John Dryden: England’s Controversial and Exceptional Genius

Category: Comedy, Poetry, Writer
Last Updated: 13 Oct 2022
Essay type: Controversial
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John Dryden was England’s most outstanding and controversial writer for the later part of the seventeenth century, dominating the literary world as a skilled and versatile dramatist, a pioneer of literary criticism, and a respected writer of the Restoration period. With Dryden’s great literary and critical influence on the English society during the Restoration period he has made a name for himself, which will be studied and honored for years to come. John Dryden was born in Northamptonshire, in 1631. His parents were Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickery. They were both from wealthy and respected families in Northamptonshire.

The Drydens were known for wisdom and great tradition all over England and were well-equipped with large estates and vast lands (Ward 5). Dryden’s father, Erasmus, was a justice of the peace during the usurpation, and was the father of fourteen children; four sons, and ten daughters. The sons were John, Erasmus, Henry, and James; the daughters were Agness, Rose, Lucy, Mary, Martha, Elizabeth, Hester, Hannah, Abigail, and France (Kinsley 34). Dryden was also a religious man. He had as much faith in the Lord as he did in his pen. He belonged to the Church of England all his life until converting to Catholicism due to the change of the throne.

He was baptized at All Saints Church in Aldwinule, Northamptonshire ten days after his birth (Hopkins 75). Dryden, growing into a young man, began his education in his hometown. There he took the basic classes. He furthered his education at Westminister School in London. Here, he attended school for about twelve hours a day, beginning and ending at six. At Westminister he studied history, geography, and study of the Scripture, plus all the basics. After Westminister he Cunningham 2 attended Cambridge University (Hopkins 14). While attending Cambridge University, he excelled to the top of his class and was a standout student.

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John Dryden was the greatest and most represented English man of letters of the last quarter of the seventeenth century. From the death of Milton in 1674 to his own in 1700, no other writer can compare with him in versatility and power (Sherwood 39). He was in fact a versatile writer, with his literary works consisted of tragedy, comedy, heroic play, opera, poetry, and satire. Although he did write most of his important original poems to serve some passing political purpose, he made them immortal by his literary genius (Miner 3). John Dryden was the type of man who was always busy with some great project.

He would never put full time and concentration into his work. He would quickly finish a project, careless of perfection, and hurry off to begin another, which was not a tempting deal on either the author’s side nor the reader’s side because Dryden lived in a time where there were few well-printed works (Hopkins 1). So much of his work consisted of numerous errors, misprints, and lost pages. Several critics have attempted to revise and correct his work but usually for the worse ( Harth 3). Despite his popularity during the Restoration and even today, little is known about John Dryden except what is in his works.

Because he wrote from the beginning through the end of the Restoration period, many literary scholars consider the end of the Restoration period to have occurred with Dryden’s death in 1700 (Miner 2). Surviving Dryden was his wife Lady Elizabeth and there were three sons, to whom he had always been a loving and careful father. John, his oldest son, followed his father in death only three years later in April of 1700. His wife, the “Widow of a poet,” died shortly after his death in the summer of 1714 at the age of 78 (Bredvold 314). Dryden certainly attained his goal of popularity especially after his death.

He became this Cunningham 3 through his “achievements in verse translations, the first English author to depend for a livelihood directly on the reading public and opening the future of profitable careers for great novelists during the next two centuries” (Frost 17). The Restoration period was a time of great literature and outstanding writers, but, with all the talent in this century, there were also many problems. The Restoration was an angry time in literary history. Writers threw harsh blows at one another, not with fists but with paper and ink.

It was an age of plots, oaths, vows and tests: they were woven into the “fabric of everyday life, and hardly a person in England escaped being touched by them” (Hammond 131). During this time he wrote about what was going on in life activities quite often in his work. At this time there was a major controversy over the conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. Dryden’s church was in a strange and uncomfortable position. Since the time of the Restoration it had been an underground organization because it was regarded as the enemy of the English monarchy.

Some of the members have been accused, and others falsely accused, of setting plots against the crown (Hopkins 85). In 1663, Dryden, “under the cloud of some personal disgrace,” married Sir Robert Howard’s sister, Lady Elizabeth. The marriage provided no financial advantages or much compatibility for the couple, but Dryden did gain some social status because of her nobility. Because of his social success, Dryden was made a member of the Royal Society that same year. Since he was a non-participating member and did not pay his dues, his membership was later revoked.

In 1664, he wrote a poem honoring his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, with whom Dryden remained involved personally and professionally for some time. In 1668, he was Cunningham 4 named Poet Laureate and was offered a share in the Theater Royal’s profits in exchange for his plays. This is where he earned a large portion of his income, and ensured his financial stability for the next several years. However, in 1689 when William and Mary took the throne they replaced John Dryden, a Catholic; and made Thomas Shadwell, a Protestant, the new Poet Laureate (Verrall 6).

John Dryden was a poet for about forty years. He was formally known as a “public poet” because a great amount of his poetry dealt with public issues (Harth 3). The explanation for Dryden’s late development as a poet was due to the simple fact that he had nothing to say. In Dryden’s poems, the descriptions he gave avoided unique, concrete details; he preferred general terms. When he described men and women, he gave his attention to moral qualities, not physical appearance. He usually glorified the lower social class and put the upper social class in a shadow (Sherwood 7).

Many of Dryden’s poems were congested with printing errors and misspelled words, although, the reasons for this were not totally his fault. There was not a great printing process during this time and many careless mistakes in printing were caused by neglectful workers (Sargeant 10). John Dryden is a poet who left a firm impression of his character in this world; he is known as a public figure, respected literary critic, popular dramatist, and strong supporter of religion and politics (Salvaggio 13). Dryden’s poetry has been divided into two time periods of his career.

The first was during the Restoration period and ended in 1667. He did not write another poem for fourteen years; during this time he was writing plays and critiques. The second period began during the later part of his life and ended in 1681 (Harth 3). Some of Dryden’s more popular poems “The Cock and the Fox,” “All For Love,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Absalom and Achitophal,” and his most famous “Mac Cunningham 5 Flecknoe. ” In the poem “All For Love,” it portrays the love story between Cleopatra, the breath-taking, beautiful, Queen of the Nile and her lover Antony.

He also knew that when writing this poem it would be nothing new to the poetic world (Dryden 14). “All For Love” is a pale, beautiful play. The theme “All For Love” was meant to be that “punishment inexorably follows vice and illicit love. Actually, the motivation of the play is a conflict between reason and passion, and it is this conflict that makes “All For Love” truly representative of the Restoration Period and the battle of ideas that settled beneath” (Dryden 25). The greatest of his poems was “Absalom and Achitophel. ” He wrote this while he was Poet Laureate, the national poet of a country (Hopkins 5).

In this poem he described a political predicament that is described by characters from the Bible. He uses a vast amount of symbolism in the story. “Absalom and Architophel” represents his lifelong affinity for seeing the present in terms of the past (Miner 15). One of his most famous poems is “Mac Flecknoe. ” He destroys Thomas Shadwell by taking very crude and harsh blows on the man. However, Dryden refers to Shadwell’s appearance to only imply that he is fat: “A Ton of Man in thy Large bulk is writ, but sure tho’rt but a kildrekin of wit” (Sherwood 7).

There is nobody of English criticism that is more alive, that brings readers more directly into contact with literature, than John Dryden. One can never predict what will arise with Dryden’s criticism, but it will be far more promising than any other (Mc Henry 25). John Dryden is known as “the father of English Criticism” (Osborn 136). But, other studies and opinions show that his critical writings are known to quite often derivative, self-contradictory, rambling, inexact, at times over-specialized, and at others too sweeping (Hopkins 137).

Cunningham 6 Dryden’s earliest critical essay was written in 1664, about his first verse play, The Rival Ladies. From this date until his death in 1700, Dryden scarcely passed a year without writing a preface, an essay, a discourse, a literary biography or some piece of criticism (Osborn 179). His criticism has not been viewed in the correct ways in some cases. It has often been praised for its minor virtues, and too little admired for its major ones. “His criticism is great in contrast as well as in style” (Hammond 179).

John Dryden’s critical qualities are handsome ones, preferable to most. He has confidence in his basic assumptions and more gracefully within his tradition. Another great strength of his, is that he plays example against theory and theory against example; Dryden also possesses many more admiring qualities (Hammond 5). As a well-respected critic as he is Dryden has a habit of telling what he is thinking at the time of composition. His prefaces and prologues have the quality of studio talk in which the artist speaks of what he has tried to do and how he has done better, or worse, than others.

He gives his views at the time, he may have different views at other times that are more educated, but he gives the views which engage him at the moment (McHenry 39). Criticism of Dryden in the half-century following his death is sparse, and contributions from the major men of letters are disappointingly casual and undeveloped. However, most likely the best criticism of Dryden during the period after his demise comes from “Dennis, Congerer, and Garth. ” There is passion as well as admiration in Dennis’s remarks for Dryden’s poetry (Bredvold 14).

He is a critic more than a theorist, meaning he judges poetry thoughtfully by talking incomparably well about the poetry. However, he also likes to think and to speak of his thinking to explore and mediate literary principles. John Dryden wrote with ease and at times carelessly, but he knew where he stood (Hammond 1). Cunningham 7 His poetry was often seen as a pure, rich, metrical energy, and formally proper to the genre. “It is throughout its whole range, alive with a special kind of feeling” (Osborn 181). John Dryden was engaged in literary controversy his entire literary career and life.

He feuded with famous writers such as Sir Robert Howard, Thomas Shadwell, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Rymar, and many others. Shadwell was the most unfortunate foe of them all. If he had never quarreled with Dryden he would not have been known today as one of the four great comic playwrights of the Restoration period (Dryden 1). Shadwell’s and Dryden’s literary quarrel developed by the means of critical comments in prologues, epilogues, prefaces, and dedications written between 1668 and 1678. Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” was a major issue in the dispute between Dryden and Shadwell (Dryden 4).

In “Mac Flecknoe,” Shadwell’s memory is kept alive, but has also been branded forever as horrible writer and a disgrace to the history of English writers. “Mac Flecknoe” is Dryden’s most delightful poem. It reveals Dryden’s great writing talents as poet and satirist. As he accuses Shadwell of “borrowing” from other authors. He also indicted Shadwell of “consistently stealing,” but the charges were also greatly exaggerated. However, Dryden admitted that he was guilty of “borrowing” from other authors, but he also mentioned that Charles II said that he wished those incriminated for stealing would steal plays like Dryden’s (Dryden 18).

At some point Shadwell had got on good terms with Dryden, good enough at least for Dryden to provide the prologue to one of Shadwell’s plays. It might have been the prologue the others, but still it served as a prologue to one of Shadwell’s. They had to have developed some sort of friendship or came to know each other. Then something happened and the time for reconciliation had passed. In the same year in which he wrote that prologue for Shadwell he also wrote “Mac Flecknoe” to put an Cunningham 8 end to the feuding, and Shadwell became the “unforgiven butt of his ridicule” (McHenry 47).

Dryden was an exceptional author that just did not make as big as others. His literary reputation suffers greatly from the simple fact that not many know of him. He is the man who wrote “Absalom and Architophel,” “Mac Flecknoe,” and who precedes Pope. He wrote not only great satirical, but great love poems, great political poems, and great religious poems. Beyond those poems he wrote many great passages of poetry. He wrote an astounding amount of good poetry, probably more than any other poet in the language except Shakespeare and Milton (Hammond 67).

The English author John Dryden called himself Neander, the “new man,” in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, and implied that he was a spokesman for the concerns of his generation and the embodiment of it’s tastes. He achieved a prominence that supported his claim. Dryden excelled in comedy, heroic tragedy, verse satire, translation, and literary criticism; genres that his contemporaries and later readers have defined as representative of the Restoration period. John Dryden’s lasting legacy will be defined by his unequaled, excellent criticisms of literature and his outstanding poetry.

He developed the model for modern English prose style and set the tone for 18th century English poetry. His memorable works helped influence much of the writings that come from England to this day. Translations are another major reason why people will remember Dryden. He took authors from previous eras works and interpreted them into something superior and moved them to a greatness previously believed unattainable. His considerable accomplishments assured Dryden’s place in literary history and, through their influence on such writers as Alexander Pope, determined the course of literary history for the next generation.

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John Dryden: England’s Controversial and Exceptional Genius. (2018, May 19). Retrieved from

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