The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 17. Drydens Work as a Dramatist
Dryden’s association with the stage was not a source of pride to himself, and can be regarded only with qualified satisfaction by the admirers of his poetic genius. That he attained to a very notable degree of success in almost every branch of dramatic literature which he essayed cannot be held surprising; but it was only in the heroic play, in which he strained every nerve to “surpass the life,” that he distanced all his rivals and followers. Although, at times, carried away by the impetus of his own genius, Dryden could not often put his heart into his dramatic composition, least of all into the comic side of it. He wearied of playwriting from the outset—frequently passing from one kind of play to another, and back again, but rarely satisfied with any phase of his endeavours. When, after a long interval of absence he returned to the arena in whose contests he had taken a prominent part, about whose theory and practice he had speculated widely and written at length, but which, at times, like Ben Jonson he was led to call the “loathèd stage,” it was with a sense of fatigued unwillingness which even the most overworked and blasé of modern playwrights, “still condemned to dig in those exhausted mines,” would be slow to avow.
This, of course, is not to say that Dryden failed to enrich English dramatic literature by much magnificent writing—more especially in his heroic plays—or to deny that at least one comedy (as we may call The Spanish Fryar) and one tragedy (All for Love) from his hand permanently hold their own among dramatic masterpieces of their respective kinds. It is of greater importance that, in Taine’s words, Dryden’s work as a dramatist “purified and clarified his own style” by teaching him closeness of dialectics and precision in the use of words; that, in it and by it, under the guidance of Corneille, he learnt the art of political oratory and debate, and, at the same time, attained to that mastery of the heroic couplet of which he was to make superb use in his satirical poems. Dryden, who, in these poems, was to show an unsurpassed power of drawing character, rightly recognised in its presentation the supreme function of the dramatist; but, the secret of exhibiting the development of character by action he was not able, unless exceptionally, to compass, and it was thus that he came to fall short of the highest dramatic excellence.