This panel is similar to the oil on panel in the national Portrait Gallery NPG 57 where Dryden is holding a laurel wreath and is painted in a feigned oval.
Dryden, John (1631–1700), poet, playwright, and critic, was born on 9 August 1631 at Aldwincle, Northamptonshire, the eldest of the fourteen children of Erasmus Dryden (c.1602–1654), son of Sir Erasmus Dryden (1553–1632) of Canons Ashby, and his wife, Mary (d. 1676), daughter of the Revd Henry Pickering (1564–1637) of Aldwincle. The family lived in the nearby village of Titchmarsh. Both parents were from puritan gentry families who were not well disposed to the king, and the young Dryden was doubtless brought up in a godly environment. No record of his early education survives, but he probably attended the village school.
It was probably about 1644 that Dryden was sent to Westminster School, famous for the quality of its education under Richard Busby. Here he received a thorough grounding in classical culture which left its mark on his later work: his poetry and criticism show a deep knowledge of, and delight in, Greek and Roman literature. Ovid and Virgil were perhaps his principal companions, but he also prized Horace, Lucretius, and (in later life) Homer. These writers contributed both to his imagery and to his view of the world, and classical translation was the mainstay of his late career. Introducing his version of Persius's third satire in 1692, he recalls translating the poem for a Thursday night's exercise while a king's scholar at Westminster (Works, 4.293). In due course Dryden entrusted the education of his sons Charles and John to Busby. Westminster, however, had a strongly royalist and Anglican ethos which was at variance with the religious temper and political allegiances of his home. Perhaps Westminster was formative in this sphere too, for there is no indication in his adult life of any puritan sympathies: indeed, Religio laici and The Hind and the Pantherexhibit a strong (and well-informed) antipathy to protestant sects and to the more radical elements of Reformation theology and ecclesiology. But if he recoiled from ignorant zeal and violent sectarianism, he was just as averse to clerical power and venality, and a thread of anti-clerical satire runs through his writing, directed equally at Anglican and at Roman Catholic clergy, ‘For Priests of all Religions are the same’ (Absalom and Achitophel, l. 99). It was as a Westminster schoolboy in 1649 that he published his first poem, conceitful and somewhat ungainly verses in Lachrymae musarum, a memorial volume for Lord Hastings.
From Westminster Dryden proceeded in 1650 to Trinity College, Cambridge, as one of five Westminster scholars; his tutor was John Templer. He presumably followed the usual undergraduate curriculum in the classics, rhetoric, and mathematics, along with biblical study. The ethos of the college at this difficult period was puritan but not fanatic; the master, Thomas Hill, was a noted preacher and pastor who was also vicar of Dryden's home village of Titchmarsh. But Dryden also had sufficient contact with the Cambridge Platonist divine John Smith to write memorial verses for him. Cambridge in general, and Trinity in particular, was a crucible of the new science, but such studies were not expected of undergraduates; perhaps, however, Dryden assimilated enough to stir a lay interest in scientific matters, for Annus mirabilis (1667) includes an encomium on the Royal Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1662 (though it was not long before he was expelled for non-payment of dues). His time at Trinity was marred by an incident in 1652 when he was punished for some unspecified disobedience to the vice-master, but he distinguished himself academically, graduating in February 1654 at the top of the list of Trinity men. His contemporary Robert Creighton recalled that Dryden:
was reckoned a man of good Parts & Learning while in Coll: he had to his knowledge read over & very well understood all the Greek and Latin Poets: he stayed to take his Batchelors degree; but his head was too roving and active, or what else you'll call it, to confine himself to a College Life; & so he left it & went to London into gayer company, & set up for a Poet. (Trinity College Muniments, ‘The great volume of miscellany papers III’, no. 42)
Though the college held his place open until April 1655, Dryden did not stay in Cambridge; the death of his father in June 1654 brought new responsibilities, and though he inherited a farm there was insufficient income to make him financially comfortable. At some point, at least by 1657, he joined the civil service of the new protectorate, probably introduced by his cousin Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell's lord chamberlain. The record of Cromwell's funeral procession in 1658 shows Dryden walking along with Milton and Marvell as secretaries of the French and Latin tongues. This occasion prompted his first important poem, the Heroique Stanza's (printed 1659), which celebrates Cromwell as a strong and intelligent ruler in dignified, sober quatrains, displaying a patriotic rather than a partisan judgement. Unhappily, the poem remained in the memory of readers, and was circulated both in manuscript and in print in the late 1670s and early 1680s to embarrass the Stuart laureate.
As the protectorate crumbled, its servants sought other employment, and some rethought their loyalties. In the late 1650s Dryden had received casual work from the bookseller Henry Herringman, probably writing occasional prefaces and advertisements for him. With the restoration of the monarchy Dryden set out to establish a literary career, and greeted the returning king in June 1660 with an accomplished poem Astraea redux (‘Justice brought back’), which saw Charles II as a second Augustus. It was followed in April 1661 with a poem To His Sacred Majesty, a Panegyrick on his Coronation, and in 1662 with new year verses To my Lord Chancellor. In these pieces Dryden was courting favour with the new regime, and his change of allegiance would later bring accusations that he was a mere mercenary time-server. Such charges were heard with more frequency and bitterness after 1685, when his conversion to Catholicism, coinciding with the accession of the Catholic James II, made it appear to some that his principles went no deeper than his pocket. Of his shift of allegiance in 1660 Dr Johnson observed that ‘if he changed, he changed with the nation’ (Johnson, 1.334). Astraea redux actually shows strongly held beliefs which were to run through Dryden's later work—a distrust of the easily misled populace, a reverence for kingship, and a faith in the workings of divine providence. The ex officio respect for Charles in these early poems deepened as the reign progressed into a regard for his tolerance and an affection for his person, despite the provocation of a salary frequently in arrears, and encouragement which too rarely took tangible form. From 1660 onwards Dryden's writing shows a reverence for the divinely instituted office of kingship, but also with a wry recognition of the failings of its particular incumbents; indeed, in Absalom and Achitophel he cannot restrain his Chaucerian sense of the comic disparity of man and image.
It was probably in 1660 that Dryden began lodging in London with Sir Robert Howard, son of the earl of Berkshire, and in that year he contributed commendatory verses to Howard'sPoems. Soon the bond became closer, for on 1 December 1663 Dryden married Howard's sister, Lady Elizabeth (c.1638–1714). The marriage lasted until his death, but there is little evidence about how they lived as a couple. There were three sons: Charles, John, and Erasmus-Henry [see below]. It is possible that Elizabeth was a Roman Catholic, and likely that his sons' conversion preceded Dryden's own. The only sexual scandal which attached to Dryden was the belief (probably true) that the actress Anne Reeves was his mistress in the 1670s. Satires such as Rochester's An Allusion to Horace and the anonymous The Medal of John Bayes represent Dryden making obscene boasts in an attempt to demonstrate his libertine credentials, but such behaviour would seem forced and out of character. He was no libertine, in a milieu where such behaviour was routine. Some poems (such as his late verses to his cousin John Driden of Chesterton) make barbed references to the pains of marriage, but we do not know whether they have any autobiographical resonance.
Though his literary career began with poetry, it was in the theatre that Dryden established his profession. His first play, The Wild Gallant, was staged at the Theatre Royal on 5 February 1663, and then at court on 23 February, probably through the influence of the king's mistress Lady Castlemaine, to whom Dryden wrote some grateful verses. But Dryden's naïvety in matters of dissipation was apparent, and Pepys commented that:
it was ill acted and the play so poor a thing as I never saw in my life almost, and so little answering the name, that from beginning to end I could not, nor can at this time, tell certainly which was the wild gallant. (Pepys, 23 Feb 1663)
A second play, the tragi-comedy The Rival Ladies, was performed in late 1663 or early 1664. The Indian Queen, written jointly with Howard, was the first of Dryden's ventures into heroic drama, a form in which he was to gain success, though he eventually tired of its posturing and inflated rhetoric. Its first recorded performance was on 25 January 1664, in the presence of the king. Its sequel, The Indian Emperour, Dryden's unaided work, was performed early in 1665 (published 1667).
When the plague struck London in 1665, and the theatres closed, Dryden retired to the country, to his father-in-law's estate at Charlton in Wiltshire. It was there that his first son was born, and there that he wrote a new play, Secret Love, and two major works, the essay Of Dramatick Poesie and the poem Annus mirabilis. When he returned to London late in 1666 or early in 1667, these works marked him out as a major force in the new Restoration culture.
Annus mirabilis: the Year of Wonders, MDCLXVI, published in January 1667, addressed two events from 1666 which puritan oppositional voices had represented as signs of divine displeasure at Charles's government and morals: the inglorious Second Anglo-Dutch War, and the fire of London. Dryden saw these as testimony to individual heroism, the king's care for his people, and divine providence; and although a late metaphysical wit animates the poem, sometimes producing extravagant images, it does not gloss over the human suffering. Simultaneously, in his dialogic essay Of Dramatick Poesie (1668), Dryden explored the theory and practice of drama, using four fictional characters (based on the earl of Dorset, Sir Charles Sedley, Sir Robert Howard, and Dryden himself) who debate the relative merits of Renaissance and modern playwrights, of English and French drama, of blank verse and rhyming couplets. The essay is specially notable for its critique of Shakespeare and Jonson (particularly appreciative of the former's rare natural abilities), and for Dryden's evident desire that the Restoration stage should lead a cultural renaissance in England.
Dryden was committed now to the drama as his principal literary medium, and his main source of income. Three plays were premièred in 1667: the tragi-comedy Secret Love in March (published 1668) and the comedy Sir Martin Mar-All on 15 August (published 1668), and on 7 November the adaptation of The Tempest which he had written with Sir William Davenant (published 1670): here Miranda, the girl who has never seen a young man, is provided with a male counterpart, Hippolito, who has had an equally sheltered upbringing. Double recognition of Dryden's status came in spring 1668. First, he signed a contract with the King's Company to write three plays a year in return for a share of the profits; and although he never kept up the promised rate of production, his work was a mainstay of the company until it foundered in 1682. Secondly, on 13 April he was appointed poet laureate; appointment as historiographer royal followed on 18 August 1670. But events in 1668 also showed that this eminence was not without its detractors. Howard attacked Dryden's views on rhyme in his preface to The Duke of Lerma, while Shadwell used his preface to The Sullen Lovers to inveigh against Dryden's criticism of Jonson. Dryden replied in ‘A Defence of an Essay of Dramatique Poesie’ prefixed to the second edition of The Indian Emperour (September 1668), but the debate with Shadwell was destined to run on through a series of prefaces, dedications, prologues, and epilogues, in which the two writers debated with somewhat acerbic politeness the reputation of Jonson, charges of plagiarism, and the question whether comedy should primarily instruct or please. Matters came to a head in Mac Flecknoe (1676).
Meanwhile, Dryden was turning to the heroic drama, and particularly to scenarios which allowed him to explore personal dilemmas of passion and duty within the larger context of the clash of cultures and ideologies. Questions of fate and free will often trouble his characters, and many of their speeches have an outlook and idiom influenced by Hobbes.Tyrannick Love (staged June 1669, printed 1670) shows St Catharine disputing with the Roman emperor Maximin, while Moors and Spaniards meet in the two-part play The Conquest of Granada (staged December 1670–January 1671, printed 1672). And Dryden still kept his company supplied with comedies of wit and love, competent pieces, albeit lacking the sparkle and social penetration of Etherege or Wycherley at their best: An Evening's Love (staged 12 June 1668, printed 1671); Marriage à-la-mode (staged November 1671, printed 1673), probably his best comedy; and The Assignation (staged 1672, printed 1673). Often the songs from these plays enjoyed an independent life in manuscript circulation and in musical miscellanies. The jingoistic play Amboyna (staged and printed 1673) seemed designed to inflame anti-Dutch opinion during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. On 25 January 1672 the Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire, and the company had to move into temporary quarters. Dryden wrote a prologue for the occasion, which appropriately featured a revival ofWit without Money by Beaumont and Fletcher. He became a master of the occasional prologue, renowned for pieces which engaged in a witty, bantering rapport with the audience, sometimes flattering, sometimes insulting them, cajoling them into indulging a new playwright or (in the 1680s) supporting a beleaguered king. Southerne told Pope that Dryden:
was so famous for his Prologues, that the players would act nothing without that decoration. His usual price till then had been four guineas: But when Southern came to him for the Prologue he had bespoke, Dryden told him he must have six guineas for it, ‘which (said he) young man, is out of no disrespect to you, but the Players have had my goods too cheap’. (Works of Alexander Pope, 6.810)
A series of prologues for the King's Company on their summer tours to Oxford courted that audience by appealing to their superior critical faculties. ‘How easy 'tis to passe any thing upon an University’, Dryden remarked to Rochester, ‘and how grosse flattery the learned will endure’ (Letters, 10).
Others were less easily courted, including Rochester himself. Dryden had dedicated Marriage à-la-mode to the earl in 1673, but in ‘An Allusion to Horace’ (circulated in manuscriptc.1675) Rochester mixed crude spite with some shrewd criticism of Dryden's willingness to pander to an audience. Dryden's reply was in studiously general terms, though with unmistakable reference to Rochester, in the ‘Preface’ to All for Love (1678), where he comments on the affectation of some courtiers who aspire to be poets and judges of poetry but do not have the talent, and merely make fools of themselves. The duke of Buckingham used Dryden as the principal model for the playwright satirized as Mr Bayes in his play The Rehearsal (staged 1671), while a series of pamphlets in 1673 mounted an extended criticism of Dryden's plays and poems, deriding his style. Public attacks dogged Dryden throughout his career. The altercations with Shadwell rumbled on; his political interventions on the king's side in the exclusion crisis brought many versified rejoinders; and his conversion to Catholicism in 1685 prompted further abuse and satire. There are several hundred contemporary works in prose and verse, both manuscript and print, which praise or vilify him on literary, political, or religious grounds. Very rarely did Dryden respond in kind, though the provocation was extreme. His career was supported by powerful (but not always loyal) patrons, as can be seen from the dedications which he attached to his plays: Mulgrave aided him for a while; Dorset was a more consistent patron, whose support became invaluable after the revolution in 1689.
The new Theatre Royal opened in Drury Lane in 1674, and it was partly to take advantage of the improved facilities that Dryden composed a rhymed dramatic adaptation of Paradise Lost, which he called The State of Innocence: an Opera. He had visited Milton to obtain the blind poet's permission, and according to Aubrey ‘Milton recieved him civilly, & told him he would give him leave to tagge his Verses’ (French, 5.46). (Tags were metal ornaments attached to the ends of ribbons.) The opera focuses on the choices made by Adam and Eve, exploring their decisions in a vocabulary influenced by libertine philosophy. But even the new house did not have the financial resources for the spectacular scenery and effects required, and the play was never staged. It did, however, have an extensive circulation in manuscript, and once it reached print in 1677 it went through nine editions by 1700, easily outselling Milton's own poem. Dryden's interest in his erstwhile colleague did not end there: over the years his poetry engaged extensively with Milton's verse, and particularly withParadise Lost. Miltonic echoes shape the quasi-heroic satire of Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, while many of Dryden's original poems and translations deploy Miltonic phrasing, especially when addressing topics of love and freedom. Only Virgil is a more pervasive imaginative presence.
July 1676 saw the publication of Shadwell's play The Virtuoso, with a ‘Dedication’ which implicitly attacked Dryden. This seems to have been the last straw, the final insult which stirred Dryden into what was for him a novel form, the verse lampoon. Mac Flecknoe derides Shadwell's claim to be the legitimate successor to Ben Jonson by casting him instead as the heir of the prolifically dull poet and dramatist Richard Flecknoe, master of trivia and of self-importance, who
In Prose and Verse, was own'd, without disputeThrough all the Realms of Non-sense, absolute.(ll. 5–6)
Flecknoe, on the verge of retirement, hands over his kingdom of dullness to the only fitting successor, Shadwell. Witty, richly allusive to contemporary drama, and magnificently imaginative in its mock enthronement of this new king of dullness, the poem had a lasting impact on Shadwell's image. At first confined to manuscript circulation for a privileged readership, it appeared in a pirated printed edition in 1682, and in an authorized (though anonymous) text in the Dryden–Tonson Miscellany Poems of 1684. Dryden did not acknowledge his authorship publicly until 1692; by then Shadwell's reputation as a serious dramatist had been permanently damaged.
Dryden's own career as a writer of heroic plays was drawing to a close: the form was becoming dated, though in Aureng-Zebe (staged 17 November 1675, printed 1676) he achieved his most powerful play to date, one which combined the dilemmas of love and honour with philosophical reflections informed by Dryden's study of Epicurean thought, in particular of Lucretius. In one especially powerful speech, Aureng-Zebe reflects on man's capacity for self-deception:
When I consider Life, 'tis all a cheat;Yet, fool'd with hope, men favour the deceit;Trust on, and think to morrow will repay:To morrow's falser than the former day;Lies worse; and while it says, We shall be blestWith some new joys, cuts off what we possest.(IV.i.33–8)
It was his final, and finest, rhymed play, though in the ‘Dedication’ to the earl of Mulgrave he voiced a weariness with the form, and with the theatre itself: ‘I desire to be no longer theSisyphus of the Stage … I never thought my self very fit for an Employment, where many of my Predecessors have excell'd me in all kinds’, and he expressed a wish to ‘make the world some part of amends, for many ill Playes, by an Heroique Poem’ (Works, 12.154). But the epic never materialized, and the theatre still provided both an income and an artistic challenge. In All for Love, or, The World Well Lost (staged December 1677, printed 1678) he turned to blank verse, conscious that he was testing himself against an earlier master in this neoclassical treatment of the Antony and Cleopatra story. Clearer in design than Shakespeare's play, it concentrates more sharply on the final dilemma of Antony, torn between Rome, martial and marital duties, and masculine friendship on the one hand, and his love for Cleopatra on the other. The relationship has apparently already ended when the play opens, and much of the mood is retrospective and elegiac:
While within your arms I lay,The World fell mouldring from my hands each hour.(II.i.295–6)
It is unfairly criticized by comparison with Shakespeare's version, for in its own terms it is eminently eloquent, moving, and (as revivals repeatedly attest) dramatic.
Less edifying plays followed: a comedy called The Kind Keeper, or, Mr Limberham (premièred 11 March 1678) was stopped after three performances, apparently because its satire of contemporary sexual behaviour offended; it is possible that recognizable individuals were (or were thought to be) represented. Since the text was revised before its publication in 1679 (dated 1680) it is impossible to be certain what the problem was. It was followed by a turgid Oedipus, co-authored with Lee (staged autumn 1678, printed 1679), and a rewriting of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (staged and printed 1679), which made it into a more regular tragedy. Prefixed to Troilus and Cressida when it was printed was an important essay entitled ‘The grounds of criticism in tragedy’, which included critical reflections on Shakespeare's language.
It was on 18 December 1679 that hostility to Dryden took physical form when he was attacked and badly injured by thugs in Rose Alley, near Covent Garden. It was clearly an organized revenge, and was almost certainly prompted by the manuscript circulation of An Essay upon Satire, in which various prominent figures (including the king, his mistresses, Rochester, and Dorset) were crudely vilified. The poem was attributed by some contemporaries to Dryden, by others to Mulgrave; its authorship has never been convincingly established, though the stylistic banality of all but occasional lines makes an attribution to Dryden difficult to sustain; nor is it clear why a professional writer, and poet laureate, would risk his reputation and livelihood by outraging his patrons. If he did sharpen a few of Mulgrave's couplets, he soon found the blows returned with interest.
Though Troilus and Cressida was far from being Dryden's most important play, its publication in 1679 marked a turning point in his career, for it was the first of his works to be handled by the young bookseller Jacob Tonson. Previously most of Dryden's poems and plays had been issued by Herringman, but Tonson was ambitious to establish himself as the leading literary publisher, and the partnership which he forged with Dryden would take both their careers into new territory. Their relationship bore fruit in 1680 with the publication of Ovid's Epistles, a translation of the Heroides by several hands, to which Dryden contributed three epistles and an influential critical preface on the art of translation. This distinguished three modes of translation: metaphrase, or a word-for-word rendering, which may be literally faithful but loses the life of the original; imitation, in which the original provides only a template for a new poem, which often transplants the work into a modern setting; and a mid-way between these two extremes which Dryden himself thinks the most acceptable method, attending not only to the words but also to the distinctive voice and spirit of the original poet. Dryden and Tonson were to collaborate on the series of Miscellany Poems (1684 onwards), and on notable collected translations from the classics by various writers whom Dryden would often be instrumental in recruiting from among his Cambridge connections, and from young writers such as Addison, Congreve, Duke, and Garth, whose careers he aided.
Dryden's career—like so much else in English life—was profoundly affected by the Popish Plot (1678–9) and exclusion crisis (1680–83). The development of ad hoc or ad hominemfactions into political parties effected a polarization of the political landscape, and compelled men to declare allegiances. Though his comedy The Spanish Fryar (staged November 1680, printed 1681) was not overtly political, its anti-Catholic satire appealed to the times. Dryden's prologues and epilogues became more partisan as he engaged himself on the king's side and against the whigs. In June 1681 he published His Majesties Declaration Defended, while in November 1681 there appeared Absalom and Achitophel, now his most famous poem. It was timed to coincide with the trial of the earl of Shaftesbury on a charge of treason, with the aim of affecting public opinion. This satire casts contemporary politicians as biblical figures, and in particular represents Charles as the sensual but godlike and potentially merciful David, Shaftesbury as the scheming Achitophel, and Monmouth as the errant but not yet doomed Absalom; Titus Oates appears as the physically grotesque and manipulative Corah. The poem captivated contemporaries by its vivid characters, epigrammatic wit, and heady mixture of biblical, Miltonic, and classical language. Among the most memorable passages is the characterization of Zimri (the duke of Buckingham) as
A man so various, that he seem'd to beNot one, but all Mankinds Epitome.Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;Was every thing by starts, and nothing long:But, in the course of one revolving Moon,Was Chymist, Fidler, States-Man, and Buffoon.(ll. 545–50)
While sharing some features with the rough and scurrilous lampoons which were the common currency of the coffee houses, this poem has a nobility of imagination and precision of language which transcended its original milieu and left its stamp on later literature. Though published anonymously, its authorship was quickly known, and Dryden became the target of many rejoinders. A second part, written mainly by Tate but with a long passage by Dryden (notably on Shadwell and Settle) appeared a year later. In March 1682 the comparatively generous-spirited satire of Absalom and Achitophel was followed by The Medall, a more personal and vituperative satire on Shaftesbury, which took its title from the medal struck to celebrate Shaftesbury's acquittal. This too brought replies, including a vicious piece of character assassination called The Medal of John Bayes, perhaps penned by Shadwell. Nor was this the end of Dryden's polemical writing: The Duke of Guise, a play written jointly with Lee, was ready for performance in July 1682, but was banned by the lord chamberlain because its presentation of French history was too palpably a parallel with contemporary events, particularly in its reflections on Monmouth. By 28 November the tide had turned sufficiently in favour of the king's party for the play to be staged. It would be his last play for seven years.
In November 1682 there appeared a poem which must have surprised contemporaries, for it marked a distinct departure in Dryden's career. Though his plays had often shown an informed interest in religious and philosophical questions, in Religio laici Dryden produced a versified theological argument, a statement of a ‘layman's faith’ which presented a plea for rational Anglicanism against various positions which threatened this via media: against deism, with its over-reliance upon reason; against the wilder excesses of nonconformity, with its irrational enthusiasm and exaltation of the private spirit; and against Catholicism, with its subordination of the private judgement to the unwarranted authority of popes and councils.
Dim, as the borrow'd beams of Moon and StarsTo lonely, weary, wandring travellers,Is Reason to the Soul
the poem begins. Reason has to give way to supernatural revelation, and the private judgement to tradition and legitimate authority, for ‘Common quiet is Mankind's concern’ (l. 450). Carefully researched and lucidly argued, this poem made Dryden's claim to be a serious didactic poet, not just a journalist in verse, however witty.
It was in the early 1680s, after Ovid's Epistles, that Dryden's commitment to the art of translation became apparent. His office as historiographer royal was no empty title, for his interest in historiography was wide-ranging. His version of Maimbourg's History of the League (1684) no doubt developed in tandem with work on The Duke of Guise, and his ‘Life of Plutarch’ was prefixed to the first volume of Tonson's collaborative version of Plutarchs Lives (1683–6). More indicative of the centrality of translation to his later poetry and philosophy are his revision of The Art of Poetry (1683), Sir William Soame's translation of Boileau, his poem in praise of Roscommon's An Essay on Translated Verse (1684), and his memorial verses in John Oldham's Remains (1684), the last ranking among the finest elegies in the language. In these lines Dryden praises the vigour of Oldham's satire, excuses its roughness, and hails him as the Marcellus of English poetry, Augustus's designated heir snatched away by premature death. A wholly classical vision animates the poem's closing lines:
Once more, hail and farewel; farewel thou youngBut ah too short, Marcellus of our Tongue;Thy brows with Ivy, and with Laurels bound;But Fate and gloomy Night encompass thee around.(ll. 22–5)
Here Dryden showed that he was thinking profoundly about how a Restoration poet might use classical allusion, adaptation, and translation to create a new classical poetry in English. It was in these years that he turned over in his mind a scheme for an epic poem (on either King Arthur or the Black Prince) which would be an extended compliment to the Stuart line. Charles II encouraged him, short of actually providing the money which would enable the poem to be written. As Dryden recalled in 1692, ‘being encourag'd only with fair Words, by King Charles II, my little Sallary ill paid, and no prospect of a future Subsistance, I was then Discourag'd in the beginning of my Attempt’ (Works, 4.23). Instead, Dryden's epic ambitions, and his hard, often pained thinking about empire and its loss, would be realized in his translation of the Aeneid in 1697.
Meanwhile, other aspects of Roman literature caught his imagination, and the inaugural volume of the Dryden–Tonson Miscellany Poems (1684) included his translations from Virgil's Eclogues, to be followed in 1685 by substantial contributions to the second miscellany, Sylvae. These comprised selections from Virgil's Aeneid, including the poignant episode of the young friends Nisus and Euryalus, from Theocritus's Idylls, from Lucretius, and from Horace. Out of De rerum natura Dryden translated long passages on the disturbance caused to man's equanimity by the fear of death and the power of love, showing an imaginative engagement with Lucretius's Epicurean philosophy. From Horace he chose several odes urging self-possession in the face of Fortune, and Epode 2, which he rendered with an obvious relish for the country life which Horace praises. These are among his most eloquent works. A critical preface to the volume provided readers with a poetic and philosophical evaluation of these four writers, an example of the comparative criticism which increasingly featured in the prefatory essays to Dryden's translations.
Though he had abandoned the commercial theatre, Dryden had not ceased to be interested in new developments on the stage, and in 1684 he drafted an ambitious operatic project on the subject of King Arthur. Only its prologue was brought to fruition as the masque-like Albion and Albanius, performed before Charles II in late 1684, and revised after the king's death for public performance at the Dorset Garden Theatre on 3 June 1685 (printed the same year). The music by Louis Grabu was not well received, but this did not deter Dryden from collaborating subsequently with Henry Purcell.
When Sylvae was published in January 1685, a profound change was happening in Dryden's religious thinking. His serious reflections on mortality, and on the use of his time and talents, which in various ways animated ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ and the translations from Lucretius and Horace, show a poet engaged with spiritual matters at a more intimate level than the reasoned polemic exhibited in Religio laici. Although Dryden's conversion to Catholicism cannot be dated precisely, it was in or just before 1685; on 19 January 1686 John Evelyn noted sourly in his Diary that ‘Dryden the famous play-poet & his two sonns, & Mrs. Nelle [Gwyn] (Misse to the late … [King]) were said to go to Masse; & such purchases were no greate losse to the Church.’ Evelyn's language suggests that he thought there was something frivolous (‘play-poet’) and even mercenary (‘purchases’) about Dryden's attitude to religion, and many contemporaries agreed, penning satires which denounced him as a renegade and time-server. His master Charles II had died on 6 February 1685, converting (or acknowledging an earlier secret conversion) to Catholicism on his deathbed, and had been succeeded by his openly Catholic brother James. In his pindaric ode Threnodia Augustalis (1685), Dryden mourned the king who had brought the nation a good measure of peace and healing, and looked to his successor to add martial success to his brother's achievements. (Prophecy was not Dryden's forte.) The motives for Dryden's conversion are unclear; the move certainly appeared expedient politically, but only if he thought that the new reign would be long-lasting and that Catholicism would flourish under James. In fact, Dryden was one of many Catholics who thought that the new king's rapid (and sometimes illegal) promotion of Catholics to public office was rash and counter-productive. Moreover, if Dryden were really just a turncoat, he could have shifted political and religious allegiances again in 1689, whereas his adherence to Catholicism and the Jacobite cause was maintained at considerable cost and some risk.
Dryden had been buying religious and philosophical works (including Catholic theology and polemic) at book auctions in the early 1680s, and whatever the spiritual and emotional causes of his conversion, intellectual reasons certainly played their part. His own writing soon showed his new commitment: A Defence of the Papers (1686) argued for the authenticity of papers on Catholicism attributed to Charles II and to Anne Hyde, late duchess of York. A translation of Bouhours's life of St Francis Xavier (1688) extolled the Jesuit missionary. In June 1688, just months before the revolution, Dryden celebrated the birth of the new Catholic heir in Britannia rediviva, heralding a new period of Catholic and Stuart governance. His poetry seems now to have been rededicated to more moral and spiritual ends. In his memorial verses for the poet and painter Anne Killigrew (1685) he exclaimed:
O Gracious God! How far have weProphan'd thy Heav'nly Gift of Poesy?Made prostitute and profligate the Muse,Debas'd to each obscene and impious use,Whose Harmony was first ordain'd AboveFor Tongues of Angels, and for Hymns of Love?(ll. 56–61)
Eleonora (1692), meanwhile, is an extended eulogy of practical piety and charity.
But Dryden's major Catholic work was The Hind and the Panther (1687), an allegorical poem in which the spotless white Hind (representing the Church of Rome) engages the beautiful but dangerous Panther (the Church of England) in theological discussion about the nature of the true church, the authority of tradition, and the need for individual reason to subordinate itself to pope and councils, thus reversing the position adopted in Religio laici. Shared with the earlier poem, however, is a decided distrust of protestant sects, described here under the symbolism of wolves, bears, boars, and other animals. The poem shows strong imaginative and ratiocinative powers, and a clear grasp of contemporary apologetics on both sides, along with a gift for dialogue and a willingness to include theological and political criticism of Catholicism. One passage reveals a rarely seen visionary side to Dryden:
Thy throne is darkness in th' abyss of light,A blaze of glory that forbids the sight(pt 1, ll. 66–7)
and leads into autobiographical lines which present him as the repentant prodigal son:
My thoughtless youth was wing'd with vain desires,My manhood, long misled by wandering fires,Follow'd false lights; and when their glimps was gone,My pride struck out new sparkles of her own.(pt 1, ll. 72–5)
The scepticism of Dryden's earlier works has given way to an embrace of Rome as the longed-for ‘unerring Guide’ (pt 1, l. 65). But the essential incongruity of the allegory prompted the derision of many contemporaries, and the rapid change of political events stranded the poem on the wrong side of what would soon become a decisive ideological and historical watershed.
After the flight of James II from England in December 1688, and the accession of William and Mary in the following month, Dryden found himself in difficulty, and even in danger. As a Catholic convert he risked, at worst, prosecution for treason; at best, double taxation and restrictions on his movement. Unable to take the oath of allegiance to the new sovereigns, he lost his offices as poet laureate and historiographer royal. Gallingly, he was succeeded by Shadwell, whose whig credentials appealed to the new regime. Though the laureateship had never brought in a steady income under Charles, James was a more regular paymaster, and the loss of this support brought severe financial problems for Dryden. His solution was to return to the theatre, for which he had last written in 1682. His first new play was the tragedy Don Sebastian (staged 4 December 1689, printed 1690), a powerful drama whose themes of friendship, loyalty, true kingship, and love thwarted by destiny carried contemporary resonances. Dryden was treading carefully, not concealing his opinions and principles, but working primarily through indirections and implications. In dedicating the printed play to the earl of Leicester, he reflected on how the truly happy man is he ‘who centring on himself, remains immovable, and smiles at the madness of the dance about him’ (Works, 15.60); but in associating himself in the same pages with Cicero, whose head and hands were nailed to the rostrum after a Roman revolution, he shows how difficult such equanimity was in the circumstances which now prevailed.
More outspoken was the prologue which Dryden provided in May 1689 for a revival of Beaumont and Fletcher's The Prophetess, which glanced sarcastically at William III's expedition to Ireland, and was immediately suppressed. It circulated widely in manuscript, however. Less controversial was his second play under the new order, the comedyAmphitryon (staged and printed October 1690). Then Dryden turned to refurbishing old material: King Arthur (staged May or June 1691, and immediately printed) had its origins in the end of Charles II's reign in the project which produced Albion and Albanius. Now he presented it as an opera with music by Purcell. The two men had a strong mutual regard: Purcell supplied music for revivals of several plays by Dryden, including The Indian Queen, and Dryden drafted a preface for Purcell when his music for The Prophetess was printed in 1691. When Purcell died in 1695 Dryden published an eloquent memorial ode. Dryden's interest in music is evident not only in his accomplished songs, but also in his two contributions to the St Cecilia's day festival, A Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687 and Alexander's Feast, or, The Power of Musique (1697), the latter being perhaps his single most admired poem through the eighteenth century.
In the 1690s Dryden's health was often indifferent (though he still enjoyed visits to his relatives in Northamptonshire) and he had to enlist the help of Thomas Southerne to complete his play Cleomenes (staged April 1692, printed the following month). The association with Southerne was one of several professional friendships through which Dryden encouraged the work of younger writers. For Southerne he supplied commendatory verses to The Wives' Excuse (1692), while Southerne complimented Dryden in verses prefixed to Congreve'sThe Double Dealer (1693, dated 1694). Dryden also contributed a poem to the same volume, in which he hailed Congreve as his successor, and in the ‘Dedication’ to Examen poeticum(1693) he specially commended Congreve's abilities as a translator of Homer. Congreve would act as an honest broker between Dryden and Tonson in negotiating the contract for the translation of Virgil, and would check Dryden's work on the Aeneid against the Latin. Other friendships marked in verse letters were those with Sir George Etherege and Sir Godfrey Kneller. Kneller would paint two portraits of Dryden (now in the National Portrait Gallery and Trinity College, Cambridge), and Dryden's own interest in the visual arts is clear not only in the images from painting and architecture in his poetry, but also in his translation of Du Fresnoy's De arte graphica (1695). Presiding at Will's Coffee House, Dryden was the dominant figure in the London world of arts and letters.
If the drama was one means of continuing his career, translation was the other, and here the collaboration with Tonson bore fruit in remarkable ways. The two earlier volumes of miscellanies were followed by a third, Examen poeticum, to which Dryden contributed translations from Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's Iliad, and a preface which includes some outspoken (if generalized) comments on the corruption of governments. But important as these translations were in their own right, they were overshadowed by the more systematic projects which the two men also had in hand. In October 1692 Tonson published The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis … [and] Aulus Persius Flaccus (dated 1693), which assembled a complete translation of Juvenal's satires by various hands (numbers 1, 3, 6, 10, and 16 being by Dryden himself, 7 by his son Charles, and 14 by his son John), a complete translation of Persius by Dryden alone, and a substantial preface, the ‘Discourse concerning the original and progress of satire’, in which Dryden presented a history of the genre, a critique of its principal Latin practitioners, and reflections on its modern use. While these were translations rather than imitations, and generally preserved the original Roman allusions, there are a number of turns of phrase which reflect satirically on William III. Doubtless both the tragic pessimism of Juvenal's tenth satire, and Persius's Stoicism in the face of Neronian terror, had a contemporary resonance for him. No reader of Juvenal's third satire could avoid hearing the translator's voice in these lines:
Since Noble Arts in Rome have no support,And ragged Virtue not a friend at Court,No Profit rises from th' ungrateful Stage,My Poverty encreasing with my Age,'Tis time to give my just Disdain a vent,And, Cursing, leave so base a Government.(ll. 39–44)
The tragi-comedy Love Triumphant (staged January 1694, published March) was Dryden's final work for the stage: on 15 June that year he signed a contract with Tonson to translate the whole of the works of Virgil, and the task was to occupy him for more than three years. The Works of Virgil (1697) was in many respects a remarkable undertaking, especially for a man in indifferent health, conscious of his advancing age: he was reported to be suffering from brain cancer as he worked on it. Artistically, and in its sheer length, it was an extraordinary challenge, but it provided Dryden with much attractive material, even if he eventually came to think Homer more congenial. The Georgics, with their technical discussions of agriculture and their vision of the rural cycle, appealed to Dryden the countryman: the precision of his vocabulary here, and the imaginative empathy which he brings to the farmer's life, are much underrated. And the Aeneid taxed him with its range of heroic incident, strong emotion, and vivid visual imagination. Though often raiding his predecessors for happy turns of phrase or useful interpretations, Dryden's translation is a masterpiece which rarely flags, and often rises to heights of eloquence and tragic reflection. Into this text Dryden poured his feelings about exile, the loss of empire and the cost of creating it anew, the wasting of young talent, and dreams of restoration, without making his translation simply a Jacobite allegory. Commercially, too, it was a bold venture, for Tonson developed the arrangement which he had pioneered successfully with his 1688 Paradise Lost, and published the work by subscription. Patrons who subscribed 5 guineas had their titles and arms engraved on one of the 101 plates reused from Ogilby's Virgil, while the 2 guinea subscribers were listed in the preliminaries. Though Dryden resisted Tonson's plan to dedicate the work to William III, it was truly a cross-section of the nation which lent its support, for the list reveals backing from people of various political persuasions, professions, and social classes. Some gave support in kind, by lending him books and providing hospitality in quiet country houses where he could write undisturbed. The work was widely regarded (and not only in England) as a great cultural achievement; soon Dryden was making corrections for a second edition in 1698.
The financial arrangements for the Virgil were not without their problems, for neither Dryden nor Tonson thought that the other was delivering exactly what they had agreed. Feathers were ruffled on both sides. But the bond between poet and publisher survived: Dryden translated book 1 of the Annals for Tonson's collaborative Tacitus (1698); on 20 March 1699 he signed a contract for what would be his final work, the Fables Ancient and Modern; and in October he was seeking patronage for a complete translation of Homer. Dis aliter visum: Dryden's health was failing, and only the first book of the Iliad was completed, to be included in the Fables in 1700. This collection (prefaced with another example of Dryden's brilliant comparative criticism) assembled versions of Homer, Chaucer, Ovid, and Boccaccio, demonstrating his mastery of diverse voices and tones, his narrative and argumentative skills, his philosophical vision and psychological insight. The Homeric translation catches the brutality of war and rapacious rulers; Ovid and Boccaccio provide opportunities to explore the mind under the stress of passion; while the poems from Chaucer show a gift for gentler ironies. In ‘Of the Pythagorean philosophy’ (from Ovid'sMetamorphoses 15) Dryden brings a precise and vivid imagination to this exploration of change in the natural world, and in Theseus's speech at the end of ‘Palamon and Arcite’ (from Chaucer's ‘The Knight's Tale’) he interpolates a vision of man's place in a troubled but divinely ordered universe:
Parts of the Whole are we; but God the Whole;Who gives us Life, and animating Soul.For Nature cannot from a Part deriveThat Being, which the Whole can only give:He perfect, stable; but imperfect We,Subject to Change, and diff'rent in Degree …What then remains, but after past Annoy,To take the good Vicissitude of Joy?To thank the gracious Gods for what they give,Possess our Souls, and while we live, to live?(pt 3, ll. 1042–7, 1111–14)
Dryden lived long enough to see the Fables praised by the town, but died of gangrene on 1 May 1700 (apparently intestate), and was buried the following day in St Anne's Church, Soho. Belatedly, friends and patrons rallied to arrange a more appropriate funeral, for on 13 May he was reburied in Chaucer's grave in Westminster Abbey. There were a few posthumous publications: A ‘Secular Masque’ for The Pilgrim (adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher, 1700), and contributions to more of Tonson's classical translations: Ovid's Art of Love (1709), The Works of Lucian (1711), and Ovid's Metamorphoses (1717). Two volumes of memorial verses, Luctus Britannici and The Nine Muses (both 1700), attested to his standing, and it is notable that the latter volume was entirely by women admirers.
Dryden's œuvre was extraordinarily wide-ranging and varied: only the personal lyric voice was one which he eschewed. His greatest success lay in two areas. The one was topical satire, for Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel effected a metamorphosis of contemporary characters into new guises from which, in the collective memory, they never wholly escaped. The other was the art of translation, to which he came rather late in life. Though he is capable of many tones, and delighted in finding modern voices for originals as diverse as Homer and Chaucer, there is a recurring philosophical thread in these translations, for it was in this medium that Dryden asked his most profound questions—about men and gods, about desire and honour, about fortune, and the mutability of life. He had a conspicuous talent for dialogue, often casting his arguments in the form of debates, whether on critical matters in the essay Of Dramatick Poesie, or theological ones in The Hind and the Panther. But, paradoxically, he was not a great dramatist, though he wrote some great scenes and some good plays. As a critic he pioneered comparative criticism, and a civilized, conversational prose style, reforming the syntax of our prose at the same time as he was perfecting the rhyming couplet as the dominant form for English verse, fashioning it into an instrument for argument, giving it a rhythmical variety and tonal range which no one has matched.
After his early service of the protectorate, Dryden was a loyal supporter of the Stuarts, and a believer in the divine right of kings; but he was too intelligent not to see the comic disparity between man and office, and a sense of the absurdity of rulers runs through his work from Tyrannick Love to ‘The first book of Homer's Ilias’. A thoughtful if not a zealous Christian, he was widely read, appreciated the theological complexities and contradictions of his age, and recognized the strength of the alternatives to his own position; indeed, in his translations of Lucretius and Ovid he suspends his own beliefs sufficiently to present his readers with a faithfully imaginative version of classical philosophies. Like his mentor Montaigne, he was both sincere in his convictions, and aware of the fragility of human reason and selfhood: ‘As I am a Man, I must be changeable … An ill dream, or a Cloudy day, has power to change this wretched Creature, who is so proud of a reasonable Soul, and make him think what he thought not yesterday’ (Works, 12.157). Eventually he grounded his beliefs on the rock of Rome. Loyal in friendship, eager to promote young talent, slow to rise to continual vilification from lesser men, but capable of annihilating satire when roused, he attracted the admiration of spirits such as Congreve, who wrote a shrewd and affectionate memoir of him in 1717:
He was of a Nature exceedingly Humane and Compassionate; easily forgiving Injuries, and capable of a prompt and sincere reconciliation with them who offended him … His Friendship, where he profess'd it, went much beyond his Professions; and I have been told of strong and generous Instances of it, by the persons themselves who received them; Tho' his Hereditary Income was little more than a bare Competency. As his reading was very extensive, so was he very happy in a Memory tenacious of every thing that he had read. He was not more possess'd of Knowledge than he was Communicative of it … He was of very easy, I may say of very pleasing Access: But something slow, and as it were diffident in his Advances to others. He had something in his Nature that abhorr'd Intrusion into any Society whatsoever … one of the most Modest, and the most Easily to be discountenanc'd, in his Approaches, either to his Superiors, or his Equals … His Parts did not decline with his Years: But … he was an improving Writer to his last, even to near seventy Years of Age; improving even in Fire and Imagination, as well as in Judgement. (Kinsley and Kinsley, 264–5)
With some exceptions, Dryden's plays soon faded from the stage, but his poetry and criticism remained influential. His satirical poetry, his odes, and his translations were widely read, admired, and imitated in the eighteenth century, and his influence on Pope was profound and extensive. The first scholarly work on Dryden was Edmond Malone's biography and edition of the prose works (1800). The Romantic poets, especially Coleridge, Keats, and Byron, held him in high esteem, and Sir Walter Scott's magisterial edition of Dryden's works (1808), with a judicious life and learned historical notes, re-established Dryden for the nineteenth-century public: Tennyson and Hopkins read him attentively. After T. S. Eliot's lukewarm (and perhaps damaging) advocacy, Dryden's standing declined in the twentieth century, since he was regarded principally as a conservative satirist circumscribed by his own historical period, uncongenial to modern critical and political fashions. But recent scholarship has revalued the thoughtfulness and imagination of his political and religious poetry, while the wit and philosophy of his translations are once more being enjoyed.
Paul Hammond DNB