BORN: 1631, Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England
DIED: 1700, London, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama, nonfiction
Of Dramatick Poesie (1668)
Absalom and Achitophel (1681)
A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day (1687)
The Works of Virgil (1697)
John Dryden. Dryden, John, painting. The Library of Congress.
Regarded by many scholars as the father of modern English poetry and criticism, John Dryden dominated literary life in England during the last four decades of the seventeenth century. Although initially famous for his plays, Dryden is today highly regarded for his critical writings as well as his satirical and didactic poems. Throughout his lengthy, varied career, Dryden fashioned a vital, concise, and refined language that served as a foundation for the writers of English prose and verse who followed him.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood during English Civil War. Dryden was born August 9, 1631, in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England, to Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering, both moderate Puritans. He grew up during the seven-year-long English Civil War, a conflict between the Puritans, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, and the Royalists, who supported the monarchy. A royal scholarship allowed Dryden to attend Westminster School, where he received a classical education and published his first poem.
The Puritans came to power under Oliver Cromwell in 1649, deposing the monarchy and executing King Charles I not a half mile from where Dryden was studying. It is believed that Dryden’s lifelong concern for political stability was a result of growing up during the war. In 1650, Dryden began studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. Next, it appears he worked for Cromwell’s government, probably in the Office of Latin Secretary along with poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell.
Published First Poems. Following Cromwell’s death and during the short-lived government of Cromwell’s son Richard, Dryden published Heroique Stanza (1658), a group of verses that portray Cromwell as the architect of a great new age. In the following years, Dryden continued to publish politically oriented poems, including the notable Astraea Redux (1660). This poem celebrated Charles II’s 1660 return from exile and restoration to the English throne. Dryden’s change of position instigated attacks in later years by his literary enemies, who charged him with political inconsistency and selfish motivation.
Popular Playwright. Dryden next began a career as a playwright. In 1663, the same year that he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, Dryden’s first play, The Wild Gallant, was produced, followed by The Rival Ladies (perhaps acted in 1663), and The Indian-Queen (performed in 1664), a collaboration with his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard. The Indian Emperour (1665), Dryden’s sequel to The Indian Queen, represents his first entirely original play and was written wholly in rhymed couplets. It was extremely popular.
A few weeks after The Indian Emperor opened, the Second Anglo-Dutch War began (a conflict between England and Holland over commercial interests in Africa, eventually won by the Dutch but with the English gaining the American territory that would become New York). The bubonic plague (a then common infectious bacterial disease that attacks the lungs and lymph nodes and is spread by overcrowding and poor sanitation), which had begun to spread during the same winter, also ravaged London the following spring. Because of these situations, theaters were closed by royal order in June 1665, and they remained so until December of 1666.
Dryden’s first important piece of criticism, Of Dramatick Poesie, was published in 1667, but probably written in 1665-1666, when he moved with his family to the country to avoid the plague. Dryden’s essay, which examines and challenges theatrical notions, remains the best- known example of his prose, primarily because it is his only freestanding essay not written to commemorate a specific occasion. He soon returned to writing plays and also took on an important post for his country.
Named Poet Laureate. In 1668, Dryden became poet laureate of England. Although he had yet to write any of the poems for which he is chiefly remembered today, he had done all the right things, in all the right ways, to make himself the logical choice for the post. By 1668, he was England’s leading playwright—in 1667 alone, five of his plays were in production on the London stage. He showed himself to be a loyal defender of the court in Annus Mirabilis (1667), a poem about the naval campaign during the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, which had destroyed much of London in 1666. The poem demonstrates his skills at political argument and effectively defends the court against those who blamed disaster on royal immorality. Dryden even lent the king five hundred pounds—a large sum, considering that the stipend for poet laureate was one hundred pounds per year.
Dryden wrote his longest piece of literary criticism, Of Dramatick Poesie, in 1667 as well. Shortly thereafter, he reconsidered his earlier arguments in favor of rhymed play and adopted blank verse, or unrhymed metered poetry. All for Love; or, The World Well Lost (1677), adapted from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and written in blank verse, was a great success and solidified Dryden’s reputation as the most talented and accomplished writer of the time. In fact, All for Love, performed in 1677, was so highly regarded that it displaced the original Shakespearean play from the English stage for a century.
Dryden was part owner of the Bridges Street Theatre, which was destroyed by a fire on January 25, 1672. He had to contribute toward the construction of a new theater and scene house, and his company was at a serious disadvantage while waiting for those facilities to be constructed. During this time, Dryden wrote a rhyming adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost titled The State of Innocence (1673), but it was never performed.
Satire in Later Poems. The Popish Plot (1678-81), a thwarted attempt by the Earl of Shaftesbury and others to exclude Charles’s Catholic brother, James, from the English throne, provided Dryden with the topic for what critics consider his greatest work, Absalom and Achitophel (1681). This poem is a satirical attack on Shaftesbury and his confederates. This work launched a phase of satirical and didactic verse that directly influenced the development of Augustan poetry in the next century, especially that of Alexander Pope. Dryden’s first major satire was followed in 1682 by Mac Flecknoe, a mock-heroic poem. Related to Absalom and Achitophel in tone, Mac Flecknoe displays Dryden’s mastery of word order, rhythm, and cunning verbal attack. The same year, he debuted a shorter, more serious satiric poem titled The Medall, which again was aimed at Shaftesbury, who escaped sentencing for treason.
As political and religious matters repeatedly overlapped in Dryden’s time, an era much concerned with the question of whether Protestant or Roman Catholic monarchs were the legitimate rulers of Britain, it is not surprising that Dryden also began to address religious issues during this period of national turmoil. Religio Laici; or, A Layman’s Faith (1682) appeared when new plots to assassinate the king were being formed. In this poem, Dryden proclaimed a compromise between Anglicans and the Roman Catholic belief in the absolute authority of the pope, clearly expressing the king’s stance in favor of religious toleration.
Catholic Convert. In 1685, James II ascended the English throne and soon enacted a declaration of toleration, placing many of his sympathizers in high government positions. Within the first year of James’s reign, Dryden converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. Once he converted, the man who had argued for the Anglican cause in Religio Laici daringly published a poem arguing for the Catholic cause, The Hind and the Panther (1687). Written in beast-fable form, the poem presents a long theological debate between a milk-white hind, representing the Roman Church, and a spotted panther, representing the Anglican Church. As he might have expected, his enemies gleefully noticed the conflicting positions taken in these poems, and, although Religio Laici was greeted by public indifference when first published, it was resurrected and used as a weapon against him. When James was deposed in 1688, Dryden refused to swear allegiance to the new government; consequently, he lost his position as poet laureate.
During his last years, Dryden wrote the widely anthologized odes A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day (1687) and Alexander’s Feast (1697), in addition to completing five more plays. Primarily, however, he concentrated on translation, completing The Works of Virgil (1697) and Fables Ancient and Modern (1700). In all of his translations, Dryden’s goal was to paraphrase rather than reproduce while still capturing the individuality of the original work. Linguistic purists have harshly criticized Dryden for continually changing word order and narrative sense. Yet his translation of Virgil’s works, particularly the Aeneid, is regarded as a monumental undertaking that, if not always exact, is nevertheless largely representative of the Latin original. Fables Ancient and Modern is similarly regarded as a lasting work of translation.
Dryden died in London on May 1, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dryden's famous contemporaries include:
Nell Gwyn (c. 1650-1687): One of the first English actresses, Gwyn was a famous mistress of King Charles II.
Louis Jolliet (1645-1700): Along with Father Jacques Marquette, this Canadian explorer was the first to explore and map the Mississippi River.
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678): This English poet of the metaphysical school is best known today for his poem ''To His Coy Mistress'' (1681).
John Milton (1608-1674): Milton, a Protestant English poet, is famous for the blank-verse epic Paradise Lost (1667).
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669): This Dutch painter and etcher sought to achieve, in his words, ''the greatest and most natural movement.''
Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679): A Dutch playwright, van den Vondel advocated religious tolerance, as he was a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism himself.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Dryden based his Fables on collections by Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Fables generally have a moral attached and make their point by featuring animals, plants, and other nonhuman subjects. Here are some collections of fables from around the world:
Ancient Chinese Fables (1996), a compilation of fables by Lie Ze, translated by Yang Xianyi. This collection includes more than one hundred Chinese fables from the fourth century B.C.E. to the seventeenth century C.E..
An Argosy of Fables (2004), a collection of fables by Frederic Taber Cooper. Originally compiled in 1921, this wide-ranging collection includes ancient and contemporary fables from Greece, India, Asia, and the Americas.
Classic Tales and Fables for Children (2001), a compilation of stories by Leo Tolstoy. The nineteenth-century Russian novelist famous for the novel War and Peace presents free translations of Aesop's fables and Hindu fables, as well as an original tale.
Moral Fables and Other Poems (1995), by Giovanni Meli, translated into English by Gaetano Cipolla. Fables from Sicily and Italy are translated with the Italian and English versions facing each other.
Works in Literary Context
Dryden was an influential poet and playwright in his time, and his works often reflected the tumultuous period in British history in which he lived. His most long-lasting contribution, however, may be in his criticism, as he played a key role in developing the modern English process of examining literature. In all his literary productions, Dryden is both the conservative, ever concerned with the past, and the innovator, looking ahead to the future of English literature.
Criticism. John Dryden’s plays include prologues, prefaces, and dedications in which he analyzes the works of John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, and even himself while discussing the English theater, the difficulties of representing life on the stage, and the merits and drawbacks of rhyme. In so doing, Dryden began the English tradition of practical criticism. While critics of his time were preoccupied with issues of morality, immorality, and uplifting the reader or audience, Dryden wrote objectively and systematically about the literature itself. Through a natural, conversational prose style, he discussed works in the context of literary tradition, generic form, technical innovation, and effectiveness of presentation, all of which became the standard for literary critical investigations.
In Dryden’s satirical and didactic poems, he created the extended form of objective analysis that has come to characterize most modern criticism. In his satire, he displayed an irrepressible wit and forceful line of argument that later satirists adopted as their model. Samuel Johnson, who first called Dryden the father of English criticism, considered him the English poet who crystallized the potential for beauty and majesty in the English language: According to Johnson, ‘‘[Dryden] found it brick, and he left it marble.’’
Influence. Thus as a critic, he developed a combination of methods that proved useful to critics hundreds of years later. Although his major works are not as widely known today as those of some of his contemporaries, his influence on English literature extends beyond the fame of any particular piece. Dryden dominated the Restoration period, and his language and ideas have served as a foundation for the writers of English prose and verse for centuries, making Dryden one of the greatest forces in English literary history.
Works in Critical Context
Dryden reached a level of achievement rarely equaled or surpassed in English literature. Frequent comparisons with his most celebrated literary descendant, Alexander Pope, almost unanimously affirm Dryden’s superiority in metrical innovation, imagination, and style, though Pope’s works are more widely known.
The Dramas. Of all Dryden’s works, his dramas have been accorded the least acclaim since his death. With the exception of a few of his more than thirty plays, such as All for Love and Marriage-a-la-Mode, his productions have vanished from the English stage. This, according to critics, is perhaps largely due to his devotion to the heroic play, a form that attained its greatest expression through him but radically declined in public appeal. In addition, Dryden’s comedies, although filled with witty repartee and many memorable characters, have been found lacking in truly comic scenes or effective explorations of human emotion. Not until the early twentieth century, when studies by T. S. Eliot and Mark Van Doren, along with Montague Summers’s six-volume collection of Dryden’s Dramatic Works appeared, did Dry- den’s plays receive favorable reassessments.
Responses to Literature
1. Do you know anyone who has converted to a different religion? Do you think you would ever do so? Why or why not?
2. Write your own fable for today’s world. What point do you want to make? Remember to use nonhumans as your characters.
3. Read a satirical news story on The Onion Web site (www.theonion.com). Research mainstream news coverage of that story or issue. Write an essay analyzing what specifically is satirized, why, and how.
4. Research the Great Fire of London. Create a map showing London before the fire and after it. What neighborhoods were most affected? How long did it take to rebuild?
Eliot, T. S. John Dryden: The Poet, the Dramatist, the Critic. New York: Holliday, 1932.
Frost, William. Dryden and the Art of Translation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.
Miner, Earl. Dryden’s Poetry. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1967.
Reverand, Cedric D. Dryden’s Final Poetic Mode: The ‘‘Fables.’’ Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
Sloman, Judith. Dryden: The Poetics of Translation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.
Zwicker, Steven N. Politics and Language in Dryden’s Poetry: The Arts of Disguise. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Empson, William. “Dryden’s Apparent Scepticism.’’ Essays in Criticism 20 (April 1970): 172-81.
Fujimura, Thomas H. ‘‘Dryden’s Changing Political Views.’’ Restoration 10 (Fall 1986): 93-104.
Hume, Robert. ‘‘Dryden on Creation: ‘Imagination’ in the Later Criticism.’’ Review of English Studies 21 (August 1970): 295-314.