Christiane Bimberg – Poetry as Procreation: John Dryden’s Creative Concept of Poetry and Imitation

Poetry as Procreation: John Dryden's Creative Concept of Poetry and Imitation1)

Christiane Bimberg

Published in Connotations Vol. 8.3 (1998/99)

1. Introduction

According to the Oxford English Dictionary 'to procreate' means "to bring forth or beget, produce, cause" or "to beget, engender, generate (offspring)." 'Procreation' is defined as "the action of procreating or begetting; generation, propagation of species; the fact of being begotten" or 'That which is procreated; offspring, progeny'" (554). Poetry as procreation thus touches the nature of how poetry comes into existence. In the course of literary and cultural history the production of poetry has been explained in diverse ways. To give just two especially striking examples: Plato doubted the ability of poetry to reflect reality objectively. He saw one of the reasons for its deficiency in imitating historical or empirical truth in the irrational way of its production by poets. At, nearly, the other end of the historical scale, the 20th century, Freud, in his psychoanalytic approach, explained the products of art as the result of the subconscious mind which meant, finally, in terms of mental illness or neurosis.

For Shakespeare poetry was indeed procreation. He often realized the idea in his sonnets, comparing the biological process of reproduction to the creative process of writing. But, whereas biological reproduction was to ensure the survival of the family, creating a sonnet or any other form of lyric poetry implied the possibility of passing the memory of persons and events on to posterity, i.e. of 'eternalizing' the poet's art and reputation.

It is this latter aspect which came to be heavily employed by Dryden in his views on patronage as expressed in the numerous dedications of [→page 305] his own works to various patrons and patronesses. In a similar way Sir Philip Sidney, at the end of his The Defence of Poesy, had already threatened the detractors of poetry with warning that

[you] never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph. (250)

Dryden was the most prominent Restoration playwright, poet, translator, adaptor and also the first professional theatre critic. He was deeply concerned with the process of creating poetry and scrutinized the making of diverse 'kinds' of poetry, i.e. poetic genres. References to poetry as procreation are numerous in his works. Above all he adopts the central idea embodied in the metaphor in order to describe not only the creative process of producing poetry (including drama according to the poetics of the time), but also to point out his own creative concept of imitation, which is at the heart of his aesthetics.

The metaphors often appear in the dedications, prefaces, prologues and epilogues attached to his own plays and have to be read in the context of the subjects dealt with in those texts or in the more fundamental discussions of poetics, adaptation, translation, criticism, and patronage. Consequently, literary−historical, literary−aesthetic, cultural and other forms of contextualization will be employed here. Taken together, the metaphors represent a climatical chain of associations that reaches from seeing poetry (1) as an act of procreation⁄creation to (2) poetry as giving birth, (3) poetry as a process of growing, and (4) poetry as child(hood)⁄kinship⁄genealogy.

2. Poetry as procreation

2.1. Poetry as creation⁄reproduction

(1) In the Dedication of The Rival Ladies (to the Earl of Orrery) Dryden describes the creation of the play, as to its details such as thoughts, characters, humours, plot etc., as a process resembling God's creation of mankind.2) He depicts in vivid terms from what chaos he started to mould his play: [→page 306]

My LORD, THIS worthless Present was design'd you, long before it was a Play; When it was only a confus'd Mass of Thoughts, tumbling over one another in the Dark: When the Fancy was yet in its first Work, moving the Sleeping Images of Things towards the Light, there to be Distinguish'd, and then either chosen or rejected by the Judgment: … . And, I confess, in that first Tumult of my Thoughts, there appear'd a disorderly kind of Beauty in some of them … . (8: 95)3)

The implied topical comparisons of divine and artistic creation carries with it a touch of Freud's description of the subconscious qualities of the creative process. Dryden refers to it again when he praises the poetic achievements of his patron and, with a characteristic touch of irreverence and humour, does not hesitate to include free will and divine providence in the discussion:

Here is no chance which you have not fore−seen; all your Heroes are more than your Subjects; they are your Creatures. And though they seem to move freely, in all the Sallies of their Passions, yet you make Destinies for them which they cannot shun. They are mov'd (if I may dare to say so) like the Rational Creatures of the Almighty Poet, who walk at Liberty, in their own Opinions, because their Fetters are Invisible; when indeed the Prison of their Will, is the more sure for being large: and instead of an absolute Power over their Actions, they have only a wretched Desire of doing that, which they cannot choose but do. (5: 97)

The passage occurs in a discussion about the use of rhyme in dramatic writing, and, what is more important, about the correlation of life and literature or, in other words, about the question whether a regular play can imitate life or reality.

Thus Dryden's depiction of creating poetry out of chaos points to his concept of a well−designed play which is consistently produced by the playwright in his full awareness of and superior control over the dramatic effects on the audience. He emphasizes aspects such as the consistency between the main action and the sub−plot, a focus on the main characters and incidents, and an internal logic and consistency, not least in the characterization of the dramatis personae. Dryden also places emphasis on a causal relationship between the incidents in agreement with the passions to be developed in the characters and the responses of the audiences, and, last but not least, he stresses the probability of representation (without the necessity of observing the dramatic unities).

[→page 307] (2) In a totally contrasting way to the noble metaphor of divine creation, Dryden, in the Prologue to An Evening's Love, depicts the creation of a poem or play very literally as the biological reproduction or propagation in the wedding−night of a young poet, who becomes a drudging husband later, when he has to work hard in order to please his audiences. This complaint has a strongly autobiographical touch since Dryden, at the time of the first performance of the play, had just become resident playwright of the King's Theatre. By contract he was obliged to do three scripts a year.4)

WHEN first our poet set himself to write,
Like a young Bridegroom on his Wedding−night
He layd about him, and did so bestir him,
His Muse could never lye in quiet for him:
But now his Honey−moon is gone and past,
Yet the ungrateful drudgery must last:
And he is bound, as civil Husbands do,
To strain himself, in complaisance to you:
To write in pain, and counterfeit a bliss,
like the faint smackings of an after−kiss
. (10: 214)

As it seems, the erotic, slightly bawdy language helped the prologue summon Restoration audiences to a play and secure their attention for the performance. The verse prologue is in fact a humorous discussion of the relationship between the playwright and his audiences in a nutshell.5) Dryden's relationship with his audiences, critics, patron−poets and patron−critics was a precarious one. His prologues and epilogues contribute to a social history of the Restoration theatre, illustrating characteristic modes of behaviour of diverse social groups of theatre−goers, be it in front or behind the stage. Dryden was in fact torn between his readiness to give in to contemporary tastes (for economic reasons) on the one hand and pungent mockery about certain audiences' lack of taste, being well aware of his own superiority as a person as well as an artist, and being, moreover, passionately keen on promoting the excellence of poetry and drama.

[→page 308] 2.2. Poetry as giving birth

(3) In the Preface to The State of Innocence (The Authors Apology for Heroique Poetry; and Poetique Licence) Dryden defines the nature of poetic licence as

… the Liberty, which Poets have assum'd to themselves in all ages, of speaking things in Verse, which are beyond the severity of Prose.'tis that particular character, which distinguishes and sets the bounds betwixtOratio soluta, and Poetry… . (12: 96).

He calls it

… that Birthright which is deriv'd to us from our great Forefathers, even from Homer down to Ben. And they who would deny it to us, have, in plain terms, the Foxes quarrel to the Grapes; they cannot reach it. (12: 96)

Dryden here expressly acknowledges the right of each poet and nation to develop their own poetry according to contemporary and national standards. Not only was each poet free to adapt works of his poetic and dramatic predecessors, but the whole nation should have its own poetry according to national quality criteria for poetry and national standards of criticism. Dryden always favoured a creative concept of imitation instead of a servile imitation of nature, imitation of nature meaning, in the Aristotelian sense of the term, a representation of reality without empirical or historical limitations. It was precisely the amount of invention in the process of imitation which for Dryden made all the difference between a servile copy and a creative new product and only legitimized the latter (Bimberg 1990: 19−22, 41, 115; Bimberg 1995: 17−18). Imitation of nature per se (or, according to M. H. Abrams, the mimetic concept of literature) was important for Dryden because he was convinced that only a perfect relationship between literary subjects, artistic means and writing strategies in literature could bring about the adequate representation of reality in poetry and ensure the intended impact on the audiences. (4) In the Prologue to Troilus and Cressida, Spoken by Mr. Betterton, Representing the Ghost of Shakespear, Shakespeare's ghost asks the audience where his dramatic successors are and criticizes the poor qualities of their plays, [→page 309] which are almost too bad to live up to their christening (their staging), after their birth (their composition). The passage has a humorously religious touch:

… Now, where are the Successours to my name?
What bring they to fill out a Poet's Fame?
Weak, short−liv'd issues of a feeble Age;
Scarce living to be Christen'd on the Stage!
For Humour farce, for love they rhyme dispence,
That tolls the knell, for their departed sence. (13: 249)

Dryden's sarcastic prologue touches the debate of ancient−vs−modern. In his famous An Essay of Dramatick Poesie of 1668 he displays his views through the opinions of Neander who preferred the contemporary English drama to the Elizabethan−Jacobean, the contemporary French and the ancient Greek drama. Scattered over his substantial oeuvre, however, are quite contradictory remarks on the superiority of either the Restoration or the Elizabethan drama. Dryden admired Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, and Jonson though according to him they lived in a less refined age.

(5) In the Epilogue to Circe, (In the Scott−Saintsbury Edition the Prologue to Circe, as corrected by Dryden, 10: 331) Dryden allows for a maturing process in young poets giving Shakespeare's Pericles as an example. Shakespeare, he says, must have given birth to it before he produced Othello:

Shakespeare's own Muse her Pericles first bore,
The Prince of Tyre was elder than the Moore:
'Tis miracle to see a first good Play,
All Hawthorns do not bloom on Christmas−day.
A slender Poet must have time to grow,
And spread and burnish as his Brothers do.
Who still looks lean, sure with some Pox is curst,
But no Man can be Falstaff fat at first… . (1: 158)6)

[→page 310] 2.3. Poetry as a process of growing

(6) In the Prologue to The Wild Gallant, as it was first Acted, two astrologers are to decide upon the fate, i.e. the theatrical success, of the play due to the stellar constellation. The second astrologer assures the audience:

This Play is English, and the growth your own;
As such it yields to English Plays alone. (8: 5)

Dryden thus affirms in a mocking way that as the play was produced in England it could only be judged according to English standards of criticism. The passage refers to the theatrical means employed in contemporary plays (among them devices 'borrowed' or taken from foreign plays) to satisfy audiences. It highlights, moreover, Fletchers's and Jonson's importance as models of wit. The greater significance of these statements, however, implies the relationship between writing and evaluating poetry. Dryden was deeply concerned with standards of judging contemporary poetry and drama in England (cf. comment on example 3 on poetic licence). This meant, first, no other criteria of judgment on poetry and drama should be applied than those valid at the time of the work's production. Second, these critical standards should have been observed by the authors.7)

(7) In the Prologue to the Tempest, or the Enchanted Island, Dryden describes his adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest in terms of new branches spreading from an ancient root:

As when a Tree's cut down the secret root
Lives under Ground, and thence new Branches shoot;
So, from old
Shakespear's honour'd dust, this day
Springs up and buds a new reviving Play:
… . (10: 6)

This simile goes together with reflections on Shakespeare's, Fletcher's, and Jonson's treatment of the subject. Needless to say, Shakespeare's magic is acknowledged by Dryden as superior to the other dramatic models and adaptations. According to Dryden's theory of dramatic adaptation, revising [→page 311] and brushing up older dramatic models was an integral part of the imitation of nature, which implied the imitation of material and spiritual reality including other poets' works. In the Preface to An Evening's Love Dryden expressly compares the poet⁄playwright to a gunsmith or watchmaker: The particular value of a piece of poetry does not consist in the subject−matter or poetic material, but in the craftsman's skill (10: 212).8)

For Dryden the most important aspect in adapting plays was his communication with the audience. The need to adapt Shakespeare, for instance, arose out of the changes in language, tastes, expectations, politics, the theatrical scene (e.g. the appearance of actresses), the building of the theatres, the performance practice, the special structure and status of the audience etc.. Shakespeare was regarded as not being modern and racy enough. He did not seem to fit the Restoration age any more, had become 'incompatible' and needed 'reconstruction.' The 'New reviving play' exactly expresses what Dryden's Shakespeare adaptations were seen to be by Dryden himself and in fact are: a revived Shakespeare, yet at the same time new plays of Dryden's own. For centuries, however, Dryden's Shakespeare adaptations have proved a touchstone for scholars. Today's evaluation depends on the perspective taken. When drama is regarded not just as text but as a complex, historically defined, and multimedial art form, Dryden's Shakespeare adaptations may be appreciated for their efficacy on the Restoration stage. Unqualified allegiance to the letter of Shakespeare's text, on the other hand, may lead to rejecting these adaptations as distortions of the original.

(8) In the Epistle to the Earl of Roscomon, on his Excellent Essay on Translated Verse, the speaker of the poem expresses the opinion that whereas the seeds of the arts and early sciences may have been borne on the Nile or the Tyrian shore, poetic translation as a noble plant first grew in Greek gardens:

WHETHER the fruitful Nile, or Tyrian Shore,
The seeds of Arts and Infant Science bore,
'Tis sure the noble Plant, translated first,
Advanc'd its head in Grecian Gardens nurst. (2: 172)

[→page 312] Dryden's conviction that Britain surpassed Greece, Rome, the 'barbarous nations,' Italy, and France, particularly in Charles II's reign, led, together with his creative concept of imitation, to his concept of creative verse translation. Imitation of nature in this context means an imitation of the mental product of another author, of mental reality, by translating another poet's poem. Dryden considered a verse translator to be a creative poet who transferred the old or foreign author into his own time and language, i.e. helped to 'naturalize' him as a contemporary in his own country and assimilated him to his own culture, in other words appropriated him in a similar way that a dramatic adaptor appropriated an already existent play.

Dryden differentiated between three kinds of poetic translation (metaphrase or literal translation, paraphrase or translation with a latitude; imitation or a free dealing with contents and meaning). Finally he regarded the middle way as the most adequate one. This is where poetic licence comes in. Some poetic freedom was required for the translator in order to convey the original language⁄contents⁄meaning into a different language and culture. For Dryden bridging the gap between his own time and the classics from Virgil to Milton was more important than a literal translation.

Moreover, during the process of studying and translating these authors he started to reflect on such important issues as the relationship between foreign and mother tongue. He closely studied the languages' semantic, syntactic and phonetic characteristics, the history of each language, as well as the different 'laws' of prosody and versification. Last but not least he arrived at important insights into the correlation of language and thinking, sound and meaning in verse and even came to formulate certain principles or guidelines for verse translations.

2.4. Poetry as child(hood)⁄offspring⁄kinship⁄genealogy

These metaphors rather tend to put emphasis on the result or product of procreation.

[→page 313] (9) In the Epistle To My Honored Friend, Sir Robert Howard Dryden praises the verse of Sir Robert Howard, his brother−in−law, that creates the impression of effortless harmony, whereas the poetic labour remains hidden for the recipient.9) Dryden searches for the hidden intricacies of Howard's composition and is sure that Howard's poetic product is the 'child' of craftsmanship rather than chance:

Sure that's not all; this is a piece too fair
To be the child of Chance, and not of Care.
No Atoms casually together hurl'd
Could e're produce so beautifull a world.
Nor dare I such a doctrine here admit,
As would destroy the providence of wit. (1: 17−18)

In the context of this passage Dryden refers to Howard's genius as being responsible for the achievement, which is not chaotic arbitrariness, and to the former status of poetry as a queen of moral knowledge which, in a way, foreshadows our 'normative functions.'

Dryden was a systematic writer whose literary work closely interrelated with his critical views. From his creative work he deduced recommendations for the process of composition in diverse poetic genres. His views on good and meaningful poetry are based on the right relationship between reality and literary representation, or, in other words, reason and imagination. His ideal poet would be fully aware of the effects of his writing strategies and deliberately employing his genre−, aim−, and effect−oriented artistic means and rhetorical devices in order to fulfill the poet's office of instructing in a delightful manner. Consequently, Dryden heavily criticized meaningless poetry based on bombastic sound and rhyming without substance and meaning. He made a plea for a poetry rich in substance and faultless in form (structure, language, metre, wording, syntax, style, sound) and based on an adequate relationship between meaning, sound, and metre. Wit actually becomes the most important category in Dryden's poetics, implying the desired correlation between language and thinking. Good sense and good nature are other modifying aspects worked out by him define exemplary poetry.10)

[→page 314] (10) In the Preface prefixed to the fables Milton is called "the poetic son" of Spenser, and Waller that of Fairfax (Scott, 11: 209−10).

… for we have our lineal descents and clans as well as other families. Spenser more than once insinuates, that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body; and that he was begotten by him two hundered years after his decease… . (Scott, 11: 210)

Dryden constructs a poetic genealogy in poetry and versification, a Chaucer−Spenser−Milton−branch and a Fairfax−Waller−branch. The context is the same as can be found in example 8 of section 2.3., i.e. a creative concept of verse translation.


11) In another passage from the Preface prefixed to the fables, Dryden elaborates on Chaucer's wrong, i.e. supposedly irregular metres and explains this with the fact that Chaucer

lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. (Scott, 11: 225−26)

The statement employs a conventional comparison of historical periods to stages in men's lives. It shows Dryden's air of superiority towards the medieval age. Chaucer's numbers sounded wrong to Restoration poets because of the changes in pronunciation and stress pattern that had occurred since Chaucer's time. Dryden's regarding Chaucer's age as culturally inferior sounds arrogant and seems to anticipate Pope's and Johnson's eager efforts to excuse Shakespeare's "defects" by references to the "barbarous" age in which he lived.

Sometimes the procreation metaphor is modified in the sense that Dryden interprets his own plays or poems as family members of offspring. Particularly in the dedications his works are often associated with delicate matters of patronage.

(12) In the Dedication of The Indian Emperor (to the Duchess of Monmouth) Dryden regards the dedication of his play to the patroness not as a present, but as a favour to the poor and compares this to the guardianship or adoption of a child from a poor background by a wealthy person:

[→page 315] For in this address I have already quitted the character of a modest Man, by presenting you this Poem as an acknowledgment, which stands in need of your protection; and which ought no more to be esteem'd a Present, then it is accounted bounty in the Poor, when they bestow a Child on some wealthy Friend, who can give it better Education. (9: 25)

(Dryden's) plays are expressly called 'offspring' and treated affectionately:

Offsprings of this Nature are like to be numerous with me, that I must be forc'd to send some of them abroad; only this is like to be more fortunate then his Brothers, because I have landed him on a Hospitable shore.

(13) In the Dedication of The Kind Keeper (to John Lord Vaughan) the political events surrounding The Popish plot of 1678 are compared to events on the stage and plays are termed 'brothers':


My Lord, I CANNOT easily excuse the printing of a Play at so unseasonable a time, when the great Plot of the Nation, like one of Pharaoh's lean Kine, has devour'd its younger Brethren of the Stage: … . (14: 3)

(14) In the Dedication of Marriage A−la−Mode (To the Earl of Rochester) the offspring metaphor is coupled with the topical offering of the first fruits:

In this Dedication therefore, I may seem to imitate a Custom of the Ancients, who offer'd to their Gods the Firstlings of the Flock, which I think they call'd Ver Sacrum, because they help'd 'em to increase. (11: 221; cf. Patronage, example 12 in 2.4.)

Creating poetry and imitating nature to Dryden is procreation. In this, he follows both (neo)classical and metaphysical traditions, being constantly aware of the public he was addressing in his prefaces, dedications, prologues and epilogues. Moreover, he did so at a time when, for example, drama underwent certain socio−economic changes such as the commercial publication of plays. Other factors were the birth of the professional bourgeois writer and critic, and the dwindling importance of royal or noble patronage, which, together with criticism, influenced Dryden considerably. At a closer look his procreation metaphors turn out to be a short−hand for his more fundamental views on poetics, dramatic adaptation, poetic translation, criticism, patronage, and literary history. They reveal his [→page 316] attitudes towards his audiences, critics, patrons, and also the state of the art of poetry and drama in his time.

Though still frequently presented in literary history as an old−fashioned, dull and rigid neoclassicist, Dryden in fact tried to dissuade his fellow−poets and playwrights from rigidly following the neoclassicist rules. Paradoxically, his conservative political views go along with a refreshingly modern aesthetics of poetry and drama which emphasizes literary and theatrical communication. Dryden did not emancipate himself from the Aristotelian rules (cf. Preface to Troilus, 6: 283; Heads of an answer to Rymer 17: 191), nor did he submit to any other critical authority. Yet he followed Aristotle closely as to his creative concept of imitation that found expression in the metaphor of poetry as procreation.

Universität Dortmund