I should probably begin this post with a disclaimer: this will be in no way, shape or form a proper attempt to analyse or engage with John Dryden’s Absalom And Achitophel, but is intended merely to bring it to the attention of those who may not be aware of it or of its significance – as I was not, until quite recently.
Although his first important appointment was under Cromwell, Dryden’s reaction to the Restoration in Astraea Redux makes his passionate Royalist feelings clear; and he would continue to celebrate Charles II in his poetry even whole earning the bulk of his living as a playwright – something Charles also made possible, of course. However, Dryden’s ambitions were always for his poetry, and his breakthrough work was 1667’s Annus Mirabilis, which both established him as England’s pre-eminent poetic talent and went a long way towards securing him the position of Poet Laureate, to which he was appointed the following year.
Dryden held the position of Laureate through the reigns of Charles and James, often acting as a kind of literary weapon for the former. Loyal as he was to Charles, Dryden was involved in a number of ongoing feuds with some of those around the king, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester, who were often satirised in his poems and plays. These were turbulent years, as we have seen, the years of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. As early as 1669 there were attempts made to persuade Charles to divorce Catherine of Braganza or to annul their marriage, and to remarry in order to produce a legitimate Protestant heir. Charles had refused. A decade later, the situation reached crisis point, with the Popish Plot creating an atmosphere of violent anti-Catholicism, and the Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, attempting to have legislation passed that would exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding his brother; and, when this failed, calling upon Charles directly to legitimise his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth, in order to establish a Protestant heir to the English throne. This, too, failed.
Towards the end of 1681, John Dryden published Absalom And Achitophel, an extraordinary satirical work wherein the events of the preceding three years and the circumstances that provoked them are reconfigured in the form of religious and historical allegory. The basis of the work is the biblical story of David and Absalom, and the rebellion of the latter, although a dearly beloved son, against his father, the king. In Dryden’s work, Charles II becomes David, and the Duke of Monmouth, Absalom; but there is barely a figure involved in the politics of the time who does not appear in the poem in one guise or another. The most critical, of course, is the Earl of Shaftesbury, otherwise Achitophel. In the Old Testament, Achitophel is David’s advisor, but betrays him and supports Absalom in his rebellion. By late in the 17th century, “Achitophel” had become a generic term of abuse for anyone seen as betraying his principles, and thus its application to Shaftesbury was a doubly loaded one.
Here a few brief extracts, just to give a taste of the work and to introduce the major players. First, the Jewish (English) people, whose agitations after a delusory “freedom” led first to civil war, and then to the regretted reigns of Saul (Oliver Cromwell) and his son, “the foolish Ishbosheth” (Richard Cromwell); and who cannot be satisfied even under the indulgent David:
The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race,
As ever tri’d th’extent and stretch of grace;
God’s pamper’d people whom, debauch’d with ease,
No king could govern, nor no God could please;
(Gods they had tri’d of every shape and size,
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
Began to dream they wanted liberty…
David, we find, is unable to produce a legitimate heir, but looks with favour upon Absalom:
Michal, of royal blood, the crown did wear;
A soil ungrateful to the tiller’s care:
Not so the rest; for several mothers bore
To god-like David, several sons before.
But since like slaves his bed they did ascend,
No true succession could their seed attend.
Of all this numerous progeny was none
So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom…
And there are those who recognise in the native impatience of the “moody, murm’ring” Jews and the dissatisfaction with his lot on the part of Absalom an opportunity for rebellion, and for self-aggrandisement – chief amongst them, Achitophel:
Some had in courts been great, and thrown from thence,
Like fiends, were harden’d in impenitence.
Some by their monarch’s fatal mercy grown,
From pardon’d rebels, kinsmen to the throne;
Were rais’d in pow’r and public office high;
Strong bands, if bands ungrateful men could tie.
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:
Restless, unfixt in principles and place…
And Achitophel begins to work upon the susceptible Absalom, who at first resists the schemer’s lures, acknowledging both his debt to David and that he has no legitimate claim to the throne:
His favour leaves me nothing to require;
Prevents my wishes, and out-runs desire.
What more can I expect while David lives?
All but his kingly diadem he gives:
And that: but there he paus’d; then sighing, said,
Is justly destin’d for a worthier head…
Seeing Absalom swayed by his ambitions, Achitophel persists, and Absalom begins to feel the stirrings of rebellion in his soul:
Why am I scanted by a niggard-birth?
My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth:
And made for empire, whispers me within;
Desire of greatness is a god-like sin.
Him staggering so when Hell’s dire agent found,
While fainting virtue scarce maintain’d her ground,
He pours fresh forces in, and thus replies:
Th’eternal God, supremely good and wise,
Imparts not these prodigious gifts in vain;
What wonders are reserv’d to bless your reign?
Against your will your arguments have shown,
Such virtue’s only giv’n to guide a throne.
Not that your father’s mildness I contemn;
But manly force becomes the diadem…
And on the way through, our old friend Titus Oates rates a heavily sarcastic mention:
To speak the rest, who better are forgot,
Would tire a well-breath’d witness of the plot:
Yet, Corah, thou shalt from oblivion pass;
Erect thyself thou monumental brass:
High as the serpent of thy metal made,
While nations stand secure beneath thy shade…
Absalom And Achitophel then metaphorically traces the course of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, concluding with the triumph of “David” and the exposure and disgrace of “Achitophel”. And in reality, the failure of the Exclusionists left the Earl of Shaftesbury in a perilous situation. In July of 1681 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained for the next four months, awaiting trial on charges of high treason.
Examined as history and not as poetry, we can appreciate how carefully Dryden treads in Absalom And Achitophel, praising David at every reasonable opportunity while also scolding him gently for sometimes allowing the father to supersede the king, and for being overindulgent to those ungrateful “murm’ring” Jews; emphasising “Absalom”’s outstanding personal qualities and arguing that it his very “kingliness”, the unavoidable gift of his father, which brought him to the point of rebellion; and pouring the bulk of the blame upon the scheming, treacherous “Achitophel”.
Dryden’s work was an enormous success, both as poetry and as propaganda, influencing not only the public perception of the events of the Exclusion Crisis, but impacting upon other political writers of the time, as we shall see. In 1682, a second part of the poem was published, but although it was sketched out by Dryden, most of it was written by someone else (probably Nahum Tate), except for a few passages in which Dryden takes pot-shots at some personal enemies; one in particular…