John Dryden: England’s First Poet Laureate

Today we pay brief tribute to England’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden is largely out of favor nowadays and almost unknown in America I’ll avow outside of academic circles. I largely knew him already as a Restoration playwright, but became more interested once I learned that he was my 2nd cousin, 13 times removed!

Dryden was of a Puritan family, and even served briefly in Cromwell’s Protectorate. His first notable poem was a eulogy to the deceased Cromwell, 1659. When circumstances suited him to do so, however, Dryden proved happy enough to establish himself as a Royalist and even a Catholic. Educated at Westminster, which was both Royalist and High Anglican, he was later top of his class at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was palpably flexible as to the creeds he lived by, a useful attitude for a courtier.

There would be a good deal of perfection in the working of the world’s machine had Shakespeare or Milton (whom Dryden knew) been England’s first Poet Laureate. As it happened, Ben Jonson had receieved a royal pension, making him a sort of unofficial proto-Laureate. Dryden certainly rated the post, and yet there is something about it being him and not his vastly more brilliant and foundational predecessors, that reminds us of the politics involved in such appointments. Mind you, his successors included Thomas Shadwell, Nicholas Rowe, Colley Cibber, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Masefield, and Cecil Day-Lewis, and he belongs among them. Modern critics are apt to find him too “artificial” and even his admirers closer to his own time observed that he lacked “sensibility”. He was a formalist. He’s the one who gave us the heroic couplet, and is said to have been the person responsible for the grammarian’s rule that a sentence in English must never end in a preposition. He was an enormous influence on Pope, and much admired by Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding, and Sir Walter Scott. Jonathan Swift was a second cousin, once removed.

With the Restoration of the Stuart king, Charles II in 1660, Dryden wasted no time in writing several poems in his honor, thus securing his place in the new order. When the proscription against theatre was lifted, he jumped in with both feet and was one of the nation’s leading playwrights for the balance of the century. His bawdy comedies include The Wild Gallant (1663), The Rival Ladies (1664), Sir Martin Mar-All (1667), An Evening’s Love (1668), Marriage-a-la-Mode (1673), and The Mistaken Husband (1674). Several of his plays are either adapted from Shakespeare or Shakespeare’s source material: The Tempest (1670), All for Love or The World Well Lost (1678, tells the story of Antony and Cleopatra), Troilus and Cressida (1679), and Amphitryon (1690, which has its roots in Plautus, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Comedy of Errors). He also wrote his own adaptation of Oedipus (1679), and an opera about King Arthur (1690). All in all he wrote around 30 plays.

Like Shakespeare, Dryden gave us several idiomatic coinages. The phrase “Noble Savage” comes from his 1672 play The Conquest of Granada. “A Blaze of Glory” comes from his long-form poem The Hind and the Panther (1686).

1668 was a pivotal year for Dryden. That year he wrote his spirited defense of his stylish innovations An Essay of Dramatick Poesie. And that was also the year he became Poet Laureate.

Like my (10th) great grandfather Sir John Harington (1561-1621), Dryden also wrote literary satire. a fact which pleases me to no end. His works in that line include Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and Mac Flecknoe (1682). His earlier Essay Upon Satire, which poked fun of many at court, had so outaged the Earl of Rochester that in 1679 he hired a gang of punks to jump on Dryden in an alley behind a tavern and work him over. THAT, my friends, is when you know your comedy is having a salutory effect. Dryden survived the attack naturally, and posted a reward for the apprehension of the thugs, though no one took the offer.

Dryden’s last works included a 1697 translation of The Works of Virgil, and Fables, Ancient and Modern, a compendium of translations of tales by Homer, Ovid, Chaucer and Boccaccio, published two months before his death. His remains now reside at Westminster Abbey, appropriately near Chaucer.