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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2216

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

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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 Dramatic Poesy (1668) presented various viewpoints in dialogue form, arguing whether ancient or contemporary works, French or English, were superior. He followed that work with “A Defence of An Essay of Dramatic Poesy” in the same year.

Although he and his works were criticized and satirized (for example, in the 1671 play The Rehearsal, by George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham), Dryden continued to write successful plays and criticism. In 1676, he wrote All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost, perhaps his finest heroic tragedy, dealing with Antony’s conflict between love and honor, represented by his Egyptian mistress Cleopatra and his virtuous Roman wife Octavia. The following year’s production was not notable, perhaps because the Theatre Royal, with which Dryden had been so long associated, was in the process of disintegration.

Meanwhile, Dryden found means of retaliating against his enemies. In his satirical poem MacFlecknoe, written in 1678 (although not published until 1682), he attacked Thomas Shadwell and other inferior writers. With Absalom and Achitophel (1681), Dryden turned to a political subject, satirizing the opponents of Charles II, who had plotted to remove Charles from the throne and to replace him with his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Although the topical references in the poem require some knowledge of Restoration political and religious parties, the character-types are timeless, from the Machiavellian Achitophel to his mindless, egotistical puppet Absalom, from the Bible-quoting fanatics to the ignorant, irrational followers of the elusive Inner Light—indeed, to all the disloyal groups in England.

Dryden’s preoccupation with the need for order prompted his defense of the Anglican Established church, Religio Laici (1682). In 1685, Charles II died, acknowledging Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, and his Roman Catholic brother James II came to the throne. Late that year, Dryden became a Roman Catholic. In 1687, he published The Hind and the Panther, a poem which defended his new faith at the expense of Anglicanism. Dryden has often been accused of having changed his religion whenever his rulers changed theirs. Certainly he moved from Puritanism to mainstream Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism at convenient times. It should be pointed out, however, that when James II revealed his stubborn intolerance and was dethroned in favor of Protestant William and Mary, Dryden did not return to Anglicanism. As a result, he lost the posts as poet laureate and Historiographer Royal, along with considerable income.

In the last eleven years of his life, Dryden depended on the theater and on translation for much of his income. He wrote two tragedies, a comedy, an opera, and a tragicomedy; he translated works by Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Tacitus, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Giovanni Boccaccio; in addition, he wrote odes and short poems, as well as publishing a volume of fables. His translation of The Works of Virgil (1697), which is still much admired, was a great financial success. Living in London, he presided at Will’s Coffee House, where writers thronged to give him homage; from time to time, he returned to Northamptonshire for a round of visits with relatives. His health, however, was declining. Although he continued to work, after 1697 he was seldom well. In the spring of 1700, his condition worsened, and on May 1 Dryden died. On May 13, his funeral procession, including more than one hundred coaches, moved slowly through London to Westminster Abbey, where he was buried next to Chaucer, whom he had always loved.

Summary

The Restoration was the Age of Dryden. He towered above his contemporaries more than Alexander Pope in the first part of the following century or Samuel Johnson in the last. Furthermore, Dryden was the major influence on the neoclassicists of the eighteenth century, and after the heroic couplet went out of fashion, Dryden’s translations and his criticism continued to be models of their kind.

In a period of religious and political conflict, when schemers, fanatics, and visionaries continued to threaten not only the throne but also the rule of reason itself, Dryden’s voice urged careful skepticism in thought, sanity in decision, decorum and dignity in action. His poetic practice mirrored his mind. It was Dryden who established the heroic couplet as a means of distilling passion and speculation into a brief, clear truth. It was he, too, who adapted the heroic couplet to highly effective satire, which could sum up venality, irrationality, or stupidity in two or four lines. Dryden’s continuing self-criticism is exemplified by the fact that he was willing to change his own practice; when he decided that the couplet was not appropriate for heroic tragedy, he admitted his earlier mistake and wrote All for Love in blank verse. Operating out of his profound knowledge of the classics and of Renaissance writers, Dryden analyzed and synthesized, rather than imitating. Thus his odes differ in form and subject from their classical models. Original and magnificent, they became models for the writers of the eighteenth century.

The precision of Dryden’s mind was also evident in his prose works. As a translator, he was accurate in tone as well as in meaning. Thus his Georgics are still believed to re-create Vergil’s as well as any translation can do. As a critic, Dryden was brilliant and lucid. Making his own evaluations of earlier writers, he did much to convince his own age of the glories of Chaucer and the Elizabethans, who should not be jettisoned, he believed, simply because they were not neoclassical. Again, his emphasis was rational: Critics should see the whole, not the parts, the work itself, not their own prejudices.

Although Dryden’s integrity has been questioned because of his changing religious allegiances, biographers now believe that his life was as honest as his works. Loathing anarchy, whether literary, political, or religious, Dryden did not, however, find order by settling into a narrow rigidity. His willingness to change as his reason prompted is illustrated by the years of religious questioning which preceded his final conversion. His courage, once he was convinced, is attested by the years when, having found that order which he had sought, he stood firm.

Bibliography

Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Restoration Theatre. New York: Edward Arnold, 1965. A collection of ten essays on Restoration drama, ranging from language to acting. The essays on the influence of Molière, on heroic tragedy, and on Dryden’s plays are particularly interesting.

Dryden, John. The Letters of John Dryden: With Letters Addressed to Him. Edited by Charles E. Ward. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1942. This slender volume contains the few letters of Dryden that are extant, along with careful scholarly notes by the author of a Dryden biography.

Kinsley, James, and Helen Kinsley, eds. Dryden: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. Like others in the Critical Heritage series, this book reprints reviews, letters, parodies, even casual references to Dryden’s works during his lifetime and into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Invaluable.

Loftis, John, ed. Restoration Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966. Eighteen important essays by various critics, including three varying evaluations of Restoration comedy, as well as an overview of Restoration tragedy. Two essays deal specifically with Dryden’s heroic plays.

Miner, Earl, ed. John Dryden. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1972. Essays on Dryden by major critics, including Jean H. Hagstrum, John Loftis, and Miner himself. Topics range from the political climate which produced Absalom and Achitophel to Dryden’s translations and his comedies. A major collection.

Schilling, Bernard N., ed. Dryden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Among others, includes T. S. Eliot’s important essay on Dryden and Louis I. Bredvold’s “The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden.” Some of the essays deal with single poetic works; particularly recommended is Earl Wasserman on “To My Honor’d Friend Dr. Charleton” and E. M. W. Tillyard on the ode to Anne Killigrew.

Ward, Charles E. The Life of John Dryden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961. The standard biography of Dryden, this work is clear, scholarly, and extremely readable. Much interesting material was relegated to the notes, so that the narrative itself would proceed without digression. Indispensable for an understanding of the writer and his works.

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