In John Dryden's "Absalom and Achitophel," how does Achitophel poison Absalom's mind?
One passage in John Dryden’s poem Absalom and Achitophel, in which Achitophel definitely tries to poison Absalom’s mind, consists of lines 230-302. In this speech, Achitophel begins by flattering Absalom, calling him an “Auspicious prince” (230). He then claims that Absalom seemed destined from his very birth to become a king. Next, he emphasizes Absalom’s present popularity, calling him “Thy longing country’s darling and desire” (233). His praise of Absalom then becomes almost idolatrous and blasphemous when says that Absalom is his people’s
. . . cloudy pillar and their guardian fire:
Their second Moses, whose extended wand
Divides the seas and shows the promised land;
Whose dawning day [an allusion to Christ] in every distant age
Has exercised the sacred prophet’s rage . . . (232-37)
The implied allusion to Christ in the passage just quoted then gives way to explicit praise of Absalom as a “savior” (240), and in general the language of this section of the poem can fairly be called sacrilegious.
However, having just given Absalom extreme praise, Achitophel now shifts to playing on the young man’s fears. He tells Absalom that the latter’s
. . . fresh glories, which now shine so bright,
Grow stale and tarnish with our daily sight.
Believe me, royal youth, thy fruit must be
Or [that is, either] gathered ripe, or rot upon the tree. (250-53)
Achitophel’s strategy, then, is double-edged: he plays to Absalom’s pride as well as to his insecurities. He reminds Absalom that opportunities are often fleeting, and he also reminds Absalom that David, once popular, has now lost much of the people’s love and respect.
Finally, having played to Absalom’s sense of weakness, Achitophel now emphasizes David’s weakness as well:
What strength can he to your designs oppose,
Naked of friends, and round beset with foes? (279-80)
As the speech concludes, Achitophel once more reminds Absalom that the strength the latter now possesses is a strength he may very well lose if he fails to take advantage of his present opportunity (297-302).
Dryden, in concocting this speech, implies that Achitophel possesses shrewd insights into human psychology. At the same time, Dryden shows that he himself possesses such insights as well.