Absalom and Achitophel "Bankrupt Of Life, Yet Prodigal Of Ease"

John Dryden

"Bankrupt Of Life, Yet Prodigal Of Ease"

Context: Absalom and Achitophel is generally regarded as the finest political satire in the English language. Though it appeared anonymously, everyone recognized Dryden's acid pen. He finally acknowledged his authorship in his Discourse Concerning Satire (1692), though no published version during his lifetime carried his name as author. The use of a Scriptural story for satirical purposes was not a new idea. Absalom, weak and misguided, but full of good intentions, represents the Duke of Monmouth. Achitophel, who by his counsel guided Absalom into rebellion, was the Earl of Shaftesbury, and in the poem there are excellent portraits of other contemporary politicians. There is some basis for the rumor that Dryden began the poem at the urging of King Charles II. Many editions followed, to weaken the already declining influence of Shaftesbury. Part II appeared in 1692. Shaftesbury was small in stature, but had an active brain. To describe his son, a man of little capacity, the poet rephrases Plato's definition of a man. Cataloguing the conspirators in the "Popish Plot," Dryden reminds readers of the belief that there is only a thin division between genius and insanity. The intelligent Shaftesbury must have slipped over the edge, or he would never, in his declining years and having already achieved honor and wealth, have continued to punish his body that had so little life left, just to help a worthless son. Why not be wasteful of the leisure that he possessed in abundance?

Of these the false Achitophel was first;
A name to all succeeding ages curst:
For close designs and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit;
. . .
A fiery soul, which, working out its way
Fretted the pigmy body to decay,
. . .
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide;
Else why should he, with wealth and honor blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave what with his toil he won,
To that unfeather'd two-legg'd thing, a son?