Of all the great English poets, Dryden must be the least enjoyed. Once honoured 'rather in the stiffness than in the strength of his eminence', he was soon 'laid carefully away among the heroes', according to Mark Van Doren, the critic who is still, nearly a century on, the most persuasive of his would-be resurrectors. The same melancholy afflicts his most authoritative modern biographer, James Anderson Winn: 'Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.' The difficulty is not confined to students, or to recent times. 'I admire his talents and Genius highly, but his is not a poetical Genius,' Wordsworth said; perhaps predictably, since his notion of poetry differed from Dryden's as much as Romantic 'imagination' differed from Augustan 'wit'. But here is Dr Johnson: 'to write con amore . . . was . . . no part of his character.' Verse starved of parental love may well have problems attracting affection later. T.S. Eliot took a charitable interest in the case in 1921, but his contribution is rather reminiscent of Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre enjoining the Lowood girls to be glad of their burned breakfast: 'We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden.'
LRB 19 July 2007 | PDF Download