Or, Whose side are you on, anyway?

John Dryden was born in 1631 to parents who supported Parliament when that looked like the thing to do. A family of moderate fortune, they provided their boy with a gentleman-quality education at Westminster School before shipping him off to Trinity College at Cambridge, where in 1654 he earned his A.B.

Before, during, and after that, he spent a great portion of his life tiptoeing on religious eggshells as a poet, playwright, satirist, and financial ne'er do entirely too well. When he wasn't writing, he could usually be found trying to survive through at least four religions, three monarchies, one Republic, one Civil War, the Great Fire of London, and a Popish Plot.

He made all of them, along with their accordant casts of characters, the subject of his works, and it got him into a lot less trouble than one might have thought.

Setting the Stage

Typically, when one thinks of English satire and the literature of instruction and commentary, the 18th Century comes to mind. Alexander Pope, Jonathon Swift, and other such often acid-tongues scribblers truly defined their age by telling everyone precisely what they thought was wrong with it.

But Dryden, who produced his major works in the last four decades of the 17th Century, was the inkhorn father to them all.

The Puritan stranglehold on poems, plays, and speaking your mind lessened (it by no stretch of the imagination--or neck--subsided) with the return of the House of Stuart to the throne in 1660. The Commonwealth provided not only a Royal but a creative Interregnum, from which Charles II and Dryden emerged at the top of their respective games. The list of poets rising to fame and fortune under Cromwell is a short one, filled mainly by names you don't know, and unless you're particulary interested, needn't bother searching out. The decade gave ample time for the development of a new kind of authorship, a far cry from the solitary, subjective voices of the love-lorn and God-fearing metaphysical types of the previous poetic era.

Dryden came out of the Republic the founder of a new phase in literature. His non-dramatic works are mostly occasional, addressing recognizable people and events, a bold move when beheading was still a national pastime and the Tower wasn't just for tourists. Dryden wrote not for himself, but specifically for a national audience.

Happily, he was for the most part careful not to make enemies.

As Opportunity Presents Itself

As an Englishman at the time, you had several church-going options, any one of which might have gotten you killed by any of the others. Officially, Henry VIII got the ball rolling for Anglicanism, but the country was rife with Puritans, Protestants, and Blighty's old favorites, Catholics. Dryden, at heart one of the latter, did a good job of jumping around as the situation demanded. For example:

Just Play Along

Chances are, by 1660, the last play you went to see and really loved was one of Shakespeare's. The newly reopened theaters needed an equally new repertory of plays, and from 1664 to 1681, that's what Dryden was writing. A Cambridge man, he knew his Greeks and Romans, but also managed to find time for the Renaissance and current theatrical endeavours of France. Such plays as he produced infused by his ample knowledge. But if you were wondering why plays seemed to change so much around this time, look to the ticketholders. The innyard lost ground to the proscenium arch during the Restoration, and the groundlings that used to stand by the stage were staying home. Plays become the province of aristocrats.

Dryden, by his own admission, tailored his plays to such audiences. They featured noble characters as their leads, doing the noble things they did. Comedies were of rakes and witty repartee. Dramas dealt with choosing between honor and love. And for the most part, they were written in rhyme.

That changed with All for Love, Dryden's 1677 adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra. His greatest tragedy, it came out in blank verse, and was the summit of his prowess in that medium.

Truly, You Jest

Satire is a dangerous business, especially if your target figures out who you were aiming at. In 1679, one did, but got the shooter wrong. Lord Mulgrave's Essay on Satire came out that year railing at the Earl of Rochester, who, perhaps for the benefit of his own reputation, chose to single out the nation's poet laureate as the triggerman.

As a result, the earl possessed himself of some hired goons and had them rough Dryden up to within an inch of his biting humor one night in Covent Garden. This was insufficient motivation, however, for Dryden to give up his game.

The satirical portion of his talents came to prominence in 1681 with Mac Flecknoe, a response to fellow playwright Thomas Shadwell; it peaked withAbsalom and Achitophel. A response to the civil and political chaos occasioned by the revelation of the probably falsified Popish Plot, in it Dryden took to task the earl of Shaftesbury, Whig leader in opposition to Charles II and supporter of future James II's exclusion from the succession.

The first part was published when a Whig-packed grand jury was deliberating on whether or not to let the earl out of the Tower, where Charles put him for high treason. Dryden hoped to influence their decision. If he did, it wasn't in the way he hoped, because the earl went free.

The tricky bit about Absalom was that it had particularly sensitive subject matter, and characters that could be villains today, heroes tomorrow. Dryden couldn't make fun of them, or felt the shouldn't, so he departed from the mock epic style of Mac Flecknoe in favor of a more reverent heroic form mixed carefully with satire. Shaftesbury is still the bad guy, but even the king gets a little bit of of a jibe for having too many mistresses and not enough (read none) legitimate children.

All that, coming from the biblical approach of the rebellion of Absalom against King David. Priests were already preaching the similarities in their pulpits; Dryden simply picked up the ball and ran with it.

The work represented his best to date for control of style and discipline, as well as total mastery of the heroic couplet.

It Cannot Last

Dryden's favor dried up when William and Mary stepped off the boat and put the Catholic cause away once again. Dryden didn't trade up this time, and they couldn't suffer a Catholic poet laureate, so away went his per annum.

To support his family, he turned to an old literary staple of sustenance: translations. Before dying in 1700, he got through Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Boccaccio], Chaucer, and most notably, Virgil.

Now What?

The best of Dryden is all but unapproachable without an annotated version or a robust knowledge of history. He wrote of and for his age, and it's gone. Which isn't to say he's not worth reading, because his influence on what followed is undeniable. Those who followed him improved, or made more popular, what he did--William Congreve, Richard Sheridan, Pope, Swift--but it started with Dryden, and the new poetic language he created lasted until the 19th Century.

'John Dryden.'The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc. 1995.

For a list of his major works, please see Gritchka's writeup

Thanks to legbagede for cluing me into the earl of Rochester story