John Dryden: First Poet Laureate

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Three hundred and fifty years ago this year, John Dryden (1631-1700), was appointed by Charles II as the first official holder of the position of Poet Laureate. Dryden was born in Aldwinkle and raised in Titchmarsh, both in Northamptonshire.  Later he was educated at Westminster School and then here at Trinity between 1650 and 1654. The College has educated two other Laureates since then: Laurence Eusden (1688-1730) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

R.3.10, f.1r

Trinity owns an early manuscript copy of John Dryden’s The Indian Emperour (R.3.10) which was first performed in London at the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street in 1665 and brought him his first real success as a playwright. Trinity’s copy was owned by Elizabeth Newton Puckering in 1665 and donated to Trinity College in 1691 by her husband Sir Henry Puckering (formerly Newton). The play was first printed in 1667.

Plague closed the London theatres in late 1665 and Dryden moved to Wiltshire where he continued to produce new work including a play, Secret Love, the influential essay, Of Dramatick Poesie and the poem Annus Mirabilis which considered two events of 1666: the second Anglo Dutch war and the fire of London. The success of these works, especially Annus Mirabilis, may have been influential in his appointment as Poet Laureate. It became (and remains) the expectation that people appointed to this role write verses for significant national events and occasions. One of the best-known examples is Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Dryden became one of the major figures in Restoration culture but was dismissed as Laureate following the accession of William and Mary in 1689 because, as a convert to Catholicism, he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to them. He remains the only Poet Laureate ever to have been dismissed.

Poetry by Dryden, Eusden and Tennyson as well as many other poets associated with Trinity college is included in the anthology Trinity Poets, edited by Adrian Poole and Angela Leighton, published in 2017.