Absalom and Achitophel is a celebrated satirical poem by John Dryden, written in heroic couplets and first published in 1681. The poem tells the Biblical tale of the rebellion of Absalom against King David, but this tale is an allegory used to represent a story contemporary to Dryden, a story of King Charles II and the Exclusion Crisis (1679-1681). The poem also references the Popish Plot (1678) and the Monmouth Rebellion (1685).
Absalom and Achitophel is "generally acknowledged as finest political satire in the English language". It is also described as an allegory regarding contemporary political events, and a mock heroic narrative. On the title page, Dryden himself describes it simply as “a poem”.
In the prologue, "To the Reader", Dryden states that "the true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction". He also suggests that in Absalom and Achitophel he did not let the satire be too sharp to those who were least corrupt: "I confess I have laid in for those, by rebating the satire, where justice would allow it, from carrying too sharp an edge."
Absalom and Achitophel has inspired a great deal of discussion regarding satire: how satire was defined when Dryden wrote, and how this poem contrasts with the ancient models of Horace, Virgil, and Juvenal. Dryden himself is considered the father of the modern essay, and one of literature’s most important critics of the literary form, particularly in his essay "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire", where he writes a history of satire “from its first rudiments of barbarity, to its last polishing and perfection”. He also offers a definition of satire:
Heinsius, in his dissertations on Horace, makes it for me, in these words; "Satire is a kind of poetry, without a series of action, invented for the purging of our minds; in which human vices, ignorance, and errors, and all things besides, which are produced from them, in every man, are severely reprehended; partly dramatically, partly simply, and sometimes in both kinds of speaking; but for the most part figuratively, and occultly; consisting in a low familiar way, chiefly in a sharp and pungent manner of speech; but partly, also, in a facetious and civil way of jesting; by which, either hatred, or laughter, or indignation is moved."
At one point in the essay, "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire", Dryden mentions Absalom and Achitophel:
The nicest and most delicate touches of satire consist in fine raillery … How easy it is to call rogue and villain, and that wittily? But how hard to make a man appear a fool, a blockhead, or a knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms? … The character of Zimri in my Absalom, is, in my opinion, worth the whole poem: 'Tis not bloody, but 'tis ridiculous enough. And he for whom it was intended, was too witty to resent it as an injury … And thus, my lord, you see I have preferred the manner of Horace, and of your Lordship, in this kind of satire, to that of Juvenal.
The story of Absalom's rebellion against his father, King David, is told in the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Second Book of Samuel (chapters 14 to 18). The beautiful Absalom is distinguished by his extraordinarily abundant hair, which is thought to symbolise his pride (2 Sam. 14:26). When David's renowned advisor, Achitophel (Achitophel in the Vulgate) joins Absalom's rebellion, another advisor, Hushai, plots with David to pretend to defect and give Absalom advice that plays into David's hands. The result is that Absalom takes the advice of the double agent Hushai over the good advice of Achitophel. Achitophel, realising that the rebellion is doomed to failure, goes home and hangs himself. Absalom is killed (against David's explicit commands) after getting caught by his hair in the thick branches of a great oak tree: "His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on" (NRSV 2 Sam. 18:9). The death of his son, Absalom, causes David enormous personal grief.
A second allegory in the poem, beginning on line 425, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which can be found in the New Testament in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verse 11-32. It is the tale of a son who asks for his birthright early, loses it, and returns to his father, who then takes pity on him and shares with him his remaining fortune. The father's forgiveness contrasts with the response of David towards Achitophel, but still the story works well for a theme that deals with problems of ascension, and Dryden uses similarities and differences in the two stories to express the poem's themes. Ideas from this second allegory occur throughout the poem.
In 1681 in England, Charles II was aged 51. He had had a number of 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 fervor for the Protestant cause. Charles had no legitimate heirs, and his brother, the future King James II, was openly 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, which would prevent James from succeeding to the throne, 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 to legitimise 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 1681. On 24 November 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, the Duke of Monmouth—unwilling to see his uncle James become King—executed his plans and went into full revolt. The Monmouth Rebellion was put down, and in 1685 the Duke was executed.
Dryden's poem tells the story of the first foment by making Monmouth into Absalom, the beloved boy, Charles into David (who also had some philandering), and Shaftesbury into Achitophel. It paints Buckingham, an old enemy of Dryden's (see The Rehearsal for one example), 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 king before father. The poem also refers to some of the Popish Plot furore.
There are many different ways of understanding Dryden’s poem Absalom and Achitophel. The most common reading compares “the connections between fatherhood and kingship”. Through biblical allusions Dryden connects ancient fatherhood with current events not only to show a precedent, but also to show how it connects with a royal’s responsibilities. Dryden uses the fatherly indulgence of David (lines 31-33) to explore the legitimacy of Absalom's succession. Dryden uses an old story, The Prodigal Son, to create a clear picture of how self-indulgent love creates unfair conflict. Throughout the poem the relationship of fatherhood and kingship is united.
Another way of reading Dryden’s poem is through a “mother plot." Susan Greenfield proposes that the mentions of maternity and women are an important part of the poem's royalist resolution. In this reading the blame is transferred to the females, saying that only the female power of life threatens the political order and should be hindered. It is due to female desires and a female’s ability to create life that the whole mess is created.
Within the renaissance philosophers and writers were interested in the idea of superiority of bastards. It was a common idea at that time that bastards were better than their legitimate counterparts. Lines 19 and 20 explore this idea when they say “whether, inspired by some diviner lust,/his father got him with a greater gust”. It was thought that the greater passion and desire that went into making bastards made them better. An inclusion of this idea in a satirical piece could have many implications. Heidi Kelchner proposes that “we should consider Dryden's reference to the heated manner in which Absalom was conceived-used ironically as part of a mock panegyric of Absalom”.
(James Scott, Duke of Monmouth)
(Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury)
A second part written by Nahum Tate
Absalom and Achitophel stands alone as a complete poem by John Dryden as it was published in 1681. Its success led others to encourage Dryden to continue the story, to keep up with current events of the time. Dryden declined the suggestion, but his friend Nahum Tate took it up and wrote a second part, publishing it the following year, 1682. According to the bookseller Jacob Tonson, Tate was aided by Dryden’s advice and editorial direction. Dryden also anonymously contributed a few lines that satirized Thomas Shadwell and Elkanah Settle, who in Dryden’s passage are named Og and Doeg. Tate’s second part recycles a number of Dryden’s ideas and lines, but has not impressed the critics, though Dryden’s contribution stands out from what surrounds it.
- ^Stapleton, Michael. Absalom and Achitophel. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature. Cambridge University Press. (April 29, 1983). ISBN 978-0521256476
- ^Stapleton, Michael. “Dryden”. The Cambridge Guide to English Literature. Cambridge University Press. 1983. ISBN 0 600 33173 3. page 257
- ^Weinbrot, Howard D. Eighteenth-Century Satire: Essays on Text and Context from Dryden to Peter Pindar. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780521034098
- ^Krook, Anne K. "Satire And Constitution Of Theocracy In Absalom And Achitophel." Studies In Philology 91.3 (1994): 339. Academic Search Premier.
- ^Dryden, John. Absalom & Achitophel. Clarendon Press. 1911. page 86.
- ^Maurer, A.E. Wallace. "The Form Of Dryden's Absalom And Achitophel, Once More."Papers On Language & Literature 27.3 (1991): 320. Academic Search Premier.
- ^Preminger, Alex. English Poetry”. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-06280-3. p. 231
- ^ Juvenal. The satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis translated into English verse by Mr. Dryden and several other eminent hands; together with the satires of Aulus Persius Flaccus, made English by Mr. Dryden; with explanatory notes at the end of each satire ; to which is prefix'd a discourse concerning the original and progress of satire ... by Mr. Dryden. Printed for Jacob Tonson at the Judge's-Head in Chancery-Lane, near Fleetstreet, London (1693)
- ^Black, Joseph, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume C. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 2087–88. Print.
- ^Cavendish, Richard. "Death of Titus Oates". History Today. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
- ^Black, Joseph, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume C. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 2088. Print.
- ^Bliss, Robert M. (1985). Restoration England: Politics and Government 1660–1688. New York: Methuen. p. 35. ISBN 0-416-37630-4.
- ^Gregory, Jeremy and John Stevenson (2012). The Routledge Companion to Britain in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 0-415-37882-6.
- ^Duggan, Margaret. "Absalom and Achitophel." Masterplots, 4th Edition (2010): 1–3. Web. 10 August 2011.
- ^Greenfield, Susan C. "Aborting the 'mother plot': politics and generation in 'Absalom and Achitophel.'." ELH 62.2 (1995): 267+. Literature Resource Center.
- ^Davis, W. John. “Parable and Political controversy in Absalom and Achitophel”. Lumarium (2011).
- ^Greenfield, Susan C. "Aborting the 'mother plot': politics and generation in 'Absalom and Achitophel.'." ELH 62.2 (1995): 267+. Literature Resource Center.
- ^Kelchner, Heidi. "Dryden's Absalom And Achitophel." Explicator 51.4 (1993): 216.Academic Search Premier.
- ^Tate, Nahum. The Second part of Absalom and Achitophel; a Poem. Printed for Jacob Tonson (1682).
- ^Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. Yale University Press (1987). ISBN 0-300-02994-2. page 369.
Absalom and Achitophel Summary
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Absalom and Achitophel is a widely celebrated satirical poem written by John Dryden, first published anonymously in November of 1681. It is written using the heroic couplet form, and is considered one of the finest English political satires of all time. It is credited with being the first written satire in the English language, and tells the Biblical story of Absalom, who rebels against King David. This, however, is commonly understood as an allegorical reading, and the events of the poem are actually about Dryden’s contemporaries, Charles II and the Exclusion Crisis. In writing the poem, Dryden hoped to rouse the populous against The Earl of Shaftesbury, along with the Whig Party. These groups had sponsored and advocated for this Exclusion Bill, which if successful, would prevent James II from succeeding to the throne. The bill was blocked by the House of Lords on two separate occasions. This was during the era of the Popish Plot, which took place during the years 1679 to 1681.
The allegory begins by representing England as the Biblical land of Israel, and the Englishmen as the Jews. The group of antagonists in the poem are working against King David, whose modern representation is Charles II. The First Earl of Shaftesbury takes on the role of Achitophel, the leader of this group. He exploits the Anti-Catholicism which was created during the Popish Plot. Achitophel decides that Absalom (in contemporary terms, King Charles’ illegitimate son) is the best candidate to take the throne instead.
Zimri, Shimei, and Corah, followers of Achitophel, are described in detail throughout the conversation between Achitophel and Absalom. This part of the poem distinctly resembles Milton’s Paradise Lost, which also lists what is now known as an epic catalogue.
Achitophel begins a very long speech, during which he attempts to convince Absalom to join his rebellion. He tells Absalom that the country cries for him to take the throne in secret. He says King Charles is not popular anymore because of the Popish Plot, and he has no other allies. Achitophel says that Egypt (modern translation here is France) will help Absalom to claim the throne as his own. He not only has the royal blood that is necessary to gain support of the people, but would be a much better King than anyone who would inherit the throne by means of succession. Here the reader is meant to understand the reference to James.
Absalom defends his father, saying David is a good King and has always treated him with kindness. But Absalom is also ambitious, and is fighting against the constant flattery that Achitophel is giving him. Absalom refuses to turn against his father. He says the crown should go to the person who rightfully deserves it, David’s brother, who has all the royal virtues. He admits his illegitimate birth makes him unsuited for the job, and wishes he had been born higher.
Achitophel renews his persuasion tactics. He implores Absalom to save the “religion, commonwealth and liberty” of their country. The throne needs someone powerful, like Absalom. David, on the other hand, is weak and gives the people too much. The nation has been carefully weakened, and they have a right to choose their own king. James is also jealous of Absalom, who should claim the throne as an act of self defense. Achitophel tells Absalom to pretend defense of King David, and then accuse James of plotting to murder the King. This will allow Absalom to force David to grant him, Absalom, succession. Achitophel also argues that David wants to do this anyway, but will not without some external pressure. David, Achitophel says, is like a woman who pretends to avoid a man’s advances but secretly wants them. This rather troublesome argument finally convinces Absalom to “commit a pleasing rape upon the crown.” The youth has now been gulled into becoming a tool for Achitophel’s ambitions.
The rest of the poem then deals with the beginnings of the rebellion, led by Achitophel (Shaftsebury), all within the very powerful and resonant allegory of the Bible. Absalom makes a very successful public speech promising peace to the people.
Dryden explains the many political issues throughout the poem in great detail. He makes a number of political arguments, all the while employing the use of the poetic verse.
The poem finally ends with King David’s speech, during which he upholds his traditional rights, offers conciliation to all the rebels, but also demonstrates firmness in his decisions.