He was born in a village rectory near Oundle in Northamptonshire and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a professional writer throughout his life. His early plays, often heroic tragedy, met with highly variable success but served to promote his name and his Royalist sentiments. Arriving in London during the Protectorate, he attempted to capitalise on the Parliamentarian sympathies of his family, but failed to make much impact until the Restoration of King Charles II. His poem, Astrea Redux, in honour of this event, made him a name.
By 1663, the year he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, he was prominent enough to be accepted as a suitable husband for Lady Elizabeth Howard, but his reputation was not really made until Annus Mirabilis, a celebration of the events of 1666 in pentameter quatrains. In 1668, he was appointed to succeed William Davenant as Poet Laureate, a post which he lost when King James II was deposed twenty years later. For the next ten years, his output was mainly for the stage. He led the way in Restoration comedy, his best known work being Marriage A-la-Mode, (1672), as well as heroic tragedy and regular tragedy, in which his greatest success was All For Love (1677). Dryden was a master of the verse prologue and epilogue, and often contributed prologues and epilogues to other playwrights' plays. His other works of major importance from this period are his prefaces and essays on drama, of which the Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) is the longest and arguably the best. In these essays, Dryden expressed his belief that the Elizabethan dramatists had surpassed those of Greece; argued for the use of rhymed verse in the drama; and examined and compared the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Fletcher.
From the 1680s Dryden concentrated on poetry, in which his use of the rhymed couplet is considered brilliant, although he continued to write plays and composed several librettoes. His greatest achievements were in satiric verse: the mock-heroic MacFlecknoe , an attack on the playwright Thomas Shadwell, and Absalom and Achitophel, a political satire against the Whigs. His other major works from this period are the religious poems Religio Laici (1682) and The Hind and the Panther (1687). The first of these was written before, the second shortly after, Dryden's conversion to Catholicism. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Dryden's politics left him out of favour at court, and he was forced to write plays and translate poetry from Latin and Greek for a living. Dryden translated works by Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucretius, and Theocritus, in addition to his two major efforts, the complete works of Virgil in 1697 and Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), a collection of translations of Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio, as well as modernised adaptations from Geoffrey Chaucer. The Preface to Fables is considered to be both a major work of criticism and one of the finest essays in English.
Dryden's influence as a poet was immense both in his lifetime and in the 18th century; his poems were used as models by poets such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. The attitude of the 18th century can be summed up in Johnson's remark that Dryden "refined the language, improved the sentiments, and tuned the numbers of English Poetry." In the 19th century his reputation waned, and, despite the interest of figures like T.S. Eliot, it has not yet recovered completely. Although the brilliance of his versification and the vigour of his expression are generally acknowledged, there has been a feeling that, as Eliot wrote in Homage to John Dryden , Dryden "had a commonplace mind" and "lacked insight."
- Astraea Redux , (1660)
- The Indian Emperor , (1665)
- Annus Mirabilis, (1667)
- An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, (1668)
- Tyrannick Love , (1669)
- Marriage A-la-Mode, (1672)
- The Conquest of Granada, (1670)
- All for Love , (1677)
- Oedipus, (1679)
- Absalom and Achitophel, (1681)
- The Medal , (1682)
- Religio Laici , (1682)
- The Hind and the Panther , (1687)
- Amphitryon, (1690)
- Don Sebastian , (1690)
- The Works of Virgil , (1697)
- Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700)
The following works of John Dryden are available as e-books from Project Gutenberg:
- All for love
- Discourses On Satire And On Epic Poetry
- Palamon and Arcite
- The poetical works of John Dryden, Vol. I
- The poetical works of John Dryden, Vol. II
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