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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