The poem “Absalom and Achitophel” is a political satire concerning events that occurred during the reign of Charles ll of
As Microsoft Encarta puts it “a masterful parable in heroic couplets, it employs biblical characters and incidents to ridicule the Whig attempt to make the duke of Monmouth, rather than the duke of York (the future King James II), successor to King Charles II. [Encarta 2004]
Two basic poetic techniques used by Dryden are the rhyming couplet and satire. Absalom was an illegitimate child of King David. And the opening lines of the poem are a satirical comment on the promiscuous nature of David.
“…And, wide as his Command,
Scatter’d his Maker’s Image through the Land.”
Dryden then goes on to present a portrait of Absalom. Absalom is presented as beautiful and brave. As the bible says; “There was no one in
as famous for his good looks as Absalom; he had no defect from head to foot. His hair was very thick…” [ll Samuel 14; 25, 26] Israel
However Dryden introduces an element of satire even here.
“Whether inspired by some diviner Lust,
…By mainly Beauty to Imperial Sway.”
The biblical story contains no irony but is a straightforward account. Dryden, in relating it to contemporary events gives it an ironic twist. Absalom however is not without faults while in David’s case his promiscuity is shown in terms of excesses. Dryden uses the same technique in describing Absalom’s qualities – while he is seen as a brave warrior in war, in peace he is shown “as he was only born for Love.” The major flow in Absalom is presented by Dryden is that he was no more than a spoiled youth. David refuses to see his faults and his excesses were crowned over as adventures of youth.
“Some warm excesses, which the law forbore,
Were constru’d Youth that purg’d by boiling o’r:”
The excesses being “warm” were obviously not small ones but the irony lies in the consideration that however warm they were he should be allowed to get over them by indulging in them. The irony gets worse in the next couplet where a murder by Absalom is covered up as a just revenge for an insult. The irony here made more stronger by the consideration that everyone has faults and it becomes strengthen by the indication that the excesses that were overlooked and condoned were not miner ones but major ones which in any other circumstances would be dealt with under the law. The understatement of “warm” excesses only serves to make the forbearance of the law that much more unacceptable.
The picture then of Absalom is that of a spoilt youth who has his own way and is pampered by his father. The crowning irony of the portrait comes in the final couplet which is a comment not only on David and Absalom but also on the times.
The pentameter and the rhyming couplet have the potential for both contrasting ideas and strengthening of a single idea to bring out the ironical attitude of the poet. For instance in these lines “Whether inspired … to imperial Sway” we find balance that reinforces the ironical tone. The same technique is seen in these lines.
“In peace the thoughts of War…born for Love”
The portrait of Absalom contains characteristic features of the neoclassical era, such as simplicity, clarity, order, good sense and decorum. The portrait appears to present the character in a simple narrative/ discursive manner. But it contains beneath this surface a very strong tone of irony. The restraint in the poetry lies in the control of the irony, what Dryden calls in his preface to the poem “sweetness in good verse, which Tickles even while it Hurts” the clarity of the portrait lies in the presentation of those features without ornamentation which bring out the irony. Order and decorum are found in the pattern [structure] of the opening section. The poem starts with a historical setting in time and moves on to the particular situation of David and his kingdom. Order is also seen in the poetic convention of the pentameter and the rhyming couplet which were chosen form of the neoclassical poetry. Good sense lies in the refined irony. There is no harshness but a lightness – that sweetness which Dryden has said tickles while it hurts. Dryden says in the preface to the poem “the true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction and he who writes honestly, is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient...”
Dryden’s description of the character of Absalom contains those features that can be found not only in Dryden’s poetry but also reflect the concerns of neoclassical poetry.
“Dryden, John” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe. 2004 ed.
Good News Bible, Caledonian International Book Manufacturing Ltd, Glasgow, Britain.