John Dryden

John Dryden
John Dryden by James Maubert © National Portrait Gallery


John Dryden, England’s first Poet Laureate, is considered the archetypal literary figure of the English Restoration.

Born in the East Midlands, Dryden was educated at London’s Westminster School and Cambridge University.

Political sympathies

As far as we can tell, Dryden’s sympathies in early life were Royalist, even though he briefly served in Cromwell’s government and eulogised him with some ‘Heroic Stanzas’. This poem, though, praises Cromwell in notably monarchical language, calling him ‘our prince’ and suggesting that the people were drawn to bow to him like metal detectors (‘wands of divination’) are drawn to ‘sovereign gold’. After the Restoration, Dryden wrote several long poems praising Charles II and the new regime, including Astrea Redux (1660) and To His Sacred Majesty (1662), and in 1668 he was appointed Poet Laureate, meaning that he was officially employed by the king to write poems in celebration or commemoration of national events.

Many of these works, and his later satires and translations, were written in heroic couplets (rhyming lines of iambic pentameter), a form he would bequeath to Alexander Pope, and which, at the time, signified symmetry, harmony and social order restored.

Writing for the theatre

After the theatres were reopened in 1660 (having been banned under the strict Puritanism of the Protectorate), Dryden became a key figure in the dramatic movement we now call Restoration comedy. His most famous play was Marriage à la Mode (1673). He wrote tragedies, too, including All For Love (1678), a reworking of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Satirical writing

Dryden also wrote political satires commenting on contemporary events in thinly veiled analogies. Absalom and Achitophel (1681) uses the biblical story of Absalom’s rebellion against David to remark on attempts by the Earl of Shaftesbury to thwart the accession to the throne of the king’s brother James, a Roman Catholic, by lobbying for Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, to succeed instead.

Catholicism and later writings

After James II became king, Dryden converted to Catholicism, producing the great allegorical work The Hind and the Panther (1687). When James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange and James’s daughter Mary, Dryden resigned the laureateship and led a more private life.

He spent his later years working on literary translations into English from ancient Greek and Latin poetry, most substantially The Works of Virgil in 1697. Dryden’s translations have probably proved his greatest legacy, along with his works of criticism, which were important for the early development of the idea of a ‘canon’ of English literature, and for the emerging discipline of English literary studies.

Further information about the life of John Dryden can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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