Controversy #8 (Fall 1998)

"The quality of Dryden"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #8: This is yet another way to ask the question we encountered in Fall 1998 Controversy 1--is this literature, and even if it is "literature," is it any good? This relates to Virginia Woolf's famous question, "why are we still reading this?" Think of how small the Norton anthology might be if we ditched a few of the older works! But on what grounds do we include or exclude works for study? In graduate school, we approach literature like scientists do insects or sub-atomic particles: none are unworthy of study. However, the construction of a "canon" of works and authors considered essential to the language's development requires that we exclude some to concentrate on others. What qualities does Joe use to determine Dryden's canonical status, and do you agree with his application of them? Participants are Joe Kranak, Amy Dill, and Arnie.

 "The quality of Dryden," Joe Kranak, 11/19/98

Dryden is so heavily footnoted with references to all kinds of things that we wouldn't know of, things that only his contemporary readers would understand, not footnotes that we might know of, such as references to great literature or classical mythology, that it makes it difficult to appreciate Dryden and makes me wonder about his greatness. He can neither delight nor instruct us because he is speaking to his contemporaries and his contemporaries only. His instruction is for the people of his time and his humor can't be understood by any but his contemporaries. I can't understand the humor in "Mac Flecknoe" nor does it matter to me what he is saying about Shadwell (except insofar as it is part of this class) . The intro to Dryden says he is "the author in whose work the image of an age can be discerned," but in doing so he becomes bound to that age. One of the tests of literary quality that Arnie listed was "Praise by the most good readers for the longest time," and I would just like to ask what people think of the quality of Dryden.

"The clash of writers," Amy Dill, 11/23/98

When we usually read works by women and they are grouped together, male writers aren't included for that days reading. So I was surprised that Arnie had grouped a man with two female writers, until I read their works that is. Rochester is obviously a very raunchy writer (to say the least) and at first I was a bit puzzled as to why he was included with Astell and Lanyer until I realized that Rochester is the exact type of man that both women are writing about. He represents everything that they despise about men. It made Astell and Lanyer's works even more compelling.

 "Diverging Male and Female, or Diverging Court and City Interests?," Arnie, 11/23/98

Amy's point is exactly what I was hoping to achieve by grouping the three. The problem that remains for the first-time reader is determining whether Rochester's vast difference from Astell's temperament amounts to a schism opening wider between women and men, in general, or just a great gulf between the male aristocrats and the female ladies of the City of London? I'm inclined to think it's initially the latter, but the tendency of the rich middle-class (remember the Franklin re: his son?) to imitate the aristocrats' behaviors means that a very dangerous chain of influence has been set up. Clearly, Dorothy Osborne's brother, John, was not such a man as Rochester, but he certainly typifies, in his own way, the kind of marriage thinking that Astell was opposing. Try hard to determine the social rank of the characters referred to in the works we're reading after Thanksgiving Vacation. It becomes an important indicator of their probable morals and mores.

However, Joe's reaction to Dryden raises an additional issue that suggests some of the effects of "City" tastes' victory over the court. Dryden, though a City man, was deeply attached to Court values and sought to find a way to appeal to both. This gives his style its massive "learnedness" which piles up the footnotes with references to biblical and classical literature, contemporary politics, etc. My presentation of him all alone, without some "clash" figure, really put him at a disadvantage, I think, though I tried to fix that with a web link to John Cleveland's poetry so you could see the wretched stuff JD was writing to expose in his criticism. Then again, because most of the essays were literary criticism, even I (gasp!) didn't exactly warm to them until graduate school where they sparked some hot debates on a regular basis. Can any sort of "hard thinking" about literature ever meet the "universal appeal" standard?