Copyright J V Ward. 14th August 2003

Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, The Medall and MacFlecknoe. Are they poetic works or pure satire?

Satire may be defined as a literary form which disparages its subject matter by provoking amusement thereby stimulating the reader to hold the object in contempt. The definition of poetry has to date eluded literary critics but a general specification would be those forms of literary art which encompass imagery, rhyme, metre and wordplay. This is not to say that poetry has no value other than its own literary form. Dryden's Medal is a great satire and his Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe are distinguished poetic works but the satire of the latter two works has the greater potency by being enclosed in a poetic form.

One of the poet's most effective tools and the satirist's greatest weapons is imagery. In The Medall we read of Shaftesbury in terms of a counterfeit coin. The eponymous medal is ‘so like the man’; the obverse bears his regal features and spurious title while the reverse is emblazoned with the sun, a traditional image of kingship which the seventeenth century reader familiar with Shakespeare would have recognised. The medal although ‘golden to the sight’ is ‘counterfeit and light’ a contrast made more eloquent by the use of rhyme and meter. This image assists the reader to absorb the statements ‘power was his aim’ and ‘framed for ill’ which would otherwise be merely vituperative comments. Similarly the diabolical imagery in ‘how long heaven was in making Lucifer’ subverts Shaftesbury's authority when ‘He preaches to the crowd’ and reinforces the satirical comment ‘interest never lies’. Unhappily these images are not sustained throughout the poem, Dryden preferring to rely on rhetoric as in ‘What fools our fathers were, if this be true!’ This logic is only valid if one accepts the premise that our forbears invested ‘Inherent rights in monarchs’ and Shaftesbury's case is that they did not. 

Dryden appeals to reason in his foretelling of the future anarchic state:

  ‘No justice to their righteous cause allowed;
But baffled by an arbitrary crowd.’ 

However Dryden is merely accusing the Whigs of injustice and caprice without displaying the consequences of the alleged anarchy. He feels secure that this future state is ‘What all but fools by common sense may know’ and consequently attempts to demonstrate it ‘without a vision’. Dryden's theory of anarchy is more acceptable when it is later accompanied by the imagery of monsters. The sibilance of ‘The swelling poison’ of ‘the several sects’ is suggestive of snakes and the alliteration of ‘various venoms’ brings vipers to mind. This accompanied by the ‘frogs and toads, and all the tadpole train’ representing Non‑Conformists ‘puffed up with spiritual pride’ provides a vision of the anarchic state which will ensue when Shaftesbury as a ‘devouring crane’ comes to supreme power. Dryden's potency as a satirist disappoints when he relies on rhetoric and logic but ameliorates when he is in poetic mode. He is correct to quote from Horace that Shaftesbury's crimes ‘non potuise refelli’ cannot be refuted. But if they cannot be refuted then at least they can be scorned and ridiculed. 

In Absalom and Achitophel we meet Shaftesbury in the person of Achitophel and, in this poem, Dryden's main satiric weapon is his poetry. Achitophel is closely linked to Satan by diabolical imagery. His pernicious powers are alluded to in ‘cockle, that oppressed the noble seed’ a direction to the New Testament parable of the tares. [Matthew 13 18-23]. His erstwhile blessed state of ‘lawful fame and lazy happiness’ brings to mind the state of Lucifer before the dark angels' fall and the ‘golden fruit’ which Achitophel assists to dislodge reminds us of Satan's temptation of Eve. Achitophel's enticing powers are those of Satan. ‘Desire of greatness is a godlike sin’ reminds us of Satan's words to Eve "ye shall be as gods". [Genesis 3:5]. The comparison to Satan is completed by the poignant caesura of:

 ‘In friendship false, implacable in hate
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state.’

This heroic couplet achieves the point succinctly in the balancing of the lines emphasised by the alliteration and assonance of ‘ruin’ and ‘rule’. Here Dryden borrows somewhat from Milton. ‘implacable in hate’ reminds us of Milton's Satan's ‘immortal hate’ and the latter line is reminiscent of ‘better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven’. Achitophel speaks of David in Satanic terms

‘But, like the prince of angels, from his height
Comes tumbling downwards with diminished light.’

However by the time we read these lines the link between Satan and Achitophel is so firmly established that we cannot fail to connect the reference to him rather than David. Satan is proverbially 'the father of lies' and therefore we suspect everything he says. His temptation of Absolom is laden with the imagery of prophet and miracle worker as in ‘second Moses, whose extended wand/ Divides the seas.’ The passage is made more poignant by the use of alliteration as in ‘southern sky’ and ‘darling and desire’ pointing to ‘the dawning day in every distant age’. This declamatory style is recognised as flattery, the preface ‘sheds its venom in such words as these’ being necessary only for the undiscerning reader. After fourteen lines of adulation the point is further reinforced by a pun on 'How long’ leaving no doubt in the reader's mind as to the motive behind the oration and posing a dramatic irony as Abylom is beguiled by the words while the reader is not.

Satan's enemy is God who is represented imagematically as David the alter ego of Charles Il. The principle of the 'Divine right of kings' is alluded to frequently in the term ‘godlike David’ but the point is achieved more subtly by the use of divine imagery. David created Absalom with a ‘diviner lust’ and sees ‘His youthful image in his son renewed’, a discrete reference to Genesis ‘in his own image and likeness’. The image of God as creator of man is continued in ‘paradise’ and ‘made the charming Annabel his bride’ just as God ‘made’ Eve as a bride for Adam. God is ex officio impeccable and his agent on earth, the king, can do no wrong. The fact that Charles II and David are in breach of the seventh commandment tends to contradict this. Ostensible sin tends to be sneered at: even Dryden cannot resist a passing comment that the allegedly celibate Flecknoe is 'blest with issue’. Dryden ingeniously uses his poetic art to bypass this obstacle. The alliteration of ‘pious’, ‘priestcraft’ and ‘polygamy’ and ‘cursedly confined’ together with the coinage of the word ‘priestcraft’, a neologism reminiscent of witchcraft, removes the responsibility to the authors of arbitrary laws. The reference to ‘scattered his maker's image’ reminds us of the commandment of longer standing in Genesis to ‘Be fruitful, and multiply’. This absolves David of blame except in the eyes of one who ‘skulked behind the laws’.

The elevation of David to a ‘godlike’ state reconciles the discontinuity of the course of the poem. As God is almighty, he has no need to fight ‘the powerful engines bent/ To batter down the lawful government’. The continual references to ‘god’ in David's final declamation give the impression of one impervious to attacks by mortal man as do such biblical references as: 

‘If my young Sampson will pretend a call
To shake the column, let him share the fall:’

The imagery has given David the omnipotence required to obviate a confrontation which would be embarrassing both to himself and to Absolom. The proceedings are thereby brought to a peaceful if noisy conclusion in ‘peals of thunder’.

As David is portrayed as God and Achitophel as Satan, the role of Adam would seem to be appropriate to Absalom. However Dryden allots the role of fallen man to the English people represented as the Jews and nominated ‘Adam-wits’. The imagery surrounding the Jews is of idols, the product of ‘god-smiths’ and the invention of ‘priestcraft’. The culmination of this imagery is ‘that golden calf, a state’ thereby linking a celebrated idol with republican sentiment. Dryden may have excused breach of the seventh commandment but makes no exceptions in the case of the second. He has linked the English with idolatry and this with republicanism thereby making his anti‑monarchical enemies guilty of the heinous sin of idolatry. A convenient escape route is provided for the reader in the line ‘The sober part of Israel, free from stain’ enabling Dryden to link republicanism with extremism and eccentricity.

The Catholics, personified as the Jebusites, are also partakers in the idol imagery. Their idols are more tangible than those of the Jews being of ‘beaten gold’, ‘Stock, stone’ or ‘common wood’. The Jebusites also have the imagery of fire as in ‘in a flame’, corporeal existence in ‘flesh and blood’ and nutriment as in ‘eat and drink’. The purpose of this imagery becomes apparent when we encounter the pun on ‘mass’ in 'swallowed in the mass, unchewed and crude’. This latent attack on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation made abundantly apparent in ‘served at once for worship and for food’ links the originators of the ‘Plot’ with mendacity in mocking a doctrine presumed to be fallacious by a Protestant readership. 

In MacFlecknoe we see how Dryden uses poetical devices to build up a motif which is thereupon thwarted for satirical purposes. The poem opens with the imagery of majesty in ‘monarchs’, ‘Augustus’, ‘empire’ and ‘realms’ which is promptly subverted by nominating Flecknoe's kingdom ‘Nonsense’. Similarly the supernatural imagery where Shadwell is referred to as the ‘last great prophet of tautology’ is evoked by Flecknoe's appearance as a John The Baptist figure ‘coarsely clad’ ‘sent before but to prepare the way’. This image culminates in the alliteration of ‘celestial charge’ and is promptly undercut by ‘Epsom blankets tossed’ an indignity out of character with the sublime imagery. 

The monarchical imagery is continued in ‘thoughtless majesty’ and ‘monarch oaks’ with which the sibilance of ‘spread in solemn state’ provides a figure to be destroyed by ‘supinely’ suggestive of the felling of the royal tree. This image is intermingled with an image of darkness in ‘night’ and ‘fogs’ which prepares us for the mock coronation of Shadwell with the soporific ‘poppies’.

Shadwell's poetic ability is described by ‘faecal’ imagery in ‘morning toast that floats along’ combined with the proximity of the call ‘ShadweIl' to the ‘echoes from Pissing Alley’ an echo suggestive of 'shit'. The image is augmented by the ‘papers in the threshing hand’ which may be seen as ‘relics of the bum’. 

The state of the kingdom to be inherited by Shadwell is expressed in the imagery of ruin nearby 'fair Augusta’. The ‘ancient fabric’ and ‘old ruins’ represent the ‘empty name’ of Shadwell and the ruinous imagery is intermingled with that of harlotry in ‘brothel houses’ and ‘Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys’. This ‘monument of vanished minds’ is representative of the decay and corruption in a London which lauds Shadwell's banalities.

Dryden goes beyond scornfullness when he depicts Shadwell's enthronement with a borrowing from Milton ‘High on a throne’ depicting Shadwell as a Satanic figure. As we reach the ultimate achievement of Shadwell's ‘own labours’ we are reminded that the lionising of such poetasters is not only risible but potentially disastrous.

The Medall falters as a satire because it depends on reason and scorn, capabilities which fail when subjected to inquiry. Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecnoe flourish on account of the forceful use of imagery and other poetic devices. Dryden is at his best when he uses his creative powers to ridicule the objects of his satire rather than when he trusts in vituperative rhetoric or deductive analysis.

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