Dryden John

John Dryden (1631 – 1700), 2nd cousin 11x removed


John Dryden, poet (1631-1700)

John Dryden, poet (1631-1700)

John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as “the Age of Dryden”.  He was made Poet Laureate in 1668.  Dryden was born in the village rectory of Aldwincle near Thrapston in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was Rector of All Saints.  He was the eldest of fourteen children born to Erasmus Dryden and wife Mary Pickering, paternal grandson of Sir Erasmus Dryden, 1st Baronet (1553–1632) and wife Frances Wilkes, Puritan landowning gentry who supported the Puritan cause and Parliament.  He was also a second cousin once removed of Jonathan Swift.  Dryden was the dominant literary figure and influence of his age.  He established the heroic couplet as a standard form of English poetry by writing successful satires, religious pieces, fables, epigrams, compliments, prologues, and plays with it.  He also introduced the alexandrine and triplet into the form.  In his poems, translations, and criticism, he established a poetic diction appropriate to the heroic couplet – Auden referred to him as “the master of the middle style” – that was a model for his contemporaries and for much of the 18th century.  The considerable loss felt by the English literary community at his death was evident from the elegies that it inspired.  Dryden’s heroic couplet became the dominant poetic form of the 18th century.  The most influential poet of the 18th century, Alexander Pope, was heavily influenced by Dryden, and often borrowed from him.  Other writers were equally influenced by Dryden and Pope.  Pope famously praised Dryden’s versification in his imitation of Horace’s Epistle II.i: Dryden taught to join / The varying pause, the full resounding line, / The long majestic march, and energy divine.  Samuel Johnson summed up the general attitude with his remark that “the veneration with which his name is pronounced by every cultivator of English literature, is paid to him as he refined the language, improved the sentiments, and tuned the numbers of English poetry.”  His poems were very widely read, and are often quoted, for instance, in Tom Jones and Johnson’s essays.  Johnson also noted, however, that “He is, therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often pathetic; and had so little sensibility of the power of effusions purely natural, that he did not esteem them in others.  Simplicity gave him no pleasure.” The first half of the 18th century did not mind this too much, but in later generations, this was increasingly considered a fault.  One of the first attacks on Dryden’s reputation was by Wordsworth, who complained that Dryden’s descriptions of natural objects in his translations from Virgil were much inferior to the originals.  However, several of Wordsworth’s contemporaries, such as George Crabbe, Lord Byron and Walter Scott (who edited Dryden’s works), were still keen admirers of Dryden.  Besides, Wordsworth did admire many of Dryden’s poems, and his famous “Intimations of Immortality” ode owes something stylistically to Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast”.  John Keats admired the “Fables,” and imitated them in his poem “Lamia”.  Later 19th century writers had little use for verse satire, Pope, or Dryden.  Matthew Arnold famously dismissed them as “classics of our prose.”  He did have a committed admirer in George Saintsbury and was a prominent figure in quotation books such as Bartlett’s, but the next major poet to take an interest in Dryden was T. S. Eliot, who wrote that he was “the ancestor of nearly all that is best in the poetry of the eighteenth century”, and that “we cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden.[1]


Frontispiece and title page from volume II of a 1716 edition of the Works of Virgil translated by John Dryden.

Dryden is also believed to be the first person to posit that English sentences should not end in prepositions, because it was against the rules of Latin grammar.  Dryden created the prescription against preposition stranding in 1672 when he objected to Ben Jonson’s 1611 phrase “the bodies that those souls were frightened from”, although he didn’t provide an explanation of the rationale that gave rise to his preference.


John Dryden (1631 – 1700), 2nd cousin 11x removed – Erasmus Dryden (1588 – 1654) – Erasmus Dryden (1553 – 1632) – Sir John Dryden (1525 – 1584) – Bridget Elizabeth Dryden (1563 – 1644) – Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson (1591 – 1643) – Edward (Capt.) Hutchinson (1613 – 1675) – Anne Hutchinson (1643 – 1716) – Ann Dyer (1672 – 1731) – Joseph Clarke (1694 – 1737) – Benjamin Clarke (1721 – 1790) – John Clarke (1780 – 1865) – Oratio Dyer Clarke (1811 – 1899) – Harriet Allen Clarke (1839 – 1898) – Clarence Clark Hamlin (1868 – 1940) – Elizabeth Gunnell Hamlin (1901 – 1982) – Tor Martin Hylbom (1939 – 2009) – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom


[1] Eliot, T. S., “John Dryden”, in Selected Essays, (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p. 305-06.


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