Birthplace: Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Westminster Abbey, London, England
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Poet, Playwright, Critic
Executive summary: Absalom and Achitophel
English poet, born on or about the 9th of August 1631, at Aldwinkle, in Northamptonshire, was of Cumberland stock, though his family had been settled for three generations in Northamptonshire, had acquired estates and a baronetcy, and intermarried with landed families in that county. His great-grandfather, who first carried the name south, and acquired by marriage the estate of Canons Ashby, is said to have known Erasmus, and to have been so proud of the great scholar's friendship that he gave the name of Erasmus to his eldest son. The name Erasmus was borne by the poet's father, the third son of Sir Erasmus Dryden. The leanings and connections of the family were Puritan and anti-monarchical. Sir Erasmus Dryden went to prison rather than pay loan money to Charles I; the poet's uncle, Sir John Dryden, and his father Erasmus, served on government commissions during the Commonwealth. His mother's family, the Pickerings, were still more prominent on the Puritan side. Sir Gilbert Pickering, his cousin, was chamberlain to the Protector, and was summoned to Oliver Cromwell's House of Lords in 1657. A trustworthy tradition asserts that John Dryden was born at the rectory of Aldwinkle All Saints, of which his maternal grandfather, Henry Pickering, was rector.
Dryden's education was such as became a scion of these respectable families of squires and rectors, among whom the chance contact with Erasmus had left a certain tradition of scholarship. His father, whose own fortune, added to his wife's, was not large, procured for the poet, who was the eldest of fourteen children, admission to Westminster school as a king's scholar, under the famous Dr. Busby. Some elegiac verses which Dryden wrote there on the death of a schoolfellow, Henry, Lord Hastings, son of the earl of Huntingdon, in 1649, were published in Lacrymae Musarum, among other elegies by "divers persons of nobility and worth" in commemoration of the same event. He appeared soon after again in print, among writers of commendatory verses to a friend of his, John Hoddesdon, who published a volume of Epigrams in 1650. Dryden's contribution is signed "John Dryden of Trinity C.", as he had gone up from Westminster to Cambridge in May 1650. He was elected a scholar of Trinity on the Westminster foundation in October of the same year, and took his degree of B.A. in 1654. The only recorded incident of his college residence is some unexplained act of disobedience to the vice-master, for which he was "put out of commons" and "gated" for a fortnight. His father died in 1654, leaving him master of two-thirds of a small estate near Blakesley, worth about £60 a year. The next three years he is said to have spent at Cambridge. In any case they were spent somewhere in study; for his first considerable poem bears indisputable marks of scholarly habits, as well as of a command of verse that could not have been acquired without practice.
The middle of 1657 is given as the date of his leaving the university to take up his residence in London. In one of his many subsequent literary quarrels, it was said by Thomas Shadwell that he had been clerk to Sir Gilbert Pickering, his cousin, who was chamberlain to Cromwell; and nothing is more likely than that he obtained some employment under his powerful cousin when he came to London. He is said to have lived at first in the house of his first publisher, Herringman, with whom he was connected until 1679, when Jacob Tonson began to publish his books. He first emerged from obscurity with his Heroic Stanzas (1659) to the memory of the Protector. That these stanzas should have made him a name as a poet does not appear surprising when we compare them with Edmund Waller's verses on the same occasion. Dryden took some time to consider them, and it was impossible that they should not give an impression of his intellectual strength. John Donne was his model; it is obvious that both his ear and his imagination were saturated with Donne's elegiac strains when he wrote; yet when we look beneath the surface we find unmistakable traces that the pupil was not without decided theories that ran counter to the practice of the master. It is plainly not by accident that each stanza contains one clear-cut brilliant point. The poem is an academic exercise, and it seems to be animated by an undercurrent of strong contumacious protest against the irregularities tolerated by the authorities. Dryden had studied the ancient classics for himself, and their method of uniformity and elaborate finish commended itself to his robust and orderly mind. In itself the poem is a magnificent tribute to the memory of Cromwell.
To those who regard the poet as a seer with a sacred mission, and refuse the name altogether to a literary manufacturer to order, it comes with a certain shock to find Dryden, the hereditary Puritan, the panegyrist of Cromwell, hailing the return of King Charles in Astraea Redux (1660), deploring his long absence, and proclaiming the despair with which he had seen "the rebel thrive, the loyal crost." A Panegyric on the Coronation followed in 1661. From a literary point of view also, Astraea Redux is inferior to the Heroic Stanzas.
Dryden was compelled to supplement his slender income by his writings. He naturally first thought of tragedy -- his own genius, as he has informed us, inclining him rather to that species of composition; and in the first year of the Restoration he wrote a tragedy on the fate of Henry, duke of Guise. But some friends advised him that its construction was not suited to the requirements of the stage, so he put it aside, and used only one scene of the original play later on, when he again attempted the subject with a more practiced hand. Having failed to write a suitable tragedy, he next turned his attention to comedy, although, as he admitted, he had little natural turn for it. "I confess", he said, in a short essay in his own defense, printed before The Indian Emperor, "my chief endeavours are to delight the age in which I live. If the humour of this be for low comedy, small accidents and raillery, I will force my genius to obey it, though with more reputation I could write in verse. I know I am not so fitted by nature to write comedy; I want that gaiety of humour which is required to it. My conversation is slow and dull; my humour saturnine and reserved; in short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company or make repartees. So that those who decry my comedies do me no injury, except it be in point of profit; reputation in them is the last thing to which I shall pretend." He was really as well as ostentatiously a playwright; the age demanded comedies, and he endeavored to supply the kind of comedy that the age demanded. His first attempt was unsuccessful. Bustle, intrigue and coarsely humorous dialogue seemed to him to be part of the popular demand; and, looking about for a plot, he found something to suit him in a Spanish source, and wrote The Wild Gallant. The play was acted in February 1663, by Thomas Killigrew's company in Vere Street. It was not a success, and, Pepys showed good judgment in pronouncing the play "so poor a thing as ever I saw in my life." Dryden never learned moderation in his humor; there is a student's clumsiness and extravagance in his indecency; the plays of Etheredge, a man of the world, have not the uncouth riotousness of Dryden's. Of this he seems to have been conscious, for when the play was revived in 1667, he complained in the epilogue of the difficulty of comic wit, and admitted the right of a common audience to judge of the wit's success. Dryden, indeed, took a lesson from the failure of The Wild Gallant; his next comedy, The Rival Ladies, also founded on a Spanish plot, produced before the end of 1663, and printed in the next year, was correctly described by Pepys "as a very innocent and most pretty witty play", though there was much in it which the taste of later times might consider indelicate. But he never quite conquered his tendency to extravagance. The Wild Gallant was not the only victim. The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery, produced in 1673, shared the same fate; and even as late as 1680, when he had had twenty years' experience to guide him, The Kind Keeper, or Mr. Limberham was prohibited, after three representations, as being too indecent for the stage. Dislike to indecency we are apt to think a somewhat ludicrous pretext to be made by Restoration playgoers, and probably there was some other reason for the sacrifice of Limberham; still there is a certain savageness in the spirit of Dryden's indecency which we do not find in his most licentious contemporaries. The undisciplined force of the man carried him to an excess from which more dexterous writers held back.
After the production of The Rival Ladies in 1663, Dryden assisted Sir Robert Howard in the composition of a tragedy in heroic verse, The Indian Queen, produced with great splendor in January 1664. He married Lady Elizabeth Howard, Sir Robert's sister and daughter of the 1st earl of Berkshire, on the 1st of December 1663. Lady Elizabeth's reputation was somewhat compromised before this union, which was not a happy one, and there is some evidence for the scandal in a letter written by her before her marriage to Philip, 2nd earl of Chesterfield. The Indian Queen was a great success, one of the greatest since the reopening of the theaters. This was in all likelihood due much less to the heroic verse and the exclusion of comic scenes from the tragedy than to the magnificent scenic accessories -- the battles and sacrifices on the stage, the spirits singing in the air, and the god of dreams ascending through a trap. The novelty of these Indian spectacles, as well as of the Indian characters, with the splendid Queen Zempoalla, acted by Mrs. Marshall in a real Indian dress of feathers presented to her by Aphra Behn, as the center of the play, was the chief secret of the success of The Indian Queen. These melodramatic properties were so marked a novelty that they could not fail to draw the town. Dryden was tempted to return to tragedy; he followed up The Indian Queen with The Indian Emperor, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, which was acted in 1665, and also proved a success.
But Dryden was not content with writing tragedies in rhymed verse. He took up the question of the propriety of rhyme in serious plays immediately after the success of The Indian Queen, in the preface to an edition (1664) of The Rival Ladies. In that first statement of his case, he considered the chief objection to the use of rhyme, and urged his chief argument in its favor. Rhyme was not natural, some people had said; to which he answers that it is as natural as blank verse, and that much of its unnaturalness is not the fault of the rhyme but of the writer, who has not sufficient command of language to rhyme easily. In favor of rhyme he has to say that it at once stimulates the imagination, and prevents it from being too discursive in its flights.
During the Great Plague, when the theaters were closed, and Dryden was living at Charlton, Wiltshire, at the seat of his father-in-law, the earl of Berkshire, he occupied a considerable part of his time in thinking over the principles of dramatic composition, and threw his conclusions into the form of a dialogue, which he called an Essay of Dramatick Poesie and published in 1668. The essay takes the form of a dialogue between Neander (Dryden), Eugenius (Charles, Lord Buckhurst, afterwards earl of Dorset), Crites (Sir R. Howard), and Lisideius (Sir C. Sedley), who is made responsible for the famous definition of a play as a "just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind." Dryden's form is of course borrowed from the ancients, and his main source is the critical work of Pierre Corneille in the prefaces and discourses contained in the edition of 1660, but he was well acquainted with the whole body of contemporary French and Spanish criticism. Crites maintains the superiority of the classical drama; Lisideius supports the exacting rules of French dramatic writing; Neander defends the English drama of the preceding generations, including, in a long speech, an examination of Ben Jonson's Silent Woman. Neander argues, however, that English drama has much to gain by the observance of exact methods of construction without abandoning entirely the liberty which English writers had always claimed. He then goes on to defend the use of rhyme in serious drama. Howard had argued against the use of rhyme in a preface to Four New Plays (1665), which had furnished the excuse for Dryden's essay. Howard replied to Dryden's essay in a preface to The Duke of Lerma (1668). Dryden at once replied in a masterpiece of sarcastic retort and vigorous reasoning, A Defence of an Essay of Dramatique Poesie, prefixed to the second edition (1668) of The Indian Emperor. It is the ablest and most complete statement of his views about the employment of rhymed couplets in tragedy.
Before his return to town at the end of 1666, when the theaters (which had been closed during the disasters of 1665 and 1666) were reopened, Dryden wrote a poem on the Dutch war and the Great Fire entitled Annus Mirabilis. The poem is in quatrains, the metre of his Heroic Stanzas in praise of Cromwell, which Dryden chose, he tells us, "because he had ever judged it more noble and of greater dignity both for the sound and number than any other verse in use amongst us." The preface to the poem contains an interesting discussion of what he calls "wit-writing", introduced by the remark that "the composition of all poems is or ought to be of wit." His description of the Great Fire is a famous specimen of this wit-writing, much more careless and daring, and much more difficult to sympathize with, than the graver conceits in his panegyric of the Protector. In Annus Mirabilis the poet apostrophizes the newly founded Royal Society, of which he had been elected a member in 1662.
From the reopening of the theaters in 1666 until November 1681, the date of his Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden produced nothing but plays. The stage was his chief source of income. Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen, a tragi-comedy, produced in March 1667, was based on an episode in the Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus of Mlle. de Scudéry, the historical original of the "Maiden Queen" being Christina, queen of Sweden. The prologue claims that the piece is written with pains and thought, by the exactest rules, with strict observance of the unities, and "a mingled chime of Jonson's humour and of Corneille's rhyme"; but it owed its success chiefly to the charm of Nell Gwyn's acting in the part of Florimel. It is noticeable that only the more passionate parts of the dialogue are rhymed, Dryden's theory apparently being that rhyme is then demanded for the elevation of the style. His next play, Sir Martin Mar-all, or the Feigned Innocence, an adaptation in prose of the duke of Newcastle's translation of Molière's L'Étourdi, was produced at the Duke's theatre, without the author's name, in 1667. It was about this time that Dryden became a retained writer under contract for the King's theater, receiving from it £300 or £400 a year, until it was burned down in 1672, and about £200 for six years more until the beginning of 1678. His cooperation with Davenant in a new version (1667) of Shakespeare's Tempest -- for his share in which Dryden can hardly be pardoned on the ground that the chief alterations were happy thoughts of Davenant's, seeing that he affirms he never worked at anything with more delight -- must also be supposed to be anterior to the completion of his contract with the Theatre Royal. He was engaged to write three plays a year, and he contributed only ten plays during the ten years of his engagement, finally exhausting the patience of his partners by joining in the composition of a play for the rival house. In adapting L'Étourdi, Dryden did not catch Molière's lightness of touch; his alterations go towards making the comedy into a farce. Perhaps all the more on this account Sir Martin Mar-all had a great run at the theater in Lincoln's Inn Fields. There is always a certain coarseness in Dryden's humor, apart from the coarseness of his age -- a certain forcible roughness of touch which belongs to the character of the man. His An Evening's Love, or the Mock Astrologer, an adaptation from Le Feint Astrologue of the younger Corneille, produced at the King's theater in 1668, seemed to Pepys "very smutty, and nothing so good as The Maiden Queen or The Indian Emperor of Dryden's making." John Evelyn thought it foolish and profane, and was grieved "to see how the stage was degenerated and polluted by the licentious times." Ladies à la Mode, another of Dryden's contract comedies, produced in 1668, was "so mean a thing", Pepys says, that it was only once acted, and Dryden never published it. Of his other comedies, Marriage à la Mode (produced 1672), The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery (1673), The Kind Keeper, or Mr. Limberham (1678), only the first was moderately successful.
While Dryden met with such indifferent success in his willing efforts to supply the demand of the age for low comedy, he struck upon a really popular and profitable vein in heroic tragedy. Tyrannic Love, or the Royal Martyr, a Roman play dealing with the persecution of the Christians by Maximin, in which St. Catherine is introduced, and with her some supernatural machinery, was produced in 1669. It is in rhymed couplets, but the author again did not trust solely for success to them; for, besides the magic incantations, the singing angels, and the view of Paradise, he made Nell Gwyn, who had stabbed herself as Valeria, start to life again as she was being carried off the stage, and speak a riotous epilogue, in violent contrast to the serious character of the play. Almanzor and Almahide, or the Conquest of Granada, a tragedy in two parts, was written in 1669 to 1670. The historical background is taken chiefly from Mlle. de Scudéry's romance of Almahide, but Dryden borrows freely from other books of hers and her contemporaries. This piece seems to have given the crowning touch of provocation to the wits, who had never ceased to ridicule the popular taste for these extravagant heroic plays. Dryden almost invited burlesque in his epilogue to the second part of The Conquest of Granada, in which he charged the comedy of the Elizabethan age with coarseness and mechanical humor, and its conceptions of love and honor with meanness, and claimed for his own time and his own plays an advance in these respects. The Rehearsal, written by the duke of Buckingham, with the assistance, it was said, of Samuel Butler, Martin Clifford, Thomas Sprat and others, and produced in 1671, was a severe and just punishment for this boast. Davenant was originally the hero, but on his death in 1668 the satire was turned upon Dryden, who is here unmercifully ridiculed under the name of Bayes, the name being justified by his appointment in 1670 as poet laureate and historiographer to the king (with a pension of £300 a year and a butt of canary wine). It is said that The Rehearsal was begun in 1663 and ready for representation before the plague. But this probably only means that Buckingham and his friends had resolved to burlesque, the absurdities of Davenant's operatic heroes in The Siege of Rhodes, and the extravagant heroics of The Indian Queen. Materials accumulated upon them as the fashion continued, and by the time Dryden had produced his Tyrannic Love, and his Conquest of Granada, he had so established himself as the chief offender as to become naturally the central figure of the burlesque. Later Dryden fully avenged himself on Buckingham by his portrait of Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel. His immediate reply is contained in the preface "Of Heroic Plays" and the "Defence of the Epilogue", printed in the first edition (1672) of his Conquest of Granada. In these, so far from laughing with his censors, he addresses them from the eminence of success. "But I have alseady swept the stakes; and, with the common good fortune of prosperous gamesters, can be content to sit quietly; to hear my fortune cursed by some, and my faults arraigned by others, and to suffer both without reply." Heroic verse, he assures them, is so established that few tragedies are likely henceforward to be written in any other metre. In the course of a year or two The Conquest of Granada was attacked also by Elkanah Settle, on whom Dryden revenged himself later, making him the "Doeg" of the second part of Absalom and Achitophel.
His next tragedy, Amboyna (1673), an exhibition of certain atrocities committed by the Dutch on English merchants in the East Indies, put on the stage to inflame the public mind in view of the Dutch war, was written, with the exception of a few passages, in prose, and those passages in blank verse. An opera which he wrote in rhymed couplets, called The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man, an attempt to turn part of Paradise Lost into rhyme, as a proof of its superiority to blank verse, was prefaced by an "Apology for Heroique Poetry and Poetique Licence", and entered at Stationers' Hall in 1674, but it was never acted. The redeeming circumstance about the performance is the admiration professed by the adapter for his original, which he pronounces "undoubtedly one of the greatest, most noble and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced." Dryden is said to have had the elder poet's leave "to tag his verses." In Aurengzebe, which was Dryden's last and also his best rhymed tragedy, he borrowed from contemporary history, for the Great Mogul was still living. In the prologue he confessed that he had grown weary of his long-loved mistress rhyme and retracted, with characteristic frankrfess, his disparaging contrast of the Elizabethan with his own age. But the stings of The Rehearsal had stimulated him to do his utmost to justify his devotion to his mistress, and he claims that Aurengzebe is "the most correct" of his plays. It was entered at Stationers' Hall and probably acted in 1675, and published in the following year.
After the production of Aurengzebe he seems to have rested for an interval from writing, enabled to do so probably by an additional pension of £100 granted to him by the king. During this interval he would seem to have reconsidered the priniples of dramatic composition, and to have made a particular study of the works of Shakespeare. The fruits of this appeared in All for Love, or the World Well Lost, a version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, produced in 1678, which must be regarded as a very remarkable departure for a man of his age, and a wonderful proof of undiminished openness and plasticity of mind. In his previous writings on dramatic theory, Dryden, while admiring the rhyme of the French dramatists as an advance in art, did not give unqualified praise to the regularity of their plots; he was disposed to allow the irregular structure of the Elizabethan dramatists, as being more favorable to variety both of action and of character. But now, in frank imitation of Shakespeare, he abandoned rhyme, and, if we might judge from All for Love, and the precepts laid down in his "Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy", prefixed to Troilus and Cressida (1679), the chief point in which he aimed at excelling the Elizabethans was in giving greater unity to his plot. He upheld still the superiority of Shakespeare to the French dramatists in the delineation of character, but he thought that the scope of the action might be restricted, and the parts bound more closely together with advantage. All for Love and Antony and Cleopatra are two excellent plays for the comparison of the two methods. Dryden gave all his strength to All for Love, writing the play for himself, as he said, and not for the public. Carrying out the idea expressed in the title, he represents the two lovers as being more entirely under the dominion of love than Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare's Antony is moved by other impulses than the passion for Cleopatra; it is his master motive, but it has to maintain a struggle for supremacy; "Roman thoughts" strike in upon him even in the very height of the enjoyment of his mistress's love, he chafes under the yoke, and breaks away from her of his own impulse at the call of spontaneously reawakened ambition. Dryden's Antony is so deeply sunk in love that no other impulse has power to stir him; it takes much persuasion and skilful artifice to detach him from Cleopatra even in thought, and his soul returns to her violently before the rupture has been completed. On the other hand, Dryden's Cleopatra is so completely enslaved by love for Antony that she is incapable of using the calculated caprices and meretricious coquetries which Shakespeare's Cleopatra deliberately practices as the highest art of love, the surest way of maintaining her empire over her great captain's heart. It is with difficulty that Dryden's Cleopatra will agree, on the earnest solicitation of a wily counsellor, to feign a liking for Dolabella to excite Antony's jealousy, and she cannot keep up the pretense through a few sentences. The characters of the two lovers are thus very much contracted, indeed almost overwhelmed, beneath the pressure of the one ruling motive. And as Dryden thus introduces a greater regularity of character into the drama, so he also very much contracts the action, in order to give probability to this temporary subjugation of individual character. The action of Dryden's play takes place wholly in Alexandria, within the compass of a few days; it does not, like Shakespeares, extend over several years, and present incessant changes of scene. Dryden chooses, as it were, a fragment of a historical action, a single moment during which motives play within a narrow circle, the culminating point in the relations between his two personages. He devotes his whole play, also, to those relations; only what bears upon them is admitted. In Shakespeare's play we get a certain historical perspective, in which the love of Antony and Cleopatra appears in its true proportions beneath the firmament that overhangs human affairs. In Dryden's play this love is our universe; all the other concerns of the world retire into a shadowy, indistinct background. If we rise from a comparison of the plays with an impression that the Elizabethan drama is a higher type of drama, taking Dryden's own definition of the word as "a just and lively image of human nature", we rise also with an impression of Dryden's power such as we get from nothing else that he had written since his Heroic Stanzas, twenty years before.
It was twelve years before Dryden produced another tragedy worthy of the power shown in All for Love. Don Sebastian was acted and published in 1690. In the interval, to sum up briefly Dryden's work as a dramatist, he wrote Oedipus (printed 1679) and The Duke of Guise (printed 1683) in conjunction with Nathaniel Lee; Troilus and Cressida (1679); The Spanish Friar (1681); Albion and Albanius, an opera (1685); Amphitryon (1690). In Troilus and Cressida he follows Shakespeare closely in the plot, but the dialogue is rewritten throughout, and not for the better. The versification and the language of the first and the third acts of Oedipus, which with the general plan of the play were Dryden's contribution to the joint work, bear marked evidence of his recent study of Shakespeare. The Duke of Guise provided an obvious parallel with contemporary English politics. Henry III was identified with Charles II, and Monmouth with the duke. The lord chamberlain refused to license it until the political situation was less disturbed. The plot of Don Sebastian is more intricate than that of All for Love. It has also more of the characteristics of his heroic dramas; the extravagance of sentiment and the suddenness of impulse remind us occasionally of The Indian Emperor; but the characters are much more elaborately studied than in Dryden's earlier plays, and the verse is sinewy and powerful. It would be difficult to say whether Don Sebastian or All for Love is his best play; they share the palm between them. Dryden's subsequent plays are not remarkable. Their titles and dates are -- King Arthur, an opera (1691), for which Henry Purcell wrote the music; Cleomenes (1692); Love Triumphant (1694).
Soon after Dryden's abandonment of heroic couplets in tragedy, he found new and more congenial work for his favorite instrument in satire. As usual the idea was not original to Dryden, though he struck in with his majestic step and energy divine, and immediately took the lead. The pioneer was Mulgrave in his Essay on Satire, an attack on Rochester and the court, which was circulated in manuscript in 1679. Dryden himself was suspected of the authorship, and it is not impossible that he gave some help in revising it; but it is not likely that he attacked the king on whom he was dependent for the greater part of his income, and Mulgrave in a note to his Art of Poetry in 1717 expressly asserts Dryden's ignorance. Dryden, however, was attacked in Rose Street, Covent Garden, and severely cudgelled by a company of ruffians who were generally supposed to have been hired by Rochester. In the same year Oldham's satire on the Jesuits had immense popularity, chiefly owing to the excitement about the Popish plot. Dryden took the field as a satirist towards the close of 1681, on the side of the court, at the moment when Shaftesbury, baffled in his efforts to exclude the duke of York from the throne as a papist, and secure the succession of the duke of Monmouth, was waiting his trial for high treason. Absalom and Achitophel produced a great stir. Nine editions were sold in rapid succession in the course of a year. There was no compunction in Dryden's ridicule and invective. Delicate wit was not one of Dryden's gifts; the motions of his weapon were sweeping, and the blows hard and trenchant. The advantage he had gained by his recent studies of character was fully used in his portraits of Shaftesbury and Buckingham, Achitophel and Zimri. In these portraits he shows considerable art in the introduction of redeeeming traits to the general outline of malignity and depravity. It is not impossible that the fact that his pension had not been paid since the beginning of 1680 weighed with him in writing this satire to gain the favor of the court. In a play produced in 1681, The Spanish Friar, he had written on the other side, gratifying the popular feeling by attacking the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Three other satires followed Absalom and Achitophel, one of them hardly inferior in point of literary power. The Medall; a Satyre against Sedition (March 1682) was written in ridicule of the medal struck to commemorate Shaftesbury's acquittal. Then Dryden had to take vengeance on the literary champions of the Whig party who had opened upon him with all their artillery. Their leader, Shadwell, had attacked him in The Medal of John Bayes, which Dryden answered in October 1682 by Mac Flecknoe, or a Satyr upon the True-Blew Protestant Poet, T.S. This satire, in which Shadwell filled the title role, served as the model of the Dunciad. To the second part of Absalom and Achitophel (November 1682), written chiefly by Nahum Tate, he contributed a long passage of invective against Robert Ferguson, one of Monmouth's chief advisers, Elkanah Settle, Shadwell and others. Religio Laici, which appeared in the same month, though nominally an exposition of a layman's creed, and deservedly admired as such, was not without a political purpose. It attacked the Papists, but declared the "fanatics" to be still more dangerous.
Dryden's next poem in heroic couplets was in a different strain. On the accession of James II, in 1685, he became a Roman Catholic. There has been much discussion as to whether this conversion was or was not sincere. It can only be said that the coincidence between his change of faith and his change of patron was suspicious, and that Dryden's character for consistency is certainly not of a kind to quench suspicion. The force of the coincidence cannot be removed by such pleas as that his wife had been a Roman Catholic for several years, or that he was converted by his son, who was converted at Cambridge, even if there were any evidence for these statements. Sir Walter Scott defended Dryden's conversion -- as Macaulay denounced it, from party motives. It is worthwhile, however, to notice that in his earlier defense of the English Church he exhibits a desire for the definite guidance of a presumably infallible creed, and the case for the Roman Church brought forward at the time may have appeared convincing to a mind singularly open to new impressions. At the same time nothing can be clearer than that Dryden always regarded his literary powers as a means of subsistence, and had little scruple about accepting a brief on any side. The Hind and the Panther, published in 1687, is an ingenious argument for Roman Catholicism, put into the mouth of "a milk-white hind, immortal and unchanged." There is considerable beauty in the picture of this tender creature, and its enemies in the forest are not spared. One can understand the admiration that the poem received when such allegories were in fashion. It was the chief cause of the veneration with which Dryden was regarded by Alexander Pope, who, himself educated in the Roman Catholic faith, was taken as a boy of twelve to see the veteran poet in his chair of honor and authority at Wills's coffee-house. It was also very open to ridicule, and was treated in this spirit by Prior and Montagu, the future earl of Halifax, in The Hind and the Panther transversed to the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse. Dryden's other literary services to James were a savage reply to Stillingfleet -- who had attacked two papers published by the king immediately after his accession, one said to have been written by his late brother in advocacy of the Church of Rome, the other by his late wife explaining the reasons for her conversion -- and a translation of a life of Xavier in prose. He had written also a panegyric of Charles, Threnodia Augustalis, and a poem in honor of the birth of James II's heir, under the title of Britannia rediviva (1688).
Dryden did not abjure his new faith on the Revolution, and so lost his office and pension as laureate and historiographer royal. For this act of constancy he deserves credit, if the new powers would have considered his services worth having after his frequent apostasies. His rival Shadwell reigned in his stead. Dryden was once more thrown mainly upon his pen for support. He turned again to the stage and wrote the plays already enumerated. A great feature in the last decade of his life was his translations from the classics. Ovid's Epistles translated appeared in 1680; and numerous translations from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucretius and Theocritus appeared in the four volumes of Miscellany Poems -- Miscellany Poems (1684), Sylvae (1685), Examen poeticum (1693), The Annual Miscellany (1694 by "the most eminent hands"); in 1693 was published the verse translation of the Satires of Juvenal and of Persius by "Mr. Dryden and several other eminent hands", which contained his "Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire"; and in 1697 Jacob Tonson published his most important translation, The Works of Virgil. The book, which was the result of three years' labor, was a vigorous, rather than a close, rendering of Virgil into the style of Dryden. Among other notable poems of this period are the two "Songs for St. Cecilia's Day", written for a London musical society for 1687 and 1697, and published separately. The second of these is the famous ode on "Alexander's Feast." The well-known paraphrase of Veni, Creator Spiritus was posthumously printed, and his "Ode to the memory of Anne Killigrew", called by Samuel Johnson the noblest ode in the language, was written in 1686.
His next work was to render some of Chaucer's and Boccaccio's tales and Ovid's Metamorphoses into his own verse. These translations appeared in November 1699, a few months before his death, and are known by the title of Fables, Ancient and Modern. The preface, which is an admirable example of Dryden's prose, contains an excellent appreciation of Chaucer, and, incidentally, an answer to Jeremy Collier's attack on the stage. Thus a large portion of the closing years of Dryden's life was spent in translating for bread. He had a windfall of 500 guineas from Lord Abingdon for a poem on the death of his wife in 1691, and he received liberal presents from his cousin John Driden and from the duke of Ormonde, but generally he was in considerable pecuniary straits. Besides, his three sons held various posts in the service of the pope at Rome, and he could not well be on good terms with both courts. However, he was not molested in London by the government, and in private he was treated with the respect due to his old age and his admitted position as the greatest of living English poets. He held a small court at Wills's coffee-house, where he spent his evenings; here he had a chair by the fire in winter and by the window in summer; Congreve, Vanbrugh and Addison were among his admirers, and here Pope saw the old poet of whom he was to be the most brilliant disciple. He died at his house in Gerrard Street, London, on the 1st of May 1700 and was buried on the 13th of the month in Westminster Abbey. Dryden's portrait, by Sir G. Kneller, is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Father: Erasmus Dryden (d. 1654)
Wife: Elizabeth Howard (dau. 1st earl of Berkshire, m. 1-Dec-1663, three sons)
Son: Charles Dryden (eldest)
High School: Westminster School
University: BA, Trinity College, Cambridge University (1650-54)
Royal Society 1662
Converted to Catholicism 1685
Risk Factors: Gout
Is the subject of books:
The Life of John Dryden, 1961, BY: Charles E. Ward
John Dryden and His World, 1987, BY: James Anderson Winn
Author of books:
Annus Mirabilis (1667, poetry)
Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay (1668, essay)
Absalom and Achitophel (1681, poetry)
The Medall (1682, poetry)
MacFlecknoe (1682, poetry)
The Hind and the Panther (1687, poetry)
Eleonora (1692, poetry)
Fables Ancient and Modern (1700, poetry)
The Wild Gallant (1663)
The Indian Emperour (1665)
Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen (1667)
Tyrannick Love (1669)
The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards (1670)
Marriage A-la-Mode (1672)
All for Love (1677)
Don Sebastian (1689)
Love Triumphant (1694)
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