I started off my tour of Dryden by reading the 1031-line Absalom and Achitophel (Part 1), which I suppose might come under the category of ‘mock epic’. It tells how the nasty Achitophel influences Absalom to rebel against King David’s peaceful reign. Along the way are excursions into the nature of ambition and desire, the divine right (or otherwise) of kings, and the courage of the faithful remnant who stand by their king in times of trouble. The poem is written in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter – impressive in itself, in a way. I guess few modern poets would fancy tackling something like this!
I enjoyed it to an extent, but I confess that I didn’t feel really gripped by it. There were a few tedious sections that were just too drawn out. On the other hand, the poem is sprinkled with pithy phrases:
Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies,
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.
So easy still it proves in factious times
With public zeal to cancel private crimes.
I can why Pope drew aphoristic inspiration from Dryden and, although Pope probably hit the mark with greater consistency, Dryden’s efforts still impressed me. His characters, however, didn’t have the same impact as, say, Milton achieves in Paradise Lost. Dryden’s plotting Achitophel is no match for Milton’s Satan, and Absalom also seems pretty thin. On the other hand, the psychology of ambition and Absalom’s dilemma (his ambition versus his denial of it) is handled well and the philosophical tangents are quite interesting. Dryden also can’t match the complexity of Milton’s diction and syntax, but I guess Milton had the advantage of writing a supple blank verse which allowed for more expansive phrasing compared to Dryden’s tight rhymed couplets – two different aesthetics.
Dryden drips with irony and was clearly born to be a satirist. The poem clearly is as much about events surrounding his own king, Charles II, as the biblical King David. It’s a public poem, engaging with some of the key issues of his day. Dryden ironises to considerable effect and even more so in Macflecknoe, a lighter poem, which I probably enjoyed more and will come to next time.