Dryden was born to a relatively wealthy family in the country town of Aldwincle in 1631. When civil war broke out in England, both of Dryden’s parents sided with Parliament against the King, although his specific political beliefs at the time remain unknown. He showed little presage of literary greatness in his early years, during which he was educated at Westminster School, where he received a classical education under renowned instructor Richard Busby. Later, he studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1564. Little is known about Dryden between the years 1564 and 1560. After finishing his education, he held minor public office before turning towards a commercial literary career–a career that was previously unheard of.
Career as a Poet
Dryden first emerged as a poet at the relatively late age of 27, when he wrote Heroic Stanzas, mourning the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. This type of public poetry became Dryden’s specialty, and the hallmark of his literary career. Dryden had a turn of allegiance when Charles II was restored to the throne, prompting him to write celebratory verses for the reinstated monarch and other high powered officials. His poems “Astrea Redux,” which was written upon Charles’ restoration, and “To His Sacred Majesty,” written upon the King’s coronation, solidified his position as a famed poet by lauding the strength and dignity of the new monarch.
This loyalty to the monarchy, combined with Dryden’s talent and perspicuity landed him the position of Poet Laureate in 1668, after the death of the previous Poet Laureate, William Davenant. A few years later, he was also appointed royal historiographer. In addition to these duties, Dryden had the opportunity to try his hand as a playwright after Charles II granted two patents for the theaters that had been closed by Puritans years earlier. During this period, Dryden composed farces, tragedies, tragicomedies, and remakes of other famous plays. Eventually, he was offered a job as the exclusive playwright for the theater company of Thomas Killigrew, another English dramatist. Two of his most successful plays produced in this period were Marriage a la Mode, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy, and All for Love, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
After a period of successfully penning a number of plays for the company, Dryden began to sharpen the aptitude for satire that he is most well known for today. An important turning point in Dryden’s career came when questions of succession began to arise surrounding Charles II and his brother James. Whig party leaders, who opposed James as the ruler because of his Catholicism, orchestrated the “Popish Plot” to push James out of favor. It was Dryden’s scathing biblical allegory of this conflict, Absalom and Achitophel, that cemented his position as an enemy of protestant dissenters and a die hard supporter of catholic rule. Unfortunately for Dryden, this penchant for satire that led to his eventual deposition as the Poet Laureate at the hands of protestant rebels who assumed the throne after James II.
By 1688 Dryden was forced out of the limelight, back into the realm of purely commercial writing. From this time until his death in 1700, Dryden was able to complete some of his most important works: a series of translations of classical writers and literary anthologies of their work. This branch of Dryden’s career culminated in the completion of Fables Ancient and Modern, an anthology of translations of Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer combined with some of his own verse.