Absalom and Achitophel by John Dryden: AnalysisThe supreme merit of Absalom and Achitophel lies beyond doubt in its superb gallery of satiric portrayal of characters. His portraits shine with carefully detailed descriptions, and all such descriptions do not transgress the limits of moderation and sobriety. He tries to be fair and avoids high-flown language. Though he is not above being coarse and indecent sometimes, yet as a rule he is tolerant like Chaucer.
His portraits, thus, become specimens of the living human being of day-to-day life and not as monsters or gods as presented in lesser satirists. He does not affect moral indignation anywhere in the poem, for he knew that moral indignation was insufferable in political satires. He treats his victims with cool scorn and with no touch of ill-humor.
Another noteworthy thing about Dryden, the satirist, is that he never takes an unfair advantage over his enemies. In the words of Lowell, “He knocks them down and there is an end." Dryden himself tells us that he does not call a man a villain or a rogue, but makes him look like a fool or a native without using any of these epithets. It is the spirit of good-humored ridicule which he advocated and which he introduced for the first time in English satire. He does not shrink from bestowing praise where it is due. Prior to his turning an intriguer of revolt, Achitophel was a judge. What was he as a judge, Dryden thus describes: "Yet fame deserved no enemy can grudge; The statesman we abhor, but praise that judge." This recognition of the good side with the bad has lent to Dryden's portraiture the beauty of variety. This apart, he is constantly moving from particular to general, from the individual to the typical. His Achitophel is Shaftesbury, an individual intriguer and plotter, yet, in the abstract, he is a type true in all times and climes. His portrait of Zimri is unique in English literature. He is at once Buckingham and the idle grand noble who experiments in politics playfully. There lies the secret of the popularity of Dryden's satire, even today when the personalities ridiculed and held in humorous scorn have passed into the limbo of forgotten things.
By comparing mere human beings such as Shaftesbury and Monmouth with biblical characters such as Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden succeeded in exposing the pettiness and the dishonesty of Shaftesbury and Monmouth. The treatment, in other words, is ironical. It is with the last statement that Shaftesbury and Monmouth have been compared to Achitophel and Absalom mock-heroically--that the present editor disagrees with. The adoption of the biblical allegory was not meant to be consistent ironical, affecting Charles II and Shaftesbury alike. We have already seen that comparing Charles II to King David was by now an established literary tradition which was not necessarily ironical. Parts of Absalom and Achitophel are definitely ironical, as for example the beginning of the poem. Similarly, character sketches of Zimri, Shimei, Corah have definite satiric touches, which Dryden has himself qualified as Varronian. But to classify the whole of Absalom and Achitophel as a satire is to assume that a part amounts to the whole.
In writing Absalom and Achitophel the political and philosophical stakes were too high for Dryden to write a consistent and complex satire and risk his readers losing the message. If there is misrepresentation in Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden could ill afford his readers to think that the misrepresentation was factual. In fact, it was just the opposite. In the prefatory remarks to the poem Dryden claims that he is writing history. Satire, in other words, at least for a writer like Dryden, was for less important subjects or individuals. When it concerns the very future of monarchy, satire was not the proper literary technique. Dryden, unfortunately for us, complicates the issue by referring to his poem as a satire. Therefore, if we are to go by what the author said about his poem, Absalom and Achitophel may be called a satire.
But that should not be the sole criterion for classifying this work. In the late seventeenth century, the purpose of satire was broadly described as a reformed one (Dryden's justifying the poem as a satire in the preface is a good example). To the extent Absalom and Achitophel was written to reform the ways of Country Party politicians, the poem may be called a satire. It is, however, only a partial view of satire. There has to be consistent irony and therefore a misrepresentation of the truth, and most importantly, a tacit agreement between the writer and the reader that there is a misrepresentation. Given the political liabilities, Absalom and Achitophel simply couldn't afford to be a satire.
And yet it has some drawbacks, too. Its one great fault is its abrupt end. There is no poetic justice and it lacks in conclusion, the plot or action. Some of the characters in the poem do speak, but without any follow-up action. "Jove nods, Olympus trembles, the cloudy scenes fade away." But nothing comes to pass. Noise and fury are galore, but they mean little and point to nothing. In spite of these minor defects, the poem is remarkable for its allegory, the epic form and allusive irony and heroic style. What gives the poem its distinctive quality is that within this heroic framework, Dryden employs every resource of the satirist, from the blandly impudent irony of the opening lines through the 'fine raillery' of the 'character' of Zimri (Buckingham), to the fiercely scornful invective against Corah (Titus Oates). Everywhere the treatment of serious subjects is enlivened by touches wit and humor.
John Dryden claimed that Absalom and Achitophel was carefully planned to promote political reform. To gain this end, Dryden used satire, the true aim of which he defined as “the amendment of vices by correction.” The particular vices he wanted to correct were those of the Whigs of his day, who were seeking to secure the succession of the duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, to his father’s throne. Second, realizing that direct satire might defeat its purpose by incurring resentment, Dryden chose to attack the Whigs by casting them as characters in the biblical story of Absalom’s revolt against David. Third, to increase his satire’s effectiveness, he cast it in verse, “for there’s a sweetness in good verse, which tickles even while it hurts.”
Written in heroic couplets, Absalom and Achitophel is often called Dryden’s best poem, and it is one of the most famous political satires ever written. Its direct literary influence reaches from Dryden’s contemporaries to Alexander Pope and Charles Churchill in the eighteenth century and to Lord Byron in the nineteenth century. In the poem, Dryden indicates similarities between the biblical story, which tells how the wicked Achitophel urged King David’s illegitimate son Absalom to rise up against his father, and events in England between 1678 and 1681, when Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, a leader of the Whiggish opposition to the king, was accused of persuading James Scott, duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, to rebel against his father.
Perhaps Dryden intended his poem, published in November, 1681, to help in convicting Shaftesbury, on trial for treason for his part in the rebellion. If so, Dryden was not successful: The jury, friendly to Shaftesbury, declared it did not have sufficient evidence for a conviction and acquitted Shaftesbury. Dryden’s devastating satire probably helped to create an atmosphere so hostile to the earl that soon after the trial he fled to Holland, where he remained until his death several years later.
The poem is difficult reading for those unaccustomed to satire, unversed in the Bible, and unacquainted with late seventeenth century English history. It presented no problems to readers in Dryden’s day, who, vitally interested in contemporary politics and well read in the Bible, were able to correlate King David’s situation with that of Charles II. The Bible not only gave Dryden’s satire a ready-made, well-known reference; it also provided heavenly authority for condemning the...
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