Wednesday, January 22, 2003

John Dryden

Machiavelli with a happy face? That's my immediate take on the thoroughly anti-democratic Absalom and Achitophel -- although it's entirely too much of a product of its royalist times to raise much of a protest on my part. Consider these words of King David, that is, Charles II, in the conclusion:

The law shall still direct my peaceful sway,

And the same law teach rebels to obey:

Votes shall no more establish'd pow'r control,

Such votes as make a part exceed the whole:

No groundless clamours shall my friends remove,

Nor crowds have pow'r to punish ere they prove...

Absalom and Achitophel was written in 1681, in an effort to influence the fate of the Earl of Shaftesbury, then lodged in the Tower of London for the crime of treason. My guess is that Dryden, a Charles loyalist, wanted him hanged. Dryden takes the Old Testament story of Absalom's doomed effort to overthrow his father, King David, and gives it a thoroughly topical 17th Century spin: his Absalom is James, Duke of Monmouth, bastard son of Charles, tempted to treason by Achitophel, or the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Satanic power behind the throne. Shaftesbury's goal, beside worldly gain, is to keep the throne Anglican rather than Catholic; Charles, who has no legitimate heirs, was intent on handing over the throne to his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York. Shaftesbury had by this time already taken full advantage of the fears roused by "Popish plot," an imaginary conspiracy by Catholics to seize the throne.

Why should anyone but English major's give a rat's ass about a minor event in world history from 300 years ago? I asked myself the same question yesterday while reading it, thumbing my embarrassingly decrepit Norton edition, reading marginal notes by a much younger version of myself. Once you figure out the background, however, the poem moves along quite absorbingly, and reaches a genuine regal bearing in the last few of its 20 or so pages, when the plot is thwarted and first Dryden and then King David talk directly to the reader, patrons of one and subjects of the other. Dryden defends the right of kingship, dismisses the idea of government by the people, and comes down rather squarely on the side of both: a kingship represents the kind of stability a tumultuous democracy cannot guarantee; a good king and his people share a "cov'nant"; theirs is a mutually prosperous relationship, and they rise and fall together:

Then kings are slaves to those whom they command,

And tenants to their people's pleasure stand.

Add, that the pow'r for property allow'd,

Is mischievously seated in the crowd:,

For who can be secure of private right,

If sovereign sway may be dissolv'd by might?

Nor is the people's judgment always true:

The most may err as grossly as the few.

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