John Dryden and Social and Literary Background of His Age

Nancy B. Alston

John Dryden (1631-1700), the major poet of the Restoration Age, was born at Aldwincle, a village near Oundle in Northampton shire. His paternal grand father named Sir Eramus Dryden was a baroner and his mother was Lady Pickering, the first cousin of Sir Gilbert Pickering. He received his primary education in the village school of neighbouring Tichmarsh. From Tichmarsh, he passed on to Westminster school about the year 1642. From Westminster, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1650.He was close to Sir Robert Howard that friendship caused of his marriage with Lady Elizabeth in 1663, the daughter of his friend, but the marriage proved unhappy.

Undoubtedly, he was an original and discriminating critic. Dr Johnson called him, “the father of English Criticism”. Besides, he was the founder of modern prose style. He was an outstanding poet and dramatist. In his age, minor literary critics were so many with their erratic work, but the major contemporaries with significant work were Thomas Rhymer, John Dennis and Jeremy Collier. It would be better to discuss social and literary background of his age (1660-1700).

A. Social Background:

The Age of Dryden begins with the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 till the death of the poet in 1700. It will not be exaggeration to say that he was the dominant literary figure who nicely represented the period. His age was deeply influenced by the three historical events: the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the religious and political controversies and the Popish plot, and the Golden Revolution of the year 1688. As far as the Restoration of Charles II is concerned, it increased corruption etc. It took a violent reaction against the Puritan restraints. All the values of society, what the Puritan had prevailed, were violated. The king was very odd had a number of mistresses and illegitimate children. He was irresponsible and unpatriotic who always stood against his promises, broke his treaty with the Dutch and with his own ministers and betrayed his country. His court was dishonourable and the parliament passed the bills against the church and the state with the thirst of revenge from those who were connected with the puritan government of Cromwell. The House of Lords was increased by the creation of hereditary titles, desecrated men and unabashed women. Even the judiciary was not safe.

In this era, the unpleasantness in the field of religious and political parties was strongly vivid. There were the two central political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. They divided the atmosphere of the country with their touch. The Whigs was in favour of limiting the royal power in the interests of the nation and the parliament, where as the Tories was different and it supported the ‘divine right’ theory of the kings. The both parties proved fruitful for the men of literary abilities. They were in pursuit of the support and bribed them with places and pensions. The writers of the day were not free from the political bias and contest.

The religious conflict or bias was more bitter. The nation was dominantly protestant and the catholic worked under a number of disabilities. They had to pay higher taxes and were not permitted to hold any office under the Crown. Such hatred for Catholics was a great issue of that times writing.

Apart from it, in this era the Popish plot comes because the king was very weak in the field of religion but his brother was a Roman Catholic. Charles II had no legitimate son or heir of the throne. After him, his brother James would sit on the throne. The plot was made to exclude him from the throne and create the atmosphere to sit the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II. This controversy was called Popish plot by Titus Oates. Shaftsbury made various attempts to exclude James but the king supported his brother and the way was cleaned for the accession of James. The famous poem of Dryden, Absalam and Achitophel reflects or interprets these religious or political controversies or prejudices of the day.

James II ascended the throne in 1685. He had various plots and under them, he tried to establish Catholicism in the country. Such misrule made him quite unpopular in his country in a short time. In reaction, the nation stood against him and the Bloodless Revolution of 1688 restored the country to pleasant and healthy atmosphere after the suffering of immorality and corruption which had been running since the Restoration. James was exiled and the protestant William and Mary sat on the throne.

B. Literary Background:

In literature, this school of criticism is called Neo-classical, pseudo classical or Augustan Age. In this era, literary men began to imitate the French writers. It was a blind imitation led them copy the worst work instead of using their wit. So it was only copy. They call it Augustan Age because the writers of the time considered their age was as glorious as the age of King Augustus Caesar of Rome. That age produced brilliant literary figures as Horace, Virgil, Longinous and Quintillian. Where as, in this pseudo-classical age, John Dryden was a dominant figure that’s why it is called the Age of Dryden.

The rise of Neo-Classicism broke away the chains of Puritanism. The Post Restoration literature was of Elizabethan Age where as the neo-classical literature stood opposite to the Elizabethan Romanticism. Before Dryden, Sir Philip Sidney and Ben Jonson were two great poets of Elizabethan Age. After Ben Jonson, literary activity in England suffered a lot. Between Ben Jonson and John Dryden is hardly found any major critic because of religious and social controversies. The Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 penetrated a favourable atmosphere with French influence that supplanted sensuous and romantic Italian influence. Charles II and the other literary men were under this influence because they had passed the most time in France. On the return to England, they brought a new gale of French literature, which renounced old ideals and standards. They demanded the English poetry on the new style. The Italian influence was forgone and the literary men started to imitate the French writers blindly. So they copied the worst work instead of using their wit. The influence of French comedy is seen in clumsiness and indecency of The Restoration Comedy of Manners of Dryden, Wycherley and Congreve. The mutual influence of French and Classical models of tragedy is seen in a new genre, the heroic tragedy. It is well represented by Dryden’s ‘Tyrannic Love’. This influence is also responsible for the growth of the opera in the Restoration England.

This reaction was against the romantic inclinations and favoured realism to a great extent. In case of realism, its inception was very bad. The early Restoration writers painted realistic pictures of a corrupt court and society. Their emphasis was on vices rather than virtues and produced coarse and low plays without interest or moral significance. Later, it got change and increased the writers’ interest for the study of practical motives which ruled human actions. One can not gainsay from this statement that it was the reaction against the extravagances of both the Elizabethans and the Metaphysical. John Donne is a metaphysical poet and his followers liked a revolt in favour of order, balance and sanity in literature. They used unlimited hyperboles, far- fetched and violent similes and metaphors and conceits. This reaction supported the tendency towards directness and simplicity and expression. The writers of previous ages were fond of using extravagance in thought and language. The sentences were enriched with classical quotations and references. The Restoration writers opposed it and formed rules and said fare well to the romantic fancy. So the emphasis was on correctness and decorum. Correctness means to foster moderate opinions moderately expressed. The decorum was to pursue the rules of ancients as interpreted by the French. Dryden clearly marked this new tendency and by virtue of his influence, the writers developed that formalism of style which was wrongly called classicism.

In this age, the growth of science, religious and political controversies was found. All gave birth to prose. Arnold says, “The Restoration marks the real moment of birth of our modern English prose.”The previous writers were erratic and their work was over loaded with classical allusions and quotations.Actually, the Elizabethan prose was not appropriate for telling a plain story. The epigrammatic style of Bacon and the grandiloquent prose of Milton could not be suitable for scientific, historical, political and philosophical writings or novel -writing. The spirit of this new type of prose developed and Dryden was the chief leader. His work,’Dramatic Poesy’ introduced a new model of prose which was completely different from the prose of previous ages. He wrote in a plain, simple but precise style, free from exaggeration. The other writers also came under his influence and they also helped to develop the new prose style by their own individual advance. It was rather free from monotony.

Prose was the eminent style or weapon of this era. Even the poetry of this era was also prosaic and it was used for narrative, satiric or didactic purposes. The poetry was for the purpose of persuasion but not for inspiration. It was the favourable style of narrating the controversies that caused the growth of satire. The best poetry of this eon is satirical. Dryden’s ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ is a best known political satire. In this satire, Dryden defends the king against the Earl of Shaftesbury who is represented as Achitophel. His other work ‘Mac Flecknoe’ is an example of personal satire. It also contains a scathing personal attack on Thomas Shadwell who was once a friend of Dryden. ‘The Rehearsal’ depicts the literary vices of the time and is the first literary satire in English literature. His other two poems ‘Religio laici’ and ‘The Hind and the Panther’ are theological and controversial.

The other contribution to this age was the growth and the perfection of the heroic couplet. Chaucer used it but insisted on the thought or notion. Where as the writers of the Restoration gave importance to the form. Waller and Dryden used it with literary fashion. The couplet became “Closed”. Its pair of lines showed a complete thought and was stated as precisely as could be. So it became the order of the day and all other forms of versification were expelled. The dominancy remained a single century and later its freshness passed away.

Such controversies disturbed the age a lot but added a great help in case of literature. It also proved John Dryden an exponent of this neo-classicism and Bunyan was, too, appreciated who worked like John Milton. It brought novelty and expelled monotony from the literature.

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