John Dryden (1631 - 1700)
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator and
playwright, who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a
point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.
He was the eldest of fourteen children born to Erasmus and Mary Dryden, Puritan
landowning gentry who supported the Puritan cause and Parliament.
Arriving in London during The Protectorate, Dryden obtained work with Cromwell’s
Secretary of State. In 1658 he published his first important poem, "Heroique
Stanzas" (1658), a eulogy on Cromwell’s death which is cautious and prudent in
its emotional display. In 1660 Dryden celebrated the Restoration of the monarchy
and the return of Charles II with "Astraea Redux", an authentic royalist
panegyric. In this work the interregnum is illustrated as a time of anarchy, and
Charles is seen as the restorer of peace and order.
After the Restoration, Dryden quickly established himself as the leading poet
and literary critic of his day and he transferred his allegiances to the new
government. Along with "Astraea Redux", Dryden welcomed the new regime with two
more panegyrics: "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662),
and "To My Lord Chancellor" (1662).
With the reopening of the theatres after the Puritan ban, Dryden busied himself
with the composition of plays. During the 1660s and 70s theatrical writing was
to be his main source of income. He led the way in Restoration comedy, his best
known work being "Marriage A-la-Mode" (1672).
When the Great Plague closed the theatres, in 1665, Dryden wrote "Of Dramatick
Poesie" (1668), arguably the best of his unsystematic prefaces and essays.
Dryden’s greatest achievements were in satiric verse: the mock-heroic
"MacFlecknoe", a more personal product of his Laureate years, was a lampoon
circulated in manuscript and an attack on the playwright Thomas Shadwell. It is
not a belittling form of satire, but rather one which makes his object great in
ways which are unexpected, transferring the ridiculous into poetry. This line of
satire continued with "Absalom and Achitophel" (1681) and "The Medal" (1682).
His other major works from this period are the religious poems "Religio Laici"
(1682) and "The Hind and the Panther" (1687), which celebrates his conversion to
When in 1688 James was deposed, Dryden’s refusal to take the oaths of allegiance
to the new government left him out of favour at court. Dryden translated works
by Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius, and Theocritus, a task which he found far
more satisfying than writing for the stage. As a critic and translator he was
essential in making accessible to the reading English public literary works in
the classical languages.
Dryden died in 1700 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. He was the dominant
literary figure and influence of his age, si after his death he was the subject
of various poetic eulogies.