Samuel Johnson wrote the following comparison between Dryden and Pope:

Pope had perhaps the judgment of Dryden; but Dryden certainly wanted the diligence of Pope. In acquired knowledge the superiority must be allowed to Dryden, whose education was more scholastick, and who before he became an author had been allowed more time for study, with better means of information. His mind has a larger range, and he collects his images and illustrations from a more extensive circumference of science. Dryden knew more of man in his general nature, and Pope in his local manners. . . . There is more dignity in the knowledge of Dryden, and more certainty in that of Pope.
        The style of Dryden is capricious and varied, that of Pope is cautious and uniform; Dryden obeys the motions of his own mind; Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden is sometimes vehement and rapid; Pope is always smooth, uniform, and gentle. Dryden’s page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope’s is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and levelled by the roller.
        Of genius, that power which constitutes a poet; that quality without which judgement is cold and knowledge is inert; that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates—the superiority must, with some hesitation, be allowed to Dryden. . . . Dryden’s performances were always hasty, either excited by some external occasion, or extorted by domestick necessity; he composed without consideration, and published without correction. What his mind could supply at call, or gather in one excursion, was all that he sought, and all that he gave. The dilatory caution of Pope enabled him to condense his sentiments, to multiply his images, and to accumulate all that study might produce, or chance might supply. If the flights of Dryden therefore are higher, Pope continues longer on the wing. If of Dryden’s fire the blaze is brighter, of Pope’s the heat is more regular and constant. Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with frequent astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight.

Can someone please explain or paraphrase Johnson’s writing? I don’t understand his distinctions between Dryden and Pope? They feel like elegant, but platitudinous, hokum.

2 Answers 2


This is a paraphrase of the Johnson's text quoted in the question. It is clear that Johnson sees differences between the two poets, thinking the one is capable of better work, but not consistently so, whereas the other more-or-less always produces equally good work.

Paragraph 1: Dryden was better educated, smarter, had deeper thoughts than Pope did.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Dryden is wild, Pope is tame.

Paragraph 3: Dryden was the better poet, Pope the easier to read.

To take one example. In paragraph 2, J says

The style of Dryden is capricious and varied, that of Pope is cautious and uniform; Dryden obeys the motions of his own mind; Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition.

That is, Dryden's style jumps like a goat, and is not always the same. Pope always writes the same way. Dryden writes down what occurs to him at the moment, but Pope always does it according to his carefully thought out method.


Jonson is distinguishing the new stylistic movement in English poetry--the protoromantic style--more emotional, egocentric, interested in "the mind's operation." This style develops from the mid Eighteenth Century, and is perhaps best exemplified in Wordsworth. The romantic style is to be contrasted with the neoclassical style, in this passage exemplified in Pope. The regular rhythms and rhymes of the couplet generally convey a logical point. This poetry is more about reason than emotion. Jonson expresses appreciation for both poets and styles.

  • 2
    Proto-Romanticism is well known in German literature (i.e. Sturm und Drang); in English Literature, William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience ( 1789–1794) are considered proto-romantic. Why do you think what Johnson describes refers to a proto-romantic style? (Dryden died in 1700, Pope in 1744.)
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 4, 2020 at 18:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.