Waspish wit, playwright of acclaimed comedies and tragedies, deft translator of the classics, and England’s first Poet Laureate, versatile John Dryden also knew how to straddle the changing political and religious currents of seventeenth-century Britain. Born August 9, 1631, in Northamptonshire, in Oldwinkle near Thrapston, as the eldest of fourteen children, he grew up in Titchmarsh in a family of strong Puritan beliefs. He was sent to Westminster School, where the prevailing religion was high-church Anglican. Dryden easily adapted to its ceremonial style before going on to Trinity College Cambridge, where he was once again enveloped in austere Puritan sentiments.
After a rigorous education in classics, mathematics, and rhetoric, he graduated at the top of his class in 1654 and went to London. In addition to embarking on a career as a poet, he found work as a secretary and translator in the anti-royalist Puritan Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, along with fellow poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell. When Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote an ode in tribute and marched in the funeral procession.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Dryden had no problem in switching his allegiance to King Charles II, and even wrote several glowing poems about the restoration. By 1662 he was well enough known as a writer to be elected to the Royal Society (although he was soon dropped for non-payment of dues), and in 1668 he was named Poet Laureate.
In 1685 the Catholic King James II ascended the throne, and Dryden, with chameleon-like alacrity, became a member of the church of Rome. He celebrated his conversion with a long poem called The Hind and the Panther, in which the Church of England was depicted as a panther and the Roman Catholic Church as a hind (the female of the red deer):
A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged
Fed on the lawns, and in the forest ranged;
Without unspotted, innocent within,
She feared no danger for she knew no sin.
Dryden clung to this faith even after James was deposed and the Protestant William and Mary became monarchs. Even though his Catholicism now deprived him of many of the perquisites he previously enjoyed—including his laureateship—he remained an apparently devout believer for the rest of his days. One of his biographers, however, noting the worldliness of most of Dryden’s literary output, maintained “that though religion was an interesting topic of discussion to him, he had very little of its spirit in his heart.”
In 1663 Dryden married Elizabeth Howard, member of a noted royalist family, with whom he had three sons. The marriage must have had more downs than ups, because Dryden penned this epitaph for his wife (although she outlived him by fourteen years and died a lunatic):
Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest, and so am I.
The first English author to earn his living from writing, Dryden turned out copious comedies, tragedies, poems, and translations. A pioneer in Restoration drama after 1660, he enjoyed his greatest theatrical acclaim with the tragedy All for Love, a version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Among his many other plays were The Wild Gallant, The Indian Emperour, The Conquest of Granada, Marriage à la Mode, Don Sebastian, Amphytrion, and Arung-Zebe. Dryden also found success with his satires Mac Flecknoe, The Medal, and Absalom and Achitophel; his heroic poetry commemorating historic events; his translations of Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid and Boccaccio; and modernized adaptations of Chaucer’s poems.
Long afflicted by gout, Dryden suffered a related attack of erysipelas in his legs in December of 1699. An acute skin infection also known as cellulitis, this ailment was not treated and it grew into a fatal gangrene. The Rev. John Mitford, in his 1847 biography of Dryden, described his last days:
He had been for some years harassed by attacks of gravel [a urinary infection]
and gout. In December, 1699, the erysipelas appeared in his legs. In the April following,
in consequence of neglecting an inflammation of his feet, a mortification ensued, of
which he died after a short illness at three o’clock on Wednesday, the 1st of May, 1700, at
his house in Gerard Street. He behaved during his last moments with composure and
resignation to the Divine will. He expressed, at his advanced period of life, no anxious
wish to have existence prolonged; he took a tender and affectionate farewell of his
afflicted friends; and he died in the profession of the Roman Catholic faith.
Dryden was sixty-eight. He was buried in the yard of the College of Physicians, but after a few days was disinterred and placed in Westminster Abbey, in Poets’ Corner next to the tomb of Chaucer. No monument marked his grave until 1720, when one was erected by the Duke of Buckingham, John Sheffield.