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John Dryden

John Dryden

 

From the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble:


DRYDEN, John (1631-1700), educated at Westminster School under *Busby and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He inherited a small estate, but supported himself mainly by his writing. His first major poem was the Heroique Stanza's (1658) on the death of Cromwell: he later celebrated the King's return with Astraea Redux and To His Sacred Majesty. Other poems were addressed to Sir Robert Howard, whose sister Lady Elizabeth Dryden married in 1663; the earl of *Clarendon, *Charleton, and Lady Castlemaine. He also published a long poem in quatrains, *Annus Mirabilis (1667), but most os his early writing was for the theatre and included several rhymed heroic plays, The Indian Queen (1664, in collaboration with Sir Robert Howard), The Indian Emperour (1665, which has the Mexican ruler Montezuma as subject), *Tyrannick Love (1669), and The Conquest of Granada in two parts (1670). He also wrote comedies, The Wild Gallant (1663), The Rival Ladies (1664), Sir Martin Mar-all (1667, in collaboration with the Duke of *Newcastle), *An Evening's Love (1668), and a radical adaptation of *The Tempest (1667, with *D'Avenant). He was most original, however, with his tragi-comedies, Secret Love (1667), *Marriage-à-la-mode (1672), The Assignation (1672), and a second Shakespeare adaptation, *Troilus and Cressida (1679). All these plays, together with the operatic adaptation of *Paradise Lost, under the title The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man (unperformed, pub 1667) and the immensely successful Oedipus (1678, with N. *Lee), reveal Dryden's considerable interest in philsoophical and political questions. He became *poet laureate in 1668, and historiographer royal in 1670.

Dryden constantly defended his own literarypractice. His first major critical work was *Of Dramatick Poesie (1668). Subsequent essays include A Defence of an Essay (1668)(, preface to An Evening's Love (1671), Of Heroick Plays (1672), Heads of an Answer (to *Rymer, c. 1677, pub. 1711), and The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy, prefixed to preface to Troilus and Cressida (1679). *Aureng-Zebe was his bes rhymed heoric play. The prologue, however, denounces rhyme in serious drama, and his next tragedy, *All for Love (1678), was in blank verse. Much of Dryden's criticism was devoted to the assessment of his Elizabethan predecessors, Shakespeare, *Jonson, and *Fletcher. Despite his genuine respect for their achievement, Dryden was unsparing in his enumeration of what he perceived as their 'faults', although he frequently modified his critical views and his artistic practice. This flexibility as critic and dramatist left him vulnerable to attack. He was represented as Bayes in *The Rehearsal (1671) by *Buckingham, and physically assaulted in 1679, possibly at the instigation of *Rochester. His principal opponent was *Shadwell, whom Dryden ridiculed in *Mac Flecknoe (c. 1676, pub. 1682). Other poems in which he develops his critical principles include many witty and imaginative prologues and epilogues, and poems about, or addressed to, fellow writers and artists, notably Lee, *Roscommon, *Oldham, *Congreve, and *Kneller.

The constitutional crisis of the late 1670 and early 1680s saw Dryden's emergence as a formidable Tory polemicist. His contribution to the political debate included plays, especially *The Spanish Fryar (1680), The Duke of Guise (1682, written with Lee), and the operatic Albion and Albanius (1685); his celebrated satires *Absalom and Achitophel (1681), *The Medall (1682), and a number of lines for N. *Tate's The Second Part of Absalom and Achitophel (1682), as well as a host of partisan prologues and epilogues. His interest in religion was also heightened at this time. In *Religio Laici (1682) he offers a defence of the Anglican via media. However, following the accession of James II Dryden became a Catholic and wrote *The Hind and the Panther (1687) in suport of his new co-religionists. At the death of Charles II he attempted a Pindaric *ode, Threnodia Augustalis (1685), the first of several poems in this form, notably To the Pious Memory . . . of Mrs Anne Killigrew (1686), A Song for Saint Cecilia's Day (1687), 'An Ode, on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell' (1696), and Alexander's Feast (1697), which was later incorporated into *Fables Ancient and Modern (1700). Dryden also wroter numerous witty elegant songs for his many plays.

In 1689 he lost both his court offices and returned to the theatre. Two of his late plays, *Don Sebastian (1689) and *Amphitryon (1690), are excellent; Cleomenes (1692) is intellectually impressive; and only Love Triumphant (1694) is a failure; but Dryden was tired of the theatre and turned to the politically less compromising work of translating. His immense and splendid achievements in this field include translations of small pieces from *Theocritus and *Horace, and more substantial passages from *Homer, *Lucretius, *Persius, *Juvenal, *Ovid, *Boccaccio, and *Chaucer, as well as the whole of *Virgil. His version of the Georgics is especially magnificent. In all these translations he made frequent but subtle allusions to his Jacobite principles. He also returned to criticism, notably in preface to the Sylvae (1685), *A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), Dedication to Examen Poeticum (1693), and Dedication of the Aeneis (1697). His culminating and most impressive achivement both as critic and translator was Fables Ancient and Modern, which should be read as a whole, and to which 'The Secular Masque' (1700) is a wise and noble coda. He was buried in Westminster Abbey (see also RESTORATION).

Other works by Dryden include:

Plays: Amboyna (1673, a tragedy), *Mr Limberham (1679, a sexually explicit comedy), and a dramatic opera, King Arthur (1691). Poems: 'Upon the Death of Lord Hastings' (1649), Britannia Rediviva (1688), Eleonora (1696). Prose works: His Majesty's Declaration Defended (1681), Life of Plutarch (1683), Vindication of the Duke of Guise (1683), Character of St Evrémond (1692), Character of Polybius (1693), Life of Lucian (1711), translations of Maimbourg's The History of the League (1684), Bouhours' Life of St Francis Xavier (1686), Du Fresnoy's De Arte Graphica (1695).

The standard complete edition is The Works of John Dryden, ed. E. N. Hooker et al. (1956- ), 20 vols pub. as of 1997. Other editions include Sir W. *Scott's (18 vols, 1808, with life as vol. i, rev. edn. by *Saintsbury, 18 vols, 1882-93); Dramatic Works, ed. M. Summers (6 vols, 1931-2); Poems, ed. J. Kinsley (4 vols, 1948); The Poems of John Dryden,  ed. P. Hammond (4 vols , 1995- ); Of Dramatic Poesy, and Other Critical Essays, ed. G. Watson (2 vols, 1962); Letters, ed. C. E. Ward (1942). See also J. A. Winn, John Dryden and His World (1987); J. and K. Kinsley (eds.), Dryden: The Critical Heritage (1971); P. Harth, Contexts of Dryden's Thought (1968) and Pen for a Party (1993).



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Notes on some works by Dryden (from the Oxford Companion):


Annus Mirabilis, a poem in quatrains by *Dryden, published 1667. 
    Its subjects are the Dutch War (1665-6) and the Fire of London. Prefaced by 'Verses to her Highness and Dutchess' [of York], it indicates that even in the 1660s Dryden's optimism about the monarchy, mercantilism, and the *Royal Society (of which he was a fellow) did not preclude the expression of an ironic vision of history. Queen Elizabeth II, to the bewilderment of some journalists, drew on Dryden's poem in a speech (24 Nov. 1992) referring to the fire of Windsor in that year, using the words 'Annus Horribilis'.
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Tyrannick Love, or The Royal Martyr, a heroic play by *Dryden, produced and published 1669.
     Based on the legend of the martyrdom of St Catherine by the Roman emperor Maximin, it contains some of Dryden's most extravagant heroic verse. Possibly deliberately comic at times, it is also seriously concerned with contrasting Lucretian and Christian conceptions of God. It was ridiculed in *The Rehearsal, and by *Shadwell. Dryden himself satirizes its excesses in *Mac Flecknoe.
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An Evening's Love, or The Mock Astrologer, a comedy by Dryden, produced 1668, published 1671.  Combining elements of Spanish intrigue comedy and fast-moving farce with sexually explicit language, it proved a commercial though not an artistic success. The plog, borrowed from M. de *Scudéry, *Corneille, Quinault, *Molière, and others, shows the exploits of two English cavaliers, Wildblood and Bellamy, in Madrid at carnival time. In the course of the play Bellamy acts the part of the eponymous astrologer, and bothe men gain Spanish wives while also helping their host Don Lopez to one. Most memorable are the scenes featuring Wildblood's spirited mistress Jacinta testing her lover in the guise first of a Moor and then of a Mulatta. Despite Wildblood's spectacular failure to remain faithful to her on both occasions, Jacinta forgives him and agrees to marry him. The preface to this play is among the most stimulating of Dryden's critical essays. He defends drama as entertainment, and replies to charges of plagiarism, offering his most explicit statement on literary appropriation to this date. The preface represents his views when he was least sympathetic to *Jonson and is therefore of importance in the dispute with Jonson's champion *Shadwell which culminated in *Mac Flecknoe.


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Marriage-à-la-Mode, a tragi-comedy by *Dryden produced 1672, published 1623.
    The main plot concerns a usurper's discovery that his daughter and his (lawful) predecerssor's son have been secretly reared together in rural seclusion and have fallen idealistically in love. The comic plot is a double intrigue involving two friends and their pursuit respectively of the wife of the one and the betrothed of the other. The counterpointing of these contrasting plots is particularly striking, especially as each ends anticlimactically, the lawful heir being restored to his throne in an overtly stagy manner, and the adulterous lovers failing to consummate their affairs. The play contains some of Dryden's finest songs, and embodies the principles of comic writing outlined in his preface to *An Evening's Love.

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Of Dramatick Poesy: An Essay by *Dryden, published 1668.
    The essay is in the form of a dialogue between Eugenius (C. *Sackville), Crites (Sir Robert Howard), Lisideius (*Sedley), and Neander (Dryden himself), who take a boat on the Thames on the day of the battle between the English and Dutch navies in June 1665, and subsequently discuss the comparative merits of English and French drama, and of the old and new in English drama. The essay is largely concerned with justifying Dryden's current practice as a playwright. It also contains admirable appreciations of Shakespeare, J. *Fletcher, and *Jonson.

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Aureng-Zebe, a tragedy by *Dryden, produced 1675, published 1676.
    The plot is remotely based on the contemporary events by which the Mogul Aureng-Zebe wrested the empire of India from his father and his brothers. The hero is a figure of exemplary rationality, virtue, and patience, whose stepmother lusts after him and whose father pursues the woman with whom Aureng-Zebe is himself in love. Apparently highly schematic in its organization, this last of Dryden's rhymed heroic plays evinces a deeply disturbing awareness of the anarchy and impotence which threaten every aspect of human life, emotional, moral, and political.

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All for Love, or The World Well Lost, a tragedy by *Dryden produced and published 1678.
    Written in blank verse in acknowledged imitation of Shaespeare's *Antony and Cleopatra, it is Dryden's most performed and his best-known play. It concentrates on the last hours in the lives of its hero and heroine. In contrast to Shakespeare's play, it is an exemplary neo-classical tragedy, notable for its elaborately formal presentation of character, action, and theme. (See NEO-CLASSICISM.)



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Mac Flecknoe (c. 1676), or A Satyr upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S., a *mock-epic poem by *Dryden published 1682, and in a definitive edition, 1684.
    The outcome of a series of disagreements, personal, professional, and critical, between Dryden and *Shadwell, the poem represents the latter as heir to the kingdom of poetic dullness, currently governed by the minor writer *Flecknoe. It brilliantly exploits the crudity of Shadwell's farces (notably The Virtuoso) and critical writings; while the range of its allusions to 17th-cent. theatre demonstrates the complexity of Dryden's critical thought and, since he satirized his own work (notably *Tyrannick Love) as well as Shadwell's, his humility towards the tradition in which he was working. Mac Flecknoe was a vital inspiration for Pope's Dunciad.

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The Spanish Fryar, a tragi-comedy by *Dryden, produced and published 1681.
    The serious plot is characteristically about a usurpation. Torrismond, though he does not know it, is lawful heir to the throne, and secretly marries the reigning but unlawful queen, who has allowed Torrismond's father, the true king, to be murdered in prison. The sub-plot is dominated by Father dominic, a monstrous corrupt friar, who uses the cant terms of Dissenters and who pimps for the libertine and whiggish Lorenzo. The latter is a highly dubious character, yet ironically it is through his agency that the lawful Torrismond is rescued. The woman Lorenzo is pursuing, however, turns out to be his sister. The play is like *Mr Limberham in breaching comic as well as tragic decorum and in its deeply sceptical treatemnt of religious and political orthodoxies.



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Absalom and Achitophel, an allegorical poem by *Dryden, published 1681.
    A *mock-biblical satire based on 2 Sam. 13-19, it deals with certain aspects of the Exclusion crissi, notably the intrigues of the earl of Shafesbury and the ambition of the duke of Monmouth to replace James duke of York as Charles II's heir. Various public figures are represented under biblical names, notably Monmouth (Absalom), *Shaftesbury (Achitophel), the duke of *Buckingham (Zimri), Charles II (David), *Oates (Corah), and Slingsby Bethel, sheriff of London (Shimei). The poem concludes with a long speech by David vigorously but paradoxically affirming Royalist principles, and asserting his determination to govern ruthlessly if he cannot do so mercifully.
    In 1682 a second part appeared, mainly written  by N. *Tate. However, it contains 200 lines by Dryden, in which he attacks two literary and political enemies, *Shadwell as Og an *Settle as Doeg.

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The Medall,  a poem by *Dryden, published 1682.
    The earl of *Shaftesbury, who is represented in *Absalom and Achitophel and possibly in *Mr Limberham, was acquitted of charges of high treason in 1681, and a medal was struck to commemorate the event. Dryden's response includes savage attacks on Shaftesbury himself, the City, and the Commons. It predicts with some accuracy the constituted instability which was to beset the country in the ensuing 30 years. *Shadwell and Samuel Pordage (1633-?91) both wrote replies.

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Religio Laici, a poem by *Dryden, published 1682.
    Written in defence of Anglicanism against Deist, Catholic, and Dissenting arguments, Religio Laici combines an exalted recognition of religious sublimity with a defence of a 'layman's' reasonable and straightforward religious attitudes. The poem's operning lines, beginning 'Dim as the borrow'd Beams of Moon and Stars', are among the finest Dryden wrote.

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The Hind and the Panther, a poem by *Dryden, published 1687.
    Dryden became a Catholic in 1685, and the poem represents an attempt to reconcile Anglican and Catholic political interests, while at the same time defending Catholic doctrine. The first part describes various religious sects under the guise of different beasts, and in particular the Catholic Church and the Church of England as the Hind and the Panther respectively. The second part is occupied with arguments about church authority and transubstantiation, issues full of political as well as ecclesiological implications. This leads into the third part, which constitutes half the poem, and is designed to recommend  a political alliance between both Churches and the Crown against Whigs and Dissenters. It contains two celebrated fables, that of the swallows and that of the doves. However the balance of the latter, and so of the whole poem, may have been upset by James II's Second Declaration of Indulgence, which appealed to dissenting protestant sects over the heads of the Anglican establishment.

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Fables, Ancient and Modern, by *Dryden, published 1700.
    Verse paraphrases of tales by *Ovid, *Boccaccio, and *Chaucer are interspersed with poems of Dryden's own, and together with the preface, in itself one of the most important examples of Dryden's criticism, they compose themselves into an Ovidian and Catholic meditation on the place of nature, sex, and violence in the flux of history.

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Don Sebastian, a tragi-comedy by *Dryden, produced 1689, published 1691.
    The play is based on the legend that King Sebastian of Portugal survived the battle of Alcazar. He and the princess Almeyda, with whom he is in love, are captured by Muley Moloch, who spares their lives until he discovers that they have secretly married. In love with Almeyda himself, he orders Dorax, a renegade Portuguese nobleman, to execute Sebastian, but Dorax, once Sebastian's favourite, refuses to do so. Muley Moloch is killed in a revolt, but Sebastian and Almeyda then discover that their marriage is incestuous, and they renounce each other and their thrones. However, they do not renounce the memory of their love, which is subsumed in ecstatic and total submission to the decrees of an inscrutable Providence. Counterpointing this main plot is a notably erotic and earthy sub-plot. The play is Dryden' most complex dramatic treatment of a number of important political, sexual, and religious themes.

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Amphytrion, a comedy by *Dryden, produced and published 1690.
    Adapted from the comedies of *Plautus and *Molière on the same subject, it represents the story of Jupiter's seduction of Alcmena in the guise of her husband Amphytrion. In this he is aided by Mercury, who is disguised as Amphytrion's slave Sosia. The cruel abuse of mortal love by the gods is in striking contrast to the play's uninhibited eroticism. The same story was adapted by *Giraudoux in his Amphytrion 38 (1929).

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A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, by *Dryden.
    The Discourse was published with The Satires (1693) of *Juvenal and *Persius, translated by various hands, among them Dryden's. Less impressive for its scholarship (which is not, however, negligible) than for its broad sense of the principles underlying literary and social history, it distinguishes between 'Varronian', 'Horatian', and 'Juvenalian' satire in a way that has considerably influenced criticism of Dryden's own satirical works and that of his Augustan successors.

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Mr Limberham, or The Kind Keeper, a comedy by *Dryden, produced 1679, published 1680.
    The play was banned by royal decree after three performances and has been execrated since, but Dryden nonetheless thought highly of it. The title role is possibly based on *Shaftesbury. Limberham is an impotent masochist, who is cuckolded by the oversexed hero Woodall, to whom every woman in the play succumbs. In this Woodall (who has been brought up abroad and is under an assumed name) is enthusiastically abetted by his unknowing father, Aldo. By implication the play attacks the patriarchism of a sexually corrupt court, the blind hedonism of the nobility, and the hypocrisy of Dissenters.






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