1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 115.



One of the most celebrated of English poets, Dryden (1631-1700) was born in Northamptonshire, of Puritan parents. He received his school education at Westminster, under Dr. Busby, of birchen memory; his college education, at Cambridge. When Cromwell died, he wrote laudatory stanzas to his memory; but this did not prevent his greeting Charles II., at his restoration, with a salutatory poem, entitled Astrea Redux. Dryden's veerings in religion, politics, criticism, and taste exhibit a mind under the dominion of impulse. His marriage, which took place in 1665, was not a happy one, though he seems to have been warmly susceptible of domestic affection. In 1668 he succeeded Sir William Davenant at poet-laureate. For many years he had supported himself by writing for the stage. He wrote some twenty-eight plays. His tragedies are stilted and ineffective; while his comedies are execrably impure and licentious, and to be palliated even by the laxity of that corrupt and shameless age. He lacked some of the greatest elements of poetic genius, and in moral earnestness was sadly deficient. His Annus Mirabilis is a poem on the great fire. His Absolom and Achitophel is regarded as one of the most powerful of modern satires. His Religio Laici exhibits the poet convulsed with religious doubts.

After the death of Charles II. Dryden became a Roman Catholic, had his children brought up in that faith, and lived and died in it. Macaulay calls him an "illustrious renegade." Scott takes a less uncharitable view of his motives. When William and Mary ascended the throne Dryden lost his laureateship, and thenceforth became a bookseller's hack. For translating Virgil into English verse he received 1200; for his Fables, about 250. After a life of literary toil, productive of many splendid works, but dishonoured by some which it were well for his memory if they could be annihilated, Dryden let fall his pen. He died at sixty-eight, and his body was buried in Westminster Abbey. In terms of extreme exaggeration, Johnson says of him that "he found the English language brick, and left it marble."

Dryden was sixty-six years old when he wrote his Alexander's Feast, one of the finest lyrics in all literature. "I am glad," he wrote to his publisher, "to hear from all hands that my Ode is esteemed the best of all my poetry by all the town. I thought so myself when I writ it; but being old, I mistrusted my own judgment." Let it be added in Dryden's behalf that he had the grace to submit with meekness to Collier's severe criticism of the moral defects of his plays. Undoubtedly, the recollection of them caused him many bitter regrets. His prose style is excellent. "In his satire," says Scott, "his arrow is always drawn to the head, and flies directly and mercilessly to its object."