John Dryden - Biography and Works

John Dryden an English poet, dramatist, and critic, was the leading literary figure of the Restoration, and also of the neo-classical period, along with Alexander Pope. John Dryden was not only the greatest literary man of his age, but also to a great extent the man who determined the literary characteristics of his age. Curiously, he was a mirror of the times too.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

In him we find all that was admirable in the Restoration, and much that was not. He held undisputed power over the field of literature, and his practice in poetry and prose exerted the dominant influence on the course of English literature for another century.

Dryden was born to a Puritan family in Northampton shire. The childhood of John Dryden was spent at Tichmarch, where his parents resided after their marriage; his boyhood passed at Westminster to which he was admitted to a scholarship. At Westminster he wrote an elegy commemorating the memory of a school fellow, Lord Hastings, and translated the third satire of a Perseus as a school task. He joined Trinity College, Cambridge in 1654. He graduated in 1654, but did not obtain a fellowship. About 1657 he went to London as clerk to the chamberlain of 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: Astrae Redux (1660) and Panegyric on the Coronation (1661). In 1663 he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, sister of his patron, the courtier and playwright Sir Robert Howard.

In 1662 Dryden began to write plays as a source of income. During the next 20 years, he became the most prominent dramatist in England. His comedies are broad and bawdy; one of them was banned as indecent, an unusual penalty during the morally permissive period of Restoration theater. His first play The Wild Gallant (1663) was a failure. The Rival Ladies (1964) was more successful. The Indian Emperor in 1667 established his reputation as a playwright. Meanwhile plague broke out in London, and Dryden with his wife retired to Charlton. Here Dryden wrote the Annus Mirabilis in stanzas of four lines. In 1668 he wrote his most important prose work; An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, the basis for his reputation as the father of English literary criticism. Dryden was appointed poet laureate. In 1670 Dryden was appointed the Poet Laureate and this office he held for eighteen years.

The year 1681 opened a new chapter in his career as he produced the first great satire in verse, Absalom and Achitophel. Through this satire Dryden exposed the relations of Monmouth the prince, and Shaftesbury the evil counselor. Next year he hurled a second blow at Shaftesbury in The Medal. In the same year he satirized Shadwell in Mac Flecknoe. It was a piece of personal satire. After those two political satires and one personal satire, Dryden wrote two theological poems- Religio Laici (1682) and The Hind and the Panther (1687). By this time he had become a Roman Catholic, and in consequence the Revolution of 1688 fell upon him as a heavy blow. He was obliged to give up the Poet laureateship. He reverted again to the stage for his livelihood. For some time he was under the cloud, but he faced misfortune with great courage and fortitude. He then began a new career as a 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". In 1699 Dryden wrote the last of his published works, metrical paraphrases of Homer, the Latin poet Ovid, the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

He rendered stories from Boccaccio and Chaucer into modern English verse, and these narrative poems were published in 1700, in a volume of Fables. During the early spring of 1700, Dryden was confined to the house by an attack of government. The same year he met his death with courage and composure. Dryden had a public funeral. He was buried by the side of Chaucer and Cowley in Westminster Abbey.

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Sharma, K.N. "John Dryden - Biography and Works." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,