The First Laureate: John Dryden
IN 1668 John Dryden was thirty-seven and he had been before the public as an author for a number of years. He was a man of good Midland stock, born at Aldwinkle All Saints, Northamptonshire, on April 9, 1631, and educated at Westminster and Trinity, Cambridge. He inherited some slight income from his father (who died in 1654) and at first leaving the university seems to have been content with comparative idleness. He certainly did not turn early to letters; a few schoolboy verses represent all he could do before the age of twenty-seven -- an age when, if W. J. Cory may be credited, 'one's feelings lose poetic flow'; but Dryden's poetic flow was yet to come.
He made a sure start with his 'Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Cromwell' -- originally, but less familiarly, 'A Poem Upon the Death of His Late Highness Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland' ( 1659). This is remarkable for its moderation and good sense (a few prosodic excesses apart) and is, moreover, an accomplished poem of which a practised poet need not have felt ashamed. Had Dryden in the ten years or so since the wholly inadequate exercises of his schooldays, written verses which are now lost?1
It is possible; for the writing of poetry was a common occupation for a gentleman, and the heroic stanzas show an easy familiarity not inherent in the rather pedestrian 'Gondibert' stanza which Dryden borrowed from Davenant:
He fought, secure of fortune as of fame, Till by new maps the island might be shewn; Of conquests, which he strewed wher'er he came Thick as the galaxy with stars is sown.