British poet laureate John Dryden lived in a time when religious turmoil and political turmoil were intertwined to the point of confusion. The answer to the question of whether you considered yourself a Catholic or a Protestant had the power to lead you down a very dark road if answered incorrectly. The question of Catholic or Protestant was also a political point of contention, focusing on the very legitimacy of who sat on the throne as monarch of England. As the issues became more turbulent, they spilled over in the world of literature, and John Dryden was the first or only poet to take his pen to composition on the matter.
The appearance in 1682 of Religio Laici; or, A Layman’s Faith coincided with the appearance of plots to assassinate the king. The poem was essentially a literary defense of the Protestant Anglican Church against arguments made by Deists, Catholics and Dissenting opinions. Essentially, Dryden was using Religio Laici to proclaim his support of the Church of England as the one true church of England. At the same time, in true Dryden fashion, the poem also works as sharp satire cutting with precision through what he considered the absolute absence of reason among those who would dissent to the view.
Religio Laici might have come and gone as little more than a footnote in Dryden’s career had it not been the publication, five years later, of The Hind and the Panther. Two years before—and just three years after writing Religio Laici—Dryden had converted to Catholicism after the ascension of James II to the throne. The position taken in the latter poem seemed to be in direct contradiction to the heartfelt expressions of support of the Protestant cause in the former. What had barely registered in the consciousness of the people when it was originally published was now much more well-known as result of becoming propaganda to be used against him by his enemies.
In 1688 Dryden found himself stuck between a rock and hard place when James II was deposed. Taking the high road, Dryden refused to swear allegiance to the new regime, a choice that cost him his position as poet laureate.