ENL 6236.002:  Restoration Literature                                                          Spring 2010



Feb. 8, 2010 – Class 4


Political Ends of Poetry (Redux)



Reading:         Hammond, pp. 38-73 (including Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel)
Behn: A Pindaric Poem to the Reverend Doctor Burnet (Todd 347-350)


Recommended:  RPO online version of Absalom and Achitophel http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem736.html provides an excellent summary of the political events that motivate the poem.

                        Please be sure to read the prose piece “To the Reader” prefixed to Absalom and Achitophel.  Unfortunately, I have not found this online.  It is available in the Walker edition.

                        From The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (on reserve):  “Dryden and The Energies Of Satire,” by Ronald Paulson and “Dryden’s Anonymity” by John Mullan.


Presentations:  Annotation: Cecilia Bolich

                        Haley Anderson:  Krook, Anne K. "Satire and the Constitution of Theocracy in 'Absalom and Achitophel'." Studies in Philology 91.3 (1994): 339-358. Print


Due:                Post 4




The literary readings for this class center on the political poetry of Dryden.  The excerpts on Titus Oates and on Charles II’s death offer important context.  Behn’s powerful Pindaric poem to Dr. Burnet provides a valuable contrast with Dryden’s political satire.


While last week’s readings primarily focused on the positive portrayal of political events in the early years of Charles II’s reign, we began to see with Marvell and Rochester how optimism gave way to cynicism.  Along the same lines, this week we will explore the question why the panegyric of the first decade disappears.  What literary or historical events contribute to the critical tone that prevails in this poetry?  What about David’s story becomes more appropriate as a parallel for the later years of Charles II’s reign?



  1. Political Poetry – the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis


Absalom and Achitophel is considered Dryden's greatest satire; it constructs a parallel between the story of David in 2 Samuel and that of Charles II and his illegitimate son Monmouth ('Absalom').  It is a feat of measured but critical poetic commentary.  It functions as art and politics.  Dryden always has a keen sense of political savvy, and though at the time of writing the poem, Shaftesbury may have been arrested, the succession of the king was far from being decided.


There is much history behind, within and succeeding from this poem.  That said, how would you define the PURPOSE of the poem?  What are Dryden’s chief means of achieving his ends?  How successful is he?


Who is the audience for this poem?  For whom does Dryden write?  (This question is, of course, complicated by the surmises that Charles II requested that Dryden write it and supplied the text of his speech to the parliament at Oxford for the ending.)


Ward in The Life of Dryden on the years 1678-81:


"The success of Titus Oates in foisting upon the nation the Popish Plot should be viewed against the seventeenth century background, as Dryden saw it.  It was an age of plots, oaths, vows, and texts:  they were woven into the fabric of everyday life, and hardly a person in England escaped being touched by them.  Hearsay and rumor as often as not passed as truth; and barefaced lies and personal enmity sent many innocent old women to the fire and many a hungry, small-time felon to the scaffold.  Nor were the underprivileged alone the victims of perjurers and informers:  courtiers and politicians and even a king went to their deaths in an age when religious conviction and observance often bore no relationship to personal integrity and probity; human beings were expendable.  Nothing indeed was more calculated to produce immediate reaction than tales of the Scarlet Woman or the Whore of Rome; and there was never wanting the manipulator of mass psychology to create the climate necessary to uncritical acceptance of the most fantastic and farfetched allegation – a heritage which the twentieth century, with vastly increased mechanical means, has refined to a satanic subtlety."


How is this atmosphere present in Absalom and Achitophel?  What techniques does Dryden use to create it?  What is the speaker’s relationship to this atmosphere of conspiracy, rumor and hearsay?


Ward also notes that "To the Reader," before Absalom and Achitophel is "an integral part of the poem."  Why is this so?  In this proleptic defense, Dryden forthrightly claims: “he who draws his pen for one party must expect to make enemies of the other” (Walker edition, 177).  How might this insight comment upon the strategy of the poem?  In light of this, what do you make of the slight revisions Dryden makes to the poem in the second edition?


What extremely touchy aspects of the political situation made this poem a difficult one to write?  How does Dryden manage to get around the delicate issues literarily?  Or does he manage to escape them?  Note in particular detail the opening of the poem as well as the father’s relationship to the son.


What does it say about a culture that a poem like Absalom and Achitophel could be considered by anyone as an important political weapon?


Are the issues treated in Absalom and Achitophel now entirely of historical interest?  Or have they any contemporary currency?  I am particularly interested in the way Achitophel functions as a behind-the-scenes political advisor.


Samuel Johnson on Absalom and Achitophel in the Life of Dryden:


Of this poem, in which personal satire was applied to the support of publick principles, and in which therefore every mind was interested, the reception was eager, and the sale so large that my father, an old bookseller, told me he had not known it equalled but by Sacheverell's trial.


The reason of this general perusal Addison has attempted to derive from the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of secrets; and thinks that curiosity to decypher the names procured readers to the poem.  There is no need to enquire why those verses were read, which to all the attractions of wit, elegance and harmony added the co-operation of all the factious passions, and filled every mind with triumph or resentment.




  1. Poetry of Politics – Dryden’s line


Analyze the structure of Absalom and Achitophel.  What are the strengths and weaknesses?  Examine the various breaks in narrative.  In particular, look at Charles' speech and its role.


Evaluate Dryden's ability in character-drawing in this poem.  How well does he succeed in drawing friends and foes?  Take particular note of Achitophel, of course, and Zimri – Dryden’s literary rival, the Duke of Buckingham.


Again, reference to Johnson’s Life of Dryden offers important insight.  He writes:


Absalom and Achitophel is a work so well known that particular criticism is superfluous.  If it be considered as a poem political and controversial, it will be found to comprise all the excellences of which the subject is susceptible: acrimony of censure, elegance of praise, artful delineation of characters, variety and vigour of sentiment, happy turns of language, and pleasing harmony of numbers; and all these raised to such a height as can scarcely be found in any other English composition.


It is not however without faults; some lines are inelegant or improper, and too many are irreligiously licentious.  The original structure of the poem was defective: allegories drawn to great length will always break; Charles could not run continually parallel with David.


The subject had likewise another inconvenience:  it admitted little imagery or description, and a long poem of mere sentiments easily becomes tedious; though all the parts are forcible and every line kindles new rapture, the reader, if not relieved by the interposition of something that sooths the fancy, grows weary of admiration, and defers the rest.


In evaluating S. Johnson's criticism of A&A, keep in mind that Johnson, while writing that Paradise Lost "is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first," pointed out that "None every wished it longer than it is."


That said, do you agree with Johnson’s poetic assessment?  Examine the facility of expression Dryden demonstrates in his flexible yet compact couplets. 


Evaluate the temperate censure Dryden issues in the poem. He says in his preface to the reader: “I have but laughed at some men’s follies, when I could have declaimed against their vices; and other men’s virtues I have commended as freely as I have taxed their crimes” (177).  How would you characterize the satire of this poem?  For whom (or what) does he reserve his harshest judgment?  (In addition to Achitophel, examine Dryden’s representation of non-conformist ministers and the London rabble.)


Allegory:  what is allegory and how does it function in literature?  Why is allegory a particularly effective choice for Dryden? 

Do you agree that the length of Dryden’s allegory is a flaw, or might you say with Ward (Age of Dryden) that “Absalom and Achitophel remains the greatest political satire in our literature, partly because it is frankly political, and not intended, like Hudibras, by means of a mass of accumulated detail, to convey a general impression of the vices and follies, defects and extravagances, of a particular section or particular sections of the nation.  With Dryden, every hit is calculated, and every stroke goes home; in each character brought on the scene, those features only are selected for exposure or praise which are of direct significance for the purpose in hand” http://www.bartleby.com/218/0121.html visited 8/31/04.


How do you respond to Rawson’s claim that Absalom and Achitophel does not use allegory, but rather employs typology? He also calls the work a mock-epic. 


How does anonymity figure into the meaning of this poem?


In addition to satiric portraiture, for which the poem is justly famed, what other “genres” of poetry comprise Dryden’s work?



3.  Behn’s Political Pindaric


Montague Summers wrote in his Memoir of Mrs. Behn (1914): “On the afternoon of 12 February, Mary, wife of William of Orange, had
 with great diffidence landed at Whitehall Stairs, and Mrs. Behn congratulated the lady in her Poem To Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary on
 her Arrival in England. One regrets to find her writing on such an occasion, and that she realized the impropriety of her conduct is clear
 from the reference to the banished monarch. But she was weary, depressed, and ill, and had indeed for months past been racked with
 incessant pain. An agonizing complication of disorders now gave scant hope of recovery. It is in the highest degree interesting to note that
 during her last sickness Dr. Burnet, a figure of no little importance at that moment, kindly enquired after the dying woman. The Pindaric in
 which she thanks him, and which was printed March, 1689, proved the last poem she herself saw through the press. At length exhausted
 nature failed altogether, and she expired 16 April, 1689, the end hastened by a sad lack of skill in her physician. She is buried in the east
 cloisters of Westminster Abbey. A black marble slab marks the spot.” <http://eserver.org/feminism/memoir-of-aphra-behn.txt> visited
In a different take on the matter, biographer and editor, Janet Todd writes of Burnet’s request: “During these difficult weeks of negotiations,
 Burnet, who had worked so tirelessly for the Orange cause, worried at the resentment William was inspiring, even in those who had been
 foremost in inviting him.  He needed some quick propaganda besides his own to focus opinion on the benefits the new ruler was conveying
 on the English.  In this spirit he probably approached Aphra Behn.  He did not care for her morals, but he had preached morality to Charles
 II and had no fear of taint.  As for her political opinions, although Burnet knew she had been a skilled apologist of the old regime, he had
 some reason to hope they might be changed, or, more accurately, they might be bought.  He heard she was ill and would therefore be in
 need of support and money” (424-4, Secret Life of Aphra Behn).  
Todd speculates that Behn was amused at Burnet’s request: “She knew what Burnet had thought of her – indeed he thought most witty
 women lewd – but she must also have seen that he admired her poetic skill” (425).  She denied his request and instead wrote an equivocal
 poem that envisions Burnet as the agent of the Glorious Revolution.  “It was a parodic version of the point to which Behn had long been
 tending, that the pen is mightier than the sword and that the state needs its writers” (426).
How does the poem represent Behn’s Tory politics?  What risks does it take in face of William’s accession to the throne?  How does she
 mitigate these risks?
Would you characterize the poem as panegyric or satire?  At what point does one give way to another?  Why is the Pindaric form
 appropriate?  What connotations does the form (alluded to in her reference to Cowley) confer?
How does Behn represent herself in the poem?  How does this correspond with known facts about her – her strong Tory allegiance and her
 former published Pindarics in praise of the Stuart royalty?  What aesthetic or political purpose does this serve?
Robert Markley and Molly Rothenberg argue that “as a professional woman writer, a proponent of women’s sexual freedom, and a Tory
 apologist, Behn must draw upon a variety of incommensurate discursive strategies and political values to ground her critique of repression.
 . . . Therefore [her work] does not and cannot exhibit either a formal aesthetic unity or a coherent political ideology; in fact, its theoretical
 and historical significance lies in its disclosure of the necessarily fragmentary ideological conditions of its productions, its registering of the
 discursive crises within late-seventeenth-century constructions of nature, politics, and sexuality” (Rereading Aphra Behn 5).
To what extent do you agree with Markley and Rothenberg’s assessment?  If there is no aesthetic unity or coherent political ideology, on
 what grounds can we value this work?  What evidence to the contrary exists? What other explanations for Behn’s particular representation
 of aesthetics and politics might we offer?
Finally, sketch a comparison of the political representations offered by the two poets, Dryden and Behn.  To begin you might explore the
 differences in voice, persona, self-representation.  Then explore the handling of the poetic line, the author’s placement in a literary tradition,
 the choice of genre.  Discuss the comparative relationship between the author and his or her public.  Offer an assessment of the ways in
 which gender, class, politics affect these questions.