Dryden the poet is best known today as a satirist, although he wrote only two great original satires, Mac Flecknoe (1682) and The Medall (1682). His most famous poem, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), while it contains several brilliant satiric portraits, unlike satire comes to a final resolution, albeit tragic for both David and his son. Dryden's other great poems— Annus Mirabilis (1667), Religio Laici (1682), The Hind and the Panther (1687), Anne Killigrew (1686), Alexander's Feast (1697), and "To My Honour'd Kinsman" (1700)—are not satires either. And he contributed a wonderful body of occasional poems: panegyrics, odes, elegies, prologues, and epilogues.
Dryden was born 9 August 1631 into an extended family of rising Puritan gentry in Northamptonshire. But as a teenager he was sent to the King's School at Westminster to be trained as a King's Scholar by the brilliant Royalist headmaster Richard Busby. Dryden's family sided with the Commonwealth; however, in his first published poem, the elegy "Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings"—included in a commendatory volume (1649) of verses upon this young aristocrat's untimely death from smallpox—Dryden revealed Royalist sympathies in oblique references to rebellion and regicide. In a bold opening for a young (Puritan) poet—and such bold openings were to become characteristic—Dryden hurls a series of theodicean questions about why the good die young. In the middle of the poem he proffers the only answer the poem yields: "The Nations sin." He seems indirectly to identify this sin when subsequently describing the pustules of Hastings's smallpox: "Who, Rebel-like, with their own Lord at strife, / Thus made an Insurrection 'gainst his Life." What would perhaps have been worse to Dryden's family is his patent refusal to add religious consolation at the end of the elegy. Instead, he suffocates his continuing theodicean challenge—could Heaven choose "no milder way" than the smallpox to recall Hastings?—by the tears of grief instead of the prayers of faith and outrageously suggests that Hastings's disappointed fiancée mate with his soul and engender ideal representations of him. The brash youngster may have been suggesting that she patronize such poets as himself and such ideal "Irradiations" as the current poem.
Aside from two other minor juvenilia (one in a private letter)—and perhaps because of family pressure—Dryden did not go public again until he had left Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, and had been in the employ of Oliver Cromwell's government, probably in the Office of Latin Secretary along with Milton and Marvell. This is perhaps the first evidence of Dryden's trimming his sails to the political winds, as centuries of critics have accused him. His cousin, the prominent Puritan Sir Gilbert Pickering, lord chamberlain to Cromwell, probably procured employment for Dryden, and when the Protector died, Dryden, perhaps out of a sense of duty either internally or externally imposed, published his "Heroique Stanzas, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory ..." of Cromwell in a commendatory volume (1659). People—especially young people—change their opinions all the time, so we should feel no compulsion to make Dryden consistent. But this poem is filled with so many perplexing ambiguities, as especially Steven N. Zwicker has noted, that no coherent republican ideology emerges from it. Dryden skates on perilous ice by outrageously employing in the opening stanzas the metaphor of "treason" to refer to his "best notes": he seems to mean that however good his praise, it cannot properly measure Cromwell's "fame," yet "duty" and "interest" both dictate that he offer such praise as he "can."
Not only does he stumble awkwardly through these early stanzas, Dryden goes on to talk of Cromwell's "Grandeur" as if it seemed greater than it really was; to call attention to Cromwell's ambivalence toward being crowned (especially the ambiguity of Cromwell's "Vertue" not being...
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