John Dryden wrote many poems during the Restoration period, especially his political allegories. John Dryden had a varied career as a writer and often wrote on highly topical subjects – so topical, in fact, that Dryden could write a poem mourning the death of Cromwell in 1658 and a poem, ‘Astraea Redux’ celebrating Charles II in 1660, just two years later. The poem that earned Dryden his reputation for turning the contemporary into poetry is Annus Mirabilis (1667), concerned with the events of 1666, the Fire of London and the defeat of the Dutch navy. We shall look more into Dryden’s political and writing career in his biography.
A Brief History of John Dryden
John Dryden was born in Northampton shire, England on August 9, 1631. He came from a landowning family with connections to parliament and the Church of England. He studied as a king’s scholar at the prestigious Westminster school of London, where he later sent two of his own children. Dryden was trained in the art of rhetorical argument, which remained a strong influe4nce on the poet’s writing and critical thought throughout his life.
Dryden published his first poem in 1649, He enrolled at Trinity College in Cambridge the following year, where he likely studied classics, rhetoric, and mathematics. He obtained his B.A. in 11654, graduating first in his class. In June of that year, Dryden’s father died. After graduation, Dryden found work with Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe, marking a radical shift in the poet’s political views. Alongside Puritan poets, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, Dryden was present at Cromwell’s funeral in 1658 and one year later published his first important poem, Heroic Stanzas, eulogizing the leader.
In 1660, Dryden celebrated the regime of King Charles II with “Astraea Redux”, a royalist panegyric in praise of the new king. In that poem, Dryden apologizes for his allegiance with the Cromwell government. Though Samuel Johnson excused Dryden for this, writing in his Lives of the poets (1779) that “if he changed, he changed with the nation, “he also notes that the earlier work was “not totally forgotten” and in fact “raised him enemies”.
Despite this, Dryden quickly established himself after the Restoration as the leading poet and literary critic of his day. Following the death of William Davenant in April 1668, Dryden became the first official Poet Laurete of England. Dryden died on May 1, 1700 and was initially buried in St. Anne’s Cemetery. In 1710, he was moved to the poets’ corner of Westminster Abbey, where a memorial has been erected.
Dryden’s Political Allegories
Traditionally, there is a tendency to see literature and the other arts as having a fragile connection to politics at most. The aesthetic is above the political. Dryden’s poetry perfectly illustrates this late seventeenth–century combination of the literary and the political. Depending on the poem, literary issues represent politics and political issues can represent literary ones. “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681) was published just before the treason trial of Shaftesbury, leader of the opposition to James’ possible succession, and cast Charles as the biblical David, Shafterbury as Achitophel and the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s illegitimate son) as Absalom.
Understanding the poem, then, requires familiarity with the biblical story and the principal players and stakes in the Exclusion Crisis. Removing this poem from the Exclusion Crisis would leave us with a 1,000 line poem on the Bible (as opposed to a 1,000 – line poem which uses the Bible for a defence of the King’s position in the Exclusion Crisis).
With “MacFlecknoe”, published 1682, Dryden invokes the same anxiety over valid succession, but this time directs his attention toward literary succession skewing Thomas Shadwell: “for anointed dullness he was made”. Ironically and unfortunately for Shadwell, it is through “MacFlecknoe” that he is remembered today. At the time, though, Shadwell had recently taken up Shaftesbury’s side and published a work criticizing Dryden’s defence of the court. In other words, again, the literary and the political merge in any consideration of late seventeenth-century poetry. In this way, it is understandable that the period has on the one hand resisted the Universalist claims often made for great literature while on the other proved such a fruitful area for historicist approaches to literature.