Born: Probably on August 9, 1631, in Aldwinckle, Northamptonshire, England
Died: May 1, 1700, in London, England
John Dryden was the son of a country gentleman Erasmus Dryden, and Mary Pickering. When Dryden was eleven years old, the English Civil War began and, during the war, his parents sided with Parliament against the king. This likely influenced Dryden's political leanings at an early age. Later, however, Dryden shifted his support to the king, writing poems in celebration of King Charles' return to the throne.
In 1644, he studied classics at Westminster School, and in 1650 enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1654 he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. While at Cambridge, he developed a broad knowledge on many subjects which became evident in his later poetry.
On December 1, 1663, Dryden married Lady Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of an earl. Together they had three sons. Shortly after their marriage, he began his full time dedication to writing. Of his almost thirty plays, however, none have endured. While many of them were popular in his day, they have failed the test of time. His most popular play was one of his earliest works, a farcical comedy named Wild Gallant.
His next work was a collaboration with his wife's brother, Sir Robert Pickering. This first joint effort, The Indian Queen, was performed in 1664. Their collaboration continued and they produced several successful comedies together including Secret Love.
Dryden continued his poetry in praise of the king and when Sir William Davenant died, Dryden was appointed poet laureate and the Keeper of Royal History. About this same time, he began a partnership with Thomas Killigrew's theater company. Together, they were successful in presenting both comedic and heroic plays including The Conquest of Granada in 1670-1671.
As the years passed, Dryden's style underwent slow but dramatic changes. He abandoned his earlier bombastic spectacles in favor of more subtlety, blank verse and tragedy. The action was no longer developed from historical narrative but rather from the situations and characters on stage.
Dryden's play All for Love in 1678 was the only play that he wrote without collaboration and is regarded as his best work. Unfortunately, the tragedy is based on the story of Anthony and Cleopatra, and has been lost behind the popularity of Shakespeare's work on the same subject.
In 1681, it was expected that the king would be succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother; however, the king intended to pass reign to his illegitimate Protestant son. The earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whig party, attempted to thwart the king's plans but was caught and imprisoned on charges of high treason. In support of the king, the ever loyal Dryden wrote Absalom and Achitophel which clearly exalted the king and discredited those who opposed him.
The eventual abdication of the king forced Dryden from his comfortable position as poet laureate. To support himself, he turned once again to writing for the stage in a collaboration with the composer Purcell. Together, they produced the dramatic musical King Arthur which was performed in 1691.
In his later years, Dryden made use of his earlier training in the classics when he was called upon to translate many great works such as those of Virgil. He was often seen talking with other writers in a seat permanently reserved for him at Will's Coffee House. He died in 1700 and was buried at Westminster in the Poets' Corner between Chaucer and Cowley.