Dates: 9 August 1631 to 30 April (or 1 May) 1700
Occupation: Poet, playwright, critic
Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Dryden was one of the great dramatists of his time. He was exposed to humanist and strongly Protestant influences but converted to the Catholic Church. At the time, it was politically expedient to have done so, but he retained his Catholic faith when William III was on the throne, even though this cost him the role as poet laureate.
Dryden has been described as “the first English author to earn his living by his writing”.
Comments on converting to Catholicism
Dryden wrote a public apology for his conversion to the Catholic Church in the form of The Hind and the Panther, the hind representing the Catholic Church and the panther being the Church of England. The following lines are extracted from that poem:
On the Catholic Church:
A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchang'd.
The unerring teaching of the Catholic Church:
What weight of ancient witness can prevail,
If private reason hold the public scale?
But, gracious God, how well dost thou provide
For erring judgments an unerring guide!
Thy throne is darkness in th' abyss of light.
A blaze of glory that forbids the sight.
O teach me to believe Thee thus conceal'd,
And search no farther than Thyself reveal'd.
On Christian truth and on the real presence:
Were all those wonders wrought by power divine,
As means or ends of some more deep design?
Most sure as means, whose end was this alone,
To prove the Godhead of the Eternal Son.
God thus asserted, man is to believe
Beyond what sense and reason can conceive,
And for mysterious things of faith rely
On the proponent, Heaven's authority.
If, then, our faith we for our guide admit,
Vain is the farther search of human wit;
As when the building gains a surer stay,
We take the unuseful scaffolding away.
Reason by sense no more can understand;
The game is play'd into another hand.
Why choose we, then, like bilanders, to creep
Along the coast, and land in view to keep,
When safely we may launch into the deep?
In the same vessel which our Saviour bore,
Himself the pilot, let us leave the shore,
And with a better guide a better world explore.
Could he his Godhead veil with flesh and blood,
And not veil these again to be our food?
His grace in both is equal in extent,
The first affords us life, the second nourishment.
And if he can, why all this frantic pain
To construe what his clearest words contain,
And make a riddle what he made so plain?
On the Anglican church:
The Panther, sure the noblest, next the Hind,
And fairest creature of the spotted kind;
Oh, could her inborn stains be wash'd away,
She were too good to be a beast of prey!
How can I praise, or blame, and not offend,
Or how divide the frailty from the friend!
Her faults and virtues lie so mix'd that she
Nor wholly stands condemn'd, nor wholly free.
On taking the easy option:
Confessions, fasts, and penance set aside,
Oh, with what ease we follow such a guide,
Where souls are starved, and senses gratified!
On the contradictions within Anglican teaching:
In doubtful points betwixt her differing friends,
Where one for substance, one for sign contends,
Their contradicting terms she strives to join;
Sign shall be substance, substance shall be sign.
A real presence all her sons allow,
And yet 'tis flat idolatry to bow,
Because the Godhead's there they know not how.
Her novices are taught that bread and wine
Are but the visible and outward sign,
Received by those who in communion join.
But the inward grace, or the thing signified,
His blood and body, who to save us died;
The faithful this thing signified receive:
What is't those faithful then partake or leave?
For what is signified and understood,
Is, by her own confession, flesh and blood.
Then, by the same acknowledgment, we know
They take the sign, and take the substance too.
The literal sense is hard to flesh and blood,
But nonsense never can be understood.
On the fatally flawed authority of the Anglican church:
Fierce to her foes, yet fears her force to try,
Because she wants innate authority;
For how can she constrain them to obey,
Who has herself cast off the lawful sway?
Before the Word was written, said the Hind,
Our Saviour preach'd his faith to human kind:
From his apostles the first age received
Eternal truth, and what they taught believed.
Thus by Tradition faith was planted first;
Succeeding flocks succeeding pastors nursed.
This was the way our wise Redeemer chose
(Who sure could all things for the best dispose),
To fence his fold from their encroaching foes.
The full text of the poem from which the above extracts are taken.
© Ray Chidell 2010