John Dryden Biography
- Family and education
- Early adult life
- Prolific playwright
- Poet Laureate
- Poetry and politics
- Religious matters
- Reversal of fortunes
- Life overview
Poet, dramatist, and satirist John Dryden (1631-1700), was born at Aldwincle Rectory, Northamptonshire. His father, from whom he inherited a small estate, was Erasmus, 3rd son of Sir Erasmus Driden; his mother was Mary Pickering, also of good family; both families belonged to the Puritan side in politics and religion.
He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, and thereafter, in 1657, came to London. While at college he had written some not very successful verse.
His Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Oliver Cromwell (1658) was his first considerable poem. It was followed, in 1660, by Astræa Redux, in honour of the Restoration. The interval of 18 months had been crowded with events, and though much has been written against his apparent change of opinion, it is fair to remember that the whole cast of his mind led him to be a supporter of de facto authority.
In 1663 he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire.
The Restoration introduced a revival of the drama in its most debased form, and for many years Dryden was a prolific playwright, but though his vigorous powers enabled him to work effectively in this department, as in every other in which he engaged, it was not his natural line, and happily his fame does not rest upon his plays, which are deeply stained with the immorality of the age. His first effort, The Wild Gallant (1663), was a failure; his next, The Rival Ladies, a tragi-comedy, established his reputation, and among his other dramas may be mentioned The Indian Queene, Amboyna (1673), Tyrannic Love (1669), Almanzar and Almahide (ridiculed in Buckingham’s Rehearsal) (1670), Arungzebe (1675), All for Love (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) (1678).
During the great plague, 1665, Dryden left London, and lived with his father-in-law at Charleton. On his return he published his first poem of real power, Annus Mirabilis, of which the subjects were the great fire, and the Dutch War. In 1668 appeared his Essay on Dramatic Poetry in the form of a dialogue, fine alike as criticism and as prose.
Two years later (1670) he became Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal with a pension of £300 a year. Dryden was now in prosperous circumstances, having received a portion with his wife, and besides the salaries of his appointments, and his profits from literature, holding a valuable share in the King’s play-house.
In 1671 G. Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, produced his Rehearsal, in ridicule of the overdone heroics of the prevailing drama, and satirising Dryden as Mr. Bayes. To this Dryden made no immediate reply, but bided his time. The next years were devoted to the drama.
By this time, public affairs were assuming a critical aspect. A large section of the nation was becoming alarmed at the prospect of the succession of the Duke of York, and a restoration of popery, and Shaftesbury was supposed to be promoting the claims of the Duke of Monmouth. Now Dryden showed his full powers. The first part of Absalom and Achitophel appeared in 1681, in which Charles figures as “David,” Shaftesbury as “Achitophel,” Monmouth as “Absalom,” Buckingham as “Zimri,” in the short but crushing delineation of whom the attack of the Rehearsal was requited in the most ample measure. The effect of the poem was tremendous. Nevertheless the indictment against Shaftesbury for high treason was ignored by the Grand Jury at the Old Bailey, and in honour of the event a medal was struck, which gave a title to Dryden’s next stroke. His Medal was issued in 1682.
The success of these wonderful poems raised a storm round Dryden. Replies were forthcoming in Elkanah Settle’s Absalom and Achitophel Transposed, and Pordage’s Azaria and Hushai. These compositions, especially Pordage’s, were comparatively moderate. Far otherwise was Shadwell’s Medal of John Bayes, one of the most brutal and indecent pieces in the language. Dryden’s revenge—and an ample one—was the publication of MacFlecknoe, a satire in which all his opponents, but especially Shadwell, were held up to the loathing and ridicule of succeeding ages, and others had conferred, upon them an immortality which, however unenviable, no efforts of their own could have secured for them. Its immediate effect was to crush and silence all his assailants.
The following year, 1683, saw the publication of Religio Laici (the religion of a layman). In 1686 Dryden joined the Church of Rome, for which he has by some been blamed for time-serving of the basest kind. On the other hand his consistency and conscientiousness have by others been as strongly maintained. The change, which was announced by the publication, in 1687 of The Hind and the Panther, a Defence of the Roman Church, at all events did not bring with it any worldly advantages. It was parodied by C. Montague and Prior in the Town and Country Mouse.
At the Revolution Dryden was deprived of all his pensions and appointments, including the Laureateship, in which he was succeeded by his old enemy Shadwell. His latter years were passed in comparative poverty, although the Earl of Dorset and other old friends contributed by their liberality to lighten his cares. In these circumstances he turned again to the drama, which, however, was no longer what it had been as a source of income. To this period belong Don Sebastian, and his last play, Love Triumphant.
A new mine, however, was beginning to be opened up in the demand for translations which had arisen. This gave Dryden a new opportunity, and he produced, in addition to translations from Juvenal and Perseus, his famous “Virgil” (1697). About the same time appeared The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, and Alexander’s Feast, and in 1700, the year of his death, the Fables, largely adaptations from Chaucer and Boccaccio.
In his own line, that of argument, satire, and declamation, Dryden is without a rival in our literature: he had little creative imagination and no pathos. His dramas, which in bulk are the greatest part of his work, add almost nothing to his fame; in them he was meeting a public demand, not following the native bent of his genius. In his satires, and in such poems as Alexander’s Feast, he rises to the highest point of his powers in a verse swift and heart-stirring. In prose his style is clear, strong, and nervous. He seems to have been almost insensible to the beauty of Nature.
SUMMARY.—B. 1631, ed. Westminster and Camb., became prolific playwright, pub. Annus Mirabilis c. 1666, Poet Laureate 1667, pub. Absalom and Achitophel (part 1) 1681, Medal 1682, MacFlecknoe 1682, Religio Laici 1683, joined Church of Rome 1686, pub. Hind and Panther 1687, deprived of offices and pensions at Revolution 1688, pub. translations including “Virgil” 1697, St. Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast c. 1697, and Fables 1700, when he d.
The biography above was adapted from A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, by John Cousin, published in 1910.
Read some of Dryden’s poems, available on the Excellence in Literature site