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JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700)

This article was originally published in European Theories of the Drama. Barrett H. Clark. Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1918.

JOHN DRYDEN was born at Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, in 1631. He came of a Puritan family, which had been for years very active in the political world. Dryden was sent to school at Westminster. He published some verses at the age of eighteen. In 1650 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and took a degree of B.A. four years later, but it is probable that he spent also the next three years at Cambridge. He went to London in 1657. His first important literary effort, Heroic Stanzas to the memory of Cromwell, was published in 1659. This was followed the next year by verses on the return of Charles. In order to add to his slender income, he turned to the stage, and after two unsuccessful attempts he produced his first play, The Wild Gallant, in 1663. This comedy was not well received, and Dryden confesses that his forte was not comedy. The same year he produced The Rival Ladies, and married Lady Elizabeth Howard. The Indian Queen (1664), written in collaboration with Sir Robert Howard, his wife's brother, enjoyed considerable success. Dryden followed this with The Indian Emperor (1665). During the Plague Dryden lived with his father-in-law in Wiltshire, where he wrote his Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668). Howard's preface to his Four New Playes (1665) called forth a reply from Dryden: A Defence of an Essay of Dramatique Poesie (1668). From the re-opening of the theaters in 1666, to 1681, Dryden wrote little except his plays. The production of Buckingham's satirical play The Rehearsal in 1671, in which Dryden was the chief personage, called forth the preface Of Heroic Plays and Defence of the Epilogue (1672). All for Love, in all probability the poet's greatest play, was performed in 1678. He continued to produce plays to the end of his career. In 1681 he turned to satire and wrote Absalom and Achitophel, which achieved instant and widespread popularity. This was followed by other satires. In 1687, after his conversion to the Catholic Church, he wrote The Hind and the Panther, a plea for Catholicism. His Catholic leanings lost for him the laureateship and other offices when the Revolution came. During his last ten years he translated many of the Latin classics: Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius, Horace, Theocritus, and others, and modernized Chaucer. He died in 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Dryden's contribution to English literature, besides his poems and plays, was the invention of a direct and simple style for literary criticism. He improved upon the prose of the Elizabethan writers in the matter of ridding English of its involved forms, even if through that process he lost some of its gorgeous ornament and rugged strength. Jonson's method in criticism was after all not much more than the note-book method of jotting down stray thoughts and opinions and reactions. Dryden elaborated his ideas, sought the weight of authority, argued both sides of the question, and adduced proofs. Dryden performed an inestimable service to his countrymen in applying true standards of criticism to the Elizabethans and in showing them a genuine and sympathetic if occasionally misguided love for Shakespeare. Dryden also enjoyed the advantage of being able to bring his knowledge of the drama of Spain and France to bear on his criticism of English dramatists.