John Dryden: Biography Life & Works

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      John Dryden was born on August 9, 1631, at Aldwincle in Northamptonshire. He was educated at Westminster School under the headmaster Richard Busby. He later went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He became friendly with Sir Robert Howard after the Restoration, and married Howard’s sister in 1663. The marriage was not very happy. By 1660, he had gained command over his poetical powers. His literary career can be roughly divided into three periods—(i) The dramatic period lasting till 1680; (ii) The period of his greatest works going up to 1699; (iii) the period of translations and miscellaneous production. Dryden was made Poet Laureate in 1670. With the accession of James II to the English throne, Dryden became a Catholic. The sudden conversion is a clear indication of Dryden’s opportunism. After the Glorious Revolution, however, his popularity declined. His honors were taken away and Shadwell was made Poet Laureate. Dryden died in 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Dryden was the literary dictator of his time, like Ben Johnson before and Dr. Johnson after him.

John Dryden
John Dryden


      A versatile genius, John Dryden wrote a large number of words. Poet, dramatist and critic, his range and contribution to each sphere is noteworthy.

Dryden’s Poetry

      Heroic Stanzas on the Death of the Protector Cromwell (1659), is a work of directness, strength and metrical skill. An oratorical swing, a vigor, and a note of sincerity mark this work.

      Astrea Redux (1660), celebrated the restoration of Charles II to the throne. It shows the progress of Dryden’s poetical craftsmanship. It represents Dryden’s change of political affiliations. Sonorous and dignified phrases are used and it indicates Dryden’s potential mastery over the heroic couplet.

      Annus Mirabilis (1666), marks the end of the first phase of Dryden’s poetical career. It is a spirited account of two historical events—the fire in London and the war with the Dutch. Written in quatrains, it shows flexibility and ease in verse-form as well as vigor and striking imagery. It sometimes, however, reveals a weakness for fantastic conceits.

      Absalom and Achitophel (1681), is a satirical poem rising out of current political and personal controversies. Dryden is here the champion of his monarch and patron, Charles II. Excellent portraits in it show Dryden’s sharp penetration into human nature. It also shows Dryden’s scope and power as satirist and his command over the heroic couplet, as well as his ability for verse argument.

      The Medal (1682), a shorter serious satire, is partly bitter invective against Shaftesbury. It also argues about the unfitness of Republican institutions in England. The versification is not very lively.

      Mac Flecknoe (1682), is a reply to the supporters of Shaftesbury, as well as a personal satire on Shadwell. Full of sting and destructive satire, there is much coarseness and personal spite in it.

      Absalom and Achitophel, Part II (1686), has a contribution of 200 lines by Dryden, which contains a famous satiric portrait of Shadwell.

      Religio Laid (1682), is a long narrative poem rising out of current religious controversies. A forceful defense of the Church of England, Dryden’s power over verse-argumentation is evident in it

      The Hind and the Panther (1687) is another didactic poem. An allegorical defense of Roman Catholicism, it manifests Dryden’s reversal of religious beliefs. It shows remarkable skill in the handling of the heroic couplet, and command of expression.

      Translations of classical authors such as Ovid, Boccaccio and Virgil were made by Dryden after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. He also adapted Chaucer to contemporary taste. His translations are quite free, and that of Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700) was very popular.

      Lyrical Poems. Dryden was not a negligible writer even as far as lyrical poetry is concerned. A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day (1687), Alexander’s Feast (1697), and Ode to Anne Killigrew (1686) show Dryden's sense of music and capacity for a varied and powerful style.

Dryden’s Dramatic Works

      The Wild Gallant (1663), Dryden’s first play, is a comedy of manners. It was not a very successful effort.

      Heroic plays by Dryden are: The Rival (1663); The Indian Emperor (1665), which was a great success; Tyrannick Love (1669), a successful play through slightly coarse and bombastic; The Conquest of Granada (1669), which is a triumph of the heroic play; Aurengzeb (1675), which has plenty of sonorous verse and forceful declamation; The Spanish Friar (1681), one of his finest tragi-comedies.

      Blank verse tragedies. The best play of this type by Dryden is All for Love (1678). Characters are better drawn than in his other plays and the style is dignified and restrained. Other plays are Don Sebastian (1690), Cleomenes (1692), and Love Triumphant (1694).

Dryden’s Critical Works

      John Dryden occupies a rare position in the history of English literature - he was the greatest man of letters in his country in his age as he was also the greatest critic. It is with justice that Dr. Johnson calls Dryden “the father of English Criticism”. The critical comments and views of Dryden are mainly to be found in Dedications and Prefaces to his poems, plays and other works scattered over the period 1660-1700. The only formal and complete work of criticism by Dryden is the Essay of Dramatic Poesy.

      The Early Prefaces. The slight critical essays which precede the Essay of Dramatic Poesy exhibit in essence Dryden’s critical method and manner. The Epistle Dedicatory of The Rival Ladies, a tragi-comedy, appeared in 1664. In these prefatory pages Dryden notes the basic difficulty that beset the dramatist in the matter of plotting and the need of achieving what Aristotle called, “a probable or necessary sequence”. Dryden, however, is here mainly concerned with the question of the verse most suitable for dramatic purposes. And at this period, he is convinced that the example of Italian, French and Spanish dramatists in employing rhyming verse was one to be followed by English writers. Blank verse, he considers unsuitable because it gives the poet a free license to indulge in wild fancies; rhyming verse, on the other hand, gives a point to repartee and helps in curbing the poet’s fancy. Dryden thus fails to appreciate the subtler qualities of blank verse, about which he was to learn much by later experience. Undoubtedly he was, at this period, carried away by the new vogue for the heroic couplet. He somewhat rashly discards in this piece the native tradition as illustrated by Shakespeare in his use of blank verse, even while crediting him with “a larger soul of poetry than ever any of our nation”.

      In the Preface to the poem, Annus Mirabilis (1666), Dryden expounds his views on certain aspects of poetry in general. Significant are his comments on the verse form employed, for they suggest a certain fluidity in his ideas at this stage. Here he describes the four-line stanza with alternate rhymes as more noble and dignified than the rhymed couplet. There is in this preface evidence of an openness of mind. He attempts to analyze the subject of “wit” so as to give a clearer idea of the term hitherto considered vaguely synonymous with intelligence, fancy or judgment. To the poetic faculty he assigns a new and comprehensive term, namely, the ‘imagination’—a many-sided faculty responsible for the invention, the fancy and the judgment that went to the making of a poem. The ‘wit’ in a poem, he avers, consists in the “delightful imagining of persons, actions, passions or things”. The particular use of the term ‘imagination’ is of some interest. The whole piece is submissive in form but independent in spirit.

      The only formal critical work: ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy’. The most elaborate and one of the most attractive and lively of Dryden’s critical works is the Essay of Dramatic Poesy which was first published in 1668 but written three years earlier. In this work he reveals once again his unsettled views regarding the drama. The method he adopts for voicing his perplexities is that of the dialogue, a device obviously suggested by earlier conventional discussions in several Continental writers. It was a form which permitted a full discussion of conflicting views, without requiring any definite conclusion. The reader may draw his own conclusion. Thus Dryden’s purpose is to debate, not to dogmatize. The discussion takes place against a pleasant setting. Four characters, namely, Crites (Sir Robert Howard), Lisideius (Sir Charles Sedley), Eugenius (Lord Buckhurst), and Neander (Dryden himself) contribute their views on drama. The main theme is to vindicate English plays. The case for the ancients is presented by Crites, the modems are supported by Eugenius and the respective merits of French and English plays are argued by Lisideius and Neander. The Essay of Dramatic Poesy is a landmark in the history of English criticism for its liveliness, shrewd reasoning and urbanity, and for the acute and masterly appreciations of Shakespeare and Jonson it contains.

      The Middle Prefaces. In Defence of an Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) Dryden reiterates his earlier reasoning with some additions. His chief argument here is that rhyme pre-eminently causes delight and thus discharges the real function of poetry. He points out that “poesy only instructs as it delights”. The Defence is Dryden’s reply to Howard’s criticism of Essay of Dramatic Poesy. He defends his opinion of the Unities on rational and psychological grounds. He hints at the “willing suspension of disbelief’’ but also points out that the fiction should not be too wildly improbable.

      In his Preface to the Mock Astrologer Dryden suggests something like a new conception of the comic art. He doubts whether Jonson’s comedy of humor was wholly adequate. He asks for more of elegance, wit and the laughable in comedy. He points out that the first end of comedy is delight and considerations of morality and justice are of minor importance. Another significant principle he enunciates here is that the value of a work of art “lies wholly in the workmanship”.

      The Essay of Heroic Plays (1672) prefixed to The Conquest of Grenada contains some interesting critical views on the origin and nature of the heroic play which he calls “an imitation in little, of a heroic poem”. A heroic play should be judged with reference to the rules for heroic poetry and not with reference to Aristotelian and Shakespearean criteria. Since a heroic play is modeled on the epic, the writer is free to introduce supernatural elements.

      In the Preface to All for Love (1678), Dryden abandons his attempts at innovation and claims to have reverted to the practice of the ancients, not only in observing the Unities, but also in representing his tragic hero as neither perfect nor yet wholly evil. At the same time he upholds the need for some modifications since English tragedy demanded a “larger compass” and greater freedom than the ancient drama did. He also reluctantly acknowledges blank verse to be better suited for his tragedy. He claims to have followed “the divine Shakespeare” whom he cannot praise enough. Most noteworthy of all, he states, though incidentally, his own conception of the critical business: “poets themselves are the most proper though not the only critics”, or “the judgment of an artificer in his own art should be preferable to the opinion of another man”.

      Later Critical Works. After 1685, Dryden’s critical prefaces are nearly all occasioned by the business of translation.

      The Essay on Satire is a striking piece of criticism prefixed to Juvenal. It is actually known as A Discourse Concerning the Origin and Progress of Satire (1693). It contains some interesting remarks on modem satire and on epic poetry as well. He defines the aim of satire as the correction of manners. In Parallel of Poetry and Painting (1695), the preface to the translation of De Arte Graphica he discusses the general principles common to poetry and painting. In the Dedication of the Aeneid (1697), he reverts to the familiar subjects of epic poetry and Virgil in particular. He discusses the comparative values of epic and tragedy, submits a defense of Virgil against his detractors, and adds some remains on the verse and style of his own translation of the Aeneid.

      The Preface to the Fables (1700) prefixed to his translations from Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio and Chaucer is most noteworthy for its masterly appreciation of Chaucer. Dryden establishes Chaucer’s claim to recognition by comparisons with Ovid and Boccaccio, and by a penetrating analysis of his artistic achievement. The best and most illuminating part of Dryden’s critique is his appreciation of Chaucer’s skill at characterization. In a now-famous statement he says about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “ ’Tis sufficient to say according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty”. Long acclaimed as a masterpiece in judgment, method and style, the Preface to the Fables fitly marks the culmination of Dryden’s work in the field of criticism.

      Dryden’s stature as critic. With Dryden a new force entered in the critical field. He applied to current problems an open mind and a keen judgment, refusing to be bound by pedantic formulas or by earlier native tradition, while equally characteristic from the first is the easy conversational manner in which he communicates his judgements. He is, indeed, the father of comparative and historical criticism. As George Saintsbury observes, the critical works of Dryden deserve a place among the best criticism of the world - “if not for pure, yet for applied, mixed, and sweetened criticism”.

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