State of Innocence (1677)

The State of Innocence is an opera by John Dryden (1631-1700) about the fall of man, based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Composed in 1674, it was originally intended to be staged at the newly-built Theatre Royal in Drury Lane: fire had destroyed Dryden’s company’s theatre a few years earlier, and Dryden was determined to outdo his company’s rivals, the Duke’s company, with an extravagant opera in the brand new facility. However, The State of Innocence was too technically and financially demanding even for the Theatre Royal to stage, and consequently, the play was never performed. The work did, however, circulate widely in manuscript—so widely, in fact, that in Dryden’s preface to the published version, he states the opera was printed partly to defend the integrity of his work, “many hundred Copies of it being dispers’d, abroad without my knowledge or consent: so that every one gathering new faults, it became at length a Libel against me.”

The opera was first published in 1677, with a prefatory essay entitled “The Authors Apology for Heroique Poetry; and Poetique Licence.” The essay touches on many topics including the nature of criticism, heroic poetry, poetic license, figurative language, tradition, authority, and wit. Though he recognizes the difficulties of the genre, Dryden ultimately defends heroic poetry as “the greatest work of humane Nature.” In the beginning of the preface, he acknowledges his debt to Milton for his play’s “entire Foundation, part of its Design, and many of the ornaments,” and calls Paradise Lost “one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems, which either this Age of Nation has produc’d.” He states that he “should be sorry” if anyone compared his own “mean Productions” to Milton’s epic poem, but the work itself, nevertheless, invites comparison.

The relationship of The State of Innocence to Paradise Lost is complicated, probably as complicated as the relationship between the two authors, who were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Although we know little about their interaction, it is likely that the two writers worked together for a short time in Cromwell’s Protectorate when Dryden was a young man. There is little information about any contact they might have had after the Restoration, but when Dryden was in his 40s, he allegedly went to see Milton to obtain permission to convert his great epic into an opera, to which Milton conceded. Though Dryden keeps the plot of Paradise Lost and many of its elements, the language of his rewrite is influenced by libertine philosophy, and he politically updates many elements of the drama. For example, in the play’s opening scene Dryden makes some intriguing changes to the end of the council in Hell. As Marcie Frank points out, Dryden’s Satan is more tyrannical than Milton’s, insisting that he should be the only person to make the quest to Earth, rather than, as in Paradise Lost, volunteering when no other volunteers come forward. Additionally, Dryden’s royalism seems to inform this speech, as his Lucifer refers to kings as the paradigm of authority, whereas the implied authority in the speech of Milton’s Satan is God. This modernization continues throughout the poem.

Andrew Marvell’s prefatory poem in the second edition of Paradise Lost likely refers to Dryden when it speaks of the “less skillful hand” who presumed to turn the poem to a play. Though modern critics sometimes take Marvell’s view of The State of Innocence as a cheap imitation of Milton, contemporary audiences seem not to have shared his opinion. It may surprise modern readers to know that Dryden’s now relatively obscure and never-performed opera easily outsold Milton’s classic epic poem in the years before 1700. Nine editions of The State of Innocence were produced in 1677, 1678, 1684, 1690, 1692, and 1695, and a pirated edition was produced afterward with a falsified date. Though it was never staged, it proved incredibly popular with a reading audience and remained in print throughout Dryden’s lifetime.


Emily Donahoe


Works Cited

Canfield, Douglas J. “John Dryden.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 131: Seventeenth-Century British Nondramatic Poets, Third Series. Ed. M. Thomas Hester. The Gale Group, 1993. 81-111. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

Frank, Marcie. “Staging Criticism, Staging Milton: John Dryden’s ‘The State of Innocence’.” The Eighteenth Century 34.1 (1993): 45-64. JSTOR. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

Hamilton, Marion H. “The Early Editions of Dryden’s ‘State of Innocence’.” Studies in Bibliography 5 (1952-53): 163-166. JSTOR. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

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.