If one follows the practice of literary historians and assigns John Milton to an earlier age, then John Dryden stands as the greatest literary artist in England between 1660 and 1700, a period sometimes designated “the Age of Dryden.” In addition to his achievements in drama, he excelled in poetry, translation, and literary criticism. He wrote some two hundred original English poems over a period of more than forty years, including the best poetic satires of his age, memorable odes, and a variety of verse epistles, elegies, religious poems, panegyrics, and lyrics. His prologues and epilogues, attached to his dramas and those of his contemporaries, stand as the highest achievements in English in that minor poetic genre.
For every verse of original poetry Dryden wrote, he translated two from another poet. Moreover, he translated two long volumes of prose from French originals—in 1684, Louis Maimbourg’s Histoire de la Ligue (1684) and, in 1688, Dominique Bouhours’s La Vie de Saint François Xavier (1683)—and he had a hand in the five-volume translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579) published by Jacob Tonson in 1683. The translations were usually well received, especially the editions of Juvenal and Persius (1693) and Vergil (1697).
Dryden’s literary criticism consists largely of prefaces and dedications published throughout his career and attached to other works. His only critical work that was published alone was An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668). As a critic, Dryden appears at his best when he evaluates an earlier poet or dramatist ( Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher), when he seeks to define a genre, or when he breaks new critical ground, as, for example, in providing definitions of “wit” or a theory of translation.