Article abstract: Poet, playwright, satirist, translator, and critic, Dryden was the central literary figure in the English Restoration period.
John Dryden was born August 19 (New Style), 1631, probably in the rectory of his maternal grandfather, in Aldwinckle, Northamptonshire. His mother was Mary Pickering, the niece of the substantial landholder Sir John Pickering. His father was Erasmus Darwin, who, although the youngest son of his family, had been given a considerable parcel of land in Northamptonshire. Although members of the Church of England, both the Drydens and the Pickerings were Puritans.
The oldest of fourteen children, John may have begun his education in a village school or at home, continuing at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He wrote poems even as a schoolboy, and although they are not impressive, their existence does indicate the creative impulse. His university record was not distinguished, yet his presence at Cambridge during a time when it was the center of philosophical and religious speculation, led by the Cambridge Platonists, obviously stimulated Dryden’s own questionings, which were to take him into Roman Catholicism.
After the death of his father in 1654, Dryden left Cambridge to take up his responsibilities as the new head of the family. It is unclear whether he held a minor post in Oliver Cromwell’s government; he may simply have been preoccupied with family matters. At any rate, he must have been practicing his craft. In 1659 appeared his first mature published poem. Heroic Stanzas, written “to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell.” Every line evidences Dryden’s mastery of his craft. The subject matter, too, is significant, a preoccupation of Dryden in his later heroic tragedies and poems: the necessity for a man of stature, who, transcending the mob, can lead his society from chaos to order. With this poem, Dryden’s literary career began.
When he began his career as a poet, Dryden was in a very different situation from that of many of his contemporaries. A portrait shows him as a handsome, well-dressed aristocrat, secure in his social position, yet with warm eyes and a generous mouth, which predict later kindness to those less fortunate. Dryden had a comfortable income. He also had contacts which would propel him into the highest circles of English society: for example, Sir Robert Howard, the son of the Earl of Berkshire and a tested Royalist, whose friendship was helpful now that Charles II had returned from France as king. Dryden’s next poem, Astraea Redux (1660), promised a new golden age in England, under the reign of Charles. Other poems followed: “To His Sacred Majesty,” on the coronation (1661); “To My Lord Chancellor” (1662), a tribute to Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, a loyal supporter of both Charles I and Charles II who now had received his reward; “To My Honor’d Friend Dr. Charleton,” published in 1663 along with the scientist’s book on Stonehenge. It was Charleton who recommended Dryden for inclusion in the newly chartered Royal Society. Thus, despite his Puritan background, Dryden was now a member of the inner circle of Restoration society, known to the court as a loyal supporter of Charles II.
Dryden’s association with the Howards was important both in his personal life and in his literary career. In 1663, he married Sir Robert’s sister, Lady Elizabeth, and by 1669, they had three sons. Meanwhile, he was also involved in Sir Robert’s theatrical ventures. When the English theaters were reopened after their suppression by the Puritans, it was Sir Robert Howard who joined with Thomas Killigrew to construct a new building for the Theatre Royal company. For that company Dryden wrote his first play, a comedy titled The Wild Gallant, which was performed in 1663. Although the play was not successful, it did start Dryden on a career as a dramatist which was to include the writing of comedy, tragedy, tragicomedy, and opera, and which would not be concluded until six years before his death.
After the production of a rhymed tragicomedy and a collaboration with Howard, The Indian Queen (1664), a highly successful and lavishly staged play about Montezuma, Dryden wrote The Indian Emperor: Or, The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards (1665), which also dealt with the Aztecs. In it appeared Nell Gwyn, who was to become a famous actress and the favorite mistress of Charles II. At this point, bubonic plague hit England, sending the Drydens fleeing to the country. After the Great Fire burned much of London in 1666, Dryden wrote one of his finest poems, Annus Mirabilis (1667), which celebrated the incontestable courage of Charles and his leadership of the country in times of crisis.
As the decade concluded, Dryden’s fortunes continued to rise. Financially, he was doing so well that he could lend a considerable sum to Charles II. His plays were successful. In 1668, he was created poet laureate; shortly afterward, he was made Historiographer Royal, with a sizable pension. In 1670, the ten-act The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, his most famous heroic play, was the talk of London. Meanwhile, Dryden defended his literary practice with critical works which are still among the most lucid ever produced. An Essay of...
(The entire section is 2216 words.)