Saturday, August 11, 2007
John Dryden (1631-1700)
All things are subject to decay and when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
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Poet, dramatist, critic, and translator; b. 9 August, 1631, at Oldwinkle All Saints, Northamptonshire, England; d. at London, 30 April, 1700>. Dryden was the son of Erasmus Dryden (or Driden) and Mary Pickering, daughter of the Rev. Henry Pickering. Erasmus Dryden was the son of Sir Erasmus Dryden, and was a justice of the peace under Cromwell. On both sides Dryden's family were of the Parliamentary party. He received his early education as a king's scholar at Westminster and while there his first published work appeared. This was an elegy contributed in 1649 to the Lachrymae Musarum, a collection of tributes in memory of Henry, Lord Hastings. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, 18 May, 1650, being elected to a scholarship on 2 October. He graduated as Bachelor of Arts, January, 1653-4, and after inheriting from his father a small estate worth £60 annually, he returned to Cambridge, living there until 1655. The Heroic Stanzas on the death of Oliver Cromwell, his first important work (1658), are smooth and vigorous, and while laudatory, are not meanly so. There is no attack on royalty and no mention of Cromwell's religion. Dryden always was in favour of authority and of peace from civil strife, and consequently when disorders broke out upon Cromwell's death, he, with the rest of the nation, welcomed the return of Charles II. He celebrated the king's return with his poem of Astraea Redux (1660), in which he already showed his mastery of the rhymed couplet. Then followed his poems on the Coronation (1661); To Lord Clarendon (1662); To Dr. Charleton (1663); To the Duchess of York (1665); and Annus Mirabilis (1667). His great prose Essay on Dramatick Poesie appeared in 1668. Meantime, in 1662, Dryden had been elected to the Royal Society, and on 1 December, 1663, he was married to Lady Elizabeth Howard, eldest daughter of the Earl of Berkshire.
In 1662 he began his dramatic career with The Wild Gallant, a comedy of humours, influenced by Spanish sources. In 1663 appeared The Rival Ladies, a tragi-comedy, also from a Spanish model. To this Dryden prefixed the first of the famous prefaces in which he laid down his principles of dramatic criticism. The Indian Emperor, a heroic play, his first original drama, appeared in 1665. In 1667 he produced The Maiden Queen, a comedy in which some blank verse us seen alongside of the rhymed couplet and prose; Sir Martin Marall, a prose comedy based on L'Etourdi of Moliere; and an adaptation of The Tempest with Davenant. The Mock Astrologer (1668) was an imitation of Le feint astrologue of Thomas Corneille, influenced by Moliere's Depit amoureux. About this time Dryden entered into an agreement with the King's Theatre Company. According to this he was to produce three plays a year, for which he was to receive one and one-quarter shares out of a total of twelve and three-quarters. In the winter of 1668-9, Tyrannic Love, or the Royal Martyr, a rhymed heroic tragedy, was played, and in 1670 his greatest heroic tragedy, the first and second parts of Almanzor and Almahide, or the Conquest of Granada.
Dryden was given the degree of M. A. by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1668; in 1670 he was made poet laureate and royal historiographer, which brought him an annual income of £200. In 1671 he was satirized in The Rehearsal, a play written by Buckingham, Butler, and others. Marriage Ã la Mode, a comedy in prose and rhyme,was played in 1672, as well as The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery, a prose comedy, interspersed with a little blank verse. Amboyna (1673) was a prose tragedy on the subject of the Dutch outrages, and The State of Innocence (1674) was an unsuccessful attempt to treat the theme of Paradise Lost. Aurengzebe (1676) is a rhymed tragedy in which the run-on lines show a tendency toward blank verse, which becomes triumphant in the next play, All for Love (1678). This is Dryden's masterpiece, a play based on the story of Anthony and Cleopatra which he wrote to satisfy his own standards. It is a play worthy of comparison with Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, surpassing it in unity of time and motive, and in the part of Ventidius adding one of the great characters of the English drama. Limberham (1678), a prose comedy, was unsuccessful and was withdrawn after three nights. After the production of Oedipus, a tragedy in blank verse written in collaboration with Lee in 1679, Dryden seems to have quarrelled with the King's Company, and his next play, Troilus and Cressida, (1679), an adaptation in blank verse of Shakespeare's play, was produced by the Duke's Company. With the Spanish Friar (1681) he closed for a time his dramatic career. He had in the meantime suffered as well as profited by his fame. The Earl of Rochester, suspecting that Dryden had aided Lord Mulgrave in his attack of Rochester in the Essay on Satire, caused Dryden to be beaten by hired ruffians as he passed through Rose Street, Covent Garden, while returning from Will's coffee house to his own house in Gerrard Street. It is characteristic of the unfair attitude taken by Dryden's enemies that this cowardly assault was held by them to reflect upon his character.
In November, 1681, Dryden began, in the first part of Absalom and Achitophel, the series of satires in the rhymed couplet which placed him at the head of English satirical poets. Absalom and Achitophel was the most important literary expression of the party which prevented the exclusion of the Duke of York from the succession to the throne. It is also one of the greatest of English satires, especially in its portraiture of the characters of the Duke of Monmouth and the Earl of Shaftesbury, both of whom the author has represented allegorically in the title of the poem. Then followed, in March, 1682, The Medal, an assault upon Shaftesbury. These poems occasioned many attacks on Dryden, and to one of them, the Medal of John Bayes by Thomas Shadwell, Dryden replied, in October, 1682, by MacFlecknoe, a vigorous satire which dismissed Shadwell as the "last great prophet of tautology." In November, 1682, appeared the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, in which Nahum Tate collaborated. In Religio Laici (1682) Dryden presented an argument for the faith of the Church of England, and in 1685, on the death of Charles II, he wrote an ode called Threnodia Angustalis. In 1684 at Charles' request he had also translated The History of the League from the French of Maimbourg. Dryden's position at the death of Charles was not an enviable one. His income from play-writing had ceased, his pensions were not regularly paid, though they were continued by James II, and in answer to his appeal for some of the arrears, which amounted to £1000 in 1683, he had received £75 and an appointment as collector of customs of the port of London, the emoluments of which office are not known. He was converted to Catholicism in 1686. This step was the natural outcome of his investigation into theology, the first result of which had been Religio Laici. This poem, while a defence of the Church of England, showed a desire for an infallible guide in religious matters and indicates the direction in which Dryden's thoughts were turning. The accession of James gave him the additional incentive of belonging to the king's religion, a powerful motive in Dryden's case, for he was a devoted adherent to authority in Church and State. Dryden was accused of time-serving by his enemies, but this charge is easily disproved by his perseverance in his conversion during the next reign, when he refused even to dedicate his translation of Virgil to William III, lest he should be suspected of denying his religious or political principles.
Dryden published in April, 1687, The Hind and the Panther, in some ways his most important work. It is divided into three parts; the first describes the different sects in England under the allegorical figures of beasts; the second deals with a controversy between the Hind (the Catholic Church) and the Panther (the Church of England); the third continues this dialogue and develops personal and doctrinal satire. In this poem Dryden succeeded in the difficult task of rendering argument in verse interesting. Especially noteworthy are lines 499-555 (second part), in which he describes the foundation and the authority of the Church, and lines 235-50 (third part), in which he defends his own course of action. In 1688 Dryden translated the Life of St. Francis Xavier from the French (1682) of Pere Dominique Bouhours, S. J., and when an heir to the throne was born he celebrated the event in his poem of Britannia Rediviva. The Revolution of 1688 deprived him of his laureateship, and other lucrative posts, on account of his refusal to take the oaths of allegiance to the new government, and left him practically dependent upon his own literary exertions. He turned once more to the stage and produced in 1690 Don Sebastian, a tragi-comedy in blank verse and prose which rivals All for Love for the supreme place among his plays, and in the same year Amphitryon, a comedy, based on Moliere, though with several original situations. In 1691 followed King Arthur, an opera-masque; in 1692 Cleomenes, in which Dryden in the course of the blank verse relapses into rhyme; in 1694 Love Triumphant, a tragi-comedy in blank verse and prose, the last of his plays. In 1693 he published another of his great critical essays, A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, and in 1695 A Parallel of Poetry and Painting, prefixed to his translation of Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting.
With his remarkable power of adaptation Dryden now gave his attention to another literary form, that of translation. He had before this, in 1680, made some translations of Ovid; and in the Miscellanies of 1684 and 1685, and of 1693 and 1694 there are specimens of Ovid, Horace, Homer, Theocritus and Lucretius, which, together with his more complete translations of Virgil and Juvenal, make a total of about 30,000 lines. In July, 1697, the Pastorals, the Georgics, and the Ã†neid of Virgil were published, and the edition was sold off in about six months. Meanwhile, in 1692, Dryden had composed an elegy on Eleonora, Countess of Abingdon, for which he received 500 guineas. About this time, also, he wrote his famous address to Congreve on the failure of the Double Dealer. In 1699, at the close of his life, he published his Fables. This volume contained five paraphrases of Chaucer, three of Boccaccio, besides the first book of the Iliad, and Alexander's Feast, perhaps his greatest lyrical poem, written in 1697 for a musical society in London which celebrated St. Cecilia's day. Dryden had also written the ode for the celebration in 1687 by the same society. Dryden did not long survive the publication of his last book. He died of inflammation caused by gout, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Dryden's position in the history of English literature is one of supreme importance. He brought the rhymed couplet as a means of satire to a brilliancy and a point never surpassed before or since his time; as a close and logical reasoner in verse he has never been equalled. As a dramatist he did much good work and in some cases, as in All for Love or Don Sebastian, he achieved supreme distinction as a lyrist. He has left many exquisite songs and at least two of the finest odes in the language. As a translator and adaptor he ranks high, while as a prose writer he not only produced a body of criticism which established him as one of the greatest of English critics, but he also clarified English prose and marked the way for future development. As a man, he shared the faults of his time, but the scandals heaped upon him by his enemies have fallen away under critical examination, and the impression remains of a brave, honest Englishman, earnest in every cause he championed, who loved to praise who befriended him, and who could suffer reverses in silence and dignity. The standard edition of Dryden's works is that edited by Walter Scott in 18 volumes in 1808 and re-edited by George Saintsbury (Edinburgh, 1882-93). [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909]
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