Biography of John Dryden

John Dryden was a man of many talents. A prolific writer throughout his lifetime and writing over the span of nearly 40 years, he dabbled in a wide range of genres including drama, poetry, criticism, and translation. As a poet, Dryden is best known as a satirist; although he only wrote a handful of satires, they were influential in their time and occupy a position of significance within the English canon to this day. In addition to satires, Dryden wrote several other poems in a variety of genres, including elegies, prologues, epilogues, odes, and panegyrics. His most famous poem is Absalom and Achitophel (1681).

Dryden was born at the vicarage of Aldwinkle in Northampshire on August 9, 1631 to a family of rising Puritan gentry. His parents, Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering, as well as his extended family, were Parliamentary supporters, although Dryden himself revealed Royalist sympathies as early as 1649 in his first published poem, “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings.” As a young boy, Dryden attended the King’s School at Westminster where he studied the Classics. In 1650, he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1654. Three years later, he moved to London, where he first attracted attention with his "Heroic Stanzas" (1659) on the death of Lord Protector Cromwell. In 1667, he wrote a long poem, Annus Mirabilis, in commemoration of the eventful year, which saw both the Great Fire of London and the naval war with the Dutch. This poem secured for Dryden the position of Poet Laureate upon the death of William D'Avenant in 1668. He was also signed by the King’s Company by 1688, and made Historiographer Royal in 1670.

After a string of unsuccessful plays in the late 1670s, Dryden took a break from drama and turned his energy to satire. His work in this genre was very well received, and earned him praise and a great deal of favor with Charles II, who was delighted with Dryden’s sustained attacks against the Whigs during the Exclusion Crisis. In addition to his interest in politics, Dryden was also very interested in theology, an interest reflected in some of his later works, including his poem Religio Laici (1682). He grew up in a Protestant family, but was always uncertain about his religious faith, ultimately converting to Roman Catholicism in 1686; work produced shortly thereafter openly criticized the Anglican church. The conversion to Catholicism and derision of the Anglican church ultimately caused him to lose his laureateship in 1688, when the Protestant William III ascended to the throne. Toward the end of his career, Dryden turned away from poetry and back toward theater as well as toward translation. He died on April 30, 1700 of inflammation caused by gout, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Study Guides on Works by John Dryden

The poem To The Pious Memory of the Accomplish'd Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew, published in 1686, is an elegy written by John Dryden in the memory of Anne Killigrew, a British poet who lived between 1660 and 1685.

Even if Anne Killigrew is...

Those who subscribe to such beliefs will confidently assert that one of Nostradamus’ many intricately abstruse quatrains foretells the coming of the Great London Fire of 1666. As far as city-wide conflagrations go, the 1666 blaze that made its way...

The poem "The Hind and the Panther" was written and published in 1687 by Dryden, being an allegory regarding religion. During the time Dryden wrote his poem, he left the Church of England and converted to Catholicism. The poem is the longest poem...

Mac Flecknoe is one of the four major satires of esteemed English poet John Dryden. The poem is personal satire that has for its target Thomas Shadwell, another poet who had offended Dryden with his aesthetic and political leanings. It is also...

In 1681, a grand jury was convened in Middlesex to consider a bill of charges filed against the Earl of Shaftesbury on the grounds of having committed high treason. The Earl of Shaftesbury had already been earlier immortalized through his infamous...