Reader's Encyclopedia

Dryden, John (1631 - 1700)

English poet, dramatist, and critic. Dryden was the outstanding figure in letters during the Restoration and was literary dictator of his age.

Dryden came from a good but impecunious country family with a Parliamentarian and Church of England background. In his middle twenties, he went to London, where his gifts were quickly recognized in intellectual circles, though he had to struggle for years to earn a respectable living by means of his plays and translations. Dryden made several radical shifts in his religion and politics: in 1659 he eulogized Cromwell in the Heroick Stanzas; a year later, he celebrated Charles II in Astraea Redux; in 1682 he published Religio Laici, a defense of Anglicanism; five years later, The Hind and the Panther revealed him as an ardent partisan of Catholicism and Catholic James II. In 1688, however, he refused to take an oath of allegiance to William and Mary, remaining loyal to James II at the cost of important offices, including the laureateship of England.

Dryden's earliest work, such as his elegy " Upon the Death of Lord Hastings " (1650), is in the extravagant late metaphysical vein of Cowley. Soon he developed a more restrained and natural style, close to normal cultivated speech and employing the heroic couplet to emphasize its finish and point. This was to be the dominant poetic style for a century, though perhaps never more forceful and various than it was in Dryden ' s hands. It was a vehicle particularly well adapted to satirical and didactic works, such as Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Mac Flecknoe, Laici, and The Hind and the Panther. Dryden also used it in his translations of Vergil and other Latin poets and in a number of his plays, although his greatest play, All for Love, is written in blank verse. His prose writings are also of great importance: the orderly, lucid, and masculine style that distinguishes his prefaces and critical essays, such as the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, became one of the chief models for modern prose. These works reveal Dryden as an acute and extraordinary sensible critic.

In addition to those referred to above, the following poems deserve mention: the lyrics " To Mrs. Killegrew " (1686), " A Song for St. Cecilia's Day " (1687), and " Alexander's Feast " (1697); a number of longer poems, such as Annus Mirabilis; and his paraphrases and translations of Chaucer, Boccaccio, Ovid, Juvenal, Lucretius, and Homer. Other memorable plays by Dryden are The Indian Emperor (1665), Almanzor and Almahide, or The Conquest of Granada (1670), Aurengzebe (1675), and Don Sebastian (1690).