JOHN DRYDEN, 1631-1700
[Illustration: JOHN DRYDEN. From the painting by Sir Godfrey Knellwe, National Portrait Gallery.]
[Illustration: BIRTHPLACE OF DRYDEN. From a print.]
Life.—John Dryden was born in 1631 in the small village of Aldwinkle, in the northern part of Northamptonshire. Few interesting facts concerning his life have come down to us. His father was a baronet; his mother, the daughter of a rector. Young Dryden graduated from Cambridge in 1654.
During his entire life, Dryden was a professional literary man; and with his pen he made the principal part of his living. This necessity often forced him against his own better judgment to cater to the perverted taste of the Restoration. When he found that plays had more market value than any other kind of literature, he agreed to furnish three plays a year for the king’s actors, but was unable to produce that number. For fifteen years in the prime of his life, Dryden did little but write plays, the majority of which are seldom read to-day. His only important poem during his dramatic period was Annus Mirabilis (The Wonderful Year, 1666), memorable for the great London fire and for naval victories over the Dutch.
By writing the greatest political satire in the language at the age of fifty, he showed the world where his genius lay. During the last twenty years of his life, he produced but few plays. His greatest satires, didactic poems, and lyrics belong to this period. In his last years he wrote a spirited translation of Vergil, and retold in his own inimitable way various stories from Chaucer and Boccaccio and Ovid. These stories were published in a volume entitled Fables, Ancient and Modern. Dryden died in 1700 and was buried in Westminster Abbey beside Chaucer.
It is difficult to speak positively of Dryden’s character. He wrote a poem in honor of the memory of Cromwell, and a little later another poem, Astraea Redux, welcoming Charles II. He argued in stirring verse in favor of the Episcopal religion when that was the faith of the court; but after the accession of James II., who was a Catholic, Dryden wrote another poem to prove the Catholic Church the only true one. He had been appointed poet laureate in 1670, but the Revolution of 1688, which drove James from the throne, caused Dryden to lose the laureateship. He would neither take the oath of fealty to the new government nor change his religion. In spite of adversity and the loss of an income almost sufficient to support him, he remained a Catholic for the rest of his life and reared his sons in that faith.
He seems to have been of a forgiving disposition and ready to acknowledge his own faults. He admitted that his plays were disfigured with coarseness. He was very kind to young writers and willing to help them with their work. In his chair at Will’s Coffee House, discoursing to the wits of the Restoration about matters of literary art, he was one of the most prominent figures of the age.