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...
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