John Dryden: Biography, Works, Influence & Character

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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 1690; (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 Jonson before and Dr. Johnson after him.


      A versatile genius, John Dryden wrote a large number of works. 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), celebrates 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" (1667), marks the end of the first phase of Dryden's poetical career. It is a spirited account of two historical events - the fire of 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), was a satirical poem rising out of current political 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 of England. The verification 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 Laici" (1682), is a long narrative poem rising out of current religious controversies. A forceful defence 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 translation are quite free, and that of Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), was very popular.

      Lyrical Poem 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 of Dryden are: The Rivals (1663); The Indian Emperor (1665), which was a great success; Tyrannick Love (1669), a successful play though slightly coarse and bombastic; The Conquest of Granada (1669), which is a triumph of the heroic play; Aurangzebe (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 Prose Works and Criticism

      "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" (1668), is a major piece of literary criticism in the language. It is a realistic evaluation of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans. Direct and fluent in style, Dryden shows keen critical perception.

      The Essay on satire is a preface to the translation of Juvenal. It gives Dryden's views on satire.

Essay on Epic Poetry

      Preface to Fables (1700), shows Dryden's foresight and critical judgment in his estimate of Chaucer.

      Dryden's prose, indeed, marks a definite progress in the development of the medium in English. It is easy, fluent, and never stilted. It is the first example of modern English prose.


      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 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 of rising author, 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 shows 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 his 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 Milton, 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 ''meta-physical" style, with its extravagant conceits. Dryden is also indebted to Edmund Waller and John Denham, the leaders of the reaction against "metaphysical" poetry. There was, in his poetry a move towards clarity; fluency and sweetness in English versification. 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 modern.

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