Seldom has a writer of any nation dominated the literary life of his own time to the extent that John Dryden dominated English letters during the Restoration, alternatively known to literary historians as “the Age of Dryden.” For forty years he was recognized as England’s foremost poet, dramatist, critic, and translator, and he inaugurated an age of neoclassicism in English literature that endured for a century. Unlike Abraham Cowley, whose reputation suffered an eclipse before his death, “Glorious Dryden,” as Sir Charles Sedley called him, retained his exalted stature among readers and critics for decades after his death. Although his place in literary history remains secure, Dryden’s reputation among the general reading public has declined. While literary scholars can ill afford to overlook him, general readers find that Dryden no longer speaks to them. Even Alexander Pope, his successor in the neoclassic tradition, enjoys a wider audience. To find people who can quote some of Pope’s better known couplets is not unusual. Dryden is little quoted, and the only poems still known to a significant number of readers are his two odes on Saint Cecilia’s Day.
The reasons are not far to seek. Dryden’s plays, written with the intent of pleasing the audiences of his own time, now seem remote and artificial. His poetry is the poetry of reason, not emotion, an indispensable element since the advent of Romanticism. His satires, perhaps the best poetic satires in the language, are devoted to the literary and political events of his time, and their topicality now makes them difficult to read. His preferred verse form, the heroic couplet, though intricate, elegant, and complex, requires long study before its subtle effects can be appreciated.
Dryden’s importance in literary history, however, can more readily be understood. As poet laureate for more than two decades, he found himself involved with the major political events of his time, so that his biography reflects, to a large extent, the history of his age. He has been fortunate in the biographers willing, even eager, to record his life. Following Samuel Johnson’s Life (1779), the eminent Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone devoted his formidable talents to Dryden and produced a monumental biography in 1800. Following Malone, Sir Walter Scott produced a more readable but less original account of Dryden in 1808. In more recent times, James M. Osborn of Yale University issued the results of his careful research on Dryden’s life (John Dryden: Some Biographical Facts and Problems, 1940), and for the past generation, the standard biography has been the admirable work of Charles E. Ward, The Life of John Dryden (1961).
Writing within a strong scholarly tradition, James Anderson Winn, professor of English at the University of Michigan, has produced the most complete and best illustrated biography of Dryden thus far. Admirably qualified by his earlier research in Dryden’s period, Winn makes numerous discoveries that escaped the notice of previous biographers. Winn’s previous research on poetry and music prepared him to explore and record Dryden’s debts to other arts, especially music and painting.
Like other biographers of early historical personages, Dryden’s biographers have encountered formidable obstacles. There is often a dearth of material, and with Dryden the problem is especially acute. Unlike John Milton and John Bunyan, Dryden wrote impersonally, accepting the neoclassic attitude that art deals with objective, not subjective, reality. He could not help believing, as he himself expressed it, that “anything, though never so little, which a man speaks of himself, in my opinion, is still too much.” His small collection of surviving letters reveals relatively little about his personal life. On the other hand, his contemporaries had much to say about him: He was the subject of more published attacks by literary rivals and political enemies than any other major poet in English. Since he normally refused to answer his attackers, a biographer must sift through accusations, slanders, and innuendos to try to judge which have any basis in reality.
Addressing the dearth of information about Dryden’s youth, Winn has carefully examined available records. As an indication of how barren the record is, it includes not one anecdote about the poet’s mother. As Winn points out, she was a clergyman’s daughter, and she returned to her father’s rectory for Dryden’s birth. Scarcely more information exists about the poet’s father, Erasmus, a local landowner living in the Northamptonshire village of Titchmarsh. To...
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