remark, “Men of pleasant Conversation (at least esteem’d so) and indu’d with a triffling kind of Fancy, perhaps help’d out with some smattering of Latine, are ambitious to distinguish themselves from the Herd of Gentlemen, by their Poetry”. These, he adds, getting nastier still, “expect the same approbation from sober men, which they have found from their flatterers after the third Bottle”.

Dryden might have been aware of the self-reflexive irony of his remarks. In making the qualification that the criticism by some writers is prejudiced by malice against their contemporaries and is calculated to assert their own comparative superiority, he is, by implication, singling out himself as one who is exempt from such a low motive. In scorning popular taste, he is attributing to his own work an originality that the Crowd ought to appreciate; and in nastily dismissing most of his contemporaries as untalented pushers who acquire an eminent reputation through literary politics, he is presenting himself as above such reprehensible gamesmanship — which, of course, is one more trick of that very gamesmanship. The reason why we relish his remarks over three centuries later, and applaud as delicious wit what he expressed as nasty abuse, is that he has been correct all along, what he says remains true; most importantly, his work continues to impress, and be an important source of learning and influence, while the self-promoting pushers of his time who tried to knock him down have long been deservedly forgotten.

That revelatory digression about literary politics aside, Dryden’s preface to All for Love is a description of his attempt to forge an original dramatic style. His was a reckless fit of arrogance to undertake to write a play about Antony and Cleopatra after Shakespeare’s unforgettable version of that tragedy. It was madness to think he could match Shakespeare’s description, spoken by Enobarbus, of Cleopatra coming down the river to meet Antony that begins, “The barge she sat in like a burnished throne” — which, containing such phrases as “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety”, is one of the most memorable passages in literature. Yet, Dryden gets away with daylight robbery of some of Shakespeare’s images by planting them in some fine phrasing of his own and, instead of making a lowly character utter so elegant a speech, he makes the imperious Antony do so, coming from whom the refined, poetical language sounds more natural.

In some of his earlier work, he had borrowed the style of the French playwrights, notably his contemporary Jean Racine, writing the dialogue in rhyming couplets that drew special attention to the speech, and structuring the action close to the classical unities of ancient Greek drama so favoured by the French. In All for Love, Dryden abandoned the rhyming couplets for Shakespearean blank verse, but adhered loosely to the unities to create an absorbing drama that focuses on the tragic end of history’s famous lovers. Surprisingly, its fascination as a dramatic spectacle is not diminished by the audience being reminded of the magnificence of Shakespeare’s language which, even when watching Dryden’s play, throbs like a ticking bomb in one’s mind with a memory of exploding in the final scene when Cleopatra, about to kill herself, says, “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have/Immortal longings in me”. Dryden’s was a brave attempt that manages not to be blown away by the explosive power of Shakespeare’s language, and his preface serves to present an acceptable explanation, if not a justification, of his method. And what’s more, like much of the criticism written by writers of undeniable eminence, the range of his references engages the reader in a comparative estimation of the formal variety of the art being discussed.

In this case, Dryden’s discussion makes us re-envision the great range of the theatrical spectacle as it parades across our imagination — from Greek drama and morality plays to 20th century minimalism, which reached its epitome with Samuel Beckett’s Breath, a play that, without a character on stage and no words spoken, said everything about human experience — and in the process we find ourselves reflecting on some of our own ideas on the subject of theatrical form and style, and wishing that some of our contemporary playwrights would take the trouble to do so too before presenting more outdated Ibsenite characters shouting at each other on the stage. In surrendering himself to Shakespeare’s influence, Dryden risked being called a mere imitator. It’s a risk to be recommended to all aspiring writers: ignore what’s currently the successful formula, find out by reading extensively what appeals to your imagination as the very best that has come before you, and from it extract your aesthetic inspiration.

In his concluding remark to his preface to All for Love, that Shakespeare’s achievement makes it impossible to praise “any who come after him”, Dryden adds, “Yet I hope I may affirm, and without vanity, that by imitating him, I have excell’d my self throughout the Play”. That “and without vanity” is charming! However, it’s no immodest boast for one who creates language like:

O that I less cou’d fear to lose this being,
Which, like a Snow-ball, in my coward hand,
The more ’tis grasp’d, the faster melts away.

This is the quality of language that asks for no paraphrase, no translation of imagery into thought; it just explodes. And, while the creative inspiration has come from a deliberate attempt to assimilate Shakespeare, the perfect formulation of the sentence (composed to flow naturally across three lines, each a precise unit of iambic pentameter, in which the central pictorial image of the snowball is bang in the centre of the sentence) is Dryden’s.

There’s much to learn also from Dryden’s prefaces to his comedies, especially the one to An Evening’s Love in which he discusses the formal practice of the great dramatists and poets who came before him on the English stage and in Europe, pointing out how one generation borrows from another and thus creates a series of bumps of originality on literature’s silk road that cuts across national boundaries. He makes the important point (which, over 300 years later, some writers and readers have still not grasped) that “the Story is the least part” of a literary work, it is like a precious stone that receives its brilliance from the jeweller’s art and becomes less or more beautiful depending on the setting the jeweller is capable of designing for it. “The price lyes wholly in the workmanship”, he states, a remark that many writers have accepted as a self-evident truth ever since.

It was an idea taken up by Dryden’s immediate successor, Alexander Pope, whose first major poem, An Essay on Criticism, written when he was barely 20, repeats the idea as a fundamental credo of the poet’s art in couplets that have long since been taken for axiomatic truth:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.


True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Incidentally, people often use the sayings, “To err is human, to forgive divine”, and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, believing they are repeating ancient proverbs. They are quotations from this poem.

Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Well known as the author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan, his books of criticism include Shakespeare’s Mortal Knowledge (Macmillan, 1993) and Beckett’s Company (OUP, 2009). He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.
Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Well known as the author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan, his books of criticism include Shakespeare’s Mortal Knowledge (Macmillan, 1993) and Beckett’s Company (OUP, 2009). He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

Pope’s preface to his translation of Homer’s Iliad is full of the same quality of proverbial wisdom and it would not be an exaggeration to say that, as a work addressing the composition of literature, it ranks with such primary documents as Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica. Setting out to describe and celebrate Homer’s achievement and in order to reveal its excellence in the context of the highest art, Pope advances a comprehensive statement of what constitutes great art.

He begins by declaring that Homer had “the greatest invention of any writer”, emphasising the word “invention”, which in the critical vocabulary of the time compressed within it several ideas concerning artistic creativity, especially the poet’s richness of imagination, that uniquely transformed human experience into a revelatory spectacle of universal truth. Most popular writers, Pope asserts, create an ordered garden in a conventional layout but Homer’s “work is a wild paradise”, so prodigious is his invention. In proceeding to describe Homer’s method of cultivation that created such a paradise, Pope enumerates the elements of his technique, and thus produces what amounts to a manual of good writing.

Pope first identifies Homer’s cardinal principle of composition: whatever happens in his story, “you are not coldly informed of what was said or done as from a third person; the reader is hurried out of himself by the force of the poet’s imagination, and turns in one place to a hearer, in another to a spectator”. All experience is transmitted through the senses, even the metrical measures of Homer’s lines transmit a music to the inner ear and enrich the sensation vibrating within the reader, and consequently each image lights up a “poetic fire” in our brains “till we see nothing but its own splendour”. This poetic fire is discerned in Virgil, says Pope, but only as “reflected from Homer”, it “glows like a furnace” in Milton and in Shakespeare it strikes “like an accidental fire from heaven”, but it is only in Homer that “it burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly”. Pope then presents a detailed analysis of Homer’s invention of the tripartite fable in which the action is “divided into the probable, the allegorical, and the marvellous”; his description of the marvellous element in Homer’s narrative reads like a definition of magical realism, and this is what makes his preface such a timeless compendium about the art of writing. Many of the defining terms that critics have elaborated over the centuries are already there in his preface.

And he’s correct on the subject of style. For example, one often comes across writers praised for their simplicity. Their dull, short sentences are quoted by critics who praise them as being “deceptively simple”, as if puerile ignorance is a subtle virtue, and should one point to the insipidity of the writer’s style, the remark that it is deceptively simple is repeated as the ultimate compliment which overrides any objection. They should remember what Pope says in his preface: “no author is to be envied for such commendations, as he may gain by that character of style, which his friends must agree together to call simplicity, and the rest of the world will call dulness”.

Much has been written, discussed and argued about translation over the centuries. Referring to the translator as the “interpreter”, Pope settles the issue in one sentence: “It is the first grand duty of an interpreter to give his author entire and unmaimed; and for the rest, the diction and versification only are his proper province, since these must be his own, but the others he is to take as he finds them.” But some translators, he remarks, are deluded “by a chimerical, insolent hope of raising and improving their author”, and he cites the Chapman translation — the one made famous by Keats’s On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer — as an example, enumerating its many faults and dismissing it as “something like what one might imagine Homer himself would have writ before he arrived at years of discretion”.

The vocabulary has changed over the centuries, the critical discussion has become more discursive with new terms and definitions entering into the literary lexicon, but the essential substance of all that’s relevant to good writing is present in these essays by Dryden and Pope, who were themselves masters of their art. Their comprehensive envisioning of what constituted a great poem and expressing it in a language which is a pleasure to read set an example that has been followed by several modern poets writing in English, from Ezra Pound’s essays early in the 20th century to John Ashbery’s Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000). Add to them the essays by such eminent poets as Octavio Paz and Paul Valéry from other languages, and there’s no superior body of critical literature to instruct a new generation of writers and scholars and to draw them into the magical glow of creation that shimmers as a divine presence in the human soul. By contrast, the critical writings by professors of literature, even some notable ones like F.R. Leavis, whose New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) helped establish and popularise early 20th century modernism, have fallen into neglect and their ideas have become stale, redundant and irrelevant. And almost as if it sought compensation for that irrelevance, academic criticism has assumed the affected superiority of a pseudo-scientific aura and adopted a vocabulary of intimidating obfuscation which, when you take the trouble to penetrate, turns out to be veils of jargon wrapped around banal ideas.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 28th, 2016