Absalom and Achitophel "Better One Suffer Than A Nation Grieve"

John Dryden

"Better One Suffer Than A Nation Grieve"

Context: In his poetical rewriting of the Biblical story of the revolt of Absalom against King David (II Samuel, 13–18) Dryden, England's leading poet of his time, incorporated a thinly disguised allegory of the frustrated attempts of the Whigs to make the illegitimate James Stuart, Duke of Monmouth, the successor of Charles II. If Dryden thought to conceal his authorship by publishing it anonymously, he failed. The rhymed couplets, handled in a way none of his contemporaries could match, were as good as a signature. When another James, the Roman Catholic Duke of York, brother of Charles II, loomed as heir to the English throne, the Earl of Shaftesbury headed a plot to legitimatize Monmouth. When details were made public, in 1678, the attempt became known as "The Popish Plot." At the start of this satire, Shaftesbury, as Achitophel, is attempting, by saying that the right of succession sometimes brings harm to a nation, to persuade Absalom (Monmouth) to appeal to the people to dethrone King David and give him the throne. Rather than the "right of kings," he argues, there is such a thing as the "right of people" to decide how they shall be governed. The "right of succession," when it would bring harm to a country, should be abrogated. Perhaps the heir to the throne would suffer, but what is the unhappiness of one person in comparison to that of a whole nation?

. . . the people have a right supreme
To make their kings; for kings are made for them.
All empire is no more than pow'r in trust,
Which, when resum'd, can be no longer just.
Succession, for the general good design'd,
In its own wrong a nation cannot bind;
If altering that the people can relieve,
Better one suffer than a nation grieve.