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The Life and Works of John Dryden

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The Life and Works of John Dryden

John Dryden was considered the most influential man of literature in the second half of the 17th century. He was the first of the great English neo-classical poets. He was well known for his poems, drama, and criticism. He called himself Neander, the "new man," in his essay Of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and implied that he was spokesman for the concerns of his generation and the embodiment of its tastes (King 189).

Dryden was born in 1631 to a Puritan family in Aldwinkle All Saints, Northamptonshire. He was the oldest of fourteen children. His family was not rich, but they managed to scrape enough money together to send him to school at Westminster and at the University of Cambridge, where he received a B.A. degree in 1654. In 1657, he went to London and briefly served Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's government in a minor position (Sherburn 711). He wrote an elegy on the death of Cromwell called Heroic Stanzas. He then turned right around and wrote a congratulatory poem to Charles II, who was ascending the throne. He was now a Royalist, and his two poems celebrating the Restoration, Astraea Redux and Panegyric, were topics of much political controversy.

On December 1, 1663, he married Lady Elizabeth Howard. She was his friend's sister. It was rumored that John had been bullied into marriage by her brothers. Some say that they were happily married, but most of my research concluded that they did have problems. She was a woman with many issues, and she always seemed to be surrounded by unnecessary drama. She wrote a letter to the second Earl of Chesterfield, in which she vaguely depicted an intimate affair with a nobleman. John could never please her and she treated him for the most part very badly. They both loved their children though, and that was the one thing that they agreed on (Stephen 65).

In 1662, Dryden was elected as a member of the Royal Society. Until then, he had no real source of income. He began to write plays for King's Theatre. In 1665, the Plague caused 75,000 deaths in London, only to be followed the next year by the Fire of London, which left 2/3 of the population homeless. The theatres closed from May 1665 until the end of 1666. Dryden retired and spent the time writing at home. When the theatres reopened he went back to work. He had a contract to provide three plays a year and in return he received a share and a quarter out of the twelve shares and three quarters held by the whole company (Stephen 65). He failed to hold up his end of the bargain, but he still received his share of the profit. In 1672, King's Theatre burned and Dryden's profits were diminished. Some of his most famous plays include The Rival Ladies, Ladies a la Mode, Mock Astrologer, and An Evening's Love. His play Mr. Limberham was banned because some thought it to be indecent. His early plays were written in rhymed couplet and his later work in blank verse.

Dryden was appointed poet laureate and royal historiographer in 1668, a position he retained for twenty years. His poetry is "public" in nature, not private or sentimental. His poems are based on true people and events, which according to Stanley Archer, "sometimes causes modern readers to have a difficult time understanding the many parallels and analogies of his work" (1223). He is known for presenting many viewpoints and ideas, then either defending one as ideal or providing a middle ground.

His most important prose work is the already mentioned, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Written in 1688, this work is a dialogue between Neander (Dryden) and others in which Neander defends the English drama of generations before. He argues that the English drama has much to gain by observing the exact methods of construction without completely abandoning the freedom that English writers had always been so proud of (Magill 534).

In 1681, he wrote his first and some say, greatest poem of his career. Absalom and Achitophel is a parable written in heroic couplets. There is said to be evidence that the King himself asked Dryden to write the poem. He uses the Biblical story of David and his rebellious son, Absalom, as the biblical parallel to the political situation of that time. At that time, the Whigs wanted to get rid of James, the King's brother and devout Catholic, and give the rights of the throne to his illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth, who was a protestant. King Charles really wanted his brother to take his place, and the Tory party supported him (Bloom 198).

The effort to have James be the next king was led by the Earl of Shaftesbury (Achitophel), but he was unable to win over the king. Charles II (David) was against him and his cause because the king thought that letting parliament change the established succession would change the monarchy from a royal one to a parliamentary one. This would make the king subject to parliamentary restrictions. Dryden's objective in the poem is to convince readers to support

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