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Dryden as a Satirical Poet

Dryden as a Satirical Poet

Satires of John Dryden

John Dryden was a brilliant and shattering satirist in verse. He wrote three great satires which touched the highest watermark of satirical poetry. Dryden’s satires are distinguished by keen and biting wit, subtle irony and brilliant inventiveness. “The irony of the satire, at time indulgent and fraught with good naturedness, at others much more severe, controls the action and groups the figures and their movements into one general irresistible suggestion…. Dryden’s satires abound to numerous satirical portraits which for their delicate touches and picturesque characterization have not been surpassed by the entire range of poetry of satire. The third characteristic of is satire is the flawless diction and the brilliant mastery of “heroic couplet” as well of perfect poetic expression.

Dryden’s greatest satire in verse is “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681). It is an allegorial satire in heroic couplet and has for its theme the attempt of the Earl of Saftesbury to set up James, Duke of Monmouth, a Protestant, in place of James, Duke of Yourk a Roman Cathodic, as the successor of Charle Il.” This poem has been called the greatest political satire in versed in the English language. It is marked by biting wit and sarcastic irony, and contains numerous satirical portraits, like that of Achitophel (the Earl of Saftesbury), Zimbri (Bulckingham) and Ogg (Shadwell).

The portraits of “Achitophel” and “Zimri” are described as master-pieces of wit, irony and invective. Thus Zimri is described as harmless, nobleman playing the game of politics.

Dryden’s greatest satire is “Absalom and Achitophel.” It is a political satire written at the instance of the king. It is also an allegorical satire written in heroic couplets. The occasion for writing the satire was provided by the rival political intrigues concerning the successor of Charles II. “The court and the country were divided between the supporters of the king’s brother, who though a Papist was recognised as the heir to the throne, and those of the king’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, whom certain persons zealous for the Protestant faith were disposed to set up as a rival candidate. The leader of the latter was the Earl of Shaftesbury.” In the story of the revolt of Absalom against king David, Dryden found an apt parallel to existing circumstances in England, and his satire exposed the relation of Monmouth, the prince, and Shaftesbury, the evil counsellor, with a merciless humour.”

“Absalom and Achitophel” has been called the greatest political verse satire in the English language. It is distinguished by “energetic parentation of the political principles of both sides, dignified but damaging characterization, deadly wit, blazing diction and devastating invective. Abalsom is (Monmouth), Achitophel, (Shaftesbury),King David, (Charles II), Zimri (Buckingham) and Ogg (Shadwell).

Dryden’s second important satirical work is The Medal- a satire against sedition. It satirizes the Whigs who constituted an anti-court party. It was published in 1682.

Mac Flecknoe. It is a personal satire, ridiculing Thomas Shadwell, a contemporary poet. “Flecknoe is represented as the symbol of the mediocre vernier- the holder of first place in the realm of stupidity who abandons his crown of dullness of Shadwell.’

The present extract is a master-piece satirical portrait-painting. It is certainly unfair but is astonishingly incisive and biting. It succeeds in holding Lord Shaftesbury up to ridicule. In about fifty lines, Dryden is able to say all the damaging things about Lord Shaftesbury.

Dryden satirizes almost all the facets of Shaftesbury’s personality. He cleverly suggests how Shaftesbury was an arch conspirator, an unwise statesman, a dangerous traitor and a false patriot.

Dryden employs all sorts of weapons to damn his victim. He is ironical or abusive according to as the mood of irony or that of invective suits him. There is pungent irony is the lines :

Great wits are sure to madness near allied

And thin partitions do their bounds divide

There is corse abuse when Dryden refers to Achitophel son:

That unfeather’d two legg’d thing, a son

Got, while his soul did huddled notions try

And bron a shapeless lump, like anarchy.

The piece is written in heroic couplets which are remarkable for compactness; terseness and brilliance. Dryden is able to convey the maximum of meaning by using minimum of words. Each couplet is stinging in its irony and personality clinches some ridiculous aspects of the victim’s within with couplets, the poet works gems of contrast and balance. For example

In friendship false, implacable in hate.


In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace

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