Dryden and the Job of "Author"
Dryden occupies an unusual place in the course's system of readings because he appears to have grown up knowing he would live by his pen, but he was not only a success as a playwright, as so many non-noble authors did (e.g., Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Behn). He also wrote "public" poems on national occasions, helping form the English idea of national identity (e.g., "Annus Mirabilus"), and he published prose essays on English literature, establishing himself as the first "critic" or serious analytical reader of literature. As the Norton editors say, "he took literature seriously" (2071). That is, he might be called "the first English Major." Note especially his publication in 1668 of An Essay on Dramatic Poetry, the same year in which Charles II named him England's "poet laureate," followed two years later by his appointment as "historiographer royal." Dryden established a kind of bridge between the two literary economies, works written for an elite "Patron" and rewarded with gifts or annual stipends, and works written for the general public who bought them as "patrons" of booksellers who, in turn, paid the author. The combination gave him a degree of freedom from slavish dependence upon either audience, but he also stuck to the middle ground, politically, to avoid giving offence to either, as well. Over time, two differing aesthetics slowly developed. At first, the royal patron's aesthetic tastes ruled all serious literary production, but gradually, what pleased the public became more important to authors, and teaching the public to become better consumers of literature became part of Dryden's job. Hence, the critical essays.
Late in life, when the L200/year stipend from the Crown was no longer able to support Dryden, he turned to publishing translations to make money--note who he translates in Fables Ancient and Modern--Ovid, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. Who's the odd one in that group and what does that mean? Moreover, what does it mean that Dryden can confidently predict that there will be a large enough market for these translations to make them profitable? What is happening in English culture?