Absalomlom and Achitophel is a considerably very long poem consisting of a total of 1031 lines. Although a discussion of the whole poem is intended, for our convenience, we shall have a look at the first 179 lines so that you can have an idea of Dryden’s art of writing. However, we insist that you read the entire poem in original to have a clear approach to Dryden’s achievement as a satirist.
SUMMARY OF THE POEM ABSALOM AND ACHITOPHEL
The story of Absalom’s revolt against his father David is told in the Second Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. The handsome Absalom is distinguished by extraordinarily abundant hair, which symbolises his pride. When David’s renowned advisor, Ahitophel joins Absalom’s rebellion, another advisor, Hushai also joins hands. The result was that Absalom takes the advice of the double agent Hushai over the good advice of Ahitophel, who realising that the rebellion is doomed to failure, goes home and hangs himself. Absalom is killed, against David’s commands. The death of his son causes David enormous personal grief. Taking this as the background, Dryden makes Monmouth represent Absalom, Charles represent David, and Shaftesbury represent Achitophel. It also paints Buckingham, an old enemy of Dryden’s into Zimri, the unfaithful servant. The poem places most of the blame for the rebellion on Shaftesbury and makes Charles a very reluctant and loving man who has to be the king. The poem also refers to some of the Popish Plot. The poem is an allegory that uses the story of the rebellion of Absalom against King David as the basis for discussion of the background to the Monmouth Rebellion (1685), the Popish Plot (1678) and the Exclusion Crisis. So, the two stories run parallelly.
England under the reign of Charles II was a place of corruption and immorality. He had had several mistresses and produced a number of illegitimate children. One of these was James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, who was very popular, both for his personal charisma and his fervour for the Protestant cause. Charles had no legitimate heirs, and his brother, the future James II of England was suspected of being a Roman Catholic. When Charles’s health suffered, there was a panic in the House of Commons over the potential for the nation being ruled by a Roman Catholic king. The Earl of Shaftesbury had sponsored and advocated the Exclusion Bill, but this bill was blocked by the House of Lords on two occasions. In the Spring of 1681, at the Oxford Parliament, Shaftesbury appealed to Charles II to legitimate Monmouth. Monmouth was caught preparing to rebel and seek the throne, and Shaftesbury was suspected of fostering this rebellion. The poem was written, possibly at Charles’s behest, and published in early November of 1681. On November 24, 1681, Shaftesbury was seized and charged with high treason. A trial before a jury picked by Whig sheriffs acquitted him. Later, after the death of his father and unwilling to see his uncle James II become King, the Duke of Monmouth executed his plans and went into full revolt. The Monmouth Rebellion was put down, and in 1685 the Duke was executed. What is so significant is the fact that Dryden transformed these incidents into a very powerful verse-satire.
Dryden wrote this poem in an eloquent, flexible, cogent yet controversial poetic style. According to David Daiches, Dryden built on the ‘reform of our numbers’ to perfect his poetic style. Dr Johnson hailed Dryden and said that Dryden was the founder of the “new verification” and with him, “it is apparent that English poetry has did not tend to relapse to its former savageness”. Johnson also remarked that before Dryden no poetical diction, no refined use of words was appropriated to arts. However, he did not demonstrate from the beginning that ease and control in the use of the heroic couplet was to characterise his best writings. Critics have stated that it was in his prologues and epilogues to plays that he achieved that great strength. This was a kind of ‘occasional’ poetry that he found congenial. He could be ironical, critical, apologetic, humorous, indecent, or topical in a variety of ways. These verses also show that Dryden was operating amid a society, which he knew well. The extracted lines of the poem Absalom and Achitophel, which you have already gone through, is a famous example of Dryden’s clear, summative statement and telling exposition. And we can say that it is the greatest achievement of his satirical and argumentative verse. The style of the poem is essentially heroic which means that the plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions are all exalted above the level of common converse as high as the imagination of the poet Dryden can carry them. This style is best adapted to the Biblical allegory and to a narrative of great political upheavals during the 17th century.