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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on John Dryden. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Dryden in the Octagon

Bust of Dryden by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

His Early Life

John Dryden was born on 9 August 1631 into a puritan family at Aldwincle, Northamptonshire. He was one of fourteen children of Erasmus Dryden and his wife Mary (Pickering). He went to Westminster School as a king’s scholar at the age of fifteen to study under the celebrated headmaster, Dr Richard Busby. Busby was a strict disciplinarian and had the ability to instil Greek and Latin into students at an early age. In 1649 while still at Westminster, Dryden published his first poem “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings” and then entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1650. While at Trinity he published a poem in honour of a friend, John Hoddesdon. In the year of his graduation in 1654, after his father died, he was left the family property which yielded an income of £40 a year.

“His head,” says a contemporary, “was too roving and active, or what else you’ll call it, to confine himself to a College life, and so he…..went to London into gayer company and set up for a poet.”

After he settled in London his first employment was as secretary to his cousin Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was in the service of Cromwell. After the death of his protector in 1658 he is said to have worked for a publisher, Henry Herringman.

Dryden referred to himself as the boy poet. It was his third poem "Heroic Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell" in 1659 which showed some of the energy of style, the rhetorical assurance and the facility in panegyric, which mark his mature verse.

In 1660 political life was in turmoil. Dryden, along with most of his prudent friends, modified his political sympathies and quickly established himself as the poet of the new court. During this time King Charles II granted Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenport official permission in the form of a temporary "privilege", to form acting companies. John Dryden joined the King’s Company of actors and playwrights and met Thomas Killigrew; the King's Company fell under the sponsorship of Charles II himself. Killigrew built a brand-new playhouse known as the King’s Playhouse. In 1672 it burned down but was rebuilt and reopened in 1674. In 1671 the management passed to his son Charles Killigrew, who took over the management of the daily running of the theatre. A theatre still stands where the King’s Playhouse stood – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Dryden wrote several long poems praising the new king, Charles II; Astraea Redux (1660), To His Sacred Majesty….on His Coronation (1661), and To My lord Chancellor (1662). In November 1662 Dryden was proposed for membership in the Royal Society, and he was elected an early fellow. However, Dryden was inactive in Society affairs and in 1666 was expelled for non-payment of his dues. By now he had made the right connections with the Royalist Earl of Berkshire, whose son Sir Robert Howard was a playwright and politician; he then married Sir Robert’s sister, Lady Elizabeth Howard in 1663. In the same year as his marriage Dryden turned to the theatre and dramatic plays for his livelihood. This was the only form of security available to the professional writer. His first comedy play was The Wild Gallant at the Theatre Royal. It was overshadowed by Sir Samuel Tuke’s play, The Adventures of the Five Hours. By 1664 Dryden took a leaf out of Tuke’s book, and being a good businessman followed his example by writing The Rival Ladies which had a complicated “Spanish” plot in blank verse and couplets, and even won Pepys’s approval for “a very innocent and most pretty white play”.

In the year of 1668 he was appointed Poet Laureate, meaning that he was officially employed by the king to write poems in celebration or commemoration of national events.

John Dryden continued to write plays, comedies and poetry. One such play An Evening’s Love, or The Mock-Astrologer (1668) is based on Thomas Corneille’s Le Feint Astrologue. “Tis true,” says Dryden in his preface (1671), “that where ever I have liked any story in a Romance, Novel, or foreign Play, I have made no difficulty……to build it up, and to make it proper for the English stage”. These comedies were based on plots of intrigue and manners and witty dialogue of pairs of lovers. In 1677 he wrote All for Love: or The World well Lost, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, elaborating the last phase into a five-act tragedy and observing “the Unities of Time, place and action…. more exactly…. than perhaps the English theatre requires”. This restriction in scope and setting confines him to a much narrower field of emotion – he is concerned only with the culmination of a tragic love. Dryden gives us a weaker Anthony and Cleopatra with less vital and magnificent characters than Shakespeare’s nobler protagonists. Dryden’s last experiment in 1679 was less successful: this was Troilus and Cressida. There was the thinning of Shakespeare’s poetic wine but no compensating energy of spirit. The story and characters are recast in the mould of the Restoration heroic tradition. It was later remarked upon by Sir Walter Scott as being “Something too nice and fastidious in a critical rule which exacts that the hero and heroine of the drama shall be models of virtuous perfection”.

Other great writers made their remarks on John Dryden literary works: William Wordsworth was not a great fan of Dryden, he complained that the descriptions he uses in his translations from Virgil were very much inferior to the originals. Dryden had his admirers in the literary world such as George Crabbe, Lord Byron, and Walter Scott who edited Dryden's works.

In 1685 John Dryden was received into the Catholic Church, when Catholic toleration was accepted after King James II ascended the throne of England. He remained a devout Catholic the rest of his life. In 1687 he wrote The Hind and the Panther just after his conversion. This did not go down well with the authorities and as a result he lost his laureateship.

Book spines of Dryden rare books

In 1697 he completed singlehandedly a translation of The Works of Virgil, with a dedication of The Aeneid containing a fine critique of Virgil. In 1700, the year of his death, he published a miscellany of Fables Ancient and Modern…..from Homer, Ovid, Boccace and Chaucer.



The Collected Works of John Dryden in the rare books collection [Ref. PR3410 DRY]

His Death

On 13 May 1700 he was buried at St Anne’s cemetery in Soho, a discreet and quiet burial among family and friends. However, ten days later his body was exhumed when it was decided that the occasion should be marked with a lavish public funeral. After his body lay in state at the Physician’s Hall, Dryden was transported to Westminster Abbey in a velvet draped hearse, pulled by six white horses accompanied by singers, and the hearse was followed by forty four coaches.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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