John Dryden (1631-1700) is one of England’s great literary figures. He ranks on a par with Chaucer, Spenser and Milton. As poet laureate and historiographer royal during the reigns of Charles II and James II, he published works in a variety of modes: heroic drama, tragedy, comedy, satire, historical poetry, religious poetry, elegy, song, literary criticism, and translation. In heroic drama, literary criticism and some other forms, he was a groundbreaker. His works, which fill twenty volumes in the modern California edition, are especially characterized by the bond he forges between history and poetry. As a public poet who interprets contemporary history from an Olympian perspective, Dryden has never been surpassed. History for him is a kind of cipher to be interpreted by parallels between heroes and rebels from across the ages, in order to demonstrate the causes of the rise and fall of kingdoms.
Dryden was the eldest of fourteen children of Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering, both of landowning families in Northamptonshire. In the Civil War, his family sided with Parliament, but he was busy learning Latin and Greek as a King’s Scholar at Westminster under the classicist Dr Richard Busby. He went on to Trinity College Cambridge in 1650, left with a B. A. in 1654, and at the king’s request was given an honorary M. A. in 1668. In the mid-1650s when his father died, he inherited a small estate, and in 1663 he married Elizabeth Howard, daughter to the impecunious earl of Berkshire.
After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Dryden’s poetic gifts flourished. His early pieces, Annus Mirabilis (1667), The Indian Emperour (1667) and An Essay of Dramatick Poesy (1668), were so masterful he was made poet laureate in 1668 and historiographer royal in 1670, eminent offices he retained until the 1688 revolution. However, Dryden seldom went to court, but instead held court himself among contemporary writers, befriending and encouraging younger poets and dramatists, such as Congreve.
In The Indian Emperour, the first heroic play written all in rhymed couplets, Dryden sounds his great theme for the next three decades – toleration. The play opens with Montezuma having sacrificed 500 slaves to his gods and concludes with a priest racking Montezuma to make him convert to Catholicism. At the end Montezuma pleads for toleration on the ground that there must be “One equal way to bliss” and “all must know enough for happiness” (Act 5:2). Dryden repeats this point fifteen years later, suggesting that Pagans could be saved if they “lifted high their Natural Light” because “Providence” might apply the merits of Christ’s Redemption retroactively to good Pagans as well as to American Indians who had never heard of Christ. He also argues that an uneducated Christian who takes the Bible as his guide, so long as he does not enter into controversies, can trudge to heaven without ever losing his way (Religio Laici, 186-211, 322). These are pleas for toleration of dissent in religion, and one should note that Dryden is evenhanded in his plays: there are good and bad Pagans, Muslims and Christians.
In the next heroic play Tyrannic Love (1670), Emperor Maximin, an atheist, uses the established religion to persecute the Christian minority, and one of his subjects makes a memorable plea for toleration:
If for religion you our lives will take,
You do not the offenders find, but make.
All faiths are to their own believers just;
For none believe, because they will, but must (Act 4:1).
The style displayed here is typical of Dryden: two pithy thoughts, finely expressed and each tightly held in its own heroic couplet. Political argument in English has rarely been so deft and eloquent.
In Conquest of Granada (1672), perhaps the greatest heroic play, Dryden shows the Zegrys (a puritan faction among the Muslims) as intolerant of the Abencerrages because “Their mongrel race is mixed with Christian breed; / Hence 'tis that they those dogs in prison feed” (Act 1:1). When the Zegrys bring down Granada by their treason, Dryden suggests that intolerance comes from a party-spirit that is dangerous to the State and it not truly religious.
In Aureng-Zebe, his last heroic play, a virtuous prince is forced to retire early from public life, as was the case for James Duke of York, obliged by the Test Act of 1673 to resign his public offices. Also in 1673, in the dedication of Amboyna to Baron Clifford, a Catholic obliged to resign as Lord Treasurer, Dryden complains that the intolerant religious Test for office excludes men of “virtue” from public life. He will make the same point in 1687, when he says that the “unfaithfull Test” is a touchstone that rejects “the gold” but lets pass the “dross” and the “brass” to serve in public office (The Hind and the Panther, 3:739-41). Thus, as early as 1673, Dryden had cast his lot with the anti-Test party, and so he was already opposed to Shaftesbury and the proto-Whigs who had brought in the Test. By being anti-Test, Dryden showed that he desired not just the right for dissenters to worship freely, but also the right for them to serve in public office and in the army after taking a civil oath of allegiance. This would come to pass only in 1827.
Most of Dryden’s masterpieces were written in the 1680s after the Titus Oates Plot had driven the nation into hysteria against the Catholic minority, with the result that thousands were imprisoned and a number, including Dryden’s cousin Lord Howard, were executed. From the start Dryden ridiculed the Plot (fomented by the radical Whigs) with all the civilized disdain he was capable of in The Spanish Fryar (1680), Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and The Medall (1682). He ridiculed the Test, too, as part of the same intolerance that had led to the Oates Plot: “The common Cry is ev’n Religion’s Test,” which means “our own Worship [is] only true at home” and just “for the time” (Medall, 103-7).
Once he started writing against the radical Whigs and their religious Test for employment, Dryden became the butt of more personal attacks than any English poet before him. These attacks were both in word and deed, for an ambush in Rose Alley nearly killed him. In 1682, while still a Protestant, he was threatened with beatings for defending “Popish knaves” and attacking his superiors in status, such as Lords Shaftesbury and Buckingham (Thomas Shadwell, The Medal of John Bayes, 1682). After his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1686, Dryden wrote The Hind and the Panther, in which he spent more than half of the 2500 lines attacking the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, using all the arguments against them that had been published by Anglicans, Dissenters and Catholics. Again he showed his love of toleration:
Of all the tyrannies on humane kind
The worst is that which persecutes the mind.
Let us but weigh at what offence we strike,
’Tis but because we cannot think alike (The Hind and the Panther, 1:239-42).
He scolded his countrymen for their intolerance in regarding all their medieval ancestors as “Drown’d in th’Abyss of deep Idolatry” for eight centuries and condemned to Hell despite Christ’s promises to his Church (The Hind and the Panther, 2:630-8).
After the poet’s conversion, the satires against him redoubled in number. He was called insincere in religion and politics, though he remained faithful to his outlawed monarch and religion after 1688 until his death in 1700, despite the hardships entailed. His sons went abroad, one to become a priest and the other two to serve the Pope for a time. It was not to his advantage that the poet dedicated his works in the 1690s to those who were, at the time, opposed to the Williamite government, such as the Marquis of Halifax, under suspicion for misprision of treason when Dryden dedicated to him in 1691. Moreover, he composed works that plainly served the Jacobite cause, such as Don Sebastian (1690), Cleomenes (1692) and Love Triumphant (1693), and that echoed the Jacobite pamphlets illegally published during those same years.
Thus, Dryden remained a public poet to the end, though now in the Jacobite opposition. His stature as a poet was never brought into question. William of Orange offered him his poet laureateship if he would only take the oaths, but Dryden could not comply: “I can never go an Inch beyond my Conscience & my Honour,” he said, and again, “I can neither take the Oaths, nor forsake my religion. ” In his last decade when he was in his own words “struggling with wants, oppressed by sickness,” he gave the world his great translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (1694-7) into rhymed couplets, a work which the English public welcomed with enthusiasm (it had a second edition in six months). Even so, he was still subject to virulent printed attacks, now for the supposed immorality of his comedies.
After Dryden’s death, there was a subscription for a public funeral, and so he was buried in Westminster Abbey between Chaucer and Cowley, attended by a hundred coaches of nobility and gentry. Sir Walter Scott remarks that at the death of a great poet “in narrow and neglected circumstances” there will usually be a sudden show like this of public regret. Even so, Dryden had so many enemies that some even turned his funeral into a jest.
Contemporary Critical Reception
Vitriolic attacks on Dryden have caused his reputation to suffer to this very day. He foresaw it, for he makes the Hind (the Catholic Church in England) tell her convert: “And what thou didst, and do’st so dearly prize, / That fame, that darling fame, make that thy sacrifice” (The Hind and the Panther, 3:289-90). Still, it was hard for Dryden to endure all the attacks on his moral character. These attacks were not of a sexual nature, for during his thirty years as a dramatist, he was suspected only of having a brief affair with one actress. Dryden lamented that a reputation for integrity was the “only sort of reputation, which ought to be dear to every honest man, and is to me. ” He feared for the success of his Virgil because his judges were “already prejudiced against me by the lying character which has been given them of my morals.”
In these ongoing attacks, Dryden has always been portrayed as insincere, irreligious, and royalist to the extreme. This is simply not the case. Dryden is subtle and indirect in his style, but not insincere, and his royalism is tempered by a great love of English liberty. His strategy is to present fairly all sides of the great issues of his day, offering his readers dialogues and debates which allow them to hear opposing arguments of great brilliance. On the surface he leaves the choice up to them, but underneath he gives them a nudge in the direction he thinks best, as in Tyrannic Love, where Maximin makes as strong a rhetorical argument for atheism as St. Catherine for Christianity, but the Saint is vindicated in that she not only converts a bevy of philosophers and but is defended in the play by an angel, who performs a miracle by breaking the wheel on which she is to be tortured. In 1670 there was no other Protestant playwright who dared to celebrate a virgin-martyr in this mode. Dryden gives a similar nudge at the end of Threnodia Augustalis (1685), an elegy on the death of Charles II, where he depicts Providence opening the Book of history for the English, a page “of strong contingency; / Such as consists with wills, Originally free. ” Then he invites the English to choose James II freely and the prosperous, peaceful reign that he surely brings.
Dryden desires a constitutional, but not an absolute ruler. He laments that under Cromwell, the “free-born Subject” sank into “a Slave” (Medall, 130), while he rejoices that under Charles II “Freedom an English Subject’s sole Prerogative” was kept alive (Threnodia Augustalis, 301). He approves of the Habeas Corpus Act, though it was brought in by the king’s enemy Shaftesbury in his own defense, and he gives hearty support to James II for suspending the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 and thereby making all his Dissenting subjects “English-Men again” (Britannia Rediviva, 41). The latter is the very same reason that the Quaker William Penn gave for supporting King James.
If Dryden opposed the party of Shaftesbury and the later Whigs from 1673 to 1700, it was that he believed they were intolerant, irreligious, and treasonous. At the same time that they were raising a persecution of Catholics, they were touching with unhallowed hands the “Ark” of native English government, casting the ancient “Frame” of it “anew,” and presuming to act in the place of the God of history, or Divine Providence. Claiming to defend the Protestant religion, they were creating a new government out of their imagination, a work of their hands, and worshiping it as “that Golden Calf, a State. ” To accomplish their republican goal, they needed a revolution, needed to overthrow the constitutional and hereditary monarchy which, in Dryden’s view, was the best protection England had against an “unbounded arbitrary Lord” like Cromwell (Absalom, 63-66, 762). The poet feared that the Whig revolution, fanned by winds of intolerance, would bring just such a new militaristic tyrant to rule over England, a “Potent Bird of Prey” who would be the “Captain of the Test” (The Hind and the Panther 3:1114, 1192).
Citation: Anne, Barbeau Gardiner. "John Dryden". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 January 2007 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1320, accessed 08 February 2023.]