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John Dryden

(1631—1700) poet, playwright, and critic

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was educated at Westminster School under Busby and at Trinity College, Cambridge. His first major poem was the Heroique Stanza's (1658) on the death of Cromwell; he later celebrated the king's return with Astraea Redux and To His Sacred Majesty. Other poems were addressed to Sir Robert Howard (whose sister, Lady Elizabeth, Dryden married in 1663), the earl of Clarendon, Charleton, and Lady Castlemaine. He also published a long poem in quatrains, Annus Mirabilis (1667), but most of his early writing was for the theatre and included several rhymed heroic plays: The Indian Queen (1664, in collaboration with Sir Robert Howard), The Indian Emperour (1665), Tyrannick Love (1669), and The Conquest of Granada (1670, in two parts). He also wrote comedies, including The Wild Gallant (1663), The Rival Ladies (1664), and An Evening's Love (1668). He was most original with his tragi‐comedies, Secret Love (1667), Marriage‐à‐la‐Mode (1672), and The Assignation (1672). All these plays, together with adaptations of Paradise Lost (The State of Innocence, and the Fall of Man, 1667), The Tempest (1667, with D'Avenant), and Troilus and Cressida (1679), reveal Dryden's considerable interest in philosophical and political questions. He became poet laureate in 1668, and historiographer royal in 1670.

Dryden constantly defended his own literary practice. His first major critical work was Of Dramatick Poesie (1668). However Aureng‐Zebe (1675), his best heroic play, has a prologue denouncing rhyme in serious drama, and his next play, All for Love (1678), was in blank verse. At the same time he reverted to an earlier high evaluation of Jonson. This flexibility as critic and dramatist left him vulnerable to attack. He was represented as Bayes in The Rehearsal (1671) by Buckingham, and physically assaulted in 1679, possibly at the instigation of Rochester. But his principal opponent was Shadwell, whom Dryden ridiculed in Mac Flecknoe (1682). He develops his critical principles in many notably fluent prologues and epilogues, and poems about, or addressed to, fellow‐writers and artists.

The constitutional crisis of the late 1670s troubled Dryden greatly. Three plays, The Duke of Guise (1679, written with N. Lee), Mr Limberham (1679), and The Spanish Fryar (1681), and his prologues and epilogues, testify to this. His interest in religion was also heightened at this time. He produced his most celebrated satires in the early 1680s, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), The Medall (1682), and 200 lines for N. Tate's The Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel (1682), as well as Religio Laici (1682), a defence of the Anglican via media. However, following the accession of James II Dryden became a Catholic and wrote The Hind and the Panther (1687) in support of his new co‐religionists. At the death of Charles II he attempted a Pindaric ode, Threnodia Augustalis (1685), the first of several poems in this form, notably To the Pious Memory…of Mrs Anne Killigrew (1686), and Alexander's Feast (1697), which was later incorporated into Fables Ancient and Modern (1700).

In 1689 he lost both his court offices and returned to the theatre. Two of his late plays, Don Sebastian (1689) and Amphitryon (1690), are excellent, but Dryden was tired of the theatre and turned to translating. His immense and splendid achievements in this field include translations of small pieces from Theocritus and Horace, and more substantial passages from Homer, Lucretius, Persius, Juvenal, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, as well as the whole of Virgil. His version of the Georgics is especially magnificent. He also returned to criticism, notably in ‘A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire’ (1693). His culminating and most impressive achievement both as critic and translator was Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), with its famous coda, ‘The Secular Masque’. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. See also Restoration.


Subjects: Literature

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