John Dryden Dryden, John - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings 1649

Heroique Stanzas 1659

Astraea Redux. A Poem on the Happy Restoration & Return of his Sacred Majesty Charles the Second 1660

Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666 1667

Absalom and Achitophel 1681

Mac Flecknoe; or, A Satire upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. 1682

The Medall. A Satyre against Sedition 1682

The Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel [with Nahum Tate] 1682

Miscellany Poems 1684

Sylvae: or, The Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies 1685

Threnodia Augustalis 1685

To the Pious Memory of the Accomplisht Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew 1686

The Hind and the Panther. A Poem in Three Parts 1687

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687 1687

Examen Poeticum: Being the Third Part of Miscellany Poems 1693

Alexander's Feast 1697

Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with Original Poems (includes adaptations and translations) 1700

Other Major Works

The Wild Gallant (drama) 1663

The Indian Queen [with Sir Robert Howard] (drama) 1664

The Rival Ladies (drama) 1664

The Indian Emperour (drama) 1665

Sir Martin Mar-All [with the Duke of Newcastle] (drama) 1667

The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island [with Sir William Davenant, from William Shakespeare's The Tempest] (adaptation) 1667

Of Dramatick Poesie* (criticism) 1668

Tyrannick Love (drama) 1669

The Conquest of Granada bv the Spaniards [in two parts] (drama) 1670-71

Marriage à-la-Mode (drama) 1672

Aureng-Zebe (drama) 1675

All for Love; or, The World Well Lost (drama) 1677

The State of Innocence, and the Fall of Man [from the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton] (dramatic adaptation) 1677

Troilus and Cressida; or, Truth Found Too Late [from William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida] (adaptation) 1679

The Duke of Guise [with Nathaniel Lee] (drama) 1682

Don Sebastian, King of Portugal (drama) 1689

King Arthur: or, The British Worthy (drama) 1691

The Works of Virgil (translation) 1697

The Letters of John Dryden (letters) 1942

*This work is commonly referred to as Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

David M. Vieth (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Irony in Dryden's Ode to Anne Killigrew," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXII, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 91-100.

[In the following excerpt, Vieth argues that in his To the Pious Memory of the Accomplisht Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew, Dryden has not written a conventional ode of praise, but created instead an elegy that is both gently mocking and affectionate.]

In the current revival of interest in Dryden and his contemporaries, much attention has been given to his ode To the Pious Memory Of the Accomplisht Young Lady Mrs Anne Killigrew. Extensive and illuminating analyses have been contributed by Ruth Wallerstein ["On the Death of Mrs. Killigrew:...

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Bessie Proffitt (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Political Satire in Dryden's Alexander's Feast," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XI, No. 4, 1970, pp. 1307-16.

[In the following excerpt, Profitt asserts that Alexander's Feast should not be assessed simply for its qualities as a musical ode, but also regarded as a pointed "attack" on King William III]

The contention of this paper is that Alexander's Feast is not only the zenith of the Restoration ode for music but also a well-hidden attack upon William III. If Dryden's ode is an attack upon William, it may be rescued from the accusation of jingling to which such poetry is subject. Mark Van Doren reflects this attitude...

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Douglas Murray (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Musical Structure of Dryden's Song for St. Cecilia's Day," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring 1977, pp. 326-34.

[In the following excerpt, Murray uses seventeenth-century music theory to demonstrate how the stanzas in Dryden's Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687, conform to classical music modes in order to produce such emotional effects as love, patriotism, and mourning.]

No one questions that the Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687 is a well-structured lyric, but Dryden's critics have reached no consensus on exactly why its internal stanzas are arranged as they are. Alastair Fowler and Douglas Brooks have suggested that...

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K. W. Gransden (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Kind of Poem is Religio Laici?" in Studies in English Literature, Vol. XVII, Summer 1977, No. 3, pp. 397-406.

[In the following excerpt, Gransden suggests that Dryden regarded his poem Religio Laici as a satire in the classical tradition: one that would instruct his audiences rather than criticize or ridicule them.]

It is natural that recent critics of the Religio Laici have been more concerned to analyze Dryden's moral and theological position than to consider the poem's literary ancestry. Yet such an examination may be more than a sterile exercise in "influences," for it can illuminate Dryden's entire technique as a moral poet....

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Jerome Donnelly (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fathers and Sons: The Norative Basis of Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall 1981, pp. 363-80.

[In the following excerpt, Donnelly demonstrates that in Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden relied upon humanist and Aristotelian theories to defend Charles's fitness as a monarch without condoning Charles's behavior as a man.]

The most widely accepted readings of Absalom and Achitophel view Dryden's attitude toward his monarch and patron, the hero and central character of his poem, as one of almost unreserved admiration. Unfortunately, these readings seem to begin with the assumption that it...

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Anne Barbeau Gardiner (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Divine and Royal Art: History as Hand-Formed Artwork in Dryden's Threnodia Augustalis (1685)," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall 1989, pp. 398-424.

[In the following brief excerpt, Gardiner reflects on the "political context" of Threnodia Augustalis, observing that Dryden constructs the poem to reassure the English public that far from being sinister, the transfer of power from the dying Charles II to his brother James was both legitimate and divine.]

Although many poets wrote elegies on the occasion of Charles II's death and a number of them added congratulatory poems to the new king, none managed to mourn Charles and...

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Helen M. Burke (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Annus Mirabilis and the Ideology of the New Science," in ELH, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 307-34.

[In the following excerpt, Burke contends that in Annus Mirabilis, Dryden glorifies the "new" or practical science of his era and in the process, anticipates the advent of the more "materialistic" and "republican" enlightenment that was to dominate the final half of the eighteenth century.]

In an article on Dryden and the issue of human progress, Earl Miner comments that the poet's degree of enthusiasm for the new science is a "knotty problem." Though he notes that Dryden "probably wrote more progress-pieces than any other of our poets," Miner...

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Alberto Cacicedo (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing the King: Biblical and Classical Texts in Astraea Redux," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 407-27.

[In the following excerpt, Cacicedo argues that as a depiction of the Restoration, Dryden's poem Astraea Redux is not servile as critics have suggested, but that instead it relies upon analogies from the bible and from classical works to provide a realistic view of King Charles as well as of the contemporary political climate under which he was obliged to rule.]

Panegyric as it is, Dryden's Astraea Redux has been the object of much critical scorn. Samuel Johnson articulated the problem clearly when he...

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Susan C. Greenfield (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aborting the 'Mother Plot': Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel," in ELH, Vol. 62, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 267-93.

[In the following excerpt, Greenfield observes that a marked ambiguity in Dryden's poem Absalom and Achitophel reflects the confusion and changing attitudes toward sexual biology, succession, and the monarchy which occurred during his era.]

Although critics have discussed the connections between fatherhood and kingship in Absalom and Achitophel, nobody has yet attended to the poem's less obvious, but equally important and politically-charged representations of maternity. Absalom and Achitophel begins and...

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Margery A. Kingsley (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'High on a Throne of His Own Labours Rear'd': Mac Flecknoe, Jeremiad, and Cultural Myth," in Modern Philology, Vol. 93, No. 3, February 1996, pp. 327-51.

[In the following excerpt, Kingsley asserts that Dryden 's intention in writing Mac Flecknoe was to warn England against the cultural, moral, and political "chaos" that was being created by irresponsible and sloppy writers.]

Ironically, scholars have had little to say about Mac Flecknoe, the Restoration's great nightmare vision of cultural anarchy, despite the fact that John Dryden, poet laureate, historiographer royal, and "the father of English criticism," has long stood as the central...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Barnard, John. "Dryden: History and "The Mighty Government of the Nine.'" The University of Leeds Review 24 (1981):13-42.

Discusses how in his poetry Dryden pointedly directed his audience toward historical and political events rather than the universal themes preferred by the later Romantics.

Benson, Donald R. "Space, Time, and the Language of Transcendence in Dryden's Later Poetry." Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 8, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 10-16.

Compares the scientific theories of Newton against Dryden's later spirituality as...

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