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John DRYDEN was born at Aldwinkle All Saints, Northamptonshire, on the 9th August 1631, and was educated at Westminster and at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1654, the year in which he took his degree, his father died, leaving him a small property. He then drifted to London, where he seems for a time to have been employed in some secretarial capacity or clerkship. His first substantial experiment in literature the “Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Oliver Cromwell”-appeared in 1659. In these bombastic verses, with all their crudities, affectations, and “metaphysical ” conceits, not even the most prescient critic could have detected any indication of the splendid powers which Dryden's work was presently to reveal. With the return of the Stuarts the young poet found it convenient to change his politics, and his next publications celebrated the “happy restoration ” and coronation of Charles II. These are marked indeed by a great advance in form and style, but they are now chiefly valuable as showing that Dryden's genius ripened very slowly, In 1663 he married Lady Elizabeth Howard, sister of his friend, Sir Robert Howard, the Crites of the “Essay of Dramatic Poesy;” but the union was not a fortunate one.
By this time Dryden was working his way steadily into notice as a playwright, though he gained no pronounced success till the production (in collaboration with Howard) of “The Indian Queen” in 1664, and its sequel, “The Indian Emperor," in 1665. Then came the plague, the closing of the theatres, and the composition of the “Essay of Dramatic Poesy” and the long
Annus Mirabilis.” The faults of the latter work are numerous and glaring; but it has vigour and distinction, and easily placed its author in the front rank of English poets at a time when poetic genius was at a low ebb, and there were few indeed to contest his position.
With the re-opening of the theatres, Dryden returned with great energy to the dramatic field, and for a number of years continued to produce plays of varying merit and of very
different styles. But though his dramatic works bulk large in his collected writings, they constitute, taken in the mass, the least vital and permanently interesting portion of his total output. While, as the essays here reprinted show, he devoted much attention to critical questions connected with the drama, and wrote of these with remarkable insight and sagacity, his theoretical knowledge of technical principles was not supported by creative power. His tragedies, belonging for the most part to the melodramatic, or so-called “heroic” class, had little truth of nature to keep them alive when the taste to which they had appealed passed away; and he himself condemned his comedies to well-merited oblivion by his shameless indulgence in the foulness and profanity unfortunately so characteristic of the Restoration stage. His heroic dramas were ridiculed by the Duke of Buckingham and others in their pungent burlesque play, “The Rehearsal,” first performed in 1671; many years later—in 1698—he was severely taken to task for the offences of his comedies in the Rev. Jeremy Collier's “Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage.” It will be seen that at the very end of his life, in the preface to his Fables, he had the honesty and good sense to acknowledge the substantial justice of Collier's reproaches.
In 1670 Dryden was made poet-laureate and historiographer-royal; and in 1681 opened a new and most important chapter in his career by the publication of the first of his great satires, “Absalom and Achitophel.” An outgrowth from the intense excitement caused by the alleged Popish Plot, this was directed immediately against the Earl of Shaftesbury, then intriguing to have the Duke of York excluded from the succession to the crown in favour of Charles II.'s illegitimate son, the young Duke of Monmouth. The sensation produced by this brilliant polemic was immense, and it is still considered, as Scott said, the finest political satire in the language. Master of a marvellously clear and forcible style, and with the power of making every detail tell, Dryden is here shown at his best, though the satires which followed—“The Medal” and “MacFlecknoe"-are scarcely less dexterous and effective. To this period also belong his two great theological poems, which are especially interesting as illustrating his controversial skill, his ability to make the most of any position he might at the time adopt, and his unrivalled facility as a reasoner in verse. The first of these—“Religio Laici"-is a defence of the doctrines of