Satire has always shone among the rest,
And is the boldest way, if not the best,
To tell men freely of their foulest faults;
To laugh at their vain deeds, and vainer thoughts.
— John Dryden, from “An Essay Upon Satire”
John Dryden was a central figure in the politics and culture of Restoration England — so central, in fact, that when Dryden’s poem “An Essay Upon Satire” (1679) critiqued aristocratic excess, the embarrassed Earl of Rochester sent men to beat the writer as he walked home from the coffeehouse.
“Dryden spent a life at the edge of political crisis,” said Steven Zwicker, the Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who recently edited “John Dryden: Selected Writings” for Oxford University Press. “He was at his best in the midst of political and writerly turmoil.”
Dryden survived the earl’s attack, and his own sympathies remained with the Stuart court and aristocratic patrons (his wife, Lady Elizabeth, was sister to Sir Robert Howard, a Royalist member of Parliament). But when William of Orange and Mary II deposed James II in 1688, Dryden withheld allegiance from the new monarchs — and lost his post as England’s first poet laureate.
“Selected Writings” charts Dryden’s prose and poetry across four tumultuous decades. The collection begins with a revealing pairing: “Heroique Stanzas” (1659), Dryden’s cautious eulogy for the Puritan ruler Oliver Cromwell, is immediately followed by “Astræa Redux” (1660), which welcomes the new regime of Charles II. Other milestones include the influential mock-epic “Mac Flecknoe” (c. 1676); “Religio Laici” (1682), Dryden’s rumination on faith; excerpts from his translations of Virgil (1697); and the poem “Alexander’s Feast” (1697), which explores, for good and ill, the power of the arts to sway empires and emotions.
“I began working on Dryden as a graduate student, and my first published work was a discovery about his borrowings,” Zwicker said. “A dissertation on Dryden became my first monograph, and many years later I edited Dryden for Penguin Books.”
Zwicker concluded: “’Selected Writings’ brings to completion a decade of teaching, writing, and thinking about a prodigious literary career—John Dryden’s 40 years of writing essays, plays, odes and translations, as well as the greatest satires of his age.”