The Preface to Aristotle's Art of Poetry


The Augustan Reprint Society









Publication Number 76



William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

University of California

Los Angeles





Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan
Ralph Cohen, University of California, Los Angeles
Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles
Lawrence Clark Powell, Clark Memorial Library

W. Earl Britton, University of Michigan

Emmett L. Avery, State College of Washington
Benjamin Boyce, Duke University
Louis Bredvold, University of Michigan
John Butt, King's College, University of Durham
James L. Clifford, Columbia University
Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago
Louis A. Landa, Princeton University
Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota
Ernest C. Mossner, University of Texas
James Sutherland, University College, London
H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles

Edna C. Davis, Clark Memorial Library

[Pg i]


André Dacier's Poëtique d'Aristote Traduite en François avec des Remarques was published in Paris in 1692. His translation of Horace with critical remarks (1681-1689) had helped to establish his reputation in both France and England. Dryden, for example, borrowed from it extensively in his Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693). No doubt this earlier work assured a ready reception and a quick response to the commentary on Aristotle: how ready and how quick is indicated by the fact that within a year of its publication in France Congreve could count on an audience's recognizing a reference to it. In the Double Dealer (II, ii) Brisk says to Lady Froth: "I presume your ladyship has read Bossu?" The reply comes with the readiness of a cliché: "O yes, and Rapine and Dacier upon Aristotle and Horace." A quarter of a century later Dacier's reputation was still great enough to allow Charles Gildon to eke out the second part of his Complete Art of Poetry (1718) by translating long excerpts from the Preface to the "admirable" Dacier's Aristotle.[1] Addison ridiculed the pedantry of Sir Timothy Tittle (a strict Aristotelian critic) who rebuked his mistress for laughing at a play: "But Madam," says he, "you ought not to have laughed; and I defie any one to show me a single rule that you could laugh by.... There are such people in the world as Rapin, Dacier, and several others, that ought to have spoiled your mirth."[2] But the scorn is directed at the pupil, not the master, whom Addison considered a "true critic."[3] A work so much esteemed was certain to be translated, and so in 1705 an English version by an anonymous translator was published.

It cannot be claimed that Dacier's Aristotle introduced any new critical theories into England. Actually it provides material for little more than an extended footnote on the history of criticism in the Augustan period. Dacier survived as an influence only so long as did a respect for the rules; and he is remembered today merely as one of the historically important interpreters—or misinterpreters—of the Poetics.[4] He was, however, the last Aristotelian formalist to affect [Pg ii]English critical theory, for the course of such speculation in the next century was largely determined by other influences. None the less, his preface and his commentary are worth knowing because they express certain typically neo-classical ideas about poetry, especially dramatic poetry, which were acceptable to many men in England and France at the end of the seventeenth century. Dacier's immediate and rather special influence on English criticism may be observed in Thomas Rymer's proposal to introduce the chorus into English tragedy and in the admiration which the moralistic critics at the turn of the century felt for his theories.

In the very year of its publication Rymer read with obvious approbation Dacier's Poëtique d'Aristote. In the preface to A Short View of Tragedy (1692) he announced that "we begin to understand the Epick Poem by means of Bossu; and Tragedy by Monsieur Dacier."[5] That Rymer admired Dacier's strict formalism is plain, but he was especially moved by the French critic's argument that the chorus is the essential part of true tragedy, since it is necessary both for vraisemblance and for moral instruction.[6] He therefore boldly proposed that English tragic poets should henceforth use the chorus in the manner of the ancients, since it is "the root and original, and ... certainly always the most necessary part of Tragedy."[7] Moreover he praised (as had Dacier) the example of Racine, who had introduced the chorus into the plays that he had written for private performance, by the young ladies of St. Cyr—Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691). As is well known, he even went so far as to write the synopsis of what inevitably would have been an absurd Aeschylean tragedy on the defeat of the Armada.[8]

Rymer's proposal provoked a public debate, which was begun by John Dennis, at that time an almost unknown young critic. Though The Impartial Critick (1693) was directed against Rymer (who had given grave offence to Dryden and others by his attack on Shakespeare in the Short View), Dennis knew Dacier's ideas intimately, and his discussion of the chorus in the first and the fourth dialogues, is more directly a refutation of the French than of the English critic.[9] This lively treatise established whatever intimacy existed between young Dennis and the aging Dryden.[10]

Though Dryden avoided any extended public argument with Rymer, he obviously knew both the Short View and Dacier's[Pg iii] Aristotle. In the Parallel of Poetry and Painting (1695), he followed Rymer's lead in equating Dacier, the critic of tragedy ("in his late excellent Translation of Aristotle and his notes upon him"[11]) with Le Bossu, the framer of "exact rules for the Epic Poem...." But he disagreed with Dacier's opinions on the chorus and explained away Racine's use of it on the sensible grounds that Esther had not been written for public, but for private performances which gave occasion to the young ladies of St. Cyr "of entertaining the king with vocal music, and of commending their voices."[12] He also suggested the practical consideration that plays with choruses would bankrupt any company of actors because it would be necessary to provide a number of costumes for the additional players and to enlarge the stage (and consequently the theater) to make room for the choral dances.

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