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About this poet

Born in Northamptonshire, England, on August 9, 1631, John Dryden 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. There, Dryden was trained in the art of rhetorical argument, which remained a strong influence 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 the classics, rhetoric, and mathematics. He obtained his BA in 1654, 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 Cromwellian 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 "rased him enemies."

Despite this, Dryden quickly established himself after the Restoration as the leading poet and literary critic of his day. He published To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation (1662), and To My Lord Chancellor (1662), possibly to court aristocratic patrons. That year, Dryden was proposed for membership in the Royal Society, and was elected an early fellow. In 1663, he married Lady Elizabeth, the royalist sister of Sir Robert Howard.

Following the death of William Davenant in April 1668, Dryden became the first official Poet Laureate of England, conferred by a letters patent from the king. The royal office carried the responsibility of composing occasional works in celebration of public events. Dryden, having exhibited that particular dexterity with his earlier panegyrics, was a natural choice. Though the position was most often held for life (until 1999), Dryden was the lone exception. He was dismissed by William III and Mary II in 1688 after he refused to swear an oath of allegiance, remaining loyal to James II.

As a playwright, Dryden published The Wild Gallant in 1663. Though it was not financially successful, he was commissioned to produce three plays for the King's Company, in which he later became a shareholder. His best known dramatic works are Marriage á la Mode (1672) and All for Love (1678), which was written in blank verse.

When the bubonic plague swept through London in 1665, Dryden moved to Wiltshire where he wrote Of Dramatick Poesie (1668). The longest of his critical works, the piece takes the form of a dialogue among characters debating and defending international dramatic works and practices. In 1678, Dryden wrote Mac Flecknoe (1682), a work of satiric verse attacking Thomas Shadwell, one of Dryden's prominent contemporaries, for his "offenses against literature." Other works of satire, a genre for which Dryden has received significant praise, include Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and The Medal (1682).

Though his early work was reminiscent of the late metaphysical work of Abraham Cowley, Dryden developed a style closer to natural speech which remained the dominant poetic mode for more than a century. He is credited with standardizing the heroic couplet in English poetry by applying it as a convention in a range of works, including satires, religious pieces, fables, epigrams, prologues, and plays.

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.

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,   
      This universal frame began:   
  When nature underneath a heap   
      Of jarring atoms lay,   
    And could not heave her head, 
The tuneful voice was heard from high,   
    'Arise, ye more than dead!'   
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,   
  In order to their stations leap,   
     And Music's power obey. 
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,   
   This universal frame began:   
   From harmony to harmony   
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,   
The diapason closing full in Man. 
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?   
    When Jubal struck the chorded shell,   
  His listening brethren stood around,   
    And, wondering, on their faces fell   
  To worship that celestial sound: 
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell   
    Within the hollow of that shell,   
    That spoke so sweetly, and so well.   
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?   
    The trumpet's loud clangour  
      Excites us to arms,   
    With shrill notes of anger,   
      And mortal alarms.   
  The double double double beat   
      Of the thundering drum 
      Cries Hark! the foes come;   
  Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat!   
    The soft complaining flute,   
    In dying notes, discovers   
    The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.   
    Sharp violins proclaim   
  Their jealous pangs and desperation,   
  Fury, frantic indignation,   
  Depth of pains, and height of passion, 
    For the fair, disdainful dame.   
    But O, what art can teach,   
    What human voice can reach,   
      The sacred organ's praise?   
    Notes inspiring holy love, 
  Notes that wing their heavenly ways   
    To mend the choirs above.   
  Orpheus could lead the savage race;   
  And trees unrooted left their place,   
    Sequacious of the lyre; 
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:   
When to her organ vocal breath was given,   
  An angel heard, and straight appear'd   
    Mistaking Earth for Heaven.   

As from the power of sacred lays 
  The spheres began to move,   
And sung the great Creator's praise   
  To all the Blest above;   
So when the last and dreadful hour   
This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high,   
The dead shall live, the living die,   
And Music shall untune the sky!



John Dryden

John Dryden

Born on August 9, 1631, John Dryden was the leading poet and literary critic of his day and he served as the first official Poet Laureate of England

by this poet

Why should a foolish marriage vow, 
  Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now
  When passion is decay'd?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
  Till our love was loved out in us both:
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
  'Twas pleasure first made it an oath.

If I have
Our author, by experience, finds it true,
'Tis much more hard to please himself than you;
And out of no feign'd modesty, this day
Damns his laborious trifle of a play;
Not that it's worse than what before he writ,
But he has now another taste of wit;
And, to confess a truth, though out of time,
Grows weary of
A song in honour of St. Cecilia's day, 1697.

'Twas at the royal feast for Persia won   
        By Philip's warlike son—   
    Aloft in awful state   
    The godlike hero sate   
        On his imperial throne; 
  His valiant peers were placed around,   
Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound