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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Class 8

Sep. 22: Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel


Reading Assignment:

    NAEL 2075-2099

Please be sure to read the introductory note to John Dryden AND the headnote to the poem itself. These will greatly aid your understanding and appreciation of this poem.

    Due: Post #4 Group A
    Topic for Paper 1 - close reading


    Your paper topic is due on this day. Please consider carefully what poem you would like to work on and what aspect of the poem you will address. Remember the most common problem students have in this assignment is taking on too big a subject. Think small and concise. Please submit your paper topic in class printed on paper. Please do not handwrite this. I will respond to the topic and return the sheet.

    The poem for today shares many aspects with Milton's Paradise Lost, and so we will focus on the heroic style, the biblical allegory, and the temptation scene. However, it is a poem written in couplets and so it introduces an important verse form that we will need to become quite familiar with. I will ask students to paraphrase the opening lines of the poem in class, so please be prepared.

    Because the poem is long and because it deals with complicated political affairs of the Restoration, I will provide for you a summary of the poem and an outline of its parts. I want you to know what it is about before you begin to read so that you can follow Dryden's poetry with greater ease and participate in the discussion.

    For a breakdown of the political situation leading to the poem and a list of the characters represented in the allegory see Representative Poetry Online, or download these notes from the Blackboard site, course documents.



    Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


    Summary of the poem:

    Lines 1-10

      Using the Biblical figures of David and his son Absalom, Dryden introduces the current English king, Charles II, as a man who failed to produce a legitimate heir but had numerous illegitimate offspring.
    Lines 11-42
      Absalom (Monmouth) is the most favored of these children. His beauty and popularity. His faults. (Note how Dryden represents these.)
    Lines 43-84
      The Jews (English) are beginning to be unhappy with government. They create plots.
    Lines 84-149
      The seeds of rebellion in religious controversy fail to bring plots to fruition, but they cause great unrest (refers to Popish Plot).
    Lines 150-199
      Achitophel's (Shaftesbury's) portrait -- his career in the government and his current ambition.
    Lines 200-229
      Achitophel's plan to use the anti-Jesubite (Catholic) feeling against David
    Lines 230-484
      Achitophel tempts Absalom to join him; to become the successor to the crown against his father's wishes. Absalom's hesitation and eventual agreement.
    Lines 486-543
      Achitophel "seduces" others to join them. Note the anti-whig sentiment expressed here.
    Lines 545-681
      Satiric portraits of the key players in the Exclusion crisis. Note in particular the portrait of Zimri (lines 545-568) or George Villiers, Dryden's literary rival.
    Lines 682-752
      Absalom builds support on his journey through the country
    Lines 753-810
      The poet's direct address to the people, explaining the peace and stability of royal authority and condemning the anarchy of democratic revolution
    Lines 811-913
      Portraits of David's supporters. Note the use of panegyric and elegy in this section.
    Lines 914-938
      These supporters point out to David his danger.
    Lines 939-1025
      David addresses his people, explaining his own mildness, establishing his love of Absalom, but insisting that he will demonstrate "the fury of a patient man."
    Lines 1026-1031
      Poet quickly concludes with the restoration of and support for David.

    2.

    Dryden’s superb satire functions as both art and politics, and it provides a perfect seventeenth-century example of media spin. The work introduces you to the beginnings of partisan politics in Britain. Dryden wrote the piece to influence public opinion on the Exclusion Crisis, and more specifically the judgment of Shaftesbury, a crisis that precipitated the development of the Whig and Tory parties. The representation of Shaftesbury’s view of government, with allowances for satire and partisanship, reflect the Whig interests in parliamentary control of the succession of the crown and toleration for dissenting Protestant religions; while the poet’s voice – particularly in lines 753-810 – represents the Tory response to these democratic impulses and their belief in traditional forms of monarchy and hierarchical authority.

    Form: Varronian Satire –an indirect satire that uses narrative to convey a serious issue in a pleasant way – in heroic couplets and heroic idiom. Mixed with dramatic forms of dialogue, personal satiric portraits, panegyric and a brief elegy.

    Allegory: Based on the biblical story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father King David in 2 Samuel 13-18. David stands in for Charles II; Absalom for the Duke of Monmouth; Achitophel for Shaftesbury; Jerusalem for London; Jesubites for Catholics; Sanhedrin for Parliament

    Themes: Personal ambition corrupts even the best of men; unregulated passions authorize rebellion and mob rule (democracy), while rationality endorses established authority and stability; flattery is delusive and persuasive, while satire provides corrective truth.

    Key Passages:

      Opening comic treatment of Charles’ promiscuity 1-10 -- What tricky issues did Dryden confront in writing this poem about Charles II and his illegitimate son? What strategies did he use? How successful are they?

      Temptation scene 230-476 -- Why does Achitophel need Absalom? What objections does Absalom bring to Achitophel's plan? Why does he succumb? Note the parallels with Milton's Paradise Lost. What rhetorical strategies does Achitophel share with Satan? What other aspects of this temptation scene are indebted to PL?

      Portrait of Zimri 545-568 -- Dryden was quite proud of this satire -- it demonstrates the art of fine raillery “a vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place" (NAEL 2121). What are the strengths of this satiric portrait?

      Poet’s address to Israel 753-810 -- What are the drawbacks to democratic rule as it is represented here? How compelling is Dryden's presentation?

      Charles II’s speech 939-1025 -- What is Charles II’s message in his speech? Why does Dryden put it in the poem at that point? Evaluate the closing lines of the poem. Why does Dryden end it so equivocally?


      3.

      Dryden's poem operates as both art and politics. It is a nuanced satire on the complex political situation at the close of the 1670s. Why does he choose to write in the heroic style? What elements of the heroic style are present here? In your answer, consider Milton's style and the epic style in general. Does Dryden's poem share anything with this?

      How does the poem function as “spin”? What contemporary parallels can you find?


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