The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 1. Dryden and his Age
“THE AGE of Dryden” seems an expression as appropriate as any description of a literary period by the name of a single writer can be, and yet, in one sense, it is a misnomer. On the one hand, in the chapter of English literary history which more or less covers the forty years between the restoration and the opening of the eighteenth century, not only is Dryden’s the most conspicuous personality, but there are few literary movements of importance marking the period of which he did not, as if by right divine, assume the leadership, and which did not owe to him most of what vitality they proved to possess. On the other hand, as has been again and again pointed out, Dryden, of all great English writers, and, more especially, of all great English poets, was the least original, the least capable of inspiring his generation with new ideas, of discovering for it new sources of emotion, even of producing new artistic forms. Many currents of thought and feeling suggested to him by his age were supplied by the power of his genius with an impetus of unprecedented strength; more than one literary form, offering itself for his use at an inchoate, or at a relatively advanced, stage of development owed the recognition which it secured to the resourceful treatment of it by his master-hand. Whether or not the debt which his extraordinary productivity as a writer owed to the opportunities given him by his times can be taken into account as against the transformation of his material by his genius may be regarded as a question open to debate. There cannot, however, be any doubt at all that neither can Dryden’s own achievements be appreciated apart from the influences of his age, nor is any judgment of the literary produce of that age, as a whole, to be formed without an estimate of his contribution to it being regarded as the dominant factor in the result. Thus, in an attempt to sketch, once more, the course of his literary endeavours, it would be futile to detach their succession from the experiences of his personal life, largely determined, as these were, by political reaction and revolution, and by other changes in the condition of the country and in that of its intellectual centre, the capital.