Subject - A

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Absalom and Achitophel – This political satire written in two parts. The first part by John Dryden, the second by Nahum Tate, poet laureate of England after Shadwell. The idea for this work was suggested to Dryden by the King, who was attempting to stem a revolt encouraged by Catholics and turn public opinion against Lord Shaftesbury, leader of the movement. It was published in 1681. While Shaftesbury was waiting trial on a charge of high treason, Dryden wrote this poem at the King's suggestion. Its obvious intention was to prejudice the people against Shaftesbury. It was eagerly read but it did not affect the public opinion. The bill of indictment against Shaftesbury on a charge of high treason was dismissed.

Two sources of background information are needed in order to understand the poem. One is biblical, as Dryden selected Samuel verses 13-18 in recalling the tale of David and Absalom . Absalom was the third and favorite son of David, King of Israel. The second is historical, covering a time in 1678 while Protestant England was under siege from the papacy with a proposed threat to murder the King. Dryden begins the story speaking of David:

“In pious times, ere priest-craft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man, on many, multipli'd his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confin'd:
When Nature prompted, and no Law deni'd
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
Then, Israel's monarch, after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves: and, wide as his command,
Scatter'd his Maker's image through the land…”

In this satire David represents Charles II , a lawless, insolent, womanizer, father of the illegitimate, renounces one faith for another, who reigned from 1667 to 1673. A perfidious “idler and voluptuary” ruling during the Protestant/ Catholic war of accretion. Here is Charles the II:

“For 'twas their duty, all the learned think,
T'espouse his cause by whom they eat and drink.
From hence began that plot, the nation's curse,
Bad in itself, but represented worse.
Rais'd in extremes, and in extremes decri'd;
With oaths affirm'd, with dying vows deni'd.
Not weigh'd, or winnow'd by the multitude;
But swallow'd in the mass, unchew'd and crude.
Some truth there was, but dash'd and brew'd with lies;
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all…”

Achitophel represents Lord Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs:

“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;
In pow'r unpleas'd, impatient of disgrace.
A fiery soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:
And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity;
Pleas'd with the danger, when the waves went high
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near alli'd;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide:
Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave, what with his toil he won
To that unfeather'd, two-legg'd thing, a son:
Got, while his soul did huddled notions try;
And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy,
Resolv'd to ruin or to rule the state.
To compass this, the triple bond he broke;
The pillars of the public safety shook:
And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke.
Then seized with fear, yet still affecting fame,
Usurp'd a patriot's all-atoning name.
So easy still it proves in factious times,
With public zeal to cancel private crimes:
How safe is treason, and how sacred ill,
Where none can sin against the people's will:
Where crowds can wink; and no offence be known,
Since in another's guilt they find their own.
Yet, fame deserv'd, no enemy can grudge…”

Absalom is the Duke of Monmouth – legitimate son of Charles II

“When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!
Desire of pow'r, on earth a vicious weed,
Yet, sprung from high, is of celestial seed:
In God 'tis glory: And when men aspire,
'Tis but a spark too much of heavenly fire.
Th' ambitious youth, too covetous of fame,
Too full of angel's metal in his frame;
Unwarily was led from virtue's ways;
Made drunk with honour, and debauch'd with praise.
Half loath, and half consenting to the ill,
(For loyal blood within him struggled still)
He thus repli'd.--And what pretence have I
To take up arms for public liberty?
My Father governs with unquestion'd right;
The Faith's defender, and mankind's delight:
Good, gracious, just, observant of the laws;
And Heav'n by wonders has espous'd his cause.
Whom has he wrong'd in all his peaceful reign?
Who sues for justice to his throne in vain?
What millions has he pardon'd of his foes,
Whom just revenge did to his wrath expose?
Mild, easy, humble, studious of our good;
Inclin'd to mercy, and averse from blood…”

Zimri is the 2nd Duke of Buckingham or George Villiers, in text Dryden alludes to the King of Israel who slew his master and was himself overthrown:

“Some of the chiefs were princes in the land;
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;
A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome.
Stiff in opinions always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts, and nothing long…”

Og represents Thomas Shadwell “very large and fat”. Dryden also satirized Shadwell in MacFlecknoe.

Hushai is Laurence Hyde, the Earl of Rochester:

“Hushai the friend of David in distress,
In public storms of manly steadfastness;
By foreign treaties he inform'd his youth;
And join'd experience to his native truth.
His frugal care suppli'd the wanting throne;
Frugal for that, but bounteous of his own:
'Tis easy conduct when exchequers flow;
But hard the task to manage well the low:
For sovereign power is too depress'd or high,
When kings are forc'd to sell, or crowds to buy…”

Sanhedrin (sitting together) in biblical times was the supreme council consisting of seventy priests and elders. Dryden used this to represent the English Parliament.

“The Sanhedrin long time as chief he rul'd,
Their reason guided, and their passion cool'd;
So dext'rous was he in the crown's defence,
So form'd to speak a loyal nation's sense,
That as their band was Israel's tribes in small,
So fit was he to represent them all.
Now rasher charioteers the seat ascend,
Whose loose careers his steady skill commend…”

Amiel (anagram for eliam on of David’s biblical heroes) for Dryden it is Edward Seymour, Speaker of the House of Commons.
“Indulge one labour more, my weary Muse,
“For Amiel, who can Amiel’s praise refuse?
Of ancient race by birth, but nobler yet
In his own worth, and without title great…”

Others characters:

Jotham - Lord Halifax.
Aaron’s Race – the Clergy
Abbethdin – Lord Chancellor
Adrel - , John Sheffeld, Earl of Mulgrave (1648-1721)
Agag - Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678)
Annabel, Anne Scott - Countess of Buccleugh in her own right, and wife of Absalom
Balaam, Theophilus Hastings - Earl of Huntingdon (1650-1701)
Barzillai, James Butler - Earl of Ormonde (1610-1688)
Bathsheba, Louise Renée de Kéroualle - Duchess of Portsmouth and Aubigny (1649-1734) mistress of the Charles II
Caleb, Forde - Lord Grey of Werke (d. 1701)
Corah - Titus Oates (1649-1705)
Egypt - France
Gath - Brussels
Hebron – Scotland
Hushai - Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester (1641-1711)
Ishbosheth -Richard Cromwell (1626-1712)
Israel – England
Issachar – Thomas, Thynne of Longleat (1648-1682), known on account of his wealth as "Tom of Ten Thousand"
Jebusites - Roman Catholics
Jerusalem – London
Rabbins - Doctors of the Church of England
Jonas - Sir William Jones (1631-1682)
Jordan - English seas
Jordan's Flood - the Irish Channel
Jotham - George Savile, Marquis of Halifax (1633-1695)
Levites - The Presbyterian ministers displaced by the Act of Uniformity
Michal - Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), the childless Queen of Charles II
Nadab - William, Lord Howard of Escrick (1626?-1694)
Pharaoh - Louis XIV of France
Sagan of Jerusalem - Bishop of London
Sanhedrin – Parliament
Saul - Oliver Cromwell
Shimei - Slingsby Bethel (1617-1697)
Sion – London
Solymean rout - the London mob
Tyre – Holland
Zadoc - William Sancroft (1617-1693), Archbishop of Canterbury


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Appendix