His father was of the minor gentry, having a small estate in North-amptonshire. He was sent to Westminster School in London, where the learned Richard Busby gave him, and his fellow student John Locke, much Latin and discipline. There he earned a scholarship which enabled him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge. In the year (1654) in which he took his degree his father died, and John, as the eldest of fourteen children, inherited the estate, which brought him sixty pounds a year. He moved to London, and tried to eke this out with poetry. In 1659 he published “Heroic Stanzas” to the memory of Cromwell—verses remarkably jejune for a man of twenty-nine. Dryden matured slowly, like a man climbing laboriously over a hundred obstacles to successively higher ledges of income. A year later he welcomed the Restoration in “Astraea Redux,” which compared Charles II’s star to the star of Bethlehem. Hardly anyone dared to accuse Dryden of inconstancy, for nearly all the poets but Milton changed their key from Puritan to royalist with practiced modulation.
But Charles was interested in the theater rather than mere poetry; so the dramatists made money while the new poets languished. Dryden felt no flair for drama, but he longed for regular bread. He tried his hand at comedy, with a result (The Wild Gallant, 1663) which Pepys damned as “so poor a thing as ever I saw in my life almost.” 28 On December 1, 1663, Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. Eyebrows had risen at a lady marrying a poet, but she was twenty-five and in danger of desiccation, and her brother Sir Robert Howard, itching with authorship, had secured Dryden’s collaboration in a play, The Indian Queen, which they produced in 1664 with lavish scenery and great success.
This tragedy made literary history by abandoning the blank verse of the Elizabethans and using as its regular medium rhymed couplets of pentameter lines. Lord Orrery had been impressed by the melody of rhyme in French tragedy, and had introduced the style in his own plays. Dryden returned to blank verse after 1675, recognizing that rhyme tends to obstruct the flow of speech and thought. He would have been a greater poet had he had less facility in verse.
He followed up his co-operative success with an independent continuation, The Indian Emperor (1665), whose hero was Montezuma. He was just finding a place on the English stage when the plague closed the London theaters for a year. When the plague and the fire had passed he celebrated England’s re-emergence under the triple ordeal of these and war in Annus Mirabilis (1666), a poem of 304 quatrains, alternating between vigorous description (stanzas 212–82) and juvenile inanity (e.g., stanza 29). When the theaters reopened in 1666 Dryden hurried back to drama, and till 1681 he produced nothing but plays. His tragedies run to bombast, but they seemed to his contemporaries superior to Shakespeare’s; 29 and when he joined Davenant in remodeling The Tempest the result was by the common consent of the collaborators a great improvement on the original. The King’s Company may have agreed with them, for it gave Dryden a commission to supply it with three plays annually in return for a share in the profits, which came to some £ 350 a year. Dryden’s comedies, though as obscene as any, had less success than his twenty-seven tragedies, for in these he caught the public interest in the New World and its wonderful savages. So in The Conquest of Granada Almanzor says:
I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base law of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
Probably it was the success of this play, and the luscious eulogies of Charles II in Annus Mirabilis, that in 1670 won Dryden the post of royal historiographer and poet laureate. His income now averaged a thousand pounds a year.
In the epilogue to Part II of The Conquest of Granada Dryden claimed superiority for the Restoration drama over the Elizabethan. His competitors, while appreciating the compliment, thought that too much of its charity began at home. The wits of the town did not share the taste of the audiences for the extravagant heroics of Dryden’s tragedies. The Duke of Buckingham, with some collaborators, issued in 1671 a rollicking satire, The Rehearsal, which made great fun of the improbabilities, absurdities, and bombast of contemporary tragedies, especially Dryden’s. The poet felt the sting, but nursed his revenge for ten years; then he pilloried Buckingham as Zimri in the strongest lines of Absalom and Achitophel.
Meanwhile his study of Shakespeare had improved his art. In his finest tragedy, All for Love (1678), he turned from Racine and rhyme to Shakespeare and blank verse, put all his skill into rivaling the Elizabethan on common ground, and told again the story of Antony and Cleopatra losing the world for a liaison. If the earlier play did not exist, Dryden’s might be better praised. Now and then it rises in stark simplicity of speech to noble feeling tensely contained, as in Octavia’s coming to Antony with Octavian’s offer of pardon. 30 Dryden’s play is more compact, aiming to observe the unities; but by narrowing the action to one crisis in one place and three days he reduced the heroic theme to an amour, and lost the large perspective that in Antony and Cleopatra saw this romance as part of events that shook and shaped the Mediterranean world.
Today the most interesting aspects of Dryden’s dramas are the prefaces with which he introduced them in print, and the essays in which he expounded his views on dramatic art. Corneille had given him the example, but Dryden made the form a vehicle of splendid prose. As we skim through these brief treatises and lively dialogues, we perceive that the age of creation in English literature was passing into that age of criticism which would culminate in Pope. But also our respect for Dryden’s mind rises as we see him probing urbanely into the technique of the drama and the art of poetry, and comparing, with considerable penetration, the French with the English stage. In these essays the picturesque rambling of Elizabethan prose, the turgid and cumulative sentences of Milton, make way for a simpler, smoother, more orderly diction freed from Latin constructions, and improved by acquaintance with French literature; never quite rivaling French elegance, but transmitting to the eighteenth century—the century of prose—models of clear and graceful speech, flowing and charming, natural and strong. Here the English essay took form, and the classic age of English literature began.
But if Dryden’s essays now seem superior to the plays that gave them cause, it was in satire that he dominated and almost terrorized his time. Perhaps an accident released his sting. In 1679 John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, circulated in manuscript an anonymousEssay on Satire, which attacked the Earl of Rochester, the Duchess of Portsmouth (Louise de Kéroualle), and in general the court of Charles II. Dryden, who now derived much of his income from the King, was mistakenly supposed to be the author. On the night of December 18, in Rose Alley, Covent Garden, he was attacked and cudgeled by a band of ruffians presumably, but not certainly, in the hire of Rochester. Dryden was a man of good nature and generosity, ready to help and praise; but his success, his egotism, and his controversial affirmations had earned him many enemies. For a time he bore their attacks without public reply; even the “Rose Alley ambuscade” brought no direct response from his pen. But in 1681 he gathered several of his foes into one caldron, and boiled them in the most lethal satire in the English language.
It was the year in which Shaftesbury tried to organize a revolution to replace Charles II with Charles’s bastard son; and when Part I of Absalom and Achitophel appeared (November), Shaftesbury was about to be tried for treason. Dryden’s satire took the side of the King, and may have been suggested by the King. 31 He ridiculed Shaftesbury as Achitophel, who persuades Absalom (the Duke of Monmouth) to revolt against his father, David (Charles). And as both David and Charles loved plurally, the poem begins with an essay on the value of polygamy:
In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin,
When man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined,
When nature prompted and no law denied
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride,
When Israel’s monarch after Heaven’s own heart
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves, and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker’s image through the land . . .
David rejoices in the beauty of his Absalom; Monmouth was, till the revolt, the apple of the Merrie Monarch’s eye. And the Jews are the English,
a headstrong, moody, murmuring race
As ever tried th’ extent and stretch of grace;
God’s pampered people, whom, debauched with ease,
No king could govern, nor no God could please . . . 32
Astrophel is the archangel of treason; London at once recognized Shaftesbury:
Of these the false Achitophel was first,
A name to all succeeding ages curst;
For close designs and crooked counsels fit,
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit,
Restless, unfixed in principles and place,
In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace;
A fiery soul, which, working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay,
And o’er-informed the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity,
Pleased with the danger when the waves went high,
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide;
Else why should he, with wealth and honors blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest? . . .
In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state. 33
And now comes the revenge against Buckingham and The Rehearsal:
In the first rank of these [rebels] did Zimri stand:
A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts, and nothing long,
But in the course of one revealing moon
Was chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon;
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking. . . .
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
Nothing went unrewarded but desert;
Beggared by fools, whom still he found [out] too late,
He had his jest, and they had his estate. 34
England had never known satire as merciless as this, concentrating mayhem in a line, and leaving quartered corpses on every page. The poem sold by the hundreds outside the very court in which Shaftesbury was being tried for his life. Shaftesbury was acquitted; his Whig partisans struck a medal in his honor; and a dozen poets and pamphleteers, led by Thomas Shadwell, issued triumphant replies to the man who, they were sure, had sold his wit and caustic to the King. Dryden came back with another satire,The Medal(March, 1682), and Shadwell was flayed with a special flail, MacFlecknoe (October). Here the invective was coarser, descending at times to verbal abuse undistinguished by such cutting couplets as had spread their bane with such precision and economy in the earlier satire.
Our taste for literary slaughter of this sort has declined; after centuries of argument we suspect that there is some truth in every passion, something to be loved in every foe. But even today politics is war by other means; much more so then, when the Stuart throne swung on the hinge of revolution, and to emerge on the losing side might well mean death. In any case, Dryden had shown his mettle; he had earned the gratitude of the King and of the Duke of York; and no one now questioned his pre-eminence in the realms of rhyme. When he came to Will’s Tavern a chair was reserved for him near the hearth in winter, on the balcony in summer; there Pepys saw him, and heard “very witty and pleasant discourse.” 35 Sir Walter Scott, with creative imagination, pictured Dryden entering Will’s: “a little fat old man, with his own gray hair, and in a full trimmed black suit that sat close as a glove,” and “with the pleasantest smile I ever saw.” 36 “To bow to the Laureate, and to hear his opinion of Racine’s last tragedy . . . , was thought a privilege. A pinch from his snuffbox was an honor sufficient to turn the head of a young enthusiast.” 37 He could be the soul of kindness to friends, but fell too readily into personal abuse about rivals and enemies; 38 and he allowed no one to exceed him in praise of his own poetry. His adulation of the King, of Lady Castlemaine, and of those who paid him for dedications surpassed the customary servility of his profession in his time. 39 Yet Congreve repaid Dryden’s encouragement by describing him as “exceedingly humane and compassionate, ready to forgive injuries, and capable of a sincere reconciliation with those that had offended him.” 40
Entering now upon his physical decline, he began to think more kindly of religion than in the proud vigor of his middle years. His dramas and satires had taken incidental flings at divers creeds; now, having cast in his lot with the Tories, he turned to the Anglican Church as a pillar of England’s stability, and deprecated the insolence of reason invading the sanctuaries of faith. In November, 1682, he astonished his worldly friends by issuing Religio Laid, a poem in defense of the Established Church. An inspired Bible, even an infallible Church to interpret and supplement it, seemed to him indispensable supports of society and sanity. He was acquainted with the contentions of the deists; his answer was that their doubts were foolishly disturbing that difficult social order which only a moral code sanctioned by religion can sustain:
For points obscure are of small use to learn,
But common quiet is the world’s concern.
The argument could serve the Roman Church too, and Dryden followed it to its conclusion by accepting conversion to Catholicism (1686). Whether the accession of a Catholic King the year before, and anxiety for the continuance of his pensions, 41 had anything to do with the conversion we cannot say. In any case Dryden gave his full poetic art to expounding the Catholic view in The Hind and the Panther (1687), in which a “milk-white hind” defends the Roman faith against a panther, “fairest creature of the spotted kind,” representing the Anglicans. The picture of two four-footed beasts debating the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist 42 lent itself to ridicule, which was soon supplied by Matthew Prior and Lord Halifax in a parody entitled The Hind and the Panther Transversed to the Story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse (1687).
In 1688 James II fled to France, and Dryden found himself living again under a Protestant King. He kept to his new faith; all his three sons had employment in Rome under the Pope, and another change of key would have been cacophonous. He bore with courage the loss of his laureateship, his pension, and his post as historiographer; history, however, sharpened his sorrow by giving these honors to the Shadwell whom Dryden had crowned as King of Nonsense and paragon of stupidity. He returned in old age to supporting himself by his pen. He wrote more plays, translated selections from Theocritus, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, and Persius, made a loose but fluent rendering of the Aeneid into heroic verse, and transformed into his own meters some “fables” of Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. In 1697, aged sixty-seven, he composed a celebrated ode, “Alexander’s Feast,” which has been too highly praised.
He died May 1, 1700. Much confusion attended his funeral, rival factions contesting for his corpse; but finally he was laid to rest beside Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.
It is difficult to love him. To all appearances he was an opportunist trimmer, who praised Cromwell’s memory under the Protectorate, praised Charles and his mistresses, praised Protestantism under a Protestant King and Catholicism under a Catholic, and courted pensions with all his melody. He made so many enemies that there must have been something unlovable in him. He rivaled all his competitors in the licentiousness of his plays and the piety of his verse. His power of satire was so great as to evoke our sympathies for his victims as for martyrs burning at the stake. But he was without question the greatest English poet of his generation. Much of his poetry was written to the occasion, and time seldom preserves what was addressed to the time. But his satires still live, for no one has equaled them in etching characters in acid scorn. He developed the heroic couplet to such compactness and flexibility that it dominated English poetry for a century. His influence was better in prose: he cleared it of cumbersome involutions and alien idioms, and disciplined it to a classic clarity and ease. His contemporaries were right: they feared rather than loved him, but they knew that by the force of his will and the labor of his art he had won the right to preside over them as the arbiter of letters and the sovereign of rhyme. He was the Jonson and Johnson of his age.