John Dryden, poet, playwright, translator, and critic, was perhaps the leading literary voice of Restoration England and Poet Laureate from 1668 to 1688. He achieved distinction as the first verse satirist, the “father of English criticism,” and author of one of the finest English translations of the Aeneid, among other prominent works. Though these are the accomplishments for which he is most remembered, Dryden was also the dominant dramatist of his day, a powerful force in shaping the English theatre after the Interregnum and author of 27 dramatic works that included comedy, drama, opera, and heroic tragedies written both in rhyme and blank verse.
Dryden was born on August 9, 1631, the eldest of 14 children, to Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering, conservative Puritan gentry. He was born at Aldwincle in Northamptonshire and grew up near Titchmarsh, probably attending the village school. In 1644, his formal education began at Westminster under the Royalist, Anglican headmaster Richard Busby. Under Busby’s tutelage, Dryden received the classical education that was so influential in his later writing. In 1650, Dryden was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under John Templer and received his B.A. in 1654. Little of Dryden’s writing from this time survives; it is thought that he may have destroyed some of his juvenilia later in his career. The year after he received his degree, Dryden moved to London where his cousin Sir Gilbert Pickering was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain and where he was to work as clerk and translator under Cromwell’s Protectorate in the office of the Latin Secretary, probably alongside Andrew Marvell and John Milton. The three poets marched together in Cromwell’s funeral procession in 1658; shortly afterward, Dryden composed his first major poem, “Heroique Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell.” As the Protectorate began to decline, Dryden secured work as a writer of prefaces and advertisements for bookseller Henry Herringman.
With the Restoration of Charles II, Dryden attempted to establish his literary career, composing the poem Astraea redux (“Justice brought back”) for the new monarch. This attempt to curry favor with Charles, written only one year after “Heroique Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell,” is the first of many occasions in Dryden’s life in which he was criticized for his flexible allegiances. In the same year of the poem’s publication, Dryden began lodging with Sir Robert Howard, son of the earl of Berkshire, a fruitful relationship in which Dryden served as an editor and collaborator to Howard and Howard served as a patron to Dryden. Howard was also connected with a theatre troupe headed by Thomas Killigrew, in which Dryden soon became involved. In 1663, Dryden’s first play, The Wild Gallant, was produced, and in the same year, Dryden made an advantageous match in marrying his patron’s sister, Lady Elizabeth Howard.
Though The Wild Gallant was not a success, it marks the beginning of Dryden’s fruitful career as a playwright. His 1664 collaboration with Howard, The Indian Queen, was the first all-rhyming heroic play staged after the Restoration, and it was a style in which Dryden would later achieve success. Dryden’s dramatic career was interrupted in 1665 by the plague, which closed the theatres for a year. During this time, Dryden, in retirement at the Howard country estate, wrote a play, a heroic poem, and one of his major essays, Of Dramatick Poesie, the first great sustained work of English dramatic criticism and the most famous of his prose works. In late 1666 or early 1667, Dryden returned to London and was acclaimed for the publication of his essay, as well as the poem Annus mirabilis and the production of his new play Secret Love. The theatre became his primary source of income as he gained more and more popularity as a dramatist. By the summer of 1668, he was the Poet Laureate and by the end of 1670 the royal historiographer. His finest rhymed heroic play, The Conquest of Granada, played in 1670 and 1671. During these years, he continued to write literary criticism and embroiled himself in protracted, often nasty debates with his once-patron Sir Richard Howard and up and coming playwright Thomas Shadwell, a feud that would occasion Dryden’s famous poem Mac Flecknoe (written in 1676) and threaten to ruin Shadwell’s career.
Within a few years of Dryden’s appointment as royal historiographer a fire destroyed his company’s theatre, just as a rival company was moving into a new theatre in Dorset Garden. As soon as the theatre was rebuilt, Dryden wrote an extravagant opera based on Paradise Lost in an attempt to outshine the rival theatre company, but the play was too technically demanding to be produced. Dryden’s theatre company never fully recovered from its financial crisis, and Dryden struggled to make money and retain his position as a prominent playwright. He began to rethink his stance on dramatic writing, particularly his attachment to rhyming heroic drama. Aureng-Zebe, produced in 1675, marks the last of Dryden’s performed heroic dramas, a style he publicly retreated from in the preface to the published version of the play in 1676.
In the politically unstable 1680s, Dryden turned to poetry. In 1681 he wrote perhaps his most famous work Absalom and Achitophel, a political satire that addresses the Monmouth Rebellion, the Popish Plot, and the Exclusion Crisis through the biblical story of Absalom’s rebellion against King David. The poem was a public success and was shortly followed by The Medall, a more personal satiric criticism of the Earl of Shaftesbury. Mac Flecknoe was published in 1682, and by 1684 Dryden was England’s leading poet. During this time, Dryden was also questioning his religious views. He converted to Catholicism around 1685, following the deathbed conversion of Charles II and the ascension of his openly Catholic brother James. Though many Protestants accused him of opportunism, Dryden remained firm in his Catholic faith until his death, even after the ascension of William and Mary in 1689. His steadfastness cost him his position as Poet Laureate (to his chagrin, his nemesis Thomas Shadwell succeeded him) and subjected him to discrimination throughout the final years of his career. Two years after his conversion, he composed his only major Catholic work, The Hind and the Panther, an allegorical poem about the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the final stages of Dryden’s career, he worked primarily on translations of classical authors. His acclaimed translation of the Aeneid partly fulfilled his lifelong dream to compose an English epic, a goal he never fully achieved. His translations of Virgil were, however, popular successes that found audiences of all types and transcended religious and political boundaries. Dryden’s final work, published in 1700, was a collection of four original poems and translated tales called Fables, Ancient and Modern, the piece he was primarily known for in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dryden died on the first day of May just two months after the publication of Fables due to complications of a gangrenous swollen leg. He was buried first in St. Anne’s Church, but two weeks later friends arranged for his body to be carried with great pomp to Westminster Abbey, where he was buried in Poet’s Corner. He leaves a lasting legacy as the foremost writer of his generation, and perhaps the most influential poet, playwright, critic, and translator of the Restoration period.
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Hammond, Paul. “Dryden, John (1631–1700).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.
Reverand, Cedric D. II. “John Dryden.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 101: British Prose Writers, 1660-1800, First Series. Ed. Donald T. Siebert. The Gale Group, 1991. 139-171. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.
Winn, James A. “John Dryden.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 80: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, First Series. Ed. Paula R. Backscheider. The Gale Group, 1989. 52-80. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.