John Dryden

Start Free Trial

John Dryden World Literature Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Dryden experienced one of the most productive and varied literary careers in all of English literature. Sometimes called the first professional man of letters in England, he was motivated by the desire to re-create the classical excellence of Greece and Rome in vernacular literature. He dominated his age as no writer before or since has done, and indeed, the period 1660 to 1700 in English literature is designated by literary historians as the Age of Dryden. In poetry, translation, drama, and literary criticism, he was the leading author of his time. In addition, he produced biographies and anthologies of poetry. His literary career spanned four decades, one of the longest among English authors, and it is marked by a firm sense of literary genre and a lasting regard for classical principles.

Although his earliest productions were poetry, he established a reputation as a dramatist, beginning with the comedy The Wild Gallant (pr. 1663, pb. 1669). His initial dramatic successes were heroic tragedies, highly artificial dramas featuring spectacular scenery, the love-honor hero, extravagant and bombastic speeches, splendid costuming, and often exotic settings. They were written in heroic couplets, a pair of rhymed verses in iambic pentameter, a medium inspired by French rhymed tragedies. This dramatic genre, which endured into the 1670’s, is seen at its best in Dryden’s The Indian Emperor: Or, The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards (pr. 1665, pb. 1667) and The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, Parts I and II (pr. 1670-1671, pb. 1672). By the time Dryden wrote his most famous tragedy, All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (pr. 1677, pb. 1678), he had abandoned heroic couplets in favor of blank verse, the verse form used in most of his dramas after 1675. Dryden’s efforts at comedy were mixed, for he was inclined to stress the licentious elements of the comedy of manners in plays such as The Assignation: Or, Love in a Nunnery (pr. 1672, pb. 1673) and The Kind Keeper: Or, Mr. Limberham (pr. 1678, pb. 1680). Yet one finds the sparkling wit of a comedy such as Marriage à la Mode (pr. 1672, pb. 1673) comparable to that of more gifted contemporaries in the genre, such as Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley.

Despite their musical scores by Henry Purcell, Dryden’s operas were not notably successful, yet his tragicomedies have drawn the admiration of critics. Among them, Don Sebastian, King of Portugal (pr. 1689, pb. 1690) is highly regarded for its portrayal of characters and emotion and for its excellent blank verse.

As a literary critic, Dryden stands as one of the most important in English literature. Most of his essays are occasional; that is, they are attached to other works as prefaces or appendices. An important exception is Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay (1668), Dryden’s general assessment of the drama. The first systematic critic in English, he is a moderate neoclassicist. As a critic, Dryden attempts to explain the individual work and place it within the proper genre. He is noteworthy for defining important critical terms and genres, and his definitions of terms such as “wit,” “drama,” “satire,” and “biography” are thoughtful and worthy of study. In addition to informing the reader about his own practices, Dryden includes responses to his detractors and opponents. His work is in large measure an outgrowth of the numerous critical controversies in which he engaged. Among these were the controversy with Thomas Shadwell over the nature of comedy, with numerous others over the use of heroic couplets in drama, with Thomas Rymer over the nature of tragedy, and with Jeremy Collier over the...

(This entire section contains 4070 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

dramatist’s ethical responsibility. These controversies helped shape his own critical views, which varied over his career.

In approaching an analysis, Dryden sought to ascertain the proper rules for the production of the type, a standard procedure with a neoclassic critic. Where rules and theories did not exist, he sought to discover and elucidate them. Turning to translation late in his career, Dryden developed his own theory, according the translator three approaches: metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase, or literal translation, he considered too limiting if translation is to be considered an art. Paraphrase, which Dryden preferred, permitted the poet to expand or contract the original passages and to modernize the use of names and allusions. The third, imitation, was only a loose rendition of the original, following its theme and organization. Dryden’s ideal demanded that a translator replicate the poetic effects of the original for a modern audience of a different nation.

Since his theoretical approach was often ad hoc, Dryden maintains little consistency in his specific critical opinions; his consistency lies in his broadly neoclassic perspective. He is neither a rigid neoclassicist nor a slavish follower of precedent. For example, he argues that genius sometimes transcends the rules of art and produces superior aesthetic effects by violating the rules; he thus accepts the principle of poetic license. He points out how earlier geniuses such as William Shakespeare violated rules such as the classical unities and yet succeeded in drama, an indication that rules are not absolute.

The most significant passages from Dryden’s critical works are those that record his judgments of other writers, for he possessed a keen appreciation for the merits of others and an unerring ability to discern them. His descriptions of the works of British authors, such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Edmund Spenser, to name a few, are insightful and penetrating, and the list can be extended to include classical writers such as Homer, Ovid, Juvenal, Horace, and Vergil, among others. Some of the most important passages of this kind are to be found in A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693) and “Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern” (1700). Not only did he identify the great writers of his own nation; he also incorporated within his writings the basic concepts of English literary history, tracing the origin and development of a national literature.

Paradoxically, the most important feature of Dryden’s criticism may be his supple, graceful, and idiomatic prose style. Dryden expressed his critical opinions in an elegant and fluent style that has marked him as a master of English prose.

Today, Dryden is most often remembered for his poetry. He produced more than two hundred poems in English, and for every original verse he wrote two others of translation. A poet of extraordinary versatility, Dryden employs numerous genres: odes, elegies, epigrams, panegyrics, prologues and epilogues, satires, verse epistles, and verse essays. His original poetry is often occasional—directed toward public events and prominent people of his own time—so that it mirrors upper-class English life of the late seventeenth century. In his panegyrics and verse epistles, he complimented important public figures of his time, often in an egregiously flattering tone. His satires and lyrics are rich in topical allusions relating to events of his day. Sometimes called journalistic, Dryden’s poetry is also ratiocinative and argumentative, as if anticipating the Age of Reason. A master of reasoning in verse, he is better known for his epigrammatic wit and humor than for his portrayal of deep human emotions.

In addition to replicating classical poetic genres in English, Dryden established the heroic couplet as the dominant poetic form in England. While he wrote in a variety of meters, the rhymed iambic pentameter couplet is most frequent. Dryden polished the couplet by following grammatical order insofar as possible and by making the couplet a closed form, that is, normally having a full stop to conclude the second line. The heroic couplet proved an effective vehicle for developing reasoned discourse, for pointed epigrammatic wit, and for elegant, emphatic expression of ideas. Its major defects are that its polish seems artificial, notably in dialogue, and the stanza form calls attention to itself, inviting the reader to lose sight of the poem’s organization. After dominating English literature for a century, the heroic couplet gave way to less rigid and restrictive verse forms.

Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay

First published: 1668

Type of work: Literary criticism

The rules of classical drama, while sound guides, may be ignored by modern writers if compensatory merits can be achieved.

Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay, Dryden’s only major critical essay to be published independently of any other work, is technically a Socratic dialogue introducing four characters, each with a different view of drama. Crites, who allegorically represents Dryden’s brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard, defends the rules and practices of classical Greek and Roman dramatists. Lisideius, representing Sir Charles Sedley, defends the French neoclassic dramatists of the seventeenth century as most worthy of emulation. Eugenius, representing Charles Sackville, supports Elizabethan dramatists—William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson—as superior to all others. Neander, representing Dryden himself, suggests that the contemporary Restoration dramatists have in some ways surpassed the achievement of their predecessors. Each speaker in turn examines the qualities of plot, characterization, important themes, style, and diction in dramas of his chosen period. The word “essay” in the title suggests the tentative nature of Dryden’s discourse, and throughout the speakers maintain a rational tone.

The discourse introduces the dichotomous approach frequently found in Dryden’s poetry and prose, with terms juxtaposed and explored. This device is best demonstrated in Lisideius’s definition of a play: “A just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Contrastive terms such as “passion” (emotion) and “humour” (wit and eccentricity), “delight and instruction,” and “just and lively” are hallmarks of neoclassic criticism. Dryden extends them to include contrastive authors such as Homer and Vergil, Shakespeare and Jonson.

Since Neander is the last to speak, the major emphasis of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay falls to his portion, and Dryden intends his points of view to prevail. Neander pays eloquent tribute to the genius of Shakespeare and Jonson, praising them as the two English predecessors who bear comparison with the ancient dramatists. Yet he defends contemporary drama by arguing that it depicts better manners than those of Elizabethan drama and that it has the added beauty of rhyme. In a lengthy analysis, Neander explains why rhyme should be considered superior to blank verse. The position on rhyme exposes both the tentative nature of Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay and Dryden’s tendency toward inconsistency in his critical opinions, for within less than a decade he reversed this position.

Marriage à la Mode

First produced: 1672 (first published, 1673)

Type of work: Play

The theme of rightful succession is developed through two plots centering on love—one an idealized version, the other sophisticated and cynical.

Dryden’s most successful comedy, Marriage à la Mode, combines within its two distinct plots the conventions of romantic tragicomedy and the Restoration comedy of manners, a genre not fully developed when he produced his play. The tragicomic plot develops the theme of succession to the throne, perhaps Dryden’s most important dramatic theme after the love-honor conflict. Having usurped the Sicilian throne, Polydamas discovers two young persons of gentle birth who have been living rustic lives under the care of Hermogenes, a former courtier. Hermogenes assures the usurper that one of them is his son Leonidas, though Leonidas is in reality the son of the king whom he had deposed. When Polydamas orders Leonidas to marry the daughter of his friend, he refuses, protesting his love for Palmyra, his companion under Hermogenes’ care. When Polydamas seeks to banish her, Hermogenes identifies her as the king’s daughter and claims Leonidas as his own son. Polydamas then seeks to force Palmyra to marry his friend Argaleon and banishes Leonidas under sentence of death. Faced with death, Leonidas wins over the tyrant’s supporters, removes him from the throne, and pardons him as the father of his beloved Palmyra.

In the plot, the main elements of tragicomedy are prominent: the remote setting, the tyrannical usurper, the long-lost noble youth, the faithful servant, and idealized romantic love. Dryden’s early debt to the tragicomedies of John Fletcher is apparent in his use of stock characters and situations.

In the subplot, the love theme reflects the cynicism of the comedy of manners. Two witty couples—Rhodophil and Doralice, Palamede and Melantha—express sophisticated and detached attitudes toward love and marriage. Before his marriage to Melantha, Palamede hopes to engage in an affair with Doralice, his friend Rhodophil’s wife, while Rhodophil, disenchanted with marriage, seeks to make Melantha his mistress. Like characters of the comedy of manners, they satirize the Puritans, country folk, and romantic love. Love is to them merely a game of conquest. Disguises, masked balls, and assignations enliven the plot while witty repartee sparkles throughout the dialogue. The would-be rakes never realize their romantic goals because their plans go awry, and they remain friends at the end.

Though the two plots are loosely connected, both Rhodophil and Palamede support the right of Leonidas to the throne at the conclusion. Also, both plot lines reject the authority of parents to select the spouses of their children. For the most part, however, the two plots exist in separate worlds: the witty, sophisticated, urban milieu of the comedy of manners and the idealistic, sentimental world of the tragicomedy.

Absalom and Achitophel

First published: 1681, part 1; 1682, part 2

Type of work: Poem

Political strife jeopardizes rights and long-established precedents, representing a threat to the nation.

Dryden’s political satire Absalom and Achitophel reflects upon politics in England during the era of the Popish Plot (1679-1681), when the Whig Party, under the leadership of the earl of Shaftesbury, sought to prevent the legitimate succession of James, duke of York, because of his Catholicism. The Whigs supported a parliamentary bill that would have placed the illegitimate son of Charles II, James, duke of Monmouth, on the throne. Alarmed by efforts to tamper with established monarchical power, Dryden employs the biblical revolt against David by his son Absalom as a parallel narrative to discredit the Whig cause.

The poem represents a mixed, or Varronian, kind of satire, for satiric passages exist alongside straightforward normative portions. The plot is both loose and inconclusive, the satiric elements being confined to the poem’s first major section. Dryden narrates the origin and development of the supposed plot, which the Whigs had concocted to discredit the king’s position. Each prominent Whig leader is the subject of an extended poetic character, ridiculing him as extremist and undermining his reputation. Though biblical names are used, readers of the time clearly recognized each object of Dryden’s satiric thrusts. The efforts of Achitophel to tempt Absalom are partially successful. In the second section, Dryden outlines his theory of government, advocating established rights and powers and rejecting innovation. A second series of characters praises the king’s supporters in Parliament, and the poem concludes with a speech by King David (Charles II) upholding his traditional rights, offering conciliation, but also indicating firmness.

In the poetic characters, Dryden’s artistic skill is at its best. Using witty aphorisms and the stylistic conventions of the couplet—such as balance, antithesis, and chiasmus—Dryden succeeds in discrediting Whig leaders.

Mac Flecknoe

First published: 1682

Type of work: Poem

An attack on false literary standards and poor literary achievement serves to advance desirable literary ideals.

Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S.,employs the mock epic form to assail bad poets and poetry, represented by its victim, the dramatist Thomas Shadwell. Dryden establishes true literary norms through attacking inferior ones. The date of composition and occasion for the satire are uncertain, but it is generally thought that composition followed the death of Richard Flecknoe (c. 1678), an obscure poetaster. After the brief introduction, the satire introduces Flecknoe as a speaker deliberating his choice of a successor to the throne of Nonsense. Through the use of the convention of a mock coronation, Dryden gives the poem a narrative structure, a reflection of his view that satire is rightly a form of heroic (epic) poetry.

The introduction is a masterful passage combining irony and mock solemnity, contrasting the seriousness of succession with a throne epitomizing dullness. Sober aphorisms and allusions to Augustan Rome are deflated by allusions to the realm of Nonsense. Flecknoe selects Shadwell as the most fitting of all of his sons to occupy the throne of Nonsense and uphold dullness. Dryden incorporates numerous references to Shadwell’s life and allusions to his dramas, with Flecknoe concluding: “All arguments, but most his plays persuade,/ That for anointed dullness he was made.” Flecknoe chooses as the coronation site a run-down section of London near the Barbican, associated with inferior poets. The poem then describes the coronation, complete with procession, satiric description of Shadwell, the paraphernalia of office, and cheers of the assembled throng of hack writers and booksellers. Flecknoe urges his successor to find new ways to be dull, but to avoid boastful comparisons of himself with Ben Jonson and John Fletcher. Suggesting that Shadwell has been unsuccessful in all major literary genres, Flecknoe exhorts him to confine his talents to acrostics, pattern poems, and songs that can be sung to the lute. At the conclusion, as Flecknoe falls through a trap door, his mantle is borne aloft to settle on Shadwell.

The satire enables Dryden to develop at length one of his most congenial concepts, that of regal succession, though it gives an ironic twist to a theme that is usually serious. Monarchical allusions such as those to Augustan Rome, a distant ideal, serve to enhance the withering satire. Shadwell is ironically endowed with the name of a Roman successor, and Flecknoe is compared to Augustus Caesar, ironic elevations of the trivial that are characteristic of high burlesque. In the realm of literary succession, names of great dramatists and poets are used to deflate the pretensions of obscure poetasters, as in a passage describing the coronation site:

Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;But gentle Simkin just reception findsAmidst this monument of vanish’d minds:Pure clinches the suburbian Muse affords,And Panton waging harmless war with words.

The major genres, such as Jonsonian comedy and the tragicomedies of John Fletcher, give way to punning and inferior wordplay as forms of entertainment. While the poem upholds important neoclassic principles, the overarching framework emerges from its narrative structure and from recurrent patterns of contrast: wit and dullness; sense and nonsense.

What provoked Dryden’s mock attack on his literary rival remains unclear. As a poet, Shadwell produced only crude and inferior verses, but critics have found merit in his comedies, modeled after the comedies of humor produced by Jonson. Except for serious students of the period, they are now forgotten, and for most students of literature Shadwell’s name survives through Dryden’s satiric masterpiece.

“To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve”

First published: 1694 (collected in John Dryden: The Major Works, 2003)

Type of work: Poem

For his literary achievement at an early age, William Congreve is celebrated as a true successor to the throne of wit.

Although “To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve” is formally a verse epistle, it is representative also of Dryden’s numerous panegyrics, or poems of praise. Written during his final decade, it demonstrates his inclination to praise younger contemporaries and reflects Dryden’s mastery of the heroic couplet. Readily divided into two sections, the epistle employs two of Dryden’s most important poetic conventions: the conservative metaphor of the temple and the concept of succession, in this poem applied to the kingdom of letters.

In the first part, the poem praises Congreve by placing him within the context of English literary history. While Dryden grants the Elizabethan dramatists transcendent genius, he views their dramas as irregular and crude. The second great period of drama, the early Restoration, brought polish and refinement to the drama, or, in Dryden’s words, better manners, yet this improvement had its price:

Our age was cultivated thus at length,But what we gain’d in skill we lost in strength.Our builders were with want of genius cursed;The second temple was not like the first.

The elegant balance and aphoristic expression of the passage are succeeded by a bold chiasmus and further development of the temple metaphor, celebrating the achievement of a dramatist one generation younger than Dryden:

Till you, the best Vitruvius, come at length;Our beauties equal, but excel our strength.Firm Doric pillars found your solid base;The fair Corinthian crowns the higher space:Thus all below is strength, and all above is grace.

Dryden endows the younger Congreve with the wit and genius of the Elizabethans and the polish and refinement of the Restoration dramatists. The comparison to the Roman architect Vitruvius is followed by another to the youthful Roman general Scipio Africanus to emphasize Congreve’s early achievement.

Before renewing the panegyric in the poem’s second part, Dryden becomes personal and speaks of his own career. Typically, he writes about himself with restraint; the numerous autobiographical passages in Dryden’s poetry and prose reveal more about his reactions to events and less about the events themselves. In writing of himself, he couches his experience within the mythic context of literary succession; having been poet laureate, he had occupied a throne of letters. Writing of his loss of the laureateship, Dryden asserts that he could have been content had the office gone to Congreve. Instead, it went to his old enemy Thomas Shadwell. Despite this anomaly, he continues, Congreve’s merits will elevate him to a throne in the kingdom of letters. Comparing Congreve with Shakespeare, he predicts a long and illustrious career for the youthful dramatist. Dryden, like a deposed monarch, recognizes that his own career is drawing to its close and asks Congreve to defend his memory against attacks that are certain to follow after his death.

The poem stands as an example of Dryden’s generous praise, couched within a mythic context of his own invention. Ironically, Congreve retired from playwriting in 1700, and while his brilliant comedies remain alive today, his dramatic range was limited to the comedy of manners. He lived to fulfill Dryden’s request, leaving a poignant memoir of the poet as a preface to the 1717 edition of Dryden’s dramas.

Alexander’s Feast

First published: 1697

Type of work: Poem

Musical performances can so move the emotions, even of heroic individuals, that such individuals are influenced to undertake specific actions.

Alexander’s Feast: Or, The Power of Music, an Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day is Dryden’s second ode honoring Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The poem’s theme, the power of music to move human emotions, is identical with that of “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” written a decade earlier. Both odes are occasional, having been composed at the invitation of the London Musical Society. The second ode, however, is much more elaborate, for Dryden introduces characters and places them within a dramatic setting. The Greeks are celebrating their victory over the Persian King Darius when the musician at the banquet, Timotheus, is called upon to perform.

With exalted strains, Timotheus creates within Alexander the Great a sense that he has become a deity. An alteration of tone changes his mood to a desire for pleasure, and following this a longing for love of his mistress Thaïs, who sits beside him. Somber strains evoke pity for the fallen Darius, but these are followed by strident tones calling for revenge on behalf of Greek soldiers who have perished. Alexander and his mistress and their company rush out, torches in hand, to burn the Persian city Persepolis. The poem concludes with a grand chorus, stressing the power of music to move emotions and contrasting the legend of Saint Cecilia with the power of Timotheus. Dryden recalls the story that after she had invented the organ, she played such beautiful music that an angel, mistaking the sounds for those of heaven, appeared as she played:

Let old Timotheus yield the prize,Or both divide the crown:He rais’d a mortal to the skies;She drew an angel down.

The intricate form resembles the Pindaric ode in its lengthy and complicated irregular stanzas, yet its linear organization follows the tradition of Horace. Dryden achieves a complex, forceful, and energetic movement, and his use of historical events and characters contributes to a lively, dramatic expression of his theme.


John Dryden Poetry: British Analysis


Dryden, John