John Dryden: as A Satirist

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      Satire is a literary form which searches out the faults of men or institutions in order to hold them up to ridicule. Dryden considered the true end of satire to be the amendment of vices by correction. But without humor, satire is invective. Satire may be (i) personal or (ii) impersonal, Personal satire is against individuals and impersonal satire is aimed at types, and hence, universal and lasting.

      Dryden is a master of the classical form of satire. He shows the influence of classical writers of Rome like Horace and Juvenal. Dryden combines the urbane laughter of Horace with the vigorous contempt of Juvenal in his satire. A characteristic example of this combination is in the portrait of Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel: "It is not bloody; but it's ridiculous enough."

      The important satirical works of Dryden are "Absalom and Achitophel", "The Medal", "Mac Flecknoe" and a contribution of 200 lines to Nahum Tate's "Absalom and Achitophel" Part II. All his satires usually show artistic control and urbanity of manner.

Political Satire

      Dryden's political satire is manifest in Absalom and Achitophel, a brilliant piece of satirical allegory in which the cause of King Charles II is championed. It satirizes the attempt of Shaftesbury to overrule the succession of the Duke of York and set the Duke of Monmouth in his place. An allegorical version of a story from the Bible suits the purpose. Charles II is David and the Duke of Monmouth is Absalom, while Shaftesbury is the satanic, cunning and dangerous Achitophel. The series of satirical portraits in the poem is its chief attraction and strength. Careful selection of details, moderation and tolerance mark the satire. Moral indignation is never affected; Dryden's attitude is cool and not ill-humored. He does not show mean malice.

Controlled Contempt

      Dryden's satire is remarkable as an artistic expression of controlled contempt. Of the three great English satirists, Dryden is a master of scorn of contempt, Pope of rage, and Swift of disgust. Dryden speaks as one civilized person to another, without invective. The suave Horatian manner marks his political satire. Without using malice Dryden reduces his opponent to a ridiculous position. He controls his satirical spirit, and skilfully selects the points and the manner of his attacks. The result is a humorous, disdainful, and yet incisive mockery. Dryden was aware that the satirist should make a man "die sweetly", and call him a fool or rogue without using those "opprobrious terms." He talks of the satirist's dexterous stroke which severs the head but leaves the rest of the body standing. His own satire shows this dexterous stroke. Dignified contempt and ironical praise achieve Dryden's purpose as a political satirist. He also shows remarkable power of reasoning in poetry.

Personal Satires

      Juvenalian vigor marks his personal satires. The supporters of Shaftesbury provoked Dryden to write The Medal, which is marked for bitter invective against Shaftesbury. Part of the work is also directed against the Republican institutions of England. As a work of art, it falls short of Absalom and Achitophel. As a result of The Medal, several hostile satiric works sprang up, one of which was Shadweli's The Medal of John Bayes. Dryden's reply was the severe personal satire of Mac Flecknoe. Flecknoe, whose successor is Shadwell, rules over an empire of dullness. He rules "through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute." Dryden's power at contemptuous humor is evident in his portraiture of Shadwell. Personal and witty attacks on Shadwell's corpulence and literary weaknesses are, however, combined with humor. Sharp wit and humor mingle in Mac Flecknoe. Good-natured contempt and an ironic tone mark his treatment of Shadwell. Mac Flecknoe is a mock-heroic satire.

Elevating Style

      Dryden's style never becomes low or vulgar. He does not generally use indecent imagery or idiom. He elevates his very opponents - that is the masterly technique of Dryden as a satirist. His poetry exalts the very characters whom, his scorn depresses and diminishes. Thus his Mac Flecknoe is much more important than the real Shadwell. The real Titus Oates is less important than the artistic Corah. It is his exalting style which helped to give importance to the satire as a literary form. Dryden is a master of "fine raillery". He not merely lampoons but also writes panegyrics in his satires. The term, 'satire', is "not only used for those discourse which decried vice or exposed folly, but for others also, where virtue was recommended", said Dryden. His satires have this wider scope. Positive as well as negative, they decry faults and recommend virtues at the same time. Mac Flecknoe decries Shadwell but appreciates the merits of Ben Jonson at the same time.

Use of the Heroic Couplet

      The 'exalting' effect is possible because Dryden perfected the heroic couplet and made it an appropriate verse medium for satire. The neatness, polish, epigrammatic cogency and witty phrasing that Dryden brought to the heroic couplet, made it fit for satire. He fully exploited the scope it offered for balance and antithesis. It became a very handy vehicle for the expression of ironic contempt. Dryden’s couplets have the stinging power of a slap in the face. It is the combination of smoothness, lucidity of style and urbanity of manner, made possible by mastery over the couplet form, which makes Dryden's satire so very remarkable. Lucid, clear and majestic, Dryden's satire gets its sting from his use of the heroic couplet.

Dryden's Achievement as Satirist

      Dryden ranks very high as a satirist. His satirical portraits are remarkably effective. He has a marked ability to reason or argue through verse. He gave to satire its own importance as a literary form. "He never painted a type without individual significance, or an individual that was not hugely typical", says Humbert Wolge. Never purely malicious, even his personal satires are generally marked by urbane smoothness, which makes the satire all the more effective. Indeed, as Hugh Walker points out, "the work of Dryden fixed for several generations the course of English satire."

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