On 13 April 1668 John Dryden (1631–1700) was appointed England’s first official Poet Laureate.
The position of Poet Laureate was highly prestigious and reasonably well paid, with the appointee receiving a salary of £300 a year as well as a butt of Canary wine. This manuscript letter from Dryden authorises his wife, Lady Elizabeth Dryden née Howard (c. 1638–1714), to receive the ‘seventy five pounds due to me as Poet Laureate for one quarter of a year’. Despite Elizabeth’s aristocratic family connections the couple weren’t financially well-off and relied on the Laureate’s salary which was often paid late, if at all, during King Charles II’s reign (1660–85).
What did the role of Poet Laureate entail in the 17th century?
In politically turbulent 17th-century England, the Poet Laureate was in many respects the official mouth piece (and propaganda mill) of the incumbent monarch or government.
It was in the capacity of Poet Laureate that Dryden wrote and published his satirical masterpiece Absalom and Achitophel (1681), which attacked the Crown’s political enemies in the Exclusion Crisis (1679–81). The poem’s thinly veiled biblical allegory positions King Charles II as David, while his illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth (1649–1685), is cast as the naïve Absalom, and his canny advisor Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1621–1683) is represented as Achitophel.
How long did John Dryden serve as Poet Laureate?
Dryden was the first and only Laureate to be removed from office. He was dismissed for his refusal to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the new monarchs William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution (1688/89). In his place, the joint monarchs appointed Thomas Shadwell (c. 1640–1692), Dryden’s career-long literary rival and the subject of his biting satire Mac Flecknoe (1682).
I do hereby authorise and appoint my wife Eliz Dryden to received at the receipt of his mats Exceqr the sum of Seventy five Pounds due to me as Poet Laureate for One Quarter of a yeare Ended at Michers 1607 and to give acquaintance for the same. Writes my hand this 3d of Novr 1607
- Full title:
- CHARNWOOD AUTOGRAPHS. Vol. II. English literary autographs; circa 16th-20th cent. Included are Edmund Waller, Andrew Marvell, John Evelyn, John Locke, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, William Congreve, Sir Richard Steele,
- Manuscript / Letter
- John Dryden
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 70949
- Article by:
- Ashley Marshall
- Politics and religion, Satire and humour
Ashley Marshall suggests that there is more to Dryden's satiric poetry than the expression of high-minded moral values. Trace how Dryden's personal vendettas motivated some of the cruder and more vicious attacks in Mac Flecknoe, and how his satires reflected his immediate political and religious circumstances as much as timeless ideals.