Dryden is absolutely a multidimensional genius. He is acclaimed as a major poet, a distinguished playwright a celebrated critic and a great satirist on the basis of his literary works. Dryden’s remarkable poem “Absalom and Achitophel” adds a new dimension to the English classical satire.
In fact, this poem has raised English satire to the level of superb satirical literature of Rome. It has exhibited for the first time the power and plasticity of the heroic couplet in poetry, which Dryden has used in his satirical masterpiece.
Dryden himself has admitted, “the true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction.” It is generally accepted that satire is a criticism of life aiming at correction, reformation, and improvement of individuals who are satirized for their follies. But Dryden has deviated from his own dictum in “Absalom and Achitophel.”
In this poem, his main object was to defend and justify the King and his actions in the face of strong opposition from the politicians of the time. The victims of his attach were leading politicians whom he tried to discredit, but he had little hope of reforming them by his attack. His principal objective was to expose their dishonesty, hypocrisy, and treachery.
In attending the king’s opponents, Dryden uses these weapons that are generally used by a satirist. They include wit, humor, irony, sarcasm, and raillery. He himself admitted that he wanted to laugh at human follies. He greatly succeeds in making a laugh at certain follies of some of his victims.
However, his attack is often not confused to ridicule and mockery; in some cases, they become intensely scornful, contemptuous, abusive, and damaging. He is not always genial and good-humored; often it becomes sharp, pungent, and extremely offensive.
Dryden’s portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury has little humor or wit; it is mostly a serious attack. About a quarter of the poem is devoted to the satirical presentation of Achitophel or the Earl of Shaftesbury. It is a moral attack that Dryden launches in the heroic “high styles” with little humor.
He denounces the Earl as undaunted in times of a crisis and totally unfit too. His satire becomes better when Dryden comment that the boundary between his genres and madness is very thin. Satire becomes mere pungent when references are made to Shaftesbury’s fiery soul that consumed its weak body by its very turbulence. He mentions The Earl as a traitor who was filled for secret intrigues.
Dryden maintains that he is treacherous in friendship and merciless in hatred. He is determined either to acquire high authority in the country or destroy the country. He has defined the authority of the King as his crimes are exposed to the public. The Earl has invested evidence to strengthen his arguments about the plot and even he has tried to prove that King Charles was himself secretly a Roman Catholic.
However, despite his bitter condemnation of Shaftesbury, Dryden pays a tribute to his magisterial qualities as being honest, incorruptible and fair. Even after praising the Earl, Dryden criticizes him as a reckless gambler in the game of politics.
Dryden has depicted another major character Zimin or the Duke of Buckingham is a very amusing manner. His gifts of irony and sarcasm are nowhere employed with a better effort than here. He presents Zimin satirically as the extreme of all mankind, he is stiff in opinions and always in the wrong. He has not only changes in his ideas but also his hobbies and occupations.
In the course of one single month, the Duke has shown by turns as an alchemist, a fiddler, a statesman, and a buffoon. He has equally shown interest in women, painting, rhyming, and drinking. He was a madness who has tried to employ every hour of his life with something new to enjoy.
His usual methods are praising some while denouncing others and in both of them, he goes extreme. Even tools could rob him of money and having incurred the displeasure of the King, he has tried to console himself by forming parties. But his tragedy lies in the fact that he could not be the leader of any party.
It is important to note that there is very little of abusive in this satirical sketch. Dryden depicts the Duke merely as a tool than as a Knave. Zimin possesses no quality like Achitophel; he is merely futile. The portrait of Zimin illustrates Dryden’s talent for raillery.
Dryden makes his satirical attack against Hastings, Grey, Howard, and Sir William Jones. Dryden mainly stresses on their dullness, talkativeness, lechery, hypocrisy, and illegality. In the portrayal of these characters, there is more contempt or abusive than wit and humor.
However, the portrait of Corah is the most scornful and contemptuous of all. As a confined liar, Corah became prophetic, saw visions, and imagined that he had obtained a doctor’s degree. He described as “monumental brass” with reference to his extreme arrogance and lightliness. He is even compared to the serpent of brass that was created by Moses to save the lives of his followers from snake-bite. Dryden comments that his complexion has a brightness like that of Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai. This is indeed an ironic comparison.
In Dryden’s portraiture, we find an exposure of falsehood and hypocrisy. Even he depicts the priests and clergymen as self-seeking, mercenary and hypocritical.
Thus, we find that Dryden’s treatment of the poem “Absalom and Achitophel” reveals him as a great satirist. His satire appears in various forms and shapes in the poem, reflecting Dryden’s satirical genius.