Political Satire: Absalom and Achitophel, Part I.
It would not serve any purpose to dwell upon the general morigeration of Dryden, who, in this as in other respects, was “hurried down” the times in which he lived, to the leaders of politics and fashion, to the king’s ministers, favourites and mistresses, or upon the flatteries which, in dedications and elsewhere, he heaped upon the king himself, and upon his brother the duke. The attempts, however, which have been made to show that his pen was “venal”—in any sense beyond that of his having been paid for his compliments, or, at least, for a good many of them—may be said to have broken down; and the fact that he may have received payment from the king for writing The Medal does not prove that he was inspired by the expectation of personal profit when he first attacked the future medallist in Absalom and Achitophel.
| In undertaking the composition of this great satire, whether or not at the request of Charles II, Dryden had found his great literary opportunity; and, of this, he took advantage in a spirit far removed from that of either the hired bravos or the spiteful lampooners of his age. For this opportunity he had been unconsciously preparing himself as a dramatist; and it was in the nature of things, and in accordance with the responsiveness of his genius to the calls made upon it by time and circumstance, that, in the season of a great political crisis, he should have rapidly perceived his chance of decisively influencing public opinion by an exposure of the aims and methods of the party of revolution. This he proposed to accomplish, not by a poetic summary of the rights of the case, or by a sermon in verse on the sins of factiousness, corruption and treason, but by holding up to the times and their troubles, with no magisterial air or dictatorial gesture, a mirror in which, under a happily contrived disgvise, the true friends and the real foes of their king and country should be recognised. This was the “Varronian” form of satire afterwards commended by him, with a well warranted self-consciousness, as the species, mixing serious intent with pleasant manner, to which, among the ancients, several of Lucian’s Dialogues and, among the moderns, the Encomium Moriae of Erasmus belong. “Of the same kind is ‘Mother Hubberd’s Tale’; in Spenser, and (if it be not too vain to mention anything of my own) the poems of ‘Absalom’ and ‘MacFlecknoe.’” 78
| The political question at issue, in the troubled times of which the names “whig” and “tory” still survive as speaking mementoes, was that of the succession of the Catholic heir to the throne, or of his exclusion in favour of some other claimant—perhaps the king’s son Monmouth, whom many believed legitimate (the Absalom of the poem). For many months, Shaftesbury, who, after serving and abandoning a succession of governments, had passed into opposition, had seemed to direct the storm. Two parliaments had been called in turn, and twice the Exclusion bill had been rejected by the lords. Then, as the whig leader seemed to have thrown all hesitation to the winds, and was either driving his party or being driven by it into extremities from which there was no return, a tremor of reaction ran through the land, the party round the king gathered confidence, and, evidence supposed sufficient to support the charge having been swept in, Shaftesbury was committed to the Tower on a charge of high treason. It was at this time of tension, while a similar charge was being actually pressed to the gallows against a humbler agent of faction (the “Protestant joiner” Stephen College), that Dryden’s great effort to work upon public opinion was made. Part I of Absalom and Achitophel, which seems to have been taken in hand quite early in 1681, was published on 17 November in that year. Shaftesbury, it is known, was then fearing for his life. A week later, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, the bill was ignored by the Middlesex...
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