John Dryden Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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Article abstract: Poet, playwright, satirist, translator, and critic, Dryden was the central literary figure in the English Restoration period.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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John Dryden Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Dryden was the eldest of fourteen children in a landed family of modest means whose sympathies were Puritan on both sides. Little is known of his youth in Northamptonshire, for Dryden, seldom hesitant about expressing his opinions, was reticent about details of his personal life. At about age fifteen, he was enrolled in Westminster School, then under the headmastership of Dr. Richard Busby, a school notable for its production of poets and bishops. Having attained at Westminster a thorough grounding in Latin, he proceeded to Cambridge, taking the B.A. in 1654. After the death of his father brought him a modest inheritance in the form of rents from family land, Dryden left the university and settled in London. Though little is known of his early years there, he served briefly in Oliver Cromwell’s government in a minor position and may have worked for the publisher Henry Herringman. He produced an elegy on the death of Cromwell, yet when Charles II ascended the throne, Dryden greeted the new ruler with a congratulatory poem, Astraea Redux (1660). After the Restoration, he turned his main interest to the drama, producing an insignificant comedy, The Wild Gallant, and collaborating with Sir Robert Howard on a heroic play, The Indian Queen. He married Lady Elizabeth Howard, Sir Robert’s sister, a marriage that brought him a generous dowry and, eventually, three sons in whom he took pride.

Throughout his career, Dryden was no stranger to controversy, whether literary, political, or religious; in fact, he seemed all too eager to seize an occasion for polemics. In literature, he challenged Sir Robert Howard’s views on drama, Thomas Rymer’s on criticism, and the John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s and Thomas Shadwell’s on questions of literary...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

John Dryden Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Dryden was the eldest of fourteen children in a landed family of modest means whose sympathies were Puritan on both sides. Little is known of his youth in Northamptonshire, for Dryden, seldom hesitant about his opinions, was reticent about his personal life. At about the age of fifteen, he was enrolled in Westminster School, then under the headmastership of Richard Busby, a school notable for its production of poets and bishops. Having attained at Westminster a thorough grounding in Latin, he proceeded to Cambridge, taking the B.A. degree in 1654. After the death of his father brought him a modest inheritance in the form of rents from family land, he left the university and settled in London. Though little is known of his early years there, he served briefly in Cromwell’s government in a minor position and may have worked for the publisher Henry Herringman. He produced an elegy on the death of Cromwell, yet when Charles II ascended the throne, Dryden greeted the new ruler with a congratulatory poem, Astraea Redux. After the Restoration, he turned his main interest to drama, collaborating with Sir Robert Howard on one heroic play. He married Lady Elizabeth Howard, Sir Robert’s sister, in 1663, a marriage that brought him a generous dowry and eventually three sons in whom he took pride.

Throughout his career, Dryden was no stranger to controversy, whether literary, political, or religious; in fact, he seemed all too eager to seize an occasion to express his views on these subjects. In literature, he challenged Sir Robert Howard’s views on drama, Thomas Rymer’s on criticism, and Rochester’s and Thomas Shadwell’s on questions of literary merit and taste. After receiving encouragement from Charles II, he entered the political controversy over succession to the throne with Absalom and Achitophel. Later...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

John Dryden Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Dryden (DRI-duhn) was born in the village of Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England, on August 19, 1631, the fourteenth child of Erasmus and Mary Pickering Dryden. His family owned land in the area and was identified with the Puritan cause, which Dryden later rejected. Little is known about his childhood, since Dryden was reluctant to record events of his personal life. At about age fifteen, he was enrolled in Westminster School in London, an institution noted for its production of poets and bishops during the seventeenth century. The curriculum stressed not only classical learning but also original poetic composition in Latin and English. Following a thorough grounding in Latin classics under the headmaster, Dr. Richard Busby,...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

John Dryden Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Dryden’s amazingly varied literary production adapted the classical poetic genres to the England of his day. He sought to enrich the national literature and to serve as an instructor of manners and morals for his society. His appeal is primarily to reason, not to emotion.

His classical sense of polish enabled him to perfect the heroic couplet and make it the dominant verse form in English. His prose remains a model of lucid, idiomatic, and graceful writing.

(The entire section is 79 words.)

John Dryden Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Dryden (DRID-uhn), English poet, dramatist, and critic, was born at Aldwinkle All Saints, in Northamptonshire, probably on August 19, 1631. He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1654.

After honoring Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, in Heroic Stanzas, he welcomed the restoration of Charles II in 1660 in Astraea Redux. Thereafter he remained a staunch royalist and a Tory. Dryden in 1663 married Lady Elizabeth Howard and proved an affectionate father for their three sons. His poem on the Dutch war and the great fire of London was Annus Mirabilis. From this time until 1681 he produced plays.

His...

(The entire section is 840 words.)