Absalom and Achitophel: Poem - Summary and Analysis

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      Absalom and Achitophel is a satiric poem written by Dryden. The satire was occasioned by the quarrel between Whigs and Tories. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. He had married Catherine Braganza in 1662, but he had no issue with her. In 1679, the question of succession assumed importance. In the event of the king having no legitimate child the crown would revert to the Duke of York. But the Duke of York was a Catholic. Whigs insisted on the exclusion of the Duke of York from the right of succession on the ground of religion. Their leader was the Earl of Shaftesbury. The Tories who believed in the divine right of kings wanted the Duke of York succeeding Charles to the throne. On this question, the country was on the verge of a civil war, Dryden wrote Absalom and Achitophel in order to influence public opinion against the Earl of Shaftsbury who was arrested in 1681 for his alleged plot to secure the succession of the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate child of Charles II.

Absalom and Achitophel
Absalom & Achitophel

Critical Analysis

      In the poem, Dryden took the names and situations from the Biblical story of the rebellion of Absalom against his father David. Achitophel is the Earl of Shaftsbury and Absalom is the Duke of Monmouth. The most remarkable thing about the satire is how the Biblical characters and situations have been given contemporary significance. Dryden rendered the theme of his poem in the form of an allegory. Through the medium of allegory, the poetical and personal satire has been raised to the level of high art. Moreover, Dryden gives satire an epic dimension. There are some passages that remind one of Miltonic grandeur and loftiness of speech. Dryden's main achievement in the satire lay in his character sketches. His Achitophel and Zimrie are drawn with felicity and finish. Achitophel is at once Shaftsbury and the abstract intriguer. Zimrie is at once Buckingham and the ideal grand nobleman who plays at politics and learning. Dryden's satire is however free from personal grudge and bitterness. Another important contribution of Dryden to satire is the remarkable use of heroic couplets. He used the end-stopped lines and he made sentence structure conform to the metrical pattern.

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