John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England


Exposition must be both literal and allegorical. To convey what this means, it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses . The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that with his lyre Orpheus tamed wild beasts and made trees and rocks move toward him, which is to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow tender and humble and moves to his will those who do not devote their lives to knowledge and art; and those who have no rational life whatsoever are almost like stones.

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils; as, for example, in the Gospel we may discover that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, of the twelve Apostles he took with him but three, the moral meaning of which is that in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.

The fourth sense is anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power. In this kind of explication, the literal should always come first, as being the sense in whose meaning the others are enclosed, and without which it would be impossible and illogical to attend to the other senses, and especially the allegorical. It would be impossible because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to arrive at the inside without first arriving at the outside; consequently, since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal.



To instruct delightfully is the general end of all poetry. Philosophy instructs, but it performs its work by precept; which is not delightful, or not so delightful as example. To purge the passions by example is therefore the particular instruction which belongs to Tragedy. Rapin, a judicious critic, has observed from Aristotle, that pride and want of commiseration are the most predominant vices in mankind; therefore, to cure us of these two, the inventors of Tragedy have chosen to work upon two other passions, which are fear and pity. We are wrought to fear by there before our eyes some terrible example of misfortune, which happened to persons of the highest quality; for such an action demonstrates to us that no condition is privileged from the turns of fortune; this must of necessity cause terror in us, and consequently abate our pride. But when we see that the most virtuous, as well as the greatest, are not exempt from such misfortunes, that consideration moves pity in us, and insensibly works us to be helpful to, and tender over, the distressed; which the noble consider the most god-like of virtues. Here it is observable that it is absolutely necessary to make a man virtuous, if we desire he should be pitied: we lament not, but detest, a wicked man; we are glad when we behold his crimes are punished, and that poetical justice is done upon him.

Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked; Phaedra, for instance. Shall we therefore banish all characters of villainy? I confess I am not of that opinion; but it is necessary that the hero of a play be not a villain; that is, the characters, which should move our pity, ought to have virtuous inclinations, and degrees of moral goodness in them.


Dryden is the more modern philosopher for saying that “example” (the flesh of fiction) is more “delightful.”

Dante says the “example” is simply a matter of what we experience first so we may comprehend the secret of the moral.

Dante has it right, for he sees morals correctly as a secret; for why bother to expound (in fiction or otherwise) what is self-evident?   Secrecy is loved for itself by the genius. Dante: “truth is hidden beneath the cloak of beautiful fiction.”  “The third sense is the moral that teachers should intently seek to discover…”  And just so we get it, in Dante’s example: “in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.”  Dante “encloses” three levels of knowledge within a first level, the literal, and we can see if we try, in what appears to be a bit of pedantic prose, the grand design of the Commedia itself.

Dryden worries that “chief characters” not be “too wicked,” but Dante worries not: his “characters” can be as “wicked” as he wants them to be, enclosed as they are in the moral levels of Dante’s fiction, while the “chief character” is Dante, the poet himself.

Genius extends its fiction to the very form of the work itself, to the walls and passageways, where the poet and the poem walk through the mists of the moral plan.




  1. Drew said,

    May 30, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Yo – I do not even gots to READ THIS –
    Dryden won before this was post was even conceived.

    John Dryden, Poet Laureate of England, reign forever.

    I contest the outcome of this round.

  2. Drew said,

    May 30, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    And dig my double dithyrambic “was”…


  3. thomasbrady said,

    May 31, 2014 at 10:06 am


    I thought Wordsworth crushing Hegel was interesting. Anglo-American Empire environmentalist pragmatics destroys Continental grande republic idealism.

    And Freud rising up like a world stalking zombie to destroy Trotsky.

    Dante is homely and pedantic-seeming, but don’t let that fool you. He is like a boa constrictor sent by God.

    Only 3 more first round contests left: Philip Sidney v. Boccaccio. Saussure v. Jung. Northrop Frye v. Barthes.

  4. Drew said,

    May 31, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    OK bloss – it’s your blog and it’s your baby.

    Poetry still ROCKS !! And so does Scarriet.

    (Dante – he’s the guy that had that thing goin’ on w/ Beatrice, right?
    Went to hell and all of that?)

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 31, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      Ya. He found her in Paradise.

  5. Drew said,

    June 1, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Upon re-reading this, I like what both of them say.
    Both believe that poetry should transmit a moral message.
    Both poets are didactic – one implicitly and one explicitly. But I love Dryden’s satiric art.

    I have appreciated Dryden’s verse ever since I read brief sections of “Absalom and Achitophel” in the Oxford Anthology years ago.
    I have never read D’s Inferno – only looked at the pictures by Gustave Doré;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: