John Dryden

From New World Encyclopedia

John Dryden

John Dryden (August 9, 1631 – May 12, 1700) was an influential English poet, literary critic, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known as the “Age of Dryden.” He was a poet of exemplary skill, a master of satire and dramatization whose command of rhyme and measure—particularly blank verse—was formidable. Dryden was also a politically savvy poet; by writing verses and satires to aid the king in various times of political unrest, Dryden was able to effectively "talk" his way into some of the highest appointments for an English citizen to receive.

He was, perhaps, the quintessential man of his times, but for this reason Dryden may have isolated himself from enduring fame. Since his death, his popularity as a poet has been in continuous decline, beginning with the Romantic poets, who thought his style too stilted and austere. Contemporary readers often find Dryden inaccessible—not only because of his ornate language and density of allusions, but because more often than not he addresses himself, both in his poetry and in his plays, to topical issues of the seventeenth century (for instance, the ongoing feud between the Whig and Tory parties of Parliament) that seem largely irrelevant today.

Yet, the challenges posed by some of Dryden's arcane concerns in no way belie his importance both as a figure in literary history and as a major character in the political scene of seventeenth-century England. Dryden was not only a poet of exceptional skill; he was also a beacon to almost every other poet writing during the century in which he lived, as well as a role-model for a generation of poets that would succeed him. The works and legacies of Alexander Pope and Ezra Pound, as well Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Rudyard Kipling, pay homage to Dryden. Some argue that no poet who has lived in the centuries after Dryden has gone uninfluenced either by his style or by his opinions; both of which have largely shaped the currents of the canon of literary criticism and history into the present day.

Early life

Dryden was born in the village rectory of Aldwinkle near Oundle in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was Rector of All Saints. He was the eldest of 14 children born to Erasmus and Mary Dryden, Puritan landowning gentry who supported the Puritan cause and Parliament. As a boy, Dryden lived in the nearby village of Titchmarsh where it is also likely that he received his first education. In 1644 he was sent to Westminster School as a King’s Scholar where his headmaster was Dr. Richard Busby, a charismatic teacher and severe disciplinarian.{ref|<1>}} Westminster embraced a very different kind of religious and political spirit from the one Dryden was used to, encouraging royalism and high Anglicanism. Dryden clearly respected the headmaster and would later send two of his own sons to school at Westminster.

As a humanist grammar school, Westminster maintained a curriculum that trained pupils in the art of rhetoric and the presentation of arguments for both sides of a given issue. This skill would remain with Dryden and influence his later writing and thinking, which displays these dialectical patterns of thought. The Westminster curriculum also included weekly translation assignments, which developed Dryden’s capacity for assimilation, also evident in his later works. His years at Westminster were not uneventful. His first published poem, written on the occasion of the death of his schoolmate Henry, Lord Hastings from smallpox, was an elegy with a strong royalist feeling that alludes to the execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649.

In 1650 Dryden went up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he 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.<sup id="ref_<2>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><2> Though there is little specific information on Dryden’s undergraduate years, he would have followed the standard curriculum of classics, rhetoric, and mathematics. In 1654 he obtained his Bachelor's degree, graduating top of the list for Trinity that year. In June of the same year Dryden’s father died, leaving him some land which generated a little income, but not enough to live on.<sup id="ref_<3>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><3>

Arriving in London during the Commonwealth, Dryden obtained work with Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. This appointment may have been the result of influence exercised on his behalf by the Lord Chamberlain Sir Gilbert Pickering, Dryden’s cousin. Dryden was present on November 23, 1658, at Cromwell’s funeral where he processed with the Puritan poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Shortly thereafter he published his first important poem, Heroique Stanzas (1658), a eulogy on Cromwell’s death that is cautious and prudent in its emotional display. In 1660 Dryden celebrated the Restoration of the monarchy and the return of Charles II with Astraea Redux, an authentic royalist panegyric. In this work the interregnum is illustrated as a time of anarchy, and Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order.


After the Restoration period, Dryden transferred his allegiances to the new government, quickly establishing himself as the leading poet and literary critic of his day. Along with Astraea Redux, Dryden welcomed the new regime with two more panegyrics; To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation (1662), and To My Lord Chancellor (1662). These poems suggest that Dryden was looking to court a potential patron, but he was to instead make a living in writing for publishers, and thus ultimately for the reading public, not for the aristocracy. These, and his other non-dramatic poems, are occasional—that is, they celebrate public events. Thus they are written for the nation rather than the self, and the Poet Laureate (as he would later become) is obliged to write a certain amount of these per annum.<sup id="ref_<4>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><4> 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.

On December 1, 1663, Dryden married the royalist sister of Sir Robert Howard, Lady Elizabeth. Dryden’s works occasionally contain outbursts against the married state but also celebrates it as well. Little is known of the intimate side of his marriage, but Lady Elizabeth bore him three sons and outlived him.

With the reopening of the theatres after the Puritan ban, Dryden busied himself with the composition of plays. His first play, The Wild Gallant appeared in 1663 but was not successful. Later he was to have more success. From 1668 he was contracted to produce three plays a year for the King’s Company in which he was also to become a shareholder. During the 1660s and 70s theatrical writing was to be his main source of income. He led the way in Restoration comedy, where his best-known work was Marriage A-la-Mode (1672), as well as heroic and regular tragedy, in which his greatest success was All For Love (1678). Dryden was never satisfied with his theatrical writings, frequently suggesting that his talents were wasted on unworthy audiences. Thus, he also made a bid for poetic fame off-stage. In 1667, around the same time his dramatic career began, he published Annus Mirabilis, a lengthy historical poem that described the events of 1666; the English defeat of the Dutch naval fleet and the Great Fire of London. It was a modern epic in pentameter quatrains that established him as the preeminent poet of his generation, and was crucial for him in attaining the posts of Poet Laureate (1668) and historiographer royal (1670).

When the Great Plague closed the theatres in 1665, Dryden retreated to Wiltshire where he wrote Of Dramatick Poesie (1668), arguably the best of his unsystematic prefaces and essays. Dryden constantly defended his own literary practice, and Of Dramatick Poesie, the longest of his critical works, takes the form of a dialogue in which four characters—each based on a prominent contemporary, with Dryden himself as ‘Neander’—debate the merits of classical, French and English drama. The greater part of his 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, which demonstrate the incredible breadth of his reading. He felt strongly about the relation of the poet to tradition and the creative process, and his best heroic play Aureng-Zebe (1675) has a prologue that denounces the use of rhyme in serious drama. His play All for Love (1678), was written in blank verse, and was to immediately follow Aureng-Zebe.

Dryden’s greatest achievements were in satiric verse: the mock-heroic MacFlecknoe, a more personal product of his Laureate years, was an attack on the playwright Thomas Shadwell, a lampoon circulated in manuscript. The form the satire takes is not derision but exaggeration, which makes his object great in ways which are unexpected, transferring the ridiculous into poetry.<sup id="ref_<5>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><5> This line of satire continued with Absalom and Achitophel (1681), a poem about the attempted coup of King Charles II by his illegitimate son recast as King David and Absalom from the Book of Samuel, and The Medal (1682). His other major works from this period are the religious poems Religio Laici (1682), written from the position of a member of the Church of England, and The Hind and the Panther (1687) which celebrates his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Later Life

When James II of England was deposed in 1688, Dryden’s political and religious ethos left him out of favor at court. Thomas Shadwell succeeded him as Poet Laureate, and he was forced to give up his public offices and live by the proceeds of his pen. Dryden translated works by Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius, and Theocritus, a task that he found 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 was a national event and brought Dryden the sum of ₤1,400.<sup id="ref_<6>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><6> His final translations appeared in the volume Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), a series of episodes from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio, as well as modernized adaptations from Geoffrey Chaucer interspersed with Dryden’s own poems. The Preface to Fables is considered to be both a major work of criticism and one of the finest essays in English. As a critic and translator he was essential in making accessible to the English reading public literary works from the classical languages.

Dryden died in 1700 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His influence as a poet was immense during his lifetime, and the considerable loss felt by the English literary community at his death was evident from the elegies which it brought forth.<sup id="ref_<7>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><7> In the eighteenth century his poems were used as models by poets such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. In the nineteenth century his reputation waned, and it has yet to fully recover outside of specialist circles. One of his greatest champions, T.S. Eliot, wrote that he was “the ancestor of nearly all that is best in the poetry of the eighteenth century,” and that “we cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden.”<sup id="ref_<8>" class="plainlinksneverexpand"><8>

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  • 1<cite id="endnote_<1>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Hopkins, David. John Dryden, ed. by Isobel Armstrong. Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers, 2004: 22.
  • 2<cite id="endnote_<2>" style="font-style: normal;">^ John Dryden The Major Works, ed. by Keith Walker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987: ix-x.
  • 3<cite id="endnote_<3>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Walker: x.
  • 4<cite id="endnote_<4>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Abrams, M. H., and Stephen Greenblatt, eds. “John Dryden” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2000: 2071.
  • 5<cite id="endnote_<5>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Eliot, T.S. “John Dryden,” in Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1932: 308.
  • 6<cite id="endnote_<6>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Walker: xiv.
  • 7<cite id="endnote_<7>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Walker: 37.
  • 8<cite id="endnote_<8>" style="font-style: normal;">^  Eliot: 305-6

Major works

  • Astraea Redux, 1660
  • The Indian Emperor (tragedy), 1665
  • Annus Mirabilis (poem), 1667
  • The Tempest, 1667 (comedy; an adaptation with William D'Avenant of Shakespeare's The Tempest)
  • An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, 1668
  • An Evening's Love (comedy), 1669
  • Tyrannick Love (tragedy), 1669
  • Marriage A-la-Mode, 1672
  • The Conquest of Granada, 1670
  • All for Love, 1677
  • Oedipus, 1679
  • Absalom and Achitophel, 1681
  • MacFlecknoe
  • The Medal, 1682
  • Religio Laici, 1682
  • The Hind and the Panther, 1687
  • Amphitryon, 1690
  • Don Sebastian, 1690
  • Amboyna
  • The Works of Virgil, 1697
  • Fables, Ancient and Modern, 1700

Select Bibliography


  • John Dryden The Major Works. Edited by Keith Walker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • The works of John Dryden. Edited by David Marriott. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.
  • John Dryden Selected Poems. Edited by David Hopkins. London: Everyman Paperbacks, 1998.


  • Drabble, Margaret, and Jenny Stringer, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Modern criticism

  • Eliot, T.S. “John Dryden” in Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1932.
  • Hopkins, David. John Dryden. Edited by Isobel Armstrong. Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers, 2004.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

Preceded by:
William D'Avenant
English Poet Laureate
Succeeded by:
Thomas Shadwell


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