The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 21. Political Satire: Absalom and Achitophel, Part
It would not serve any purpose to dwell upon the general morigeration of Dryden, who, in this as in other respects, was “hurried down” the times in which he lived, to the leaders of politics and fashion, to the king’s ministers, favourites and mistresses, or upon the flatteries which, in dedications and elsewhere, he heaped upon the king himself, and upon his brother the duke. The attempts, however, which have been made to show that his pen was “venal”—in any sense beyond that of his having been paid for his compliments, or, at least, for a good many of them—may be said to have broken down; and the fact that he may have received payment from the king for writing The Medal does not prove that he was inspired by the expectation of personal profit when he first attacked the future medallist in Absalom and Achitophel.
In undertaking the composition of this great satire, whether or not at the request of Charles II, Dryden had found his great literary opportunity; and, of this, he took advantage in a spirit far removed from that of either the hired bravos or the spiteful lampooners of his age. For this opportunity he had been unconsciously preparing himself as a dramatist; and it was in the nature of things, and in accordance with the responsiveness of his genius to the calls made upon it by time and circumstance, that, in the season of a great political crisis, he should have rapidly perceived his chance of decisively influencing public opinion by an exposure of the aims and methods of the party of revolution. This he proposed to accomplish, not by a poetic summary of the rights of the case, or by a sermon in verse on the sins of factiousness, corruption and treason, but by holding up to the times and their troubles, with no magisterial air or dictatorial gesture, a mirror in which, under a happily contrived disgvise, the true friends and the real foes of their king and country should be recognised. This was the “Varronian” form of satire afterwards commended by him, with a well warranted self-consciousness, as the species, mixing serious intent with pleasant manner, to which, among the ancients, several of Lucian’s Dialogues and, among the moderns, the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus belong. “Of the same kind is ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale’; in Spenser, and (if it be not too vain to mention anything of my own) the poems of ‘Absalom’ and ‘MacFlecknoe.’”
The political question at issue, in the troubled times of which the names “whig” and “tory” still survive as speaking mementoes, was that of the succession of the Catholic heir to the throne, or of his exclusion in favour of some other claimant—perhaps the king’s son Monmouth, whom many believed legitimate (the Absalom of the poem). For many months, Shaftesbury, who, after serving and abandoning a succession of governments, had passed into opposition, had seemed to direct the storm. Two parliaments had been called in turn, and twice the Exclusion bill had been rejected by the lords. Then, as the whig leader seemed to have thrown all hesitation to the winds, and was either driving his party or being driven by it into extremities from which there was no return, a tremor of reaction ran through the land, the party round the king gathered confidence, and, evidence supposed sufficient to support the charge having been swept in, Shaftesbury was committed to the Tower on a charge of high treason. It was at this time of tension, while a similar charge was being actually pressed to the gallows against a humbler agent of faction (the “Protestant joiner” Stephen College), that Dryden’s great effort to work upon public opinion was made. Part
Without a mention of this well known sequence of events, the fact might, perhaps, be overlooked that part
Absalom and Achitophel veils its political satire under the transparent disguise of one of the most familiar episodes of Old Testament history, which the existing crisis in English affairs resembled sufficiently to make the allegory apposite and its interpretation easy. The attention of the English public, and, more especially, that of the citizens of London, with whom the decision of the immediate political issue lay, was sure to be arrested by a series of characters whose names and distinctive features were borrowed from the Old Testament; and the analogy between Charles II’s and David’s early exile and final triumphant establishment on the throne was a commonplace of restoration poetry. Indeed, the actual notion of an adaptation of the story of Achitophel’s wiles as “the Picture of a wicked Politician” was not new to English controversial literature; in 1680, a tract entitled Absalom’s Conspiracy had dealt with the supposed intentions of Monmouth; and a satire published in 1681, only a few months before Dryden’s poem, had applied the name Achitophel, with some other opprobrious names, to Shaftesbury. For the rest, Dryden, with the grandezza habitual to him, was careless about fitting the secondary figures of his satire exactly with their Scriptural aliases, or boring the reader by a scrupulous fidelity or even consistency of detail.
Absalom and Achitophel remains the greatest political satire in our literature, partly because it is frankly political, and not intended, like Hudibras, by means of a mass of accumulated detail, to convey a general impression of the vices and follies, defects and extravagances, of a particular section or particular sections of the nation. With Dryden, every hit is calculated, and every stroke goes home; in each character brought on the scene, those features only are selected for exposure or praise which are of direct significance for the purpose in hand. It is not a satirical narrative complete in itself which is attempted; the real dénouement of the piece falls not within, but outside, its compass; in other words, the poem was to lead up, as to an unavoidable sequitur, to the trial and conviction of its hero. The satirist, after the fashion of a great parliamentary orator, has his subject and his treatment of it well in hand; through all the force of the invective and the fervour of the praise, there runs a consciousness of the possibility that the political situation may change. This causes a constant self-control and wariness in the author, who is always alive to his inspiration and never unmindful of his cue. Instead of pouring forth a stream of Aristophanic vituperation or boyish fun in the vein of Canning, he so nicely adapts the relations of the more important of his characters to the immediate issue that the treatment, both of the tempter Achitophel and of the tempted Absalom, admitted of manipulation when, before the appearance of the poem in a second edition, the condition of affairs had changed.
Chapter and verse could, without difficulty, be found for every item in Johnson’s well known panegyric of Absalom and Achitophel in his Life of Dryden. The incomparable brilliancy of its diction and versification are merits which, to be acknowledged, need only to be mentioned. Still, its supreme excellence lies in its descriptions of character, which, no doubt, owed something to his dramatic practice, and more to the development which this kind of writing had experienced during a whole generation of English prose literature, reaching its full height in Clarendon. Dryden’s exquisite etchings cannot be compared with the finest of the full-length portraits from the hand of the great historical writer; but, thanks, no doubt, in part, to the Damascene brightness and keenness into which the poet had tempered his literary instrument, and thanks, also, to the imaginative insight which, in him, the literary follower of the Stewarts, was substituted for the unequalled experience of their chosen adviser, Clarendon, the characters of the poem live in the memory with unequalled tenacity. How unmistakably is the pre-eminence of Achitophel among the opponents of the royal government signalised by his being commissioned, like his prototype when charged with the temptation and corruption of mankind, to master the shaken virtue of Absalom! Yet, when the satire proceeds from the leader to the followers, what composite body of malcontents was ever analysed, even by a minister driven to bay, with surer discernment and more perfect insight? The honest whigs, the utilitarian radicals, the speculators who use party for their private ends, the demagogues and mob-orators who are the natural product of faction—all are there; but so, too, are the republicans on principle, headed by survivors of the fanatics who believed in their own theocracy. Of course, the numerical strength of the party is made up by the unthinking crowd that takes up a cry—in this case, the cry “No Popery.” Of the chiefs of the faction, for the most part, a few incisive lines, or even a damning epithet, suffice to dispose; but there are exceptions, suggested by public or by private considerations. In the latter class, Dryden’s own statement obliges us to include Zimri (Buckingham)—a character which he declares to be “worth the whole poem.” What he says of his intentions in devising this masterpiece of wit, and of his success in carrying them into execution, illustrates at once the discretion with which he applied his satirical powers, and the limitation which his nature, as well as his judgment, imposed upon their use. Moral indignation was not part of Dryden’s satirical stock. Even the hideously true likeness of Titus Oates (Corah) preserves the accent of sarcasm which had suited the malicious sketch of Shimei, the inhospitable sheriff of the city; it is as if the poet’s blame could never come with so full a tone as the praise which, in the latter part of the poem, is gracefully distributed among the chief supporters of the crown. The poem ends with a speech from king David, only in part reproducing the speech of Charles II to the Oxford parliament (March, 1681), of which the king is said to have suggested the insertion.