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Lisideius refers to Sir Charles Sedley, and Neander (“new man”) is Dryden himself.The extends far beyond these two topics, effectively ranging over a number of crucial debates concerning the nature and composition of drama.Crites cites a further reason from Corneille: the unity of action “leaves the mind of the audience in a full repose”; but such a unity must be engineered by the subordinate actions which will “hold the audience in a delightful suspense of what will be” (41).
The first of these debates is that between ancients and moderns, a debate that had intermittently surfaced for centuries in literature and criticism, and which acquired a new and topical intensity in European letters after the Renaissance, in the late seventeenth century.
Traditionalists such as Jonathan Swift, in his controversial (1704), bemoaned the modern “corruption” of religion and learning, and saw in the ancients the archetypal standards of literature.
Crites claims that the ancients observed these rules in most of their plays (38–39).
The unity of action, Crites urges, stipulates that the “poet is to aim at one great and complete action,” to which all other things in the play “are to be subservient.” The reason behind this, he explains, is that if there were two major actions, this would destroy the unity of the play (41).
Eugenius (meaning “well-born”) may be Charles Sackville, who was Lord Buckhurst, a patron of Dryden and a poet himself.
Crites (Greek for “judge” or “critic”) perhaps represents Sir Robert Howard, Dryden’s brother-in-law.
This is an interesting and important argument which seems to have been subsequently overlooked by Alexander Pope, who in other respects followed Dryden’s prescriptions for following the rules of “nature.” In his , Pope had urged that to copy nature is to copy the ancient writers.
Dryden, through the mouth of his persona Eugenius, completely topples this complacent equation: Eugenius effectively turns against Crites the latter’s own observation that the arts and sciences have made huge advances since the time of Aristotle. it follows that poesy and other arts may, with the same pains, arrive still nearer to perfection” (44).
However, with the restoration of the dead king’s son, Charles II, to the throne in 1660, Dryden switched sides, celebrating the new monarchy in his poem is written as a debate on drama conducted by four speakers, Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander.
These personae have conventionally been identified with four of Dryden’s contemporaries.