DrydenJohn Dryden was England’s most outstanding and controversial writer for thelater part of the seventeenth century, dominating the literary world as askilled and versatile dramatist, a pioneer of literary criticism, and arespected writer of the Restoration period. With Dryden’s great literary andcritical influence on the English society during the Restoration period he hasmade a name for himself, which will be studied and honored for years to come. John Dryden was born in Northamptonshire, in 1631. His parents were ErasmusDryden and Mary Pickery. They were both from wealthy and respected families inNorthamptonshire. The Drydens were known for wisdom and great tradition all overEngland and were well-equipped with large estates and vast lands (Ward 5).
Dryden’s father, Erasmus, was a justice of the peace during the usurpation, andwas the father of fourteen children; four sons, and ten daughters. The sons wereJohn, Erasmus, Henry, and James; the daughters were Agness, Rose, Lucy, Mary,Martha, Elizabeth, Hester, Hannah, Abigail, and France (Kinsley 34). Dryden wasalso a religious man. He had as much faith in the Lord as he did in his pen. Hebelonged to the Church of England all his life until converting to Catholicismdue to the change of the throne. He was baptized at All Saints Church inAldwinule, Northamptonshire ten days after his birth (Hopkins 75).
Dryden,growing into a young man, began his education in his hometown. There he took thebasic classes. He furthered his education at Westminister School in London. Here, he attended school for about twelve hours a day, beginning and ending atsix. At Westminister he studied history, geography, and study of the Scripture,plus all the basics.
After Westminister he Cunningham 2 attended CambridgeUniversity (Hopkins 14). While attending Cambridge University, he excelled tothe top of his class and was a standout student. John Dryden was the greatestand most represented English man of letters of the last quarter of theseventeenth century. From the death of Milton in 1674 to his own in 1700, noother writer can compare with him in versatility and power (Sherwood 39). He wasin fact a versatile writer, with his literary works consisted of tragedy,comedy, heroic play, opera, poetry, and satire.
Although he did write most ofhis important original poems to serve some passing political purpose, he madethem immortal by his literary genius (Miner 3). John Dryden was the type of manwho was always busy with some great project. He would never put full time andconcentration into his work. He would quickly finish a project, careless ofperfection, and hurry off to begin another, which was not a tempting deal oneither the author’s side nor the reader’s side because Dryden lived in a timewhere there were few well-printed works (Hopkins 1).
So much of his workconsisted of numerous errors, misprints, and lost pages. Several critics haveattempted to revise and correct his work but usually for the worse ( Harth 3). Despite his popularity during the Restoration and even today, little is knownabout John Dryden except what is in his works. Because he wrote from thebeginning through the end of the Restoration period, many literary scholarsconsider the end of the Restoration period to have occurred with Dryden’s deathin 1700 (Miner 2).
Surviving Dryden was his wife Lady Elizabeth and there werethree sons, to whom he had always been a loving and careful father. John, hisoldest son, followed his father in death only three years later in April of1700. His wife, the “Widow of a poet,” died shortly after his death inthe summer of 1714 at the age of 78 (Bredvold 314). Dryden certainly attainedhis goal of popularity especially after his death.
He became this Cunningham 3through his “achievements in verse translations, the first English authorto depend for a livelihood directly on the reading public and opening the futureof profitable careers for great novelists during the next two centuries”(Frost 17). The Restoration period was a time of great literature andoutstanding writers, but, with all the talent in this century, there were alsomany problems. The Restoration was an angry time in literary history. Writersthrew harsh blows at one another, not with fists but with paper and ink. It wasan age of plots, oaths, vows and tests: they were woven into the “fabric ofeveryday life, and hardly a person in England escaped being touched bythem” (Hammond 131). During this time he wrote about what was going on inlife activities quite often in his work.
At this time there was a majorcontroversy over the conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. Dryden’s church was in a strange and uncomfortable position. Since the time ofthe Restoration it had been an underground organization because it was regardedas the enemy of the English monarchy. Some of the members have been accused, andothers falsely accused, of setting plots against the crown (Hopkins 85). In1663, Dryden, “under the cloud of some personal disgrace,” married SirRobert Howard’s sister, Lady Elizabeth. The marriage provided no financialadvantages or much compatibility for the couple, but Dryden did gain some socialstatus because of her nobility.
Because of his social success, Dryden was made amember of the Royal Society that same year. Since he was a non-participatingmember and did not pay his dues, his membership was later revoked. In 1664, hewrote a poem honoring his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, with whom Drydenremained involved personally and professionally for some time. In 1668, he wasCunningham 4 named Poet Laureate and was offered a share in the Theater Royal’sprofits in exchange for his plays.
This is where he earned a large portion ofhis income, and ensured his financial stability for the next several years. However, in 1689 when William and Mary took the throne they replaced JohnDryden, a Catholic; and made Thomas Shadwell, a Protestant, the new PoetLaureate (Verrall 6). John Dryden was a poet for about forty years. He wasformally known as a “public poet” because a great amount of his poetrydealt with public issues (Harth 3). The explanation for Dryden’s latedevelopment as a poet was due to the simple fact that he had nothing to say.
InDryden’s poems, the descriptions he gave avoided unique, concrete details; hepreferred general terms. When he described men and women, he gave his attentionto moral qualities , not physical appearance. He usually glorified the lowersocial class and put the upper social class in a shadow (Sherwood 7). Many ofDryden’s poems were congested with printing errors and misspelled words,although, the reasons for this were not totally his fault. There was not a greatprinting process during this time and many careless mistakes in printing werecaused by neglectful workers (Sargeant 10).
John Dryden is a poet who left afirm impression of his character in this world; he is known as a public figure,respected literary critic, popular dramatist, and strong supporter of religionand politics (Salvaggio 13). Dryden’s poetry has been divided into two timeperiods of his career. The first was during the Restoration period and ended in1667. He did not write another poem for fourteen years; during this time he waswriting plays and critiques. The second period began during the later part ofhis life and ended in 1681 (Harth 3). Some of Dryden’s more popular poems”The Cock and the Fox,” “All For Love,” “Antony andCleopatra,” “Absalom and Achitophal,” and his most famous”Mac Cunningham 5 Flecknoe.
” In the poem “All For Love,” itportrays the love story between Cleopatra, the breath-taking, beautiful, Queenof the Nile and her lover Antony. He also knew that when writing this poem itwould be nothing new to the poetic world (Dryden 14). “All For Love”is a pale, beautiful play. The theme “All For Love” was meant to bethat “punishment inexorably follows vice and illicit love.
Actually, themotivation of the play is a conflict between reason and passion, and it is thisconflict that makes “All For Love” truly representative of theRestoration Period and the battle of ideas that settled beneath” (Dryden25). The greatest of his poems was “Absalom and Achitophel. ” He wrotethis while he was Poet Laureate, the national poet of a country (Hopkins 5). Inthis poem he described a political predicament that is described by charactersfrom the Bible. He uses a vast amount of symbolism in the story. “Absalomand Architophel” represents his lifelong affinity for seeing the present interms of the past (Miner 15).
One of his most famous poems is “Mac Flecknoe. “He destroys Thomas Shadwell by taking very crude and harsh blows on the man. However, Dryden refers to Shadwell’s appearance to only imply that he is fat:”A Ton of Man in thy Large bulk is writ, but sure tho’rt but a kildrekin ofwit” (Sherwood 7). There is nobody of English criticism that is more alive,that brings readers more directly into contact with literature, than JohnDryden.
One can never predict what will arise with Dryden’s criticism, but itwill be far more promising than any other (Mc Henry 25). John Dryden is known as”the father of English Criticism” (Osborn 136). But, other studies andopinions show that his critical writings are known to quite often derivative,self-contradictory, rambling, inexact, at times over-specialized, and at otherstoo sweeping (Hopkins 137). Cunningham 6 Dryden’s earliest critical essay waswritten in 1664, about his first verse play, The Rival Ladies. From this dateuntil his death in 1700, Dryden scarcely passed a year without writing apreface, an essay, a discourse, a literary biography or some piece of criticism(Osborn 179). His criticism has not been viewed in the correct ways in somecases.
It has often been praised for its minor virtues, and too little admiredfor its major ones. “His criticism is great in contrast as well as instyle” (Hammond 179). John Dryden’s critical qualities are handsome ones,preferable to most. He has confidence in his basic assumptions and moregracefully within his tradition. Another great strength of his, is that he playsexample against theory and theory against example; Dryden also possesses manymore admiring qualities (Hammond 5). As a well-respected critic as he is Drydenhas a habit of telling what he is thinking at the time of composition.
Hisprefaces and prologues have the quality of studio talk in which the artistspeaks of what he has tried to do and how he has done better, or worse, thanothers. He gives his views at the time, he may have different views at othertimes that are more educated, but he gives the views which engage him at themoment (McHenry 39). Criticism of Dryden in the half-century following his deathis sparse, and contributions from the major men of letters are disappointinglycasual and undeveloped. However, most likely the best criticism of Dryden duringthe period after his demise comes from “Dennis, Congerer, and Garth. “There is passion as well as admiration in Dennis’s remarks for Dryden’s poetry (Bredvold14).
He is a critic more than a theorist, meaning he judges poetry thoughtfullyby talking incomparably well about the poetry. However, he also likes to thinkand to speak of his thinking to explore and mediate literary principles. JohnDryden wrote with ease and at times carelessly, but he knew where he stood(Hammond 1). Cunningham 7 His poetry was often seen as a pure, rich, metricalenergy, and formally proper to the genre. “It is throughout its wholerange, alive with a special kind of feeling” (Osborn 181).
John Dryden wasengaged in literary controversy his entire literary career and life. He feudedwith famous writers such as Sir Robert Howard, Thomas Shadwell, Andrew Marvell,Thomas Rymar, and many others. Shadwell was the most unfortunate foe of themall. If he had never quarreled with Dryden he would not have been known today asone of the four great comic playwrights of the Restoration period (Dryden 1). Shadwell’s and Dryden’s literary quarrel developed by the means of criticalcomments in prologues, epilogues, prefaces, and dedications written between 1668and 1678. Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” was a major issue in the disputebetween Dryden and Shadwell (Dryden 4).
In “Mac Flecknoe,” Shadwell’smemory is kept alive, but has also been branded forever as horrible writer and adisgrace to the history of English writers. “Mac Flecknoe” is Dryden’smost delightful poem. It reveals Dryden’s great writing talents as poet andsatirist. As he accuses Shadwell of “borrowing” from other authors.
Healso indicted Shadwell of “consistently stealing,” but the chargeswere also greatly exaggerated. However, Dryden admitted that he was guilty of”borrowing” from other authors, but he also mentioned that Charles IIsaid that he wished those incriminated for stealing would steal plays likeDryden’s (Dryden 18). At some point Shadwell had got on good terms with Dryden,good enough at least for Dryden to provide the prologue to one of Shadwell’splays. It might have been the prologue the others, but still it served as aprologue to one of Shadwell’s. They had to have developed some sort offriendship or came to know each other.
Then something happened and the time forreconciliation had passed. In the same year in which he wrote that prologue forShadwell he also wrote “Mac Flecknoe” to put an Cunningham 8 end tothe feuding, and Shadwell became the “unforgiven butt of his ridicule”(McHenry 47). Dryden was an exceptional author that just did not make as big asothers. His literary reputation suffers greatly from the simple fact that notmany know of him.
He is the man who wrote “Absalom and Architophel,””Mac Flecknoe,” and who precedes Pope. He wrote not only greatsatirical, but great love poems, great political poems, and great religiouspoems. Beyond those poems he wrote many great passages of poetry. He wrote anastounding amount of good poetry, probably more than any other poet in thelanguage except Shakespeare and Milton (Hammond 67). The English author JohnDryden called himself Neander, the “new man,” in his Essay of DramaticPoesy, and implied that he was a spokesman for the concerns of his generationand the embodiment of it’s tastes.
He achieved a prominence that supported hisclaim. Dryden excelled in comedy, heroic tragedy, verse satire, translation, andliterary criticism; genres that his contemporaries and later readers havedefined as representative of the Restoration period. John Dryden’s lastinglegacy will be defined by his unequaled, excellent criticisms of literature andhis outstanding poetry. He developed the model for modern English prose styleand set the tone for 18th century English poetry.
His memorable works helpedinfluence much of the writings that come from England to this day. Translationsare another major reason why people will remember Dryden. He took authors fromprevious eras works and interpreted them into something superior and moved themto a greatness previously believed unattainable. His considerableaccomplishments assured Dryden’s place in literary history and, through theirinfluence on such writers as Alexander Pope, determined the course of literaryhistory for the next generation. BibliographyBredvold, Louis I.
The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden. USA: University ofMichigan Press, 1956. Dryden, John. All For Love.
USA: Chandler Publications,1962. —. Annus Notabilis. Los Angeles: Castle Press, 1981. Frost, William. John Dryden.
New York: AMS Press, 1988. Hammond, Paul. John Dryden. New York:St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Harth, Phillip, Alan Fisher, and Ralph Cohen. NewHomage to John Dryden. Los Angeles: University of California, 1983. Hopkins,David, and Tom Mason. The Beauties of Dryden.
Great Britain: BristolPublications, 1982. McHenry, Robert W. Jr. Absalom and Achitophel.
Hamden: TheShoe String Press, Inc. , 1986. Miner, Earl. Writers and their Background. Ohio:Ohio University Press, 1972. Osborn, James.
Facts and Problems. Gainesville:University of Florida Press, 1965. Salvaggio, Ruth. Dryden’s Dualities.
Victoria: University of Victoria, 1983. Sergeaunt, John. The Poems of JohnDryden. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Sherwood, Margaret.
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Lectures on Dryden. New York: Russell and Russell, Inc. 1963.Biographies