Poetry and Prose 1660-1800- John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel


Absalom and Achitophel was written for the King Charles II in 1681. This poem represents a political satire and critically depicts the Court and royal manners. The uniqueness of this poem is that it presents not merely a series of pictures of personalities, but the whole situation and in as serious a manner as it deserved; the situation, after all, could easily deteriorate to the point where political struggle became civil war. Thesis Using satire and acute irony, Dryden unveils political and social situation in England under the rule of Charles II.

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From the historical perspective, Absalom and Achitophel is about Jewish history and English history (Schille 305). The uniqueness of this work is that English history is modified to fit Jewish history; as a result, the action of the poem is a tertium quid, removed from the specifications of both histories and, in an important sense, not history at all. Dryden writes:

He to his Brother giver, Supreme Command; To you a Legacy of Barren Land: Perhaps th’ old Harp, on which he thrums his Layes: Or some dull Hebrew Ballad in your Praise. (Dryden)

From the political perspective, the reference to a brother is appropriate to Charles, rather than to David; the harp and the ballad are more clearly appropriate to David than to Charles. The Sanhedrin is employed in the poem as a metaphor for Parliament, but the Sanhedrin does not belong to the history, of David’s reign (Berland 195).

The poem begins by leading up to the fact that Absalom (Monmouth), one of the principal characters, was illegitimate; in order to excuse his father’s seeming immortality, Dryden wittily sets his tale at a time “before polygamy was made a sin” (Dryden) when “man on many multiplied his kind” (Dryden), and when it was laudable. according to the piety of those times–for a king to impact “his vigorous warmth” to wives and slaves alike, thus scattering his Maker’s image throughout the land.

Absalom is depicted as the bravest and the most beautiful man. It is possible to say that the use of Jewish history emphasizes the important political aspect of the history that is drawn from a sacred book. Also, the use of Jewish history allows Dryden to emphasize the Judea-Christian tradition has operated to transmute the history of the Jews into a moral order. By fastening a set of English persons and a sequence of English events to a set of Jewish persons and a sequence of Jewish events, Dryden has set English history in a moral order (Schille 205).

One of the principal persons to be represented is the Duke of Monmouth whose illegitimacy is as undeniable as his paternity; he becomes the representative of the Whigs, and in particular of Shaftesbury, and he is the Whig “candidate” for the succession against the Roman Catholic Duke of York. Dryden depicts that his father still loved him: there was the difficulty. His character could not be subject to an all-out attack–yet his actions were to be condemned (Zwicker 639). Using metaphors and comparison, Dryden portrays the Christian order in preface:

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But, since the most excellent Natures are always the most easy; and, as being such, are the soonest perverted by ill Counsels, especially when baited with Fame and Glory (Dryden).

An examination of passages from the poem shows that the metaphors and comparison take up the themes of God and man, the devil and the fall, the temptation of Adam and the temptation of Christ. The satire of the poem introduces faint suggestions of David as God and of Absalom as Adam and of the events in paradise (Zwicker 639).

In dealing with the stirrings of rebellion against Israel’s monarch, Dryden presses more insistently the duality of David as king and as God, and it also subsumes the populace in Adam’s rebellion. Following Berland (1997) “The most vivid signs Dryden furnishes point to Achitophel’s drift into insanity, his frantic hyperactivity, his reckless insistence upon redefining personal and political reality to match his own obsessions” (193).

The special feature of the symbolic description is its functional character (Berland 193). Using imagery, Dryden points to an Absalom (Adam) too much taken with his half-claim to royalty and desiring to be king (as a god), and, on the other hand, to an Achitophel playing upon Absalom’s half-claim and desire by addressing him as the true son (Christ) and promising him dominion over one of the kingdoms of this world (Fowles 34).

Berland (1997) writes: “he has ignored his duty, the limitations of his political position and of his own nature, and he has failed to calculate the consequences of his actions“ (193). Critics (Fowles 35) admit that the duality in the imagery applied to Absalom is impressive because it embodies the fact of his nature (man) and the nature of his temptation. His salvation lies in obedience and is the dear hope of David (as Monmouth’s restoration to dutifulness was of Charles). The epic accent introduced lends to Absalom’s choice the significance of Adam’s (Fowles 35)

The remarkable feature of this poem is that it is based on comparison and symbols which help Dryden to satirize Royal power and conservative values of the Court (Zwicker 639). For instance, using a comparison method Dryden compares the political ruler with the divine ruler, and involves rebellion against the earthly king with idolatry; rebellion against the earthly king with Adam’s rebellion against a divine restraint (Berland 195).

The symbol of the ‘state’, which is the contemporary term for a polity distinct from a true monarchy, is given the metaphor of religious idolatry and error, “the golden calf” (Fowles 76). The nature of the comparison makes it seem possible that the reference in a later passage is different from or additional to what a series of editors, Sir Walter Scott, George R. Noyes, and James Kinsley, have suggested; the lines in question are:

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The Jews well know their power: e’r Saul they Chose, God was their King, and God they durst Depose. (Dryden).

Dryden uses the opportunity of the Plot to stand “at bold defiance with his prince”, assisted, we are again informed, by the notorious British political instability:

For governed by the moon, the giddy Jews

Tread the same track when she the prime renews;

And, once in twenty years, their scribes record,

By natural instinct they change their lord (Dryden)

The most important part of the poem is when Dryden asks Absalom to head the rebels. Achitophel is made to dismiss, as some of his party in fact did–the theory of the divine right of kings. The portrait of Achitophel has been much admired, especially because it holds a residue of qualification and fairness that largely overcomes the stigma of mere faction (Donnelly 115).

Achitophel is represented as sagacious, bold, a fiery soul, a great wit, blest with wealth and honor; he is praised especially as a judge with discerning eyes and clean hands, ready without the stimulus of bribery or special pleading to redress the grievances of the wretched, “Swift of Dispatch, and ease of Access” (Dryden) The fairness of the portrait lies in the presentation of all sides of a many-sided man and in a willingness to recognize the rôle of contingency in shaping Achitophel’s actions.

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Greenfield argues that “Dryden develops a model of maternal generation in order to defend the royalist tradition…” (286), a model that exposes Aristotle’s “emphasis on female subordination,” since generation involves the active male and passive female supplying, respectively, the Aristotelian principles of form and matter (cited Donnelly 115).

The actions of the portrait are the actions possible with respect to a person of high qualifications in any particular historical situation. The portrait, however, also wears another and sterner aspect; among all the qualifications and mitigations there is steadily present the aspect of judgment, and the full verdict of that judgment appears in the symbolic description applied to Achitophel in this passage and in later sections of the poem (Berland 194). The symbolic description of the portrait sets the mitigations in a different light by pressing down upon Achitophel the image of Satan, another figure of high qualifications and mitigated in his evil nature by some remnant glories:

he above the rest In shape and gesture proudly eminent Stood like a Tower; his form had yet not lost All her Original brightness, nor appeared Less then Arch Angel ruined. (Dryden).

In historical and political terms, a big part of the poem depicts the history of the Second Samuel and Restoration England. The breaking of the Triple Bond, referring at the level of then and in England to the triple alliance formed in 1668 among England, Sweden, and the Dutch Republic against France, an alliance which Shaftesbury played a prominent part in breaking up, parallels on another level the action that Satan (Fowles 76) had to undertake to carry out his design against mankind:

at last appear Hell bounds high reaching to the horrid Roof, And thrice threefold the Gates; three folds were Brass, Three Iron, three of Adamantine Rock, Impenitrable (Dryden)

The section of the poem which follows the portrait of Achitophel has been generally referred to by critics as “The Temptation of Absalom.” In this section the symbolic description presents two major themes in combination: the theme of the temptation in the Garden and the theme of the temptation of Christ. The connection which the symbolic description makes between Absalom’s and Adam’s rebellion has already been pointed out as a suggestion in a passage of Dryden’s preface and in several passages of the poem.

The Absalom-Adam relation is made unmistakable with the setting of the temptation partly in the context of the Garden; the stypictic devices applied to Achitophel is the symbols of Satan as he appeared in the Garden, the arguments employed by Achitophel are a blend of Satan’s arguments in the Garden and his arguments to Christ in the desert, and the event of the temptation is a fall (Berland 194). The Absalom-Christ relation is pressed by the images of Savior and Messiah applied to Absalom, and by the main theme of the temptation, power over one of the kingdoms of this world (Donnelly 115).

Auspicious Prince! at whose Nativity Some Royal Planet ruled the Southern sky; Thy longing Countries Darling and Desire; Their cloudy Pillar, and their guardian Fire: Their second Moses, whose extended Wand Divides the Seas, and shows the promis’d Land: Whose dawning Day, in every distant age, Has exercised the Sacred Prophets rage: The Peoples Prayer, the glad Diviners Theam (Dryden)

In this scene, Achitophel compounds falsehood and deception, creating false images both of the Messiah and of Satan, false pictures of both good and evil. In yielding to the temptation of Achitophel, in being deceived, Absalom shows that he is not the true son; he reverts to the status of Adam whose fall put an end to man’s residence in Eden (Berland 194). The final section of the poem depicts the stalwart few who have bulwarked the throne, and David himself speaking from the throne.

Critics admit that there is a movement from satire to praise, and from London to Oxford. Charles II’s carefully managed surprise dissolution of the Oxford Parliament had set the opposition members clamoring for horses and scurrying out of Tory Oxford (Fowles 45). The King’s opposition was discomfited and scattered quite as if the destined knight had blown his horn.


In sum, the poem Absalom and Achitophel vividly portray England and its political conflicts, weak power of the king and religious power which had a great impact on the monarchy. Stylistic devices and satire help Dryden extend moral order and portrays Christian theology in full. Moral order and political battles can be seen as a part of English history and political values.

Works Cited

Berland, K.J.H. The Marks of Character: Physiology and Physiognomy in ‘Absalom and Achitophel. Philological Quarterly, 76 (1997), 193-198.

Donnelly, J. “A Greater Gust”: Generating the Body in Absalom and Achitophel Papers on Language & Literature, 40 (2004), 115.

Dryden, J. n.d. Web.

Fowles, A. John Dryden: A Critical Study. Greenwich Exchange, 2003.

Schille, C.B.K., At the Crossroads: Gendered Desire, Political Occasion, and Dryden and Lee’s Oedipus. Papers on Language & Literature, 40 (2004), 305.

Zwicker, N. Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 44 (2004), 639.

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StudyCorgi. "Poetry and Prose 1660-1800- John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel." September 13, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/poetry-and-prose-1660-1800-john-drydens-absalom-and-achitophel/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Poetry and Prose 1660-1800- John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel." September 13, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/poetry-and-prose-1660-1800-john-drydens-absalom-and-achitophel/.


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