John Dryden as the Father of English Criticism

Question: What are Dryden’s contributions to English literary Criticism? Or, discuss John Dryden as the Father of English Criticism.


Dr. Johnson has called Dryden the father of English criticism in his renowned short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets “Lives of the English Poets”, (1779-81). “Dryden can rightly be considered the father of English criticism because he was the author who first taught us to determine the merits of writing,” said Dr. Johnson who was right to give this honor to Dryden because there had been no consistent critics in England before him. Though there were Sidney and Ben Johnson in the golden of English literature, they have made occasional observations without consistently doing critical work or establishing any critical theory.

The main idea of ​​Dryden’s criticism

According to Dryden, a critic must understand that a writer writes about his or her own era and the people he or she belongs to. He advised studying the ancient models closely so that they would not blindly imitate them but would consider them as a torch to illuminate their own path. Dryden claims that it is not the work of criticism to identify minor flaws but to discover the great beauty that makes it immortal.

The innovative method of criticism

“The Essay on Dramatic Poesy” is developed in the form of a dialogue between four different types of literary figures or four conversationalists representing a literary age. They are:

  • Crites speaks for the ancient dramatists
  • Lisideius speaks for the French.
  • Eugenius speaks for the English literature of the ‘last age.’
  • Neander speaks for England and liberty.

In this way, Dryden develops historical, comparative, and descriptive forms of criticism, and finally gives his own opinion through Neander’s answers. He respects ancient Greek and Roman principles but refuses to abide by their slavery, especially in the case of tragic-comedy and the observance of three dramatic unities. Thus Dryden began a great innovative path as the “father of English criticism”.

The historical method of criticism

Dryden was the first critic to use the historical method of criticism. He believes that every literary work bears the imprint of the age in which it was created. A literary work can be evaluated by placing it in the socio-historical context in which it is produced. Many of Shakespeare’s plays, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Ben Jonson’s comedies of Humor, or Bacon’s essays cannot be properly evaluated without setting them in the Elizabethan era. The proposition of Chaucer’s Canterbury story cannot be properly evaluated without the socio-historical background of medieval England. Dryden was the first critic to apply this historical method of criticism.

Descriptive Criticism

Among Dryden’s critical works, perhaps the most valuable passages are those that constitute descriptive criticism. In his excellent work “The Literary Critics”, George Watson divides literary criticism into three broad categories:

  • Legislative criticism, including rhetorical books.
  • Theoretical Criticism.
  • Descriptive Criticism.

Dryden is clearly the founder of descriptive criticism in English. Before him, all English literary critics, such as Puttenham, Sidney, and Ben Jonson, were theoretical critics. Sidney praised Shakespeare and commented on his contemporaries. Elsewhere, Dr. Johnson’s statement, “the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition”, proves that Dryden was the first in England to attempt extended descriptive criticism. So, Dryden is the father of descriptive criticism.

Comparative Criticism

According to Scott-James, “Dryden opens a new field of comparative criticism.” In the course of his critical works, Dryden critically compares Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Chaucer and Ovid, Chaucer and Boccaccio, Horace and Juvenal, ancient and modern drama, contemporary French and English drama, Elizabethan and Restoration drama, rhyme and blank verse as vehicles of drama, and so on. This method of comparative criticism is very rewarding and illuminating and a favorite instrument of modern critics.

Liberalism, Skepticism, Dynamism, and Probabilism

As a literary critic, Dryden was certainly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman critics such as Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace and later Italian and contemporary French critics such as Rapin and Boileau. But this influence did not go beyond a limit because he accepted the spirit of his period completely. His fundamental liberalism, skepticism, dynamism, and probabilism helped him to fight quite a few dogmas and conventions imported from abroad.


Dryden’s principal critic work is his Essay of Dramatic Poesy that establishes him as the first historical critic, first comparative critic, first descriptive critic, and the Independent English critic.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
Articles: 380

Leave a Reply

error: Sorry !!