The 9th August marks the 385th birthday of a man described as ‘the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century’, John Dryden.
Born in 1631 in Northamptonshire, John Dryden was instantly thrust into prestige, born to a family who owned land and had connections to both the Church of England and Parliament. Dryden studied as a King’s Scholar at the Westminster School of London, a school to which Dryden would later send two of his own children. Here, Dryden learnt the ways of rhetorical argument, an ability which played a key part in a number of his writings and critical thought processes throughout his life.
In 1649, Dryden published his first poem, morbidly titled ‘Upon the Death of Lord Hastings.’ The following year, he was enrolled at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he studied mathematics, classics and rhetorics. A natural scholar, Dryden was awarded with a Bachelor of Arts in 1654 after graduating at the top of his class. Sadly, in June of the same year, Dryden’s father passed away.
Following his graduation, Dryden found himself working alongside John Thurloe, the Secretary of State to Oliver Cromwell, a man who incited a radical shift in Dryden’s political views. Dryden was present at the funeral of Oliver Cromwell alongside Puritan poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell, an occasion which inspired Dryden’s first notable poem, entitled ‘Heroic Stanzas’, a eulogy to Oliver Cromwell.
In 1660, Dryden celebrated the reign of King Charles II with ‘Astraea Redex’, a tribute celebrating the coronation of the new king, in which Dryden apologised for aligning himself with Cromwell’s government. This was excused by Samuel Johnson, who in his 1779 book, ‘Lives of the Poets’, cited ‘if he changed, he changed with the nation‘, but that Dryden’s previous allegiance was ‘not totally forgotten’ and had in fact, ‘raised him enemies.’
Regardless of his ‘enemies’, John Dryden soon made a name for himself as the leading critic and poet of his generation, publishing both ‘To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation’ and ‘To My Lord Chancellor’ in 1662. These were widely considered as being written to court patrons from the aristocracy. Dryden was proposed for membership in the Royal Society in the same year, and was elected an early fellow by his peers. The following year, he wed the royalist sister of Sir Robert Howard, Lady Elizabeth.
In April 1668, William Davenant passed away, making Dryden the first official Poet Laureate of England, a position awarded by a letters patent from the King himself. Dryden’s dexterity in his earlier panegyrics made him the natural choice for the position. The position of Poet Laureate was traditionally held for life up until 1999, however Dryden was dismissed by William III and Mary II in 1688 after his refusal to swear his allegiance, favouring his loyalty to James II.
In 1663, Dryden wrote ‘The Wild Gallant’. Although it saw no success financially, it attracted the attention of the King’s Company, by whom Dryden was commissioned to write three plays. He would later go on to become a shareholder within the company. Dryden’s best known works include ‘Marriage a la Mode’, written in 1672, and ‘All for Love‘, written in 1678 in blank verse.
1665 is an infamous date in British history; it marks the year the Bubonic Plague swept through London, and in its wake, killed between 75 and 200 million people across Europe. On the cuff of the outbreak, Dryden moved to safety in Wiltshire, where he wrote the longest of his critical works, ‘Of Dramatic Poesie’ in 1668, which revolves around a discussion between characters debating and defending various dramatic works and practices from all over the world.
In 1682, ‘Mac Flecknoe’ was published, a piece written by Dryden which attacked one of his contemporaries, Thomas Shadwell, for his ‘offenses against literature’. Other satirical works by Dryden which receive acclaim include ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ in 1681 and ‘The Medal’ in 1682.
Dryden’s work has often been likened to the metaphysical work of Abraham Cowley, but developed a style more reminiscent of natural speech, which went on to be the most common poetic style for over 100 years. He’s often credited with introducing the heroic couplet to English poetry, utilizing it across a plethora of different modes, including religious pieces, fables, prologues and plays to name a few.
On May 1st, 1700, John Dryden passed away and was buried in St Anne’s Cemetary. Ten years later, his body was relocated to the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, where a memorial has been built in honour of this iconic figure in British literature.