John Dryden, an English poet, born in the parish of Aldwinckle All Saints, Northamptonshire, Aug. 9, 1631, died May 1, 1700. He belonged to a respectable Puritan family, and his father was a magistrate under Cromwell. He was the eldest of 14 children, and received a good education at Tichmarsh and at Westminster school. At the latter he showed his poetical gifts in a translation of the third satire of Persius and an elegy on the accomplished young Lord Hastings. He graduated at Trinity college, Cambridge, in 1654, and remained there till 1657. He then went to London, where his relative, Sir Gilbert Pickering, a member of Cromwell's council, gave him a petty clerkship. He celebrated the death of the protector in his "Heroic Stanzas;" but his connection with the Puritan party was the result of circumstances rather than sympathy. The restoration called forth his Astroea Redux in 1660, and the coronation of Charles II. another panegyrical poem. At this period he eked out the pittance from his paternal estate by writing prefaces and other occasional pieces for the booksellers. The patronage of Sir Robert Howard improved his fortunes, and he soon became known as a ready versifier and a stanch royalist. His first play, "The Wild Gallant," produced in 1662, was not successful.
It was followed by "The Rival Ladies" and "The Indian Emperor;" but the plague and the great fire of London put a stop to all theatrical representations, and drove him to a less profitable employment. He busied himself in composing his "Essay of Dramatic Poesy," in which he defends the use of rhyme in tragedy. In 1663 he married Elizabeth, daughter of the earl of Berkshire, and sister of Sir Robert Howard, a • lady who added a little to his fortune and less to his happiness. His Annus Mirabilis, "The Year of Wonders" (1667), celebrates the great fire of 1666, the duke of York's victory over the Dutch, and other prominent events. His devotion to the court no less than the merit of his verse obtained for him the appointment of poet laureate, made vacant by the death of Dave-nant in 1668, with that of historiographer royal, the united salaries of which amounted to £200. On the revival of the drama he became a writer for the stage, and was soon engaged to furnish for the king's theatre three plays a year, for which he received a share of the profits of the company. Though he produced only 18 plays in 16 years, the actors seem to have valued his services too highly not to take them on his own terms. But his exaggerated style did not escape the wits of the court.
George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, brought out in 1671 a comedy called "The Rehearsal," in which the poet laureate was satirized under the name of Bayes. Its brilliant wit won it an enthusiastic reception. An "Essay on Satire," written by Lord Mulgrave, and attributed to Dryden, who seems indeed to have revised it, gained him the enmity of the earl of Rochester; and on Dec. 17, 1679, he was set upon at night and cudgelled by three hired ruffians. In 1681 appeared his " Absalom and Achitophel," a satire on the plot for securing the succession of Charles's natural son the duke of Monmouth, in which, under the names of David, Absalom, and Achitophel, he represented the king, Monmouth, and Shaftesbury; while in Zimri, who --------in the course of one revolving moon Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon, he drew his old enemy, the author of " The Rehearsal," and fully repaid the smart he had felt under his satire. A medal struck by the friends of Shaftesbury to commemorate the refusal of the grand jury to indict him for high treason, furnished the theme of a fresh political satire, "The Medal," which was answered by a score of rhymesters, one of whom, Elka-nah Settle, by his "Medal Reversed," is said to have fairly divided with Dryden the praises of the town. "MacFlecknoe," published about 1682, was a biting satire on the poet Shadwell, and fell below Dryden's political writings in interest only because the subject was inferior.
In 1682 were produced also the Religio Laici, a defence of the church of England, and the second part of "Absalom and Achitophel." Of this, however, the greater portion was written by Nahum Tate; Dryden contributed only 200 lines, but in these his rivals Shadwell and Settle were handed down to the ridicule of posterity under the names of Og and Doeg. A few classical translations, some miscellaneous poems, and two pieces for the stage were his only compositions during the next three years, until he was called upon as poet laureate to mourn the death of Charles II. and celebrate the accession of James. Under the new monarch he made profession of the Roman Catholic creed. His sincerity, as the change suited so well his worldly prospects, is a moot point. He was sharply attacked by his contemporaries, and among the earliest of his pieces in defence of his faith appeared in 1687 "The Hind and the Panther," an allegory wherein the points of difference between the two religions are discussed. The revolution of 1688 deprived him of his place, and reduced him once more to the necessity of writing for bread.
From 1690 to 1694 he composed four plays, and made several translations from French and Latin. During the next three years he was busy with his translation of Virgil, for which he is said to have received £1,300. In 1698 he began his adaptations of Chaucer, contracting with a bookseller to furnish 10,000 lines for £300. This bargain produced his "Fables," consisting of many of the choice stories of Homer, Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, translated or modernized in flowing verse. The noble ode for St. Cecilia's day, often called " Alexander's Feast," formed part of this collection. It was the last of Dryden's great works. He died of mortification of the leg, and was buried next to Chaucer in "Westminster abbey, where John Sheffield, duke of Buckingham, erected a monument over his remains in 1720. His wife and three sons survived him. - Dryden was reserved in his habits, but kind and benevolent. At Will's coffee house he was the oracle by common consent. He was domestic in his tastes, an affectionate father, and, notwithstanding the bitter temper of his wife, a faithful husband. The licentious spirit of the time, which his dramas did everything to encourage, found no reflex in his private conduct.
His rhyming tragedies have little to recommend them; his comedies, with the exception of "The Spanish Friar," are beneath his fame; and though he wrote 27 plays, only one or two are now spoken of. Many of his dedications are disfigured by abject flattery, and his early poems are marked by the false taste, Gallicisms, and unnatural conceits which characterized the period of the restoration. It was only with the production of his first political satire that he developed his full powers and marked out a new path in which he had no rival. His bold sketches of character, wanting often in polish, but alive with individuality, have never been surpassed. From the death of Milton to his own death he was confessedly the first of the English poets; but the harmony of his verse, the happiness of his illustrations, and the brilliancy of his wit, were often defiled by the coarseness of party rancor and the taint of a corrupt fancy. Dryden produced the first good English version of the AEneid. In prose he has left many specimens of strong, genuine English, mostly in the form of prefaces and dedications.
Among the principal editions of his works are his dramas (6 vols. 12mo, London, 1718); miscellaneous works (4 vols., 1760); prose works, edited by Malone (4 vols. 8vo, 1800); and a complete edition of all his writings, with notes and a memoir by Sir Walter Scott (18 vols. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1808). The "Fables," ornamented with engravings after the designs of Lady Diana Beau-clerc, were published in folio (London, 1797). The life of Dryden has been written by Dr. Johnson, and forms the most eloquent and discriminating of all his "Lives of the Poets."