John Dryden Analysis

Other Literary Forms (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201543-Dryden.jpg John Dryden Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Achievements (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In a period of just over thirty years (1663-1694), John Dryden wrote or coauthored twenty-eight plays, an output that made him the most prolific dramatist of his day. His amplitude remains even more remarkable when one considers the amount of poetry, criticism, and translation he produced during the same period. This prolific production is equaled by the variety of the plays: heroic plays, political plays, operas, heroic tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. In his prefaces and other prose works, Dryden commented at some length on the various types of plays, seeking to define and to clarify the dramatic forms in which he wrote.

Yet Dryden himself recognized that his dramas were not likely to wear well, and his literary reputation today rests largely on his poetry and criticism. The operas King Arthur and The State of Innocence (which was not produced during his lifetime) survive primarily in their lyrics. Like other operas of the time, they were somewhat primitive, judged by modern standards, with relatively little music—something more akin to the masque or to modern musical comedy than to grand opera. The heroic plays are too artificial to appeal to any but the most devoted scholars of the period, and Dryden’s comedies and tragicomedies suffer in comparison with those of his contemporaries, Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve, not to mention his predecessors in English drama. As an index to the taste of the Restoration, however, the plays remain valuable and instructive, reflecting the levels of achievement and prevalent values of dramatic art of the time. Further, a study of Dryden reveals much about both aesthetic and intellectual influences on the drama of his period and the development of the dramatic genres of his age.

Other literary forms (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 poetry, he excelled in drama, translation, and literary criticism. Dryden wrote or coauthored twenty-seven plays over a period of nearly thirty-five years; among them were successfully produced tragedies, heroic plays, tragicomedies, comedies of manners, and operas.

For every verse of original poetry that 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 and in 1688, Dominick Bouhours’s La Vie de Saint François Xavier—and he had a hand in the translation of the version of Plutarch’s Lives published by Jacob Tonson in 1683. The translations were usually well received, especially the editions of Juvenal and Persius (1693) and of 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 published alone being Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay (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 Johnson, John Fletcher), when he seeks to define a genre, or when he breaks new critical ground, providing, for example, definitions of “wit” or a theory of translation.

Achievements (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The original English poetry of John Dryden consists of approximately two hundred titles, or about twenty thousand verses. Slow to develop as a poet, he wrote his first significant poem in his twenty-eighth year, yet his poetic energy continued almost unabated until his death forty-one years later. His poetry reflects the diversity of talent that one finds throughout his literary career, and a wide range of didactic and lyric genres are represented. With Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden raised English satire to a form of high art, surpassing his contemporaries John Oldham, Samuel Butler, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, as they had surpassed their Elizabethan predecessors. He left his impression on the ode and the verse epistle, and his religious poem Religio Laici may be considered an early example of the verse essay. In the minor genre represented by prologues and epilogues, he stands alone in English literature, unexcelled in both variety and quality.

Of Dryden’s poetic achievement Samuel Johnson wrote in his Life of Dryden: “What was said of Rome, adorned by Augustus, may be applied by an easy metaphor to English poetry embellished by Dryden. . . . [H]e found it brick and he left it marble.” Johnson’s praise applies primarily to Dryden’s significant achievements in style and tone, for Dryden perfected the heroic couplet, the rhymed iambic pentameter form that was to remain the dominant...

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Discussion Topics (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Dryden has been accused of being a trimmer—of expediently changing his views on religion, government, and literary standards. What evidence is there to refute this charge?

Examine the applicability of Dryden’s biblical lore in Absalom and Achitophel.

Was outrage at his nation for honoring the minor poet Thomas Shadwell a sufficient or merely a contributing provocation for Dryden to write Mac Flecknoe?

Show how Dryden’s characterizations of the speakers in Of Dramatic Poesie: An Essay reflect his critical broad-mindedness.

Discuss Dryden’s influence on literary art in the century that followed his death in 1700.

Trace Dryden’s importance as a link between the Jacobean and Restoration drama.

Bibliography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Archer, John Michael. Old Worlds: Egypt, Southwest Asia, India, and Russia in Early Modern English Writing. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Contains a scholarly examination of Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe, along with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and the works of John Milton. Bibliography and index.

Bywaters, David. Dryden in Revolutionary England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Describes the rhetorical stages by which Dryden, in his published works between 1687 and 1700, sought to define contemporary politics and to stake out for himself a tenable place within them. The volume attempts to situate these works in political and literary contexts familiar to Dryden and his readers. The study reveals much about the relationship between Dryden’s politics, polemics, and art. Contains an epilogue and extensive notes.

Gelber, Michael Werth. The Just and the Lively: The Literary Criticism of John Dryden. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999. Gelber provides a complete study of Dryden’s criticism. Through a detailed reading of each of Dryden’s essays, the book explains and illustrates the unity and the development of his thought.

Hammond, Paul. John Dryden: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This study of...

(The entire section is 590 words.)