- Born: August 19, 1631, Northamptonshire, England
- Died: May 12, 1700 (aged 68), London, England
- Notable Works: “Absalom and Achitophel”, “Marriage à-la-Mode”, “Mac Flecknoe”, “The Indian Queen”, “The Conquest of Granada of the Spaniards”, “King Arthur”, “Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen”, “Annus Mirabilis”, “The Hind and the Panther”, “Of Dramatic Poesie, an Essay”
John Dryden (19 August 1631 — 12 May 1700) was an English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright. He largely dominated the literary world of Restoration England and became England’s first Poet Laureate in 1668.
Dryden is credited with establishing the heroic couplet as a standard form of English poetry by writing successful satires, religious pieces, fables, epigrams, compliments, prologues, and plays with it. He also translated great literary works, such as those by Virgil and Homer, and made them available to those who read English.
Dryden married in 1663 and had three children. He died in 1700, with his wife outliving him.
John Dryden – Early Life
John Dryden was born August 19th 1631 to Erasmus Dryden and wife Mary Pickering. He was born in the village rectory of Aldwincle near Thrapston in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was the rector of All Saints. Dryden was the eldest of fourteen children.
His paternal grandfather was Sir Erasmus Dryden, 1st Baronet (1553–1632), whose wife was Frances Wilkes, Puritan landowning gentry who supported the Puritan cause and Parliament. Dryden was a second cousin once removed of Jonathan Swift.
Dryden grew up in the nearby village of Titchmarsh, where it is thought he got his first education. Following this, he attended Westminster School as a King’s Scholar in 1644. His headmaster was Dr. Richard Busby, a charismatic teacher and severe disciplinarian.
Westminster was a humanist public school, so had a curriculum which trained pupils in the art of rhetoric and the presentation of arguments for both sides of a given issue, which Dryden carried with him into adulthood. Westminster during this period embraced a very different religious and political spirit encouraging royalism and high Anglicanism, having been re-founded by Elizabeth I.
During his time at Westminster, Dryden published his first poem — the elegy “Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings”. This was written on the death of his schoolmate Henry, Lord Hastings from smallpox, and alludes to the execution of King Charles I. The execution took place on 30 January 1649, very near the school where Dr. Busby had first prayed for the King and then locked in his schoolboys to prevent their attending the spectacle.
In 1650, Dryden attended Trinity College, Cambridge, although there is little information about his years here. It is thought he would have studied classics, rhetoric, and mathematics, and would have experienced a return to the religious and political ethos of his childhood. The Master of Trinity was a Puritan preacher by the name of Thomas Hill who had been a rector in Dryden’s home village.
Dryden graduated with his BA in 1654, top of the list for Trinity that year. In June of the same year Dryden’s father died, leaving him some land. This generated a little income, but not enough to live on.
Dryden returned to London during the Protectorate and obtained work with Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. This is thought to be the result of Dryden’s cousin, Puritan Sir Gilbert Pickering, being the lord chamberlain to Oliver Cromwell. At Cromwell’s funeral on 23 November 1658 Dryden processed with the Puritan poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell.
Shortly after, in 1659, he published his first important poem, Heroic Stanzas, which was a eulogy on Cromwell’s death. It is cautious in its emotional display and filled with many perplexing ambiguities, that no coherent republican ideology emerges from it.
In 1660, Dryden celebrated the Restoration of the monarchy and the return of Charles II with Astraea Redux, which is an authentic royalist panegyric. In this work the Interregnum is illustrated as a time of chaos, and Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order.
Marriage and Children
On 1 December 1663, Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard, sister of Sir Robert Howard who was living with at the time. The marriage was at St. Swithin’s, London, and the consent of the parents is noted on the licence, though Lady Elizabeth was then about twenty-five. She was the object of some scandals and it was said that Dryden had been bullied into the marriage by her playwright brothers.
Little is known about the intimate side of his marriage, but the couple had three sons: Charles (1666–1704), John (1668–1701), and Erasmus Henry (1669–1710). Lady Elizabeth outlived her husband but went insane soon after their death. They did not have any grandchildren.
Poetry and Other Writing
Following the Restoration and the publishing of his poems for Cromwell and Charles II, Dryden moved his career in the direction of a professional writer and began to establish himself as the poet and writer he is remembered as today.
With little money left from his father, Dryden lived with and wrote prefaces for the bookseller Henry Herringman in the late 1650s, and by the early 1660s he had moved into lodgings with Sir Robert Howard, a younger son of Thomas Howard, first Earl of Berkshire, with impeccable Royalist credentials and a budding literary career.
Dryden helped prepare Howard’s first volume of poems for the press in 1660, for which he wrote the first of many panegyrics to prominent individuals, “To My Honored Friend, Sir Robert Howard,” and in 1664 they collaborated on The Indian-Queen, a drama that contributed significantly to the Restoration fashion of rhymed heroic play.
Along with Astraea Redux, Dryden also wrote two more panegyrics: To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation (1662) and To My Lord Chancellor (1662). In November 1662, Dryden was proposed for membership in the Royal Society, and he was elected an early fellow. However, Dryden was inactive in Society affairs and, in 1666, was expelled for non-payment of his dues.
After the Puritan ban, when theatres reopened in 1660, Dryden began writing plays. His first, a comedy entitled The Wild Gallant (1663), despite being a failure, won the support of another influential aristocrat, Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castelmaine, to whom Dryden addressed another verse epistle.
Dryden also collaborated with Howard and soon became a stable writer for the King’s Company under Sir Thomas Killigrew. He began to succeed on his own with his first tragicomedy, The Rival Ladies (late 1663), and with a sequel to The Indian-Queen, The Indian Emperour (early 1665).
Throughout 1660s and 1670s, theatrical writing was his main source of income. He led the way in Restoration comedy, his best-known works being Marriage à la Mode (1673), his heroic play Aureng-zebe (1675), as well as in heroic tragedy and regular tragedy, in which his greatest success was All for Love (1678).
Dryden was never satisfied with his theatrical writings and frequently suggested that his talents were wasted on unworthy audiences, and wanted poetic fame off-stage.
Great Plague of London
In 1665, the Great Plague of London closed the theatres and Dryden and his family relocated to his wife’s estate in Charlton, Wiltshire. It was here that he wrote Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay (1667), the first great sustained work in English dramatic theory and Secret-Love (1667), a tragicomedy.
Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay takes the form of a dialogue in which four characters debate the merits of classical, French and English drama.
In 1667, he published Annus Mirabilis, a lengthy historical poem which described the English defeat of the Dutch naval fleet and the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was a modern epic in pentameter quatrains that established him as the preeminent poet of his generation. It was also this poem crucial in his attaining the posts of Poet Laureate and historiographer royal.
Because it was published in 1667, Annus Mirabilis invites comparison with Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost, first published in its ten-book format that same year. It has been argued that the poem is essentially political propaganda designed to stifle domestic dissent by rallying the nation around the common causes of war abroad and disaster at home.
Dryden returned to London in the winter of 1666-1667, and his years were fruitful. Several of his plays were staged, the Essay was published, the King’s Company signed Dryden to a contract in which he became a shareholder and agreed to give them three new plays per year, and he became Poet Laureate in 1668.
He produced four more plays by the end of 1671, including two masterpieces, The Conquest of Granada, a rhymed heroic play in ten acts, and Marriage A-la-Mode, a split-plot tragicomedy. He also published Tyrannic Love (1669).
However, things starting going downhill for Dryden when a fire destroyed Dryden’s company’s theatre at the inopportune time of the rival company’s moving into an extravagant new theatre in Dorset Garden. Furthermore, the Duke’s Company was attracting new and successful playwrights: Thomas Shadwell, Edward Ravenscroft, and Elkanah Settle.
Dryden’s own new comedy, The Assignation (1672), failed and, when their new theatre in Drury Lane opened in 1674, Dryden, in an attempt to rival the extravaganzas of the Duke’s Company, tried to turn his great admiration for Milton’s Paradise Lost to account by creating an operatic version, The State of Innocence. However, the company could not afford to produce the opera, and it was never performed. Dryden began severing ties with the King’s Company in 1677.
In the 1680s, Dryden wrote in satiric verse, with one of his greatest achievements being the mock-heroic Mac Flecknoe, which was a lampoon circulated in manuscript and an attack on the playwright Thomas Shadwell. He also wrote Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and The Medal (1682).
Dryden’s other major works from this time were religious poems Religio Laici (1682), written from the position of a member of the Church of England, his 1683 edition of Plutarch’s Lives Translated From the Greek by Several Hands in which he introduced the word biography to English readers, and The Hind and the Panther, (1687) which celebrates his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Following the birth of a son and heir to the Catholic King and Queen on 10 June 1688, Dryden wrote Britannia Rediviva. In the same year, James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution, and Dryden’s refusal to take the oaths of allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary, left him out of favour at court.
Thomas Shadwell succeeded him as Poet Laureate, and he was forced to give up his public offices and get by with the proceeds of his writings. Dryden turned to translating and translated works by Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius, and Theocritus. He found this far more satisfying than writing for the stage.
In 1694 he began work on what would be his most ambitious and defining work as translator, The Works of Virgil (1697), which was published by subscription. The publication of the translation of Virgil brought Dryden the sum of £1,400. His final translations appeared in the volume Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), which were a series of episodes from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio, as well as modernised adaptations from Geoffrey Chaucer interspersed with Dryden’s own poems. As a translator, he made great literary works in the older languages available to readers of English.
The greater part of Dryden’s critical works introduce problems which he is eager to discuss, and show the work of a writer of independent mind who feels strongly about his own ideas and ideas which demonstrate the breadth of his reading. He chooses factual subject matters to write about, and wanted to express his ideas in a simple, precise and concentrated manner.
Dryden uses formal structures in his poetic writing, yet also manages to recreate the natural rhythm of speech, relying on patterns of everyday speech. He also knew that different subjects need different kinds of verse.
Dryden’s poem “An Essay upon Satire” contained a number of attacks on King Charles II, his mistresses and courtiers, but most pointedly on the Earl of Rochester, a notorious womaniser. On 8pm on 18 December 1679, Dryden was attacked in Rose Alley behind the Lamb & Flag pub, near his home in Covent Garden, by thugs hired by the Earl of Rochester. They attacked him whilst he was walking back from Will’s Coffee House, but luckily he survived the attack.
He offered £50 for the identity of the thugs placed in the London Gazette, and a Royal Pardon if one of them would confess. However, no one claimed the reward.
Dryden died on 12 May 1700. He was originally buried in St. Anne’s cemetery in Soho, before being exhumed and reburied in Westminster Abbey ten days later. A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque commemorates Dryden at 43 Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown, where he lived from 1686 until his death.
John Dryden dominated the literary scene of his day that it came to be known as the Age of Dryden. A versatile writer, he wrote poetry, prose and plays, as well as translating great works by the likes of Homer and Virgil so they were available to those who spoke and read English.
Dryden established the heroic couplet as a standard form of English poetry by writing successful satires, religious pieces, fables, epigrams, compliments, prologues, and plays with it, and also introduced the alexandrine and triplet. He established a poetic diction appropriate to the heroic couplet that was a model for his contemporaries and became the dominant poetic form in the 18th century.
Dryden was admired by many, including Alexander Pope, George Crabbe, Lord Byron, and Walter Scott. T. S. Eliot also wrote that Dryden was “the ancestor of nearly all that is best in the poetry of the eighteenth century”.
- The Wild Gallant, a Comedy (1663/1669)
- The Rival Ladies, a Tragi-Comedy (1663/1664)
- The Indian Queen, a Tragedy (1664/1665)
- The Indian Emperor, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards (1665/)
- Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen (1667/)
- Sir Martin Mar-all, or the Feigned Innocence, a Comedy (1667/1668)
- The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island, a Comedy (1667/1670), an adaptation with William D’Avenant of Shakespeare‘s The Tempest
- An Evening’s Love, or the Mock Astrology, a Comedy (1668/1668)
- Tyrannick Love, or the Royal Martyr, a Tragedy (1668 or 1669/1670)
- Almanzor and Almahide, or the Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards, a Tragedy, Part I & Part II (1669 or 1670/1672)
- Marriage-a-la-Mode, a Comedy (1673/1673)
- The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery, a Comedy (1672/1673)
- Amboyna; or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants, a Tragedy (1673/1673)
- The Mistaken Husband (comedy) (1674/1675)
- The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man, an Opera (/1674)
- Aureng-Zebe, a Tragedy (1676/1676)
- All for Love, or the World Well Lost, a Tragedy (1678/1678)
- Limberham, or the Kind Keeper, a Comedy (/1678)
- Oedipus, a Tragedy (1678 or 1679/1679), an adaptation with Nathaniel Lee of Sophocles’ Oedipus
- Troilus and Cressida, or Truth found too late, a Tragedy (/1679)
- The Spanish Friar, or the Double Discovery (1681 or 1682/)
- The Duke of Guise, a Tragedy (1682/1683) with Nathaniel Lee
- Albion and Albanius, an Opera (1685/1685)
- Don Sebastian, a Tragedy (1690/1690)
- Amphitryon, or the Two Sosias, a Comedy (1690/1690)
- King Arthur, or the British Worthy, a Dramatic Opera (1691/1691)
- Cleomenes, the Spartan Hero, a Tragedy (1692/1692)
- Love Triumphant, or Nature will prevail, a Tragedy (1693 or 1694/1693 or 1694)
- The Secular Masque (1700/1700)
- Astraea Redux, 1660
- Annus Mirabilis (poem), 1667
- An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, 1668
- Absalom and Achitophel, 1681
- Mac Flecknoe, 1682
- The Medal, 1682
- Religio Laici, 1682
- To the Memory of Mr. Oldham, 1684
- Threnodia Augustalis, 1685
- The Hind and the Panther, 1687
- A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687
- Britannia Rediviva, 1688, written to mark the birth of James, Prince of Wales.
- Epigram on Milton, 1688
- Creator Spirit, by whose aid, 1690. Translation of Rabanus Maurus’ Veni Creator Spiritus
- The Works of Virgil, 1697
- Alexander’s Feast, 1697
- Fables, Ancient and Modern, 1700
- Palamon and Arcite
- The Art of Satire
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