He turned eighteen the year Charles I lost his head. His first job was in Cromwell’s cabinet. When monarchy swung back in, Charles II made him the first Poet Laureate. William and Mary, when they seized the throne, stripped him of his role. Initially buried in a small Soho churchyard, he was disinterred within days and laid beside Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.

John Dryden (1631–1700) may have had the most turbulent career in English letters. Productivity alone seems to have balanced him: stacks upon stacks of plays, occasional poems, political and religious allegories, elegies, histories, and odes that have inspired composers since Handel.

It is astounding to learn that only sixty-two letters, now collected with wonderfully thorough notes by Stephen Bernard and John McTague,...


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