The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 34. His Great Qualities as a Writer of Verse and Prose
Dryden’s great literary achievements and his great literary qualities were not, and could not be, ignored by his own age, nor have the generations which succeeded been willing or able to belittle them. More than any of his contemporaries, he is entitled to be called the father of modern English prose; while, as to English verse, the next generation might refine and, in some respects, improve upon its model, but this model could be no other than “Timotheus” himself. Congreve, to whom, in his latter years, Dryden confidently looked to continue his literary influence, said of him that he was equally excellent in verse and in prose, and it would be difficult to dispute the truth of the saying. His verse exhibits his chosen metrical instrument, the heroic couplet, in the fulness of its strength; but, when he returned to blank verse, as a dramatist, he used it with notable effect; and it has been seen how varied was his command over lyric measures, from that of the “Pindaric” ode to those suited to the subtle madrigal or simple hymn. The metrical qualities of his verse will be discussed elsewhere; but its one pre-eminent quality, the infinitely varied and always rightly judged distribution of movement in the line or couplet or stanza, can hardly be termed a metrical quality only. It depends largely on sureness of tact, rapidity of insight and absolute self-confidence in the rejection of all means not leading directly to their end. Whether extreme passion or profound emotion—whether love, hatred, anger, contempt, exultant joy, poignant grief—calls for expression within the limits of the line or couplet, immediate room, precise place, exact emphasis is found for each word or clause. And the economy is not less striking than the abundance in this feast of words. There was, in the days of Cowley, “plenty enough, but the dishes were ill-sorted”; Dryden knew how to forego, instead of sweeping in. The poetic instrument remains wholly in the service of the player’s hand; and, on each occasion, it seems to give forth in perfection the music which that occasion demands.
Dryden’s prose combines with an unprecedented ease of flow, and a forcible directness common to all he wrote, a lucidity of arrangement and a delicacy of nuance alike largely due to French example—nor can we err in regarding Corneille as having largely influenced the style of his earlier, and Montaigne that of his later, prose writings. The debt of later English prose to Dryden is inestimable; we have it on Malone’s personal testimony that the style of Burke was “originally in some measure founded on that of Dryden,” on which he had “often heard Burke expatiate with great admiration” and whom, as Malone thought, Burke resembled more nearly than he did any other great English writer.