"Art hid with art": John Dryden's "Fables Ancient and Modern" as comic epic
In my dissertation, a study of John Dryden's Fables Ancient and Modern, I establish the Fables as an integrated, unified epic poem that focuses on the comic subject of love instead of the traditional tragic subject of epic poetry--war. Critics have generally overlooked this crucial step in the poetic tradition, declaring the 'death' of epic poetry in the Eighteenth Century but not seeing Dryden as a pivotal figure in the movement of the narrative tradition away from poetry to prose, specifically from the epic to the novel. The Fables forms so important a bridge because Dryden rejects the heroic tradition and its martial emphasis in favor of the 'domestic' impulse we have long recognized at the center of Richardson's novels. At the end of his career, after completing a monumental translation of Virgil, Dryden abandoned his plan to write an English epic because his considerable writings in and about the heroic led him to conclude that epic poetry on war was no longer feasible. Therefore he moved from this serious, heroic mode to the comic by 'domesticating' the hero and heroine and changing the subject from war to love. The twenty translations and original poems composing Dryden's Fables show variations on the Venus/Mars relationship that becomes Dryden's epic focus. In the critical Preface to the Fables Dryden discussed the original order of composition but then rearranged the poems with an intricate structural framework that produced a narrative based on interconnected sequentiality rather than a single, great action. Dryden's shift in epic sensibility strongly affected the next great Augustan poet, Pope, who, like Dryden, turned to the translation of a classical author rather than undertake an original epic and followed this success with a more overtly comic epic creation--the Dunciad. Henry Fielding proclaims his commitment to this change in the critical Preface to Joseph Andrews, when he calls his novel a 'comic epic poem in prose.'