Dryden’s “Absalom and Achitophel” is famous for its biblical context, although it is technically a political poem. More specifically, Dryden uses biblical allegory and reference in order to make a statement about the politics and politicians of his time (i.e Charles II). Because of the Bible’s far reaching influence in the Christian European world, it was easy for poets and writers like Dryden to use it in order to spread their political or social ideals (Michael, 1996). The Bible set an easily recognizable and relatable stage, and Dryden used this to his advantage in “Absalom and Achitophel.” From the very opening passages of the poem we see allusions being made to God, Eden, and Israel.
The opening passages of this epic poem set David, the king, at a God-like state, saying “Then Israel’s monarch after Heaven’s own heart,/ His vigorous warmth did variously impart/ To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,/ Scattered his Maker’s image through the land” (Dryden, 2004, 7-10). This passage relates David to God in the way that he is able to create life. Just as God created life in Eden with Adam and Eve, David created life in Israel through polygamy. Although this may sound extravagant to the modern reader, one must pull from this relationship the irony in it as well. David is meant to be seen as high up and God-like, but not God himself. His actions are not without flaw, and this becomes clearer as the poem continues. At the beginning of the poem, this realization that David is not a God himself is still blurred, especially with the introduction of Absalom, his son.
In the relationship between Absalom and David we see one of the clearest and most blatant forms of biblical imagery. In David’s creation of Absalom his is immensely proud. He is described as a doting father, indulgent; which shows a pride in his creation that is rivaled by the connection between God and Adam in the Bible. Dryden seems to use biblical references to draw these comparisons between David and God, and Absalom and Adam often. This same comparison can even be seen in the way in which David provides for his son. David gives Absalom everything, even an Eve (i.e. Anabel), the poem states “To all his wishes nothing he denied;/ And made the charming Annabel his bride” (Dryden, 2004, 33-34). Yet, in David’s indulgence we begin to see a flaw. As in the Garden of Eden, or Adam character (Absalom) is tempted, and David who sees only the good and precious in his son Absalom misses this temptation. Thus enters the second largest biblical image in “Absalom and Achitophel,” the image of the Serpent, Satan.
Achitophel is characterized in this poem as being persuasive and smooth talking. He makes references to the messiah, the savior, and tries to make Absalom believe that this role belongs to him (Absalom). In Achitophel’s speech to Absalom come some very familiar and vivid images from the bible. First Achitophel refers to Absaloms nativity, like the nativity of Christ to be marked by a royal planet, an astrological sign for the birth of Christ, yet an incorrect one for Absalom to be the true messiah. This of course, escapes Absalom’s notice. Secondly, Achitophel states “Their cloudy pillar and their guardian fire:/ Their second Moses, whose extended wand/ Divides the seas, and shows the promised land;/ Whose dawning day in every distant age/ Has exercised the sacred prophet’s rage (Dryden, 2004, 233-237). These three images were taken from the Bible, and are were signs sent by God to his people. Because of the prominence of these signs, and the well known script of the Bible, these are not only strong signs for Absalom, but for the readers of Dryden’s piece as well. They are meant to convince the naïve Absalom of the legitimacy of his place on the throne, and as his country’s messiah. Achitophel also goes on to relate David, Absalom’s father, to Satan. All the while, the reader seems to pick up on Achitophel as the deceiver, the serpent; while Absalom does not. Instead he hears Achitophel refer to David as a fallen prince. “But, like the Prince of Angels, from his height,/ Comes tumbling downward with diminished light” (Dryden, 2004, 273-274). This quotation alludes to the fallen angel Satan, and further contrasts the David and Achitophel. Since the reader knows that David is a good man, a good king, yet a doting father, we see the flaws in David as fatherly flaws, and as such this statement seems to relate to us that Achitophel is the allusion of Satan. Yet to Absalom, who is naïve, and gullible, Achitophel comes off more like the smooth talking and persuasive snake of the Garden of Eden, hence Satan. Thus the allusion of Satan versus God, or David versus Achitophel is strengthened.
Furthermore, the contrast between Achitophel an David by the aforementioned statement creates a stronger and more vivid picture of Absalom as Adam, tempted by the words of Satan (Achitophel), and the fall of God (David), as the central figure in Adam’s life. While we, as readers, know that Adam was wrong in turning from the word of God, Adam was tricked by the smooth talking serpent Satan, and condemned to hard life on earth; Absalom seem oblivious to the deception taking place. Additionally, the defamatory words of Achitophel are blasphemous to the God-like figure of David, further setting apart the two characters in the poem.
Departing from the imagery of Eden, Dryden uses images from the story of Samson to describe David in the time after Achitophel surfaces and deceives Absalom into following his ways. David is related to Samson in that he is hinted to be without followers and friends, and yet like Samson of Bible, he is powerful beyond words. While Absalom is deceived by Achitophel to believe he is the true hero, David is the one behind the scenes, like God and Samson, making things happen. Dryden writes, “If my young Samson will pretend a call/ To shake the column, let him share the fall” (Dryden, 2004, 955-956). Like Samson in the Bible, this quotation signals the final defeat of Achitophel and a victory for David, who is the true Samson, or the true God, in the poem. The quote
also seems to hint that Absalom is the false messiah, the false Samson, if you will, as Dryden uses the term “pretend” rather than a more solid word. Ultimately, David overcomes the evil that is Achitophel, and comes to win back the power that he lost through the errors of his fatherhood (i.e. being overly doting and refusing to see the faults of his son Absalom). This reaffirms the power of the ruler, of God; and put back into place the people who were straying dangerously far from him.
In the end Absalom and Achitophel, although an allegory for the politics of Dryden’s time, tells of the story of God versus Satan, and the trials and tribulations of God and his people in that fight. Absalom is the naïve people; tempted, deceived, by Satan; while David is the king, God, who suffers through the blasphemy and perseveres to
conquer evil and restore and reclaim his throne and place in the hearts of his people. The use of biblical imagery and allusions allowed for Dryden to present a clearer and more relatable picture to the people of his time. Additionally, it added a more poetic aspect to this epic piece with the ambiguity of images and references which allowed Dryden to speak of Charles II and his kingdom without directly doing so.