John Dryden

The English poet, dramatist, and critic John Dryden, called himself Neander, the "new man", in his essay Of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and implied that he was a spokesman for the concerns of his generation and the embodiment of its tastes. Dryden was born to a Puritan family in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, and was educated at Westminster School and at the University of cambridge. About 1657, he went to London as clerk to the chamberlain to the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Dryden's first important poem, Heroic Stanzas (1659), was written in memory of Cromwell. After the Restoration, however, Dryden became a Royalist and celebrated the return of KIng Charles II in two poems, Astraea Redux (16600 and Panegyric on the Coronation (1661). In 1663, he married lady Elizabeth Howard, sister of his patron, the courtier and playwright Sir Robert Howard.

Thy sword within the scabbard keep,
And let mankind agree;
Better the world were fast asleep,

Than kept awake by theeIn 1662, Dryden began to write plays as a source of income. His first attempts, including the comedy The Wild Gallant (1663), failed, but The Rival Ladies, a comedy written in 1664, was a success. During the next 20 years, he became the most prominent dramatist in England. His comedies, including An Evening's Love; or The Mock Astrologer (1668), Ladies a la Mode (1668), and Marriage a la Mode (1672), are broad and bawdy; one of them, The Kind Keeper; or Mr. Limberham (1678), was banned as indecent. His early heroic plays, written in rhymed couplets, are extravagant and full of pageantry. Among them are the semi opera The Indian Queen (written with Sir Robert Howard in 1664); this work contains some of the oat famous music of his contemporary, the English composer Henry Purcell. Other works of this period are The Indian Emperor; or, The Conquest of Mexico by the Spanish (1665) and The Conquest of Granada (1670). One of his later tragedies in blank verse, All for Love; or, The World Well Lost (1678), a version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra, is considered his greatest play and one of the masterpieces of Restoration tragedy. Dryden was appointed poet laureate and royal historiographer in 1670.

In 1681, he wrote his first and greatest political satire, Absalom and Achitophel; a masterful parable in heroic couplets, it employs biblical characters and incidents to ridicule the Whig attempt to make the duke of Monmouth, rather than the duke of York (the future King James II), successor to King Charles II. His other great verse satires, all written in or about 1682, are The Medall; the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, written in collaboration with the poet and playwright Nahum Tate; and Mac Flecknoe, a vigorous attack on the English playwright Thomas Shadwell, which influenced Alexander Pope's mock-heroiic poem The Dunciad.

Although Dryden had defended his adherence to Protestantism in the poem Religio laic (1682), he became a Roman Catholic in 1685, presumably because James II, an avowed Roman Catholic, came to the throne in that year. The poet then wrote The Hind and the Panther (1687), a metrical allegory in defense of his new faith. The Glorious Revolution (1688) and the resulting succession of the Protestant King William III did not change Dryden's religious views, but he lost his laureateship and his pension because of them.

Dryden returned to writing for the stage but without much success. He then began a new career as translator, the most important of his translations being The Works of Virgil (1697). During the same period, he wrote one of his greatest odes, Alexander's Feast (1697), which, like an earlier ode, A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day 91687), was written for a London musical society and set to music by Purcell. In 1699, Dryden wrote the last of his published works, metrical paraphrases of Homer, the Latin poet Ovid, the Italian poet Giovanni Boccccio, and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, under the title Fables Ancient and Modern; its preface is one of his most important essays.

Dryden is, however, still best known for his poetry, which Samuel Johnson compared metaphorically to the accomplishments of Rome under the emperor Augustus, when Horace, Ovid, and Virgil flourished. Dryden, in Johnson's metaphor, "embellished" English poetry: "he found it brick, and he left it marble." The metaphor rightly identifies Dryden with the Auguston Age of English literature. It evokes the largeness--even the monumentality-- of his poems, as well as their strength and polished elegance and, above all, heir assured public character. Such qualities were undervalued by 19th century writers, but his reputation has revived in the 20th century.

Dryden was the most important poet between Milton and Pope. Though he began as a supporter of Cromwell's Protectorate, he celebrated the Restoration of Charles II in  1660 in "Astraea Redux," the first in a long series of Royalist panegyrics, including "Annus Mirabilis" (1667) and "Absalom and Achitophel" (1681). He also wrote some of the most successful plays of the Restoration era, including the heroic tragedies The Conquest of Granada (1670) and All for Love (1677). He was rewarded for his Royalist sympathies with the Poet Laureateship, but lost the post at the accession of William and Mary in 1689.

Dryden was also author of important literary criticism, including An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, and translator of Virgil's Aeneid; he is also credited with translating Plutarch's Lives (though in fact he only supervised the translation). He was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1663. His own life was written by Samuel Johnson.