Dryden was educated at Westminster school, and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He first exhibited his poetical powers in an eulogium on Oliver Cromwell; and this was followed, in 1660, by a poem "On the happy restoration and return of his sacred majesty Charles II." In 1665 he married the daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. At this period he became a writer for the stage, and in 1668 was appointed Poet Laureat and Historiographer Royal, with a joint salary of 200 pounds.
Shortly after the accession of James II. to the throne in 1665 Dryden abjured his previous religion, and became a Roman Catholic. This was the religion of his monarch, and this change in his own sentiments probably procured for him the addition of 100 pounds to his former revenue. But at the Revolution in 1688 he was stripped of all his offices and pensions, and from that time till his death in 1700, was compelled to rely for subsistence on the immediate profits of his poetical productions composed at a certain rate per line. Among these were his translations of Juvenal, Persius, and Virgil, and some of most beautiful original poetry.
Dryden's poetry is very artificial, abounding in conceits and overstrained metaphors. But though he seldom writes twenty lines without something false and unnatural, his general conceptions are almost always noble, and he often exhibits in their execution an astonishing richness and sublimity of imagination. His great excellence lies in the mingled stateliness and harmony of his numbers. His versification is flowing and musical, and at the same time grand, energetic, and resounding beyond that of any other English poet. He possessed great lyrical powers, as is evident from the few odes which he composed. His abilities as a satirist were likewise very admirable.
Yet he possessed no power of tenderness or pathos, very little wit or humour, and not much felicity in natural description. "The power that predominated in his intellectual operations," says Dr Johnson, "was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were presented he studied rather than, felt, and produced sentiments not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies."
The moral character of a great part of Dryden's poetry deserves the severest censure. It is degraded and licentious in its tendency. For this there is no excuse in the assertion that be stooped to accommodate his writings to the depraved taste of the age in which he wrote. It is the characteristic of a virtuous mind not only to keep itself unspotted amidst the general corruption, but to send forth from its own purity powerful counteracting and renovating influence. And Dryden possessed powers which might have enabled him to elevate and purify the moral sensibilities of the whole English nation. While he was a musing with his strains a sensual monarch and an immoral court, Milton was composing the Paradise Lost, in his own comparatively lonely, but virtuous and dignified retirement.
Dryden's prose is superior to his poetry. His style is exceedingly pure and beautiful; rich in the genuine idioms of his native tongue, chaste and regular in its flow, with full, but not superfluous ornament. It is often splendid, always musical, yet clear, easy, natural, and energetic.
His personal character presents much which is amiable and pleasant, but nothing noble or sublime. He was neither immoral nor religious.