20 pages • 40 minutes readJohn Dryden
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John Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel” was first published in 1681, in direct response to a political crisis faced by King Charles II from 1679 to 1681. In what became known as the “Exclusion Crisis,” the king’s opponents in Parliament tried to exclude Charles’s brother James from the succession on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic. “Absalom and Achitophel” is a satiric narrative poem in which Dryden uses a biblical allegory to discuss the events and main personalities involved in this crisis. The poem mocks the King’s opponents and openly reveals Dryden’s staunchly royalist sympathies. The poem is also notable for featuring one of Dryden’s literary trademarks: the “heroic couplet.” “Absalom and Achitophel” is one of Dryden’s major poetic works, displaying both the characteristic elements of his style and his political and religious sympathies at that time.
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John Dryden (1631-1700) was born in Northamptonshire, England, into a large and relatively prosperous landowning family. As a young boy, Dryden received a fashionable humanist education at Westminster School and later attended Trinity College, Cambridge. His education gave him a thorough grounding in works of classical Greek and Latin literature, which would remain an important literary touchstone for him throughout his life. Dryden was a successful student, graduating from Cambridge in 1654. In 1659, he made his literary debut with a poem marking the death of Oliver Cromwell, but although his family were Puritans and supporters of the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil War, Dryden personally welcomed the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660. He wrote two poems celebrating King Charles II’s return and coronation: “Astraea Redux” (1660) and “To His Sacred Majesty” (1661). Dryden’s royalist beliefs and deep mistrust of civil discord are reflected in several of his other poetic works, including “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681).
Dryden first established himself as a dramatist, producing a large body of work that included both comedies and tragedies. Notable works include Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen (1667), The Conquest of Granada (1670), Marriage à la Mode (1673), and All for Love (1678). In 1668, Dryden published a critical essay, “Of Dramatick Poesie”, reflecting on English drama and its relationship to both its French contemporaries and classical predecessors. In the same year, Dryden became the first Poet Laureate of England, a post he would hold until 1689. In 1678, Dryden tired of the stage and turned his attention more fully to writing verse. He soon became famous for his satiric poems, many of which were political themed and reflected contemporary events.
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In 1685, Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism and wrote “The Hind and the Panther” (1687) in defense of the Roman Catholic faith. When King James II was forced to abdicate in 1688, Dryden’s political and religious leanings were suddenly out of step with the times, and he lost his post as Poet Laureate. Dryden returned to writing for the stage, producing his final play, Love Triumphant, in 1694 before permanently retiring as a playwright. In his final years, Dryden devoted himself to translating classical texts, including works by such authors as Juvenal and Virgil. He died in 1700 and was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. Dryden’s influence was enormous both in his own time and posthumously, due to his large and acclaimed body of work, the confidence and elegance of his style, and—perhaps most notably—his perfection of the heroic couplet in many of his poems. Major 18th-century writers such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson credited Dryden among their major influences, and he has remained an established part of the traditional English literary canon ever since.
Dryden, John. “Absalom and Achitophel.” 1681. Representative Poetry Online: University of Toronto, Canada
On the surface, “Absalom and Achitophel” appears to be a retelling of a story from the Bible. David, the King of Israel, has many sons from many wives and concubines, but his favorite son is Absalom. The poem’s speaker implies that Absalom’s character contains certain flaws, all of which are either excused or overlooked by his doting father.
Meanwhile, King David’s subjects grow restless and dissatisfied, even though King David is a competent and merciful monarch. Plots soon arise that threaten the stability of David’s rule, and a man named Achitophel soon takes the lead. In the past, Achitophel distinguished himself in royal service, but he has now grown corrupted by ambition and seeks to stir up popular resentment for his own gain. Achitophel turns to Absalom, using his rhetorical powers to persuade the young man that he should join the plot against the king and seize power for himself over the rightful heir. At first Absalom resists, praising his father’s rule, but he is soon overcome by his dissatisfaction with his illegitimate status and his own desire for power. He eventually agrees to join Achitophel’s schemes. The plan is that Absalom will take up arms against his father’s supposed enemies, claiming to safeguard the throne while in actuality pressuring King David into declaring him the heir.
Other disreputable people soon join the plot, with the poem’s speaker describing and mocking their faults. Absalom sets out to woo the public and is enthusiastically received by many. In comparison, King David’s allies are few, but the poem’s speaker names and praises the most prominent of them. Throughout the poem, the speaker offers a defense of the legitimacy of monarchy, denouncing mob rule and the civil unrest threatened by the plotters. King David, now aware of the plot against him, delivers an impassioned speech denouncing his enemies and asserting his right to rule. The poem ends abruptly after King David’s speech, with the speaker assuring the reader that God was on David’s side and that David’s kingship was soon restored and strengthened against the would-be plotters.
By John Dryden