Influence & Genius Character of John Dryden

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      Dryden was the greatest poet of the Restoration period. Besides poetry, he showed his talent in a variety of other literary forms. Versatility marked his genius: he was a playwright, a critic, a prose writer and a poet. He ushered the literature of “reason and order”. He stressed on clarity, precision and balance. He was the harbinger of what later came to be termed as the “Classical School of Poetry”. He showed great “architectural instinct, a rare gift of logic, and a passion for symmetrical and distinct cadence”. He made the heroic couplet the staple verse form of his time, to replace the previous era’s blank verse. As a craftsman, he showed unmitigated excellence. He brought to the English language a flexibility and fluency which gave to it a modem flavor.


      John Dryden had a complex character. He professed to be a candid person in the service of literature. But it cannot be denied that he also wrote for money and influence. Short, ruddy and stout in appearance, he was an agreeable companion. Cheerful and kind, he led a regular routine every day. Particularly kind to rising authors, he was also able to make friends in the right places. Though somewhat “self-opinionated” and dominating, he was also modest and amiable enough to take criticism.

      One shortcoming of Dryden was his opportunism. He did not refrain from the grossest of flattery if it would serve his ends. He showed religious insincerity in his timely change from the Protestant to Catholic faith with the ascension of James II. He has also been charged with licentiousness. He was supposed to have been often drunk and to have led a “rake’s life”. However, his shortcomings are truly reflective of the vices of the age.


      The influence of the ancient or classical Greek and Roman poets is obvious in Dryden’s poetry. Dryden had assimilated Sophocles, Euripides, Theocritus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Juvenal. The Roman satirist, Juvenal, with his “vigorous and masculine wit”, was a favorite with Dryden. The power of reasoning in verse was learned from Lucretius. He liked the sweetness and brilliance of Ovid. Of the older English writers, Dryden admired Shakespeare, whom he calls the Homer of English dramatic poets, and Ben Jonson who was the Virgil among English poets. From Mil ton he learned the grand scale and sonorous language. Spenser taught him fluidity of movement and “word-music”. In Dryden’s great knowledge of the classics, we see the influence of Richard Busby, the headmaster of his school.

      In Dryden’s earliest poem, an elegy Upon the Death of Lord Hastings, we can see the influence of Abraham Cowley’s “metaphysical” style, with its extravagant conceits. Dryden is also indebted to Edmund Waller and John Denham, the leaders of the reaction against “metaphysical” poetry. Dryden took from Waller the symmetry of idea and novelty of expression. Denham influenced Dryden in being “correct” and “majestic”. Dryden’s genius, thus, was influenced by the work of several writers, both ancient and modem.


      To read John Dryden’s work is, indeed, to have a peep into the tendencies, peculiarities, and characteristics of his age. Dryden represents his age quite completely, both as a man and as a writer. As a man, he represents it in his opportunism and convenient changes of opinion and beliefs. But it is as a writer that he reflects on the impact of the age on his mind. In the “chapter of English literary history”, as A.C. Ward observes, “which more or less covers the forty years between the Restoration and the opening of the eighteenth century, not only is Dryden’s the most conspicuous personality, but there are few literary movements of importance marking the period of which he did not, as if by right divine, assume the leadership, and which did not owe to him most of what vitality they proved to possess.” His Annus Mirabilis gives a description of the war with Holland as well as the Great Fire of London. Absalom and Achitophel, The Medal, Religio Laid, The Hind and the Panther reflect political and religious controversies. His contribution to the development of prose in an age of prose, is well known. Saintsbury aptly remarks: “Many as are the great men of letters who have illustrated English literature from the beginning to the present day, it may safely be said that no one so represented his time and so influenced it as the man of letters whom we have been discussing, (viz Dryden)”.

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