John Dryden was born, probably in 1631, in the parish of Aldwincle-Allsaints, in Northamptonshire. His father possessed a small estate, acted as a justice of the peace during the usurpation, and seems to have been a Presbyterian. John, at a proper age, was sent to Westminster school, of which Busby was then master; and was thence elected to a scholarship in Trinity College, Cambridge. He took his degrees of bachelor and master of arts in the university; but though he had written two short copies of verses about the time of his admission, his name does not occur among the academical poets of this period. By his father's death, in 1654, he succeeded to the estate, and, removing to the metropolis, he made his entrance into public life, under the auspices of his kinsman, Sir Gilbert Pickering, one of Cromwell's council and house of lords, and staunch to the principles then predominant. On the death of Cromwell, Dryden wrote some Heroic Stanzas, strongly marked by the loftiness of expression and variety of imagery which characterised his more mature efforts. They were, however, criticised with some severity.
At the Restoration, Dryden lost no time in obliterating former stains; and, as far as it was possible, rendered himself peculiarly distinguished for the base servility of his strains. He greeted the king's return by a poem, entitled Astrera Redux, which was followed by A Panegyric on the Coronation: nor did Lord Chancellor Clarendon escape his encomiastic lines. His marriage with Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire, is supposed to have taken place in 1665. About this time he first appears as a writer for the stage, in which quality he composed several pieces; and though he did not display himself as a prime favourite of the dramatic muse, his facility of harmonious versification, and his splendour of poetic diction, gained him admirers. In 1667 he published a singular poem, entitled Annus Mirabilis, the subjects of which were, the naval war with the Dutch, and the fire of London. It was written in four-line stanzas, a form which has since gone into disuse in heroic subjects; but the piece abounded in images of genuine poetry, though intermixed with many extravagances.
At this period of his life Dryden became professionally a writer for the stage, having entered into a contract with the patentees of the King's Theatre, to supply them with three plays in a year, upon the condition of being allowed the profit of one share and a quarter out of twelve shares and three quarters, into which the theatrical stock was divided. Of the plays written upon the above contract, a small proportion have kept their place on the stage, or in the closet. On the death of Sir W. Davenant, in 1668, Dryden obtained the post of poet-laureat, to which was added the sinecure place of historiographer royal; the joint salaries of which amounted to £200.
The tragedies composed by Dryden were written in his earlier periods, in rhyme, which circumstance probably contributed to the poetical rant by which they were too much characterised. For the correction of this fault, Villiers, Duke of Buckingham in conjunction with other wits, wrote the celebrated burlesque drama, entitled The Rehearsal, of which Dryden, under the name of Bayes, was made the hero; and, in order to point the ridicule, his dress, phraseology, and mode of recitation, we exactly imitated by the actor. It does not, however, appear that his solid reputation as a poet was injured by this attack. He had the candour to acknowledge that several of the strokes were just, and he wisely refrained from making any direct reply.
In 1681, and, as it is asserted, at the king's press desire, he wrote his famous political poem entitled Absolom and Achitophel; in which the incidents in the life of David were adapted to those of Charles II. in relation to the Duke Monmouth and the Earl of Shaftesbury. Its poetry and its severity caused it to be read with great eagerness; and as it raised the author to high favour with the court party, so it involved him in reconcilable enmity with its opponents. The feelings were rendered more acute by his Medal, a Satire on Sedition, written in the same year, occasion of a medal struck by the whigs, when grand jury returned Ignoramus to an indictment preferred against Lord Shaftesbury, for high treason. The rancour of this piece is not easily to paralleled among party poems. In 1682, he published Mac-Flecknoe, a short piece, throwing ridicule upon his very unequal rival, Shadwell. In the same year, one of his most serious poems, the Religio Laici, made its appearance. Its purpose was to give a compendious view of the arguments for revealed religion, and to ascertain in what the authority of revelation essentially consists.
Soon after this time he ceased to write for stage. His dramatic vein was probably exhausted, and his circumstances were distressed. To this period Mr. Malone refers a letter written by him to Hyde, Earl of Rochester, in which, with modest dignity, he pleads merit enough not to deserve to starve, and requests some small employment in the customs or excise, or, at least, the payment of a year's pension for the supply of his present necessities. He never obtained any of the requested places, and was doomed to find the booksellers his best patrons.
Charles II. died in 1685, and was succeeded by his brother James II., who openly declared his attachment to the religion of Rome. It was not long before Dryden conformed to the same religion. This step has been the cause of much obloquy on one side, and has found much excuse on the other; but if it be considered, from a view of his past life, that, in changing his religious profession, he could have had little difficulty to encounter, it will appear no breach of candour to suppose that his immediate motive was nothing more than personal interest. The reward he obtained from his compliance was an addition to his pension of £100 per annum. Some time after he was engaged in a work which was the longest single piece he ever composed. This was his elaborate controversial poem of The Hind and Panther. When completed, notwithstanding its unpromising subject, and signal absurdity of plan, such was the power of Dryden's verse, that it was read with avidity, and bore every mark of occupying the public attention. The birth of a prince called forth a congratulatory poem from Dryden, entitled Britannia Rediviva, in which he ventured to use a poet's privilege of prophesy, foretelling a commencing era of prosperity to the nation and the church from this auspicious event; but in vain for the revolution took place within a few months, and the hopes of the party were blasted forever.
Dryden was a severe sufferer from the change: his posts and pensions were taken away, and the poetical laurel was conferred upon his insignificant rival, Shadwell. He was new, in advanced life, to depend upon his own exertions for a security from absolute indigence. His faculties were equal to the emergency; and it will surprise some theorists to be told, that the ten concluding years of his life, in which he wrote for bread, and composed at a certain rate per line, were those of many of the pieces which have most contributed to immortalise his name. They were those of his translation of Juvenal and Persius; of that of Virgil entire, a work which enriches, the English language, and has greatly promoted the author's fame; of his celebrated Alexander's Feast; and of his Fables, containing some of the richest and most truly poetical pieces which he ever composed. Of these, several will appear in the subsequent collection of his works.
Nor ought his prose writings to be neglected, which, chiefly consisting of time critical essays prefixed to his poems, are performances of extraordinary vigour and comprehension of mind, and afford, perhaps, the best specimens of genuine English.
Dryden died of a spreading inflammation in one of his toes, on the first of May, 1700, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to the tomb of Chaucer. No monument marked his grave, till a plain one, with his bust, was erected, at the expence of Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. He left behind him three sons, all brought up to letters. His own character was cold and reserved, backward in personal advances to the great, and rather heavy in conversation. In fact, he was too much engaged in literature to devote much of his time to society. Few writers of his time delighted to much to approach the verge of prophaneness; whence it may be inferred, that though religion was an interesting topic of discussion to him, he had very little of its spirit in his heart.