John Dryden Life and Works, English Poet and Playwright


Who is John Dryden? Information on John Dryden biography, life story, works, poems, poetry and critics of his works.

John Dryden ; (1631-1700), English poet, dramatist, and critic. The greatest writer of the Restoration period and a not unworthy successor to Shakespeare and Milton, Dryden was the true founder of English literary criticism and the formulator of a new style of poetic expression, the heroic couplet.


Early Years.

He was born at Aldwinkle All Saints, Northamptonshire, on Aug. 9, 1631, of “gentle” but not wealthy parents of Puritan persuasion. He was educated at Westminster School (about 1644-1649) and, Trinity College, Cambridge (1650-1655). After leaving the university, he held a small govemment post for a short time (1656—1658) under Secretary of State John Thurloe. While still at school (1649) he had had his first verses printed, an elegy on Lord Hastings; ten years later he brought out his more ambitious stanzas on the death of Oliver Cromwell. As soon as Charles II returned to England, Dryden hurried out his welcoming Astraea Redux (1660), followed by a Panegyrick on the coronation (1661). No doubt at this time he was in monetary difficulties, and very probably there is truth in the statement that the publisher Henry Herringman “kept him in his House” in retum for his engaging in hackwork. Soon, however, he became friendly with Sir Robert Howard, son of the İst Earl of Berkshire, who apparently gave him “plenty, ease and liberty to write” and whose sister, Lady Elizabeth, he married in 1663.

John Dryden

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Road to Success.

With the Restoration came the reopening of the theaters, and quite naturally the young poet turned to the stage in search of fame and profit. After a false start with The Wild Gallant (produced in 1663)—possibly merely the reworking of an early play by Richard Brome—he and Sir Robert Howard won resounding success in serious drama with their joint effort, The Indian Queen (1664), while Dryden himself showed his comic power in The Rival Ladies (published in 1664). In 1665 came the plague, followed by the Great Fire (1666), and Dryden, like the young William Shakespeare two generations before, now found himself denied access to the theater. Apparently, with many other Londoners, he retired to the country; at the Earl of Berkshire’s estate he occupied himself with writing Annus Mirabilis (published 1667) and Of Dramatick Poesy, an Essay (published 1668).

At the same time he must have been engaged on Secret-Love, or the Maiden Queen, which was ready for production almost immediately after the playhouses were opened again in 1667. This won instant esteem; Charles II liked it so much that he called it “his Play,” and there is reason to believe that the King himself and one of his mistresses may have been the models for the gay lovers, Celadon and Florimel. No w came a long series of other popular dramas, both comic and serious. By the year 1668, Dryden was firmlv established in reputation and fînances; the King s company gave him a contract whereby he received one-and-a-quarter shares in the theater on consideration of his providing three plays a year, while court approval and monetary support came from his appointment as poet laureate and, two years later, as historiograpner royal.

Political Controversy.

The way, of course, was not always smooth. In 1671 he was held up to scorn as Bayes in the witty Rehearsal by the 2d Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers), while two years later he became involved in a rather indecorous controversy with the dramatist Elkanah Settle. Maybe this controversy helped him to modify his own views; maybe he had grown tired of the style of serious drama that he himself had largely been responsible for creating and of which the outstanding example was his Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, 2 parts (1670; 1671); at any rate, he no w gradually began to abandou this style, and in All for Love, or The World Well Lost (produced 1677) he wrote a blank verse tragedy confessedly inspired by Shakespeare. These and numerous other plays written up to 1681 placed him without question at the head of contemporary dramatists.

The year 1681 introduced him to a fresh sphere of activity. The atmosphere was vibrant with political excitement, and Dryden stepped fonvard as the chief literary supporter of the court party and the Tories against the Whigs led by the Earl of Shaftesbury. His magnificently incisive satirical poem Absalom and Achitophel, appeared late in 1681, and in the next year came The Medall, so entitled to cast ridicule on the Whigs, who had had a medal struck to commemorate Shaftesbury’s acquittal on a charge of high treason.

Naturally, these biting invectives were not allowed to pass unchallenged by the opposite party. Both Settle and Thomas Shadwell were ranged on the other side, and the latter’s Medal of John Bayes (1682) was a bitter attack on Dryden’s person and beliefs. In reply came Dryden’s mordant Mac Flecknoe, or A Satyr upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T.S. (1682), in which Shadwell was pilloried amid rousing laughter, and the second part (1682) of Absalom and Achitophel, wherein Dryden’s two rivals were bitterly castigated as Og and Doeg. Nahum Tate wrote the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, but Dryden was responsible for a large section of it and probably revised Tate’s work.

Religious Convictions.

No doubt this immersion in political and religious controversy served to make Dryden search more deeply in his own heart, and the result is to be seen in Religio Laici (1682). The Puritanism of his family had never made a great impression on him, and he had very easily become an Anglican at the Restoration; at the same time his attachment to that church can never have been profound, and—as he confessed—he had always been “naturally inclined to Scepticism in Philosophy.” Religio Laici shows him stili unwilling to give himself to faith:

For MY Salvation must its Doom receive
Not from what OTHERS, but what I believe.

Nevertheless, the poem indicates a new soul-searching, and it is obvious that, while Dryden stili struggled to rest his religion upon his own reason, he was groping forward toward an acceptance of mystical belief.

It is not unsurprising, therefore, that he entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1685, when the Catholic James II succeeded Charles II. Perhaps he may have been influenced somewhat by the new king’s affiliations, but everything points to its having been a genuine conversion. Within a short time Dryden produced his poetic apologia, The Hind and the Panther, in which the “Milk white Hind,” the pure, unsullied Catholic Church, is set above and apart from ” the bloudy Bear, an Independent Beast,” “the bristl’d Baptist Boar” and the Anglican “Panther.”

Later Works.

The year after the publication of this poem the Catholic monarchy was gone, and Dryden, deprived of his laureateship in 1689, entered a time of economic difficulty. Returning to the theater, he won some success, but nothing like that which had greeted his early dramas; in any case, the theaters themselves were in a bad way and had not so much to offer as they had during Charles’ golden days. With his usual adaptability, however, Dryden discovered a fresh field of activity in poetic translation. His Juvenal and Persius (in which he associated himself with collaborators) appeared in 1693, his Virgil in 1697. Three years later came the Fables, Ancient and Modern, episodes culled from Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Worn out and tired, Dryden died in London on Aug. 9, 1700, on the night of the third performance of his Secular Masque, a piece incorporated in Sir John Vanbrugh’s prose version of John Fletcher’s play The Pilgrim.

John Dryden

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The Man.

In his life, as in his poetry, Dryden seems to have taken the middle course. Although he was the associate of many of the rakish aristocratic wits of the time, he does not appear to have permitted himself to become, like them, debauched. His modesty is spoken of by contemporaries, and there are references that show that, despite the prominent position he took in the conversational group that haunted Will’s Coffeehouse, he was not rapierquick in repartee. Perhaps we may think of him moving among his lighter companions, a somewhat stout, heavy figure of a man with ruddy cheeks, in part assured in spirit because of his unquestioned attainments and in part with what he himself styled his “natural diffidence.”

The Dramatist.

As a dramatist, Dryden is important but not truly great. His early comedies in some ways anticipate the kind of drama—the comedy of manners—in which Sir George Etherege and William Congreve were to excel, but he did not possess their light touch and easy dalliance. When his scenes are compared to theirs, a certain roughness becomes apparent, and he produced no comedy so worthy of modern revival as Etherege’s Man of Mode or Congreve’s Way of the World. In writing serious plays, he found himself in an age incapable of truly appreciating tragic intensity; and for the most part he exploited the heroic play, with its simple conflict between love and honor, its exotic atmosphere, and its artifieiality in plot and sentiment intensified by its dialogue in rhymed couplets.

In a sense, the heroic play was an attempt to do in England what Pierre Corneille and Jean Baptiste Racine were currently doing in France; but the English genius, unlike the French, could not create masterpieees in this style, and Shakespeare’s influence was too close and too strong to permit the dramatists to cultivate the style in its purity. Apart from that Dryden, while he had a blunt theatrical skill, did not possess the power of entering deeply into character; he was too much a personality himself to put his being into others. Even when he turned from the rhymed heroic play to “imitation” of Shakespeare, his All for Love exhibited structural power but hardly any real animation in the persons he put on the. stage.

The Critic.

In dramatic appreciation, however, Dryden excelled, and Samuel Johnson was fully justifled in calling him “the father of English criticism.” All through his life he displayed a consistent quality: confronted by a problem in creative expression, he set out to consider the aspects of that problem, to weigh conflicting elements, and to base his creative approach upon a sound foundation of critical thought. It is this quality which invests his prose prefaces and essays with an incisive interest—an interest indeed, very similar to that of George Bernard Shaw’s prefaces, the difference being that, where Shaw was most intent upon sociological ideas, Dryden was almost always intent upon literary form.

The argumentation in these writings is by no means consistent, for Dryden was great enough to be willing to change his mind, but this perhaps adds to, rather than detracts from, their appeal. In One thing, however, he was consistent: he had a profound admiration for certain great writers of the past, Chaucer and Shakespeare in particular, and his penetrating judgments concerning their works are alert and profound.

In such writings, Dryden became one of the chief founders of modern prose style—logical, exact, based on the exercise of reason rather than on the excitement of emotion. He belonged to a time when scientific thought was being born; and science, for its advancement, requires a clear, logical form of expression. One of the aims of the Royal Society was to develop and cultivate a prose style of this kind, and Dryden was elected one of the society’s earliest fellows in 1662. As prose writing proceeded from 1668 into the 18th century the impress of Dryden is clearly apparent.

The Poet.

It is, however, on his verse that Dryden’s fame must ultimately rest. Much of this verse may, at first glance, seem uninteresting when compared with the rapture of the romantic poets; all of it, written by a man whose constant intellectual home was Will’s Coffeehouse, may be found lacking in that love of nature taught us later by the Lakeland poet, William Wordsworth; yet further reading, with a consequent understanding of what he aimed to accomplish and why, rnust serve to convince us that he was, indeed, one of the great masters of English poetry and possessed of an authentic inspiration.

He did not live in a lyrical age, but the songs included in his plays show a mastery, a sensitivity, and a rhythmical variety peculiarly effective. Lines such as “No, no, poor suffering heart, no Change endeavour” and “Hark, hark, the “Waters fail, fail, fail” testify to his keen ear for musical values, an in this musical approach he stands alongside the Italian poet Pietro Metastasio who, through his operatic writings in the 18th century, made himself the lyric master of Europe. It is love of music that gives exquisite quality to Dryden’s most ambitious essay in this kind, Alexander’s Feast (1697), a lyric in form and inspirational force worthy to vie with any.

Most of his verse, however, is written in simpler measures and depends upon an intellectual rather than an emotional approach. His name will always be associated with the heroic couplet, a type of verse form that requires some comment. During the years immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, one of the chief trends in poetry was the development and cultivation of the so-called metaphysical style. In the hands of minor versifiers this was being carried to absurdity, with forced conceits, constant straining after novelty, exaggerated and fanciful comparisons, a general lack of precision, and frequent lapses in taste. Like nearly all young poets, Dryden started with the imitation of bad models, and his lines on Lord Hastings display all the current faults:

Was there no nıilder way but the Small Pox,
The very fllth’ness of Pandora’s Box?
So many Spots, like naeves, our Venus soil?
One Jewel set off with so many a Foil?
Blisters with pride swell’d, which thro’ ‘s flesh did sprout
Like Rosebuds, stucki’ th’ Lilly-skin about.


It is a measure of his greatness and of his acute perception that almost immediately after writing these lines he began to aim, not at a chastening of this style, but at the cultivation of a completely different form. At first he did not seem able to determine whether the quatrains popularized by Sir William Davenant or the simpler couplets would best serve his needs and the needs of the time; his Stanza’s on Cromwell of 1659 are quatrains, and even as late as 1667 his Annus Mirabilis not only adopted that form but was prefaced by the statement that he had ever judged quatrains “more noble and of greater dignity both for the Sound and the Number than any other Verse in use amongst us.”

Gradually, however, he came to realize that the balanced couplet was best suited to his purpose—and that purpose was designed to rid poetry of extravagance and to substitute a rational for an emotional approach. In the critical essay introducing Annus Mirabilis he makes his aims clear: “The Composition of all Poems,” he argues, “is or ought to be of wit”; wit, “like a nimble Spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of Memory till it springs the Quarry it hunted after,” so that “the first happiness of the Poet’s Imagination is properly Invention, or finding of the Thought”; then comes Fancy, which varies and molds “that Thought as the Judgment represents it proper to the subject”; and, finally, Elocution shapes the poems through “the Art of clothing and adorning that Thought so found and varied, in apt, significant and sounding words.” The whole account of poetic composition indicates clearly that Dryden sought for intellectual strength and rational precision in form.

He himself was sufficiently close to the Elizabethans never to proceed so far in the framing of these verses as Alexander Pope was later to do. While his whole tendency was toward the epigrammatic, exact, and balanced couplet, he yet permitted himself considerable freedom. There is something almost feminine in Pope’s delieate touch; in Dryden we always have the impression of masculinity and boldness. Pope achieves his best effects by subtle underemphasis; Dryden’s best effects are gained by downright metiıods, as in the well-known portrait of Zimri (the Duke of Buckingham) in Absalom and Achitophel:

In the first Rank of these did Zimri stand:
A man so various, that he seem’d to be
Not one, but all Mankind’s Epitome:
Stiff in Opinions, ahvays in the wrong;
Was Everything by starts, and Nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolving Moon,
Was Chymist, Fidler, Statesman, and Buffoon.

To those reared on romantic poetry, Dryden’s style may at first seem unappealing; yet even a slight familiarity with his verses and a general appreciation of his critical views demonstrate that although he deliberately cut himself off from many fields of poetic inspiration, he richly harvested those of his own choice. Wordsworth may soar far higher than Dryden but Dryden’s flight is steadier. The romantic poets adored extremes; Dryden is the poet of measure, balance, and accomplished taste.


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