John Dryden 1631–1700
English poet, critic, playwright, and translator.
Regarded by many scholars as the father of modern English poetry and criticism, Dryden dominated literary life in England during the last four decades of the seventeenth century. By deliberately and comprehensively refining language, Dryden developed an expressive, universal diction which has had a profound impact on the evolution of speech and writing in the English-speaking world. Although initially famous for his comedies and heroic tragedies, among Dryden's other accomplishments are critical essays as well as translations of works by Virgil, Chaucer, and Boccaccio. Today he is also highly regarded for his satirical and didactic poems, notably Absalom and Achitophel, The Hind and the Panther, and Religio Laici. In poems such as these, Dryden displayed an irrepressible wit and forceful line of argument which later satirists adopted as their model.
The eldest son of a large, socially prominent Puritan family, Dryden was born in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire. Little is known about his early years, except that as a young boy he received a classical education at Westminster School through a royal scholarship. While there he published his first poem, Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings, commemorating the life of a schoolmate who had recently died of smallpox. In 1650 Dryden began attending Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. Shortly afterward his father died, leaving him to oversee the affairs of his family and of his own small estate. Dryden's activities and whereabouts during the next several years are unknown; in 1659, however, following the death of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Dryden returned to writing and published Heroique Stanzas, a group of complimentary verses which portray Cromwell as architect of a great new age. In the following years, Dryden continued to publish politically oriented poems, of which the most notable are Astraea Redux and Annus Mirabilis: the Year of Wonders, 1666. The former, which celebrated the exiled Charles II's restoration to the English crown, incited condemnation in later years from those who charged Dryden with political inconsistency and selfish motivation. Since then, historians have argued that Dryden maintained throughout his life a belief in religious tolerance and moderate government
and switched allegiance from the republicans to the royalists in keeping with the majority of the English people.
In 1663, following his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard, Dryden debuted as a playwright, a career which at the time held the most financial promise for an aspiring writer in England. His first play proved unsuccessful, but later endeavors, in particular The Indian Emperour (1665), were popular and established Dryden's reputation in drama, a field which he increasingly dominated during the next fifteen years. In 1668 Dryden became poet laureate of England, and shortly thereafter, received the title of historiographer royal. In 1685, during the first year of the reign of Catholic monarch James II, Dryden converted to Catholicism. He did not renounce this conversion after the abdication of James or with the accession in 1689 of Protestant rulers William and Mary. Dryden died in London in 1700 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Throughout the years, Dryden's detractors have focused on his shifts from Protestantism to Catholicism and from republicanism to monarchism as proof of the poet's flair for political expediency. Generally, however, Dryden is recognized as someone who in his time was an extremely popular literary figure, who believed in religious moderation, and who influenced heavily the tastes of his age.
Apart from the encomiums or complimentary poems of his early years, Dryden is well-known for his satirical verse. The Popish Plot (1678-81), a thwarted attempt by the Earl of Shaftesbury and others to exclude Charles's Catholic brother, James, from his right of succession to the throne, provided Dryden with the topic for what critics consider his greatest work, Absalom and Achitophel, a satirical attack on Shaftesbury and his confederates. This work inaugurated a phase of satirical and didactic verse which directly influenced the development of Augustan poetry in the next century, especially that of Alexander Pope. The poem was followed in 1682 by Mac Flecknoe, a mockheroic poem which was directed at the poet Thomas Shadwell, a literary antagonist of Dryden. Allied to Absalom and Achitophel in tone, Mac Flecknoe displays Dryden's mastery of rhythm and cunning verbal attack. The same year there also appeared a shorter, more serious satiric poem titled The Medall, which again was aimed at Shaftesbury.
Political and religious matters repeatedly overlapped in Dryden's time, an era much vexed with the question of whether Protestant or Roman Catholic monarchs were the legitimate rulers of Britain; accordingly, Dryden also began to address religious issues in his poetry. Religio Laici; or, a Layman's Faith (1682) appeared when Whig plots to assassinate King Charles II were being formed. In this didactic poem, which also contains religious and metaphysical insights, Dryden advocated a compromise between Protestant Anglican exclusivism and Roman Catholic belief in absolute papal authority, articulating the king's stance in favor of religious toleration. Dryden's later, allegorical poem, The Hind and the Panther (1687), a three-part work written in beast-fable form, was published after the poet's conversion to Catholicism, but like Religio Laici, it argues for moderation between the two churches. Dryden's odes represent his final poetic period. They include A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687, and Alexander's Feast. Today, they are widely anthologized, and they attest to Dryden's skill at incorporating musical composition into his poetry.
The eighteenth-century English author Samuel Johnson regarded Dryden as a poet who crystallized the potential for beauty and majesty in the English language by effectively shaping rough words into refined verse. Dryden first began developing his poetic style while writing his early, laudatory verses, experimenting as he wrote them with the traditional hexameter form. Although recognized for their artistic promise and innovation, these poems have since been faulted for misplaced or excessive conceits and similes. Ultimately, the best of this early poetic period is represented by Annus Mirabilis, an inspirational, heroic treatment of the great fire in London and of the AngloDutch naval war. Years later, with Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden displayed his mastery of the heroic couplet and the suitability of his streamlined verse for political satire. Cloaked in allusive language and based on the biblical story of King David's rebellious son, this mockheroic poem addresses the explosive political climate of the time through a string of character portraits, narrative, and speeches. Dryden's portrayals of Charles II, an inveterate philanderer; his illegitimate son Monmouth, who planned to dethrone his father; and Shaftesbury, the chief orchestrator of the Popish Plot; are admired by critics not only for their liveliness but for the judicious manner in which they are presented. Scholars have remarked that the relentless movement of the poem, its delightful yet pointed commentary on the crucial situation, and its timeless appeal establish it as one of the highest achievements in the heroic couplet form. That Dryden was an exemplary poet of public events and was able to infuse even the most ordinary incident with dignified, original art is not disputed. However, his poems have been charged with displaying a disturbing impersonality. Nevertheless, several modern critics have detected a clear, confessional tone in Dryden's later poems, Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther. Although the theological viewpoints in them are disparate, critics have observed that both these works forcefully document the poet's personal reactions to the political milieu as well as to the power of religious faith in his era.