The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 2. His Parentage and Education
John Dryden (he wrote his name thus, though, before him, the spelling was varied both by his kinsmen and by his parents) was born 9 August, 1631, in the parsonage house of Aldwinkle All Saints, near Oundle in Northamptonshire, of which his maternal grandfather, Henry Pickering, was rector. His parents were of good county descent; but his father, Erasmus Dryden, was a younger son with many brothers and sisters, and his estate at Blakesley, on the other side of the county (near Canons-Ashby, the family seat), which afterwards descended to the poet, considerably burdened, was valued at sixty pounds a year in the money of the time. He appears to have resided generally at Tichmarsh, the chief seat of his wife’s family, near Oundle. On both the father’s and the mother’s side, the future laureate of the Stewarts was connected with the parliamentary side; his mother’s cousin-german, Sir Gilbert Pickering, was one of the judges of Charles I (though he did not sit on the final day), and, afterwards, became chamberlain at the protector Oliver’s court and a member of his House of Lords. After receiving his early education either at Tichmarsh or (as is the more usual tradition) at Oundle grammar school, Dryden—at what precise date is unknown—was admitted as a king’s scholar at Westminster, where he was trained under the redoubtable Busby. In a note to a translation of the Third Satire of Persius, published by Dryden in 1693, Dryden states that he remembered translating this satire at Westminster school “for a Thursday-night’s exercise.” The direct influence which exercises of this kind, vigilantly supervised, must have had upon the formation of his style as a writer of English verse is obvious; but, though Dryden surmises that copies of his translations were preserved by Busby, none is extant, and the sole poetical relic of his Westminster days is his contribution to Lachrymae Musarum (1649), in memory of his schoolfellow, Henry Lord Hastings—a small volume, whose black-bordered title-page heralds not less than thirty-three elegiac pieces, by Herrick, Denham, Marvell and others. About Dryden’s juvenile elegy, much that is superfluous has been written; it was not wonderful that a schoolboy poet should exaggerate the bad taste into which the followers of an artificial school of poetry frequently lapsed; but the verses also give proof of that rapidity in connecting thoughts (the very essence of wit) and that felicity in expressing them which were among the chief characteristics of the formed style of Dryden.
In May, 1650, he was admitted as a Westminster scholar at Trinity college, Cambridge, where he matriculated in the following July. Of his college career, nothing is known, except that, quite early in his third year of residence, he underwent a not very serious disciplinary punishment. He took his B.A. degreen in January, 1654, but did not proceed to M.A., which degree he obtained only in 1668, when it was conferred on him at the king’s request by the archbishop of Canterbury (Sheldon). It appears, probably on his own authority, that he continued in residence at Cambridge till 1657; but there is no evidence as to the date when he began his life in London, though he may be concluded to have done so before the death of the protector Oliver (September, 1658).
Cambridge would not seem to have fascinated the imagination, or to have enchained the sympathies, of an alumnus destined to hold a prominent place in her long list of poets. In the earliest years of the second half of the century, the university had much to suffer from the ascendency of the army, and may even momentarily have trembled for its existence. During Oliver’s protectorate, however, when the university was represented in parliament by his son Richard, it began to revive under a more tolerant régime. Dryden’s family connection was, as has been seen, with the party in power; nor was his a nature into which the iron of political tyranny was likely to enter very deeply. But it is quite unnecessary to seek for explanations of the preference which, a quarter of a century later, in one of the several prologues addressed by him to the university of Oxford, he avowed for it, as “Athens,” over his own mother-university, “Thebes”—nor need this preference be taken very seriously. And, in any case, it is quite out of keeping with his usual indifference to such attacks to suppose that his coldness towards Cambridge was due to a captious “Cambridge” pamphlet (which, by the way, was published at Oxford), The Censure of the Rota on Mr. Dryden’s Conquest of Granada (1673); while equally little importance attaches, in this connection, to the statement of Dennis (a Caius man) that, about the same time, not only the town (London), but, also, the university of Cambridge, was very much divided as between Settle and Dryden, “the younger fry,” in both places, “inclining to Elkanah.”
In 1654, soon after Dryden had taken his bachelor’s degree, his father died, and he became the owner of the small paternal estate. From the time of his residence at Cambridge, either before or after this event, hardly any literary remains have come down to us. Dryden, as Malone points out, had no share in any of the collections of contemporary Cambridge verse printed during his period of residence. On the other hand, from the first year of his undergraduateship date the pleasing lines, proudly signed “J. Dryden of Trin. C.,” prefixed to a volume of Epigrams (1650) put forth by his friend John Hoddesdon, who, unlike Dryden himself, was moved to seek reputation as a poet
And a more personal interest attached to a copy of verses forming part of a letter written by him, in acknowledgment of the gift of a silver inkstand, to his cousin Honor, the daughter of Sir John Dryden, the head of the family. They are, as Scott points out, in Cowley’s fantastic and far-fetched style, and are not altogether pleasing. For the superstructure of a supposed attachment and blighted hopes which has been raised upon the evidence of this letter, there is not a tittle of proof.