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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Dryden
by Long, William J.

For fifty years Dryden lived in the city of Milton, in the country of John Bunyan; but his works might indicate that he inhabited a different planet. Unlike his two great contemporaries, his first object was to win favor; he sold his talent to the highest bidder, won the leading place among second-rate Restoration writers, and was content to reflect a generation which had neither the hearty enthusiasm of Elizabethan times nor the moral earnestness of Puritanism.


Knowledge of Dryden's life is rather meager, and as his motives are open to question we shall state here only a few facts. He was born of a Puritan and aristocratic family, at Aldwinkle, in 1631. After an excellent education, which included seven years at Trinity College, Cambridge, he turned to literature as a means of earning a livelihood, taking a worldly view of his profession and holding his pen ready to serve the winning side. Thus, he wrote his "Heroic Stanzas," which have a hearty Puritan ring, on the death of Cromwell; but he turned Royalist and wrote the more flattering "Astrĉa Redux" to welcome Charles II back to power.

His Versatility

In literature Dryden proved himself a man of remarkable versatility. Because plays were in demand, he produced many that catered to the evil tastes of the Restoration stage,--plays that he afterwards condemned unsparingly. He was equally ready to write prose or verse, songs, criticisms, political satires. In 1670 he was made poet laureate under Charles II; his affairs prospered; he became a literary dictator in London, holding forth nightly in Will's Coffeehouse to an admiring circle of listeners. After the Revolution of 1688 he lost his offices, and with them most of his income.

In his old age, being reduced to hackwork, he wrote obituaries, epitaphs, paraphrases of the tales of Chaucer, translations of Latin poets,--anything to earn an honest living. He died in 1700, and was buried beside Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.

Such facts are not interesting; nor do they give us a true idea of the man Dryden. To understand him we should have to read his works (no easy or pleasant task) and compare his prose prefaces, in which he is at his best, with the comedies in which he is abominable. When not engaged with the degenerate stage, or with political or literary or religious controversies, he appears sane, well-balanced, good-tempered, manly; but the impression is not a lasting one. He seems to have catered to the vicious element of his own age, to have regretted the misuse of his talent, and to have recorded his own judgment in two lines from his ode "To the Memory of Mrs. Killigrew":

      O gracious God, how far have we
      Profaned thy heavenly grace of poesy!

Works of Dryden

The occasional poems written by Dryden may be left in the obscurity into which they fell after they had been applauded. The same may be said of his typical poem "Annus Mirabilis," which describes the wonderful events of the year 1666, a year which witnessed the taking of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and the great fire of London. Both events were celebrated in a way to contribute to the glory of King Charles and to Dryden's political fortune. Of all his poetical works, only the odes written in honor of St. Cecilia are now remembered. The second ode, "Alexander's Feast," is one of our best poems on the power of music.

His Plays

Dryden's numerous plays show considerable dramatic power, and every one of them contains some memorable line or passage; but they are spoiled by the author's insincerity in trying to satisfy the depraved taste of the Restoration stage. He wrote one play, All for Love, to please himself, he said, and it is noticeable that this play is written in blank verse and shows the influence of Shakespeare, who was then out of fashion. If any of the plays are to be read, All for Love should be selected, though it is exceptional, not typical, and gives but a faint idea of Dryden's ordinary dramatic methods.


In the field of political satire Dryden was a master, and his work here is interesting as showing that unfortunate alliance between literature and politics which led many of the best English writers of the next century to sell their services to the Whigs or Tories. Dryden sided with the later party and, in a kind of allegory of the Bible story of Absalom's revolt against David, wrote "Absalom and Achitophel" to glorify the Tories and to castigate the Whigs. This powerful political satire was followed by others in the same vein, and by "MacFlecknoe," which satirized certain poets with whom Dryden was at loggerheads. As a rule, such works are for a day, having no enduring interest because they have no human kindness, but occasionally Dryden portrays a man of his own time so well that his picture applies to the vulgar politician of all ages, as in this characterization of Burnet:

  Prompt to assail and careless of defence,
  Invulnerable in his impudence,
  He dares the world, and eager of a name
  He thrusts about and justles into fame;
  So fond of loud report that, not to miss.
  Of being known (his last and utmost bliss),
  He rather would be known for what he is.

These satires of Dryden were largely influential in establishing the heroic couplet, [Footnote: The heroic couplet consists of two iambic pentameter lines that rime. By "pentameter" is meant that the line has five feet or measures; by "iambic," that each foot contains two syllables, the first short or unaccented, the second long or accented.] which dominated the fashion of English poetry for the next century. The couplet had been used by earlier poets, Chaucer for example; but in his hands it was musical and unobtrusive, a minor part of a complete work. With Dryden, and with his contemporary Waller, the making of couplets was the main thing; in their hands the couplet became "closed," that is, it often contained a complete thought, a criticism, a nugget of common sense, a poem in itself, as in this aphorism from "MacFlecknoe":

  All human things are subject to decay,
  And when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.

Prose Works

In his prose works Dryden proved himself the ablest critic of his time, and the inventor of a neat, serviceable style which, with flattery to ourselves, we are wont to call modern. Among his numerous critical works we note especially "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy," "Of Heroic Plays," "Discourse on Satire," and the Preface to his Fables. These have not the vigor or picturesqueness of Bunyan's prose, but they are written clearly, in short sentences, with the chief aim of being understood. If we compare them with the sonorous periods of Milton, or with the pretty involutions of Sidney, we shall see why Dryden is called "the father of modern prose." His sensible style appears in this criticism of Chaucer:

    "He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature,
    because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into
    the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and
    humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his
    age. Not a single character has escaped him.... We have our fathers
    and great-grand-dames all before us as they were in Chaucer's days:
    their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even
    in England, though they are called by other names than those of
    monks and friars and canons and lady abbesses and nuns; for mankind
    is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature though everything
    is altered."


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