John Dryden
All for Love
The Tales from Chaucer
"A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one but all mankind's epitome.
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything in starts and nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolting moon,
Was chemist, statesman, fiddler and buffoon." (Absolom and Achitophel (1681))

John Dryden, educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, is one of the key figures in 17th century writing. He is also one of the hardest to pin down. He is dramatist, poet and essayist, serious writer of panegyric verse and author of some of the most biting attacks imaginable (sometimes in the same poem). During the Protectorate he was on the anti-monarchical Puritan side, but upon the accession of James II was a Catholic. Yet, despite the contradictions in his character and art, Dryden does not come across as an insincere writer. Even in his early successes, the poems "Upon the death of Lord Hastings" (1649) and the "Heroique Stanzas" (1658), where his aim is to raise up an individual in high esteem, there is no sense of cynicism.

After Astraea Redux in 1660 and at the time when he wrote his fine but sometimes somewhat dry longer poem, Annus Mirabilis (1667), Dryden achieved great fame with his plays. Serious drama such as The Indian Emperour (1665) and Tyrannick Love (1669) were part of the fashion for rhymed heroic plays, but he also wrote comedies. Examples of Dryden's comic drama are The Wild Gallant (1663) and The Rival Ladies (1664). None of these plays have lasted terribly well and are considered minor works now by most critics, but some of his tragic-comedies (Marriage-a-la- Mode (1672) is a famous example) retain some of their original interest and display innovation on the part of their author not present in his adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, written with D'Avenant. During this time he wrote critical works, notably Of Dramatick Poesie (1668), which is interesting particularly for its discussion of rhyme's place in theatre, and essays prefixing his plays that have subsequently been compiled.

Made poet laureate in 1668 and historiographer royal in 1670, Dryden began to write works of greater substance including two superior dramatic Shakespeare adaptations: Troilus and Cressida (1679) and particularly All For Love (1678), a new version of Antony and Cleopatra, acclaimed as his best play, that was written in blank verse. Famed for his drama and his criticism (which regularly swayed between opinions as he reconsidered his points of view) and given a high profile due to his laureateship, Dryden came under attack by his peers (see Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671) where he is satirised as 'Bayes'), especially Shadwell. He seemed to court such verbal and occasionally physical violence (he was assaulted in 1679) by including vicious and always hilarious parodies of his enemies in verse as serious as they were amusing. Dryden's satire of those he saw as evil, corrupt or useless tended to appear in verse. The best examples are MacFlecknoe (1682), an attack on Shadwell, and the brilliant first part of Absolom and Achitophel (1681).

Dryden's later poetry is often religious in its subject. Religio Laici (1682) and The Hind and the Panther (1687), while representing Anglican and Catholic causes respectively, are convincing and occasionally very funny. He was not afraid to mix his philosophy with his wit, and as such even these contradictory and sometimes spurious tracts remain well worth reading if not always convincing. In the late 1680s and first half of the 1690s, Dryden returned to the theatre and wrote Don Sebastian (1689) and others before becoming bored and dissatisfied with the form again.

His final years were not wasted, though, as he turned to translating. Without doubt one of the greatest writers ever in this field, he used talents drawn from his own poetic writing to revitalise parts of Ovid, Homer, Lucretius, Boccaccio and Chaucer. Alongside these are the Fables Ancient and Modern, a final great work from one of the most diversely talented writers in all of English literature. Dryden died in 1700 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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