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Literature: Shakespeare

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John Dryden was England's most outstanding and controversial writer for the
later part of the seventeenth century, dominating the literary world as a
skilled and versatile dramatist, a pioneer of literary criticism, and a
respected writer of the Restoration period. With Dryden's great literary and
critical influence on the English society during the Restoration period he has
made a name for himself, which will be studied and honored for years to come.
John Dryden was born in Northamptonshire, in 1631. His parents were Erasmus
Dryden and Mary Pickery. They were both from wealthy and respected families in
Northamptonshire. The Drydens were known for wisdom and great tradition all over
England and were well-equipped with large estates and vast lands (Ward 5).
Dryden's father, Erasmus, was a justice of the peace during the usurpation, and
was the father of fourteen children; four sons, and ten daughters. The sons were
John, Erasmus, Henry, and James; the daughters were Agness, Rose, Lucy, Mary,
Martha, Elizabeth, Hester, Hannah, Abigail, and France (Kinsley 34). Dryden was
also a religious man. He had as much faith in the Lord as he did in his pen. He
belonged to the Church of England all his life until converting to Catholicism
due to the change of the throne. He was baptized at All Saints Church in
Aldwinule, Northamptonshire ten days after his birth (Hopkins 75). Dryden,
growing into a young man, began his education in his hometown. There he took the
basic classes. He furthered his education at Westminister School in London.
Here, he attended school for about twelve hours a day, beginning and ending at
six. At Westminister he studied history, geography, and study of the Scripture,
plus all the basics. After Westminister he Cunningham 2 attended Cambridge
University (Hopkins 14). While attending Cambridge University, he excelled to
the top of his class and was a standout student. John Dryden was the greatest
and most represented English man of letters of the last quarter of the
seventeenth century. From the death of Milton in 1674 to his own in 1700, no
other writer can compare with him in versatility and power (Sherwood 39). He was
in fact a versatile writer, with his literary works consisted of tragedy,
comedy, heroic play, opera, poetry, and satire. Although he did write most of
his important original poems to serve some passing political purpose, he made
them immortal by his literary genius (Miner 3). John Dryden was the type of man
who was always busy with some great project. He would never put full time and
concentration into his work. He would quickly finish a project, careless of
perfection, and hurry off to begin another, which was not a tempting deal on
either the author's side nor the reader's side because Dryden lived in a time
where there were few well-printed works (Hopkins 1). So much of his work
consisted of numerous errors, misprints, and lost pages. Several critics have
attempted to revise and correct his work but usually for the worse ( Harth 3).
Despite his popularity during the Restoration and even today, little is known
about John Dryden except what is in his works. Because he wrote from the
beginning through the end of the Restoration period, many literary scholars
consider the end of the Restoration period to have occurred with Dryden's death
in 1700 (Miner 2). Surviving Dryden was his wife Lady Elizabeth and there were
three sons, to whom he had always been a loving and careful father. John, his
oldest son, followed his father in death only three years later in April of
1700. His wife, the "Widow of a poet," died shortly after his death in
the summer of 1714 at the age of 78 (Bredvold 314). Dryden certainly attained
his goal of popularity especially after his death. He became this Cunningham 3
through his "achievements in verse translations, the first English author
to depend for a livelihood directly on the reading public and opening the future
of profitable careers for great novelists during the next two centuries"
(Frost 17). The Restoration period was a time of great literature and
outstanding writers, but, with all the talent in this century, there were also
many problems. The Restoration was an angry time in literary history. Writers
threw harsh blows at one another, not with fists but with paper and ink. It was
an age of plots, oaths, vows and tests: they were woven into the "fabric of
everyday life, and hardly a person in England escaped being touched by
them" (Hammond 131). During this time he wrote about what was going on in
life activities quite often in his work. At this time there was a major
controversy over the conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism.
Dryden's church was in a strange and uncomfortable position. Since the time of
the Restoration it had been an underground organization because it was regarded
as the enemy of the English monarchy. Some of the members have been accused, and
others falsely accused, of setting plots against the crown (Hopkins 85). In
1663, Dryden, "under the cloud of some personal disgrace," married Sir
Robert Howard's sister, Lady Elizabeth. The marriage provided no financial
advantages or much compatibility for the couple, but Dryden did gain some social
status because of her nobility. Because of his social success, Dryden was made a
member of the Royal Society that same year. Since he was a non-participating
member and did not pay his dues, his membership was later revoked. In 1664, he
wrote a poem honoring his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, with whom Dryden
remained involved personally and professionally for some time. In 1668, he was
Cunningham 4 named Poet Laureate and was offered a share in the Theater Royal's
profits in exchange for his plays. This is where he earned a large portion of
his income, and ensured his financial stability for the next several years.
However, in 1689 when William and Mary took the throne they replaced John
Dryden, a Catholic; and made Thomas Shadwell, a Protestant, the new Poet
Laureate (Verrall 6). John Dryden was a poet for about forty years. He was
formally known as a "public poet" because a great amount of his poetry
dealt with public issues (Harth 3). The explanation for Dryden's late
development as a poet was due to the simple fact that he had nothing to say. In
Dryden's poems, the descriptions he gave avoided unique, concrete details; he
preferred general terms. When he described men and women, he gave his attention
to moral qualities , not physical appearance. He usually glorified the lower
social class and put the upper social class in a shadow (Sherwood 7). Many of
Dryden's poems were congested with printing errors and misspelled words,
although, the reasons for this were not totally his fault. There was not a great
printing process during this time and many careless mistakes in printing were
caused by neglectful workers (Sargeant 10). John Dryden is a poet who left a
firm impression of his character in this world; he is known as a public figure,
respected literary critic, popular dramatist, and strong supporter of religion
and politics (Salvaggio 13). Dryden's poetry has been divided into two time
periods of his career. The first was during the Restoration period and ended in
1667. He did not write another poem for fourteen years; during this time he was
writing plays and critiques. The second period began during the later part of
his life and ended in 1681 (Harth 3). Some of Dryden's more popular poems
"The Cock and the Fox," "All For Love," "Antony and
Cleopatra," "Absalom and Achitophal," and his most famous
"Mac Cunningham 5 Flecknoe." In the poem "All For Love," it
portrays the love story between Cleopatra, the breath-taking, beautiful, Queen
of the Nile and her lover Antony. He also knew that when writing this poem it
would be nothing new to the poetic world (Dryden 14). "All For Love"
is a pale, beautiful play. The theme "All For Love" was meant to be
that "punishment inexorably follows vice and illicit love. Actually, the
motivation of the play is a conflict between reason and passion, and it is this
conflict that makes "All For Love" truly representative of the
Restoration Period and the battle of ideas that settled beneath" (Dryden
25). The greatest of his poems was "Absalom and Achitophel." He wrote
this while he was Poet Laureate, the national poet of a country (Hopkins 5). In
this poem he described a political predicament that is described by characters
from the Bible. He uses a vast amount of symbolism in the story. "Absalom
and Architophel" represents his lifelong affinity for seeing the present in
terms of the past (Miner 15). One of his most famous poems is "Mac Flecknoe."
He destroys Thomas Shadwell by taking very crude and harsh blows on the man.
However, Dryden refers to Shadwell's appearance to only imply that he is fat:
"A Ton of Man in thy Large bulk is writ, but sure tho'rt but a kildrekin of
wit" (Sherwood 7). There is nobody of English criticism that is more alive,
that brings readers more directly into contact with literature, than John
Dryden. One can never predict what will arise with Dryden's criticism, but it
will be far more promising than any other (Mc Henry 25). John Dryden is known as
"the father of English Criticism" (Osborn 136). But, other studies and
opinions show that his critical writings are known to quite often derivative,
self-contradictory, rambling, inexact, at times over-specialized, and at others
too sweeping (Hopkins 137). Cunningham 6 Dryden's earliest critical essay was
written in 1664, about his first verse play, The Rival Ladies. From this date
until his death in 1700, Dryden scarcely passed a year without writing a
preface, an essay, a discourse, a literary biography or some piece of criticism
(Osborn 179). His criticism has not been viewed in the correct ways in some
cases. It has often been praised for its minor virtues, and too little admired
for its major ones. "His criticism is great in contrast as well as in
style" (Hammond 179). John Dryden's critical qualities are handsome ones,
preferable to most. He has confidence in his basic assumptions and more
gracefully within his tradition. Another great strength of his, is that he plays
example against theory and theory against example; Dryden also possesses many
more admiring qualities (Hammond 5). As a well-respected critic as he is Dryden
has a habit of telling what he is thinking at the time of composition. His
prefaces and prologues have the quality of studio talk in which the artist
speaks of what he has tried to do and how he has done better, or worse, than
others. He gives his views at the time, he may have different views at other
times that are more educated, but he gives the views which engage him at the
moment (McHenry 39). Criticism of Dryden in the half-century following his death
is sparse, and contributions from the major men of letters are disappointingly
casual and undeveloped. However, most likely the best criticism of Dryden during
the period after his demise comes from "Dennis, Congerer, and Garth."
There is passion as well as admiration in Dennis's remarks for Dryden's poetry (Bredvold
14). He is a critic more than a theorist, meaning he judges poetry thoughtfully
by talking incomparably well about the poetry. However, he also likes to think
and to speak of his thinking to explore and mediate literary principles. John
Dryden wrote with ease and at times carelessly, but he knew where he stood
(Hammond 1). Cunningham 7 His poetry was often seen as a pure, rich, metrical
energy, and formally proper to the genre. "It is throughout its whole
range, alive with a special kind of feeling" (Osborn 181). John Dryden was
engaged in literary controversy his entire literary career and life. He feuded
with famous writers such as Sir Robert Howard, Thomas Shadwell, Andrew Marvell,
Thomas Rymar, and many others. Shadwell was the most unfortunate foe of them
all. If he had never quarreled with Dryden he would not have been known today as
one of the four great comic playwrights of the Restoration period (Dryden 1).
Shadwell's and Dryden's literary quarrel developed by the means of critical
comments in prologues, epilogues, prefaces, and dedications written between 1668
and 1678. Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" was a major issue in the dispute
between Dryden and Shadwell (Dryden 4). In "Mac Flecknoe," Shadwell's
memory is kept alive, but has also been branded forever as horrible writer and a
disgrace to the history of English writers. "Mac Flecknoe" is Dryden's
most delightful poem. It reveals Dryden's great writing talents as poet and
satirist. As he accuses Shadwell of "borrowing" from other authors. He
also indicted Shadwell of "consistently stealing," but the charges
were also greatly exaggerated. However, Dryden admitted that he was guilty of
"borrowing" from other authors, but he also mentioned that Charles II
said that he wished those incriminated for stealing would steal plays like
Dryden's (Dryden 18). At some point Shadwell had got on good terms with Dryden,
good enough at least for Dryden to provide the prologue to one of Shadwell's
plays. It might have been the prologue the others, but still it served as a
prologue to one of Shadwell's. They had to have developed some sort of
friendship or came to know each other. Then something happened and the time for
reconciliation had passed. In the same year in which he wrote that prologue for
Shadwell he also wrote "Mac Flecknoe" to put an Cunningham 8 end to
the feuding, and Shadwell became the "unforgiven butt of his ridicule"
(McHenry 47). Dryden was an exceptional author that just did not make as big as
others. His literary reputation suffers greatly from the simple fact that not
many know of him. He is the man who wrote "Absalom and Architophel,"
"Mac Flecknoe," and who precedes Pope. He wrote not only great
satirical, but great love poems, great political poems, and great religious
poems. Beyond those poems he wrote many great passages of poetry. He wrote an
astounding amount of good poetry, probably more than any other poet in the
language except Shakespeare and Milton (Hammond 67). The English author John
Dryden called himself Neander, the "new man," in his Essay of Dramatic
Poesy, and implied that he was a spokesman for the concerns of his generation
and the embodiment of it's tastes. He achieved a prominence that supported his
claim. Dryden excelled in comedy, heroic tragedy, verse satire, translation, and
literary criticism; genres that his contemporaries and later readers have
defined as representative of the Restoration period. John Dryden's lasting
legacy will be defined by his unequaled, excellent criticisms of literature and
his outstanding poetry. He developed the model for modern English prose style
and set the tone for 18th century English poetry. His memorable works helped
influence much of the writings that come from England to this day. Translations
are another major reason why people will remember Dryden. He took authors from
previous eras works and interpreted them into something superior and moved them
to a greatness previously believed unattainable. His considerable
accomplishments assured Dryden's place in literary history and, through their
influence on such writers as Alexander Pope, determined the course of literary
history for the next generation.
Bredvold, Louis I. The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden. USA: University of
Michigan Press, 1956. Dryden, John. All For Love. USA: Chandler Publications,
1962. ---. Annus Notabilis. Los Angeles: Castle Press, 1981. Frost, William.
John Dryden. New York: AMS Press, 1988. Hammond, Paul. John Dryden. New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1991. Harth, Phillip, Alan Fisher, and Ralph Cohen. New
Homage to John Dryden. Los Angeles: University of California, 1983. Hopkins,
David, and Tom Mason. The Beauties of Dryden. Great Britain: Bristol
Publications, 1982. McHenry, Robert W. Jr. Absalom and Achitophel. Hamden: The
Shoe String Press, Inc. , 1986. Miner, Earl. Writers and their Background. Ohio:
Ohio University Press, 1972. Osborn, James. Facts and Problems. Gainesville:
University of Florida Press, 1965. Salvaggio, Ruth. Dryden's Dualities.
Victoria: University of Victoria, 1983. Sergeaunt, John. The Poems of John
Dryden. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Sherwood, Margaret. Dryden's
Dramatic Theory and Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914. Verrall,
A.W. Lectures on Dryden. New York: Russell and Russell, Inc. 1963.
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