Dryden is one of the greatest English satirists. He is the first practitioner of classical satire which after him was to remain in vogue for about one hundred and fifty years. From the very beginning of his literary career Dryden evinced a sharp satiric bent. He translated some of the satires of the Roman writer Persius when he was only a pupil at Westminster. Further, in his comedies he produced numerous passages of sparkling satire. He keenly studied the satirical traditions of Rome and France and whatever satire England had to offer.
But it was not till he was about fifty that he came to write Absalom and Achitophel-fae, first of the four major satiric works on which his reputation as a poet is based. With his practice he gave a new form and direction to English satire and raised it to the level of French and Roman satire. He made satire not only a redoubtable weapon to chastise personal and public enemies but also an important, if not a very exalted, genre of literature which was later to attract such great writers as Pope, Swift, Addison, and Dr. Johnson. Dryden’s four important satires are:
(1) Absalom and Acmtopliel.
(2) The second part of Absalom and Achitophel chiefly written by Nahum Tate and including about 200 lines by Dryden.
(3) The Medal.
(4) Mac Flecknoe.
Dryden’s Contribution and Place:
Dryden as a satirist does not fall in with native English tradition of Langland. Gascoigne, Donne, Lodge, Hall, Marston, Cleveland, etc. which was carried on by his contemporaries like Oldham and Samuel Butler. Just as in his non-satiric poetry he reacted against the “romanticism” of the Elizabethans and the confusion, grotesqueness, and formlessness of the imitators of Donne, similarly in his satire he broke away from the harshness, disrespect of form, and denunciatory tone of the English satirists before him. He seems to have looked for inspiration not towards them but-a neo-classicist as he was-towards the Roman satirists-Horace, Juvenal, and Persius-and their French followers, the most outstandina of whom was his adored Boileau.
Both as a critic and as a creative writer, Dryden emphasised and felt the need for artistic control and urbanity of manner. For all successful satire these qualities are of the nature of pre-requisites. It is most essential for a satirist to hide his disgust and moral animus behind a veil of equanimity and urbanity of manner. If he just loses his head at the sight of the object which is to be the target of his attack and comes out with open denunciation or direct name-calling he will not be a successful satirist. A satirist is a propagandist in so far as his effort is to direct the sympathies of the reader into harmoriy with his own and against the object sought to be satirised. Naturally enough, if he speaks too openly from the position of a partisan, he will cut little ice with the reader. So the satirist should not appear too serious-too serious to be taken seriously. Of course he should be very serious, but he should give the impression of being not very serious, or even neutral between the two opposite points of view, one of which his effort is to promote and the other to counteract. He should lessen, as far as possible, the intensity of self-involvement through the employment of some sly indirection of technique. Dryden himself was aware of it when he said that the satirist should make a man “die sweetly,” call him a fool or a rogue without using these “opprobrious terms.” He distinguished between the “slovenly butchering” done by a bad satirist and the dexterous stroke which severs the head but leaves it standing. Seldom does Dryden indulge in open denunciation or invective, but he often uses such indirect techniques as irony, sarcasm, and above all his exuberant wit. It is what primarily distinguishes him from his predecessors who were always open and direct in their attacks. His satire is indirect and, therefore, smooth, urbane, and without angularities or harshness. The same-is the case with his versification. He found a good satiric vehicle in the heroic couplet and chiselled and planed it to brilliance. His versification avoids the harshness deliberately cultivated by his young friend Oldham who also employed the heroic couplet. Observes Hugh Walker: “It is this combination-smoothness of verse, lucidity of style, urbanity of manner-which makes Dryden’s satire so strikingly original. In English there had hitherto been nothing comparable to it.”
Dryden’s satire is remarkable-as an artistic expression of controlled contempt. Broadly speaking, the three great English satirists-Dryden, Pope, and Swjft-work through different channels Dryden is a master of scorn or contempt, Pope of rage, and Swift of disgust. Of course, all of them artistically control their respective presiding feeling, else they would not have been “great” satirists. Dryden who in T. S. Eliot’s phrase is “the great master of contempt, unlike his predecessors, does not take any moral airs. Donne, Hall, and Marston seem to be speaking from a moral elevation, as if they were saints whose moral sense has been outraged. Now, this takes for granted a kind of moral pose which debars satire from assuming an appearance of genuineness or sincerity. Once this moral pose has been seen through by the reader, he cannot accept to be dictated or “moved” by the satirist whom he knows to be an erring being like himself. Dryden speaks as one civilised being to others, without pretending to give them lessons in morality. For one thing he eschews all moral and religious issues. The issues he tackles concern politics, taste and good breeding and, only incidentally, morals or religion. Saintsbury observes: “It never does for the political satirist to lose his temper and to rave and rant and denounce with the airofan inspired prophet.” As a critic says, “Dryden assumes no moral airs, firmly controls his satirical spirit and skilfully selects the points and the manner of his attacks…The result is a humorous, disdainful, and yet incisive mockery.”
Dryden’s Elevating Style:
One of Dryden’s unique gifts is his capacity to ennoble and elevate the objects of his satire even when his motive is to demean or depress them. The buoyant vigour of his poetry does not let them touch the lowly ground. T. S. Eliot was the first to direct attention to this point when he wrote in his essay on Dryden: “Much of Dryden’s unique art consists in his ability to make the small into the great, prosaic into the poetic, the trivial into the magnificent.” Even when Dryden pours the vials of his scorn on such characters as Titus Gates, Slingsby Bethel, and Shadwell, he gives them something of heroicdignity. He extends the dimensions of their being (in the case of Shadwell, his physical being too!) and makes them “poetic”. His scorn diminishes and depresses them, but his poetry extends and exalts them. His personal animus is often lost in the energy of creation, so that a Mac Flecknoe becomes much more important than the real man called Shadwell, Corah than Titus Dates, and Shimetthan Slingsby Bethel.
Personal envy and malice shed their grossness and are burnished into real poetry. The end product has little resemblance with the material Dryden starts with. Bonamy Dobree observes: “We have only to think of Mac Fiecknoe to forget Shadwell; to think of Achitophel is to forgetShaftesbury; the persons are lost in history, the satires are part of our
national consciousness. Everything is all the time compared not with something little but with something great.”‘ That way, Dryden’s modus operandi is much different from Pope’s. When Pope satirises, he diminishes; when Dryden satirises, he exalts.
By exalting arid enlarging the objects of his satire, Dryden also raised the lowly genre of satire to the level of epic. This was a no small achievement. His work Absalom and Achitophel which he gave the title “a Poem” and not “a Satire”-is the first instance in English of a heroic satire. As Ian Jack has pointed out in Augustan Satire, this poem consists of passages peculiar not only to one “kind” of poetry but to many kinds-epic, satire, panegyric, etc. The style seldom becomes low, the kind of which may be employed for an ordinary satire. Even in his mock-heroic satire Mac Flecknoe, which is conceived on a much lower plane than Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden does not use very low or vulgar imagery to punish Shadwell. The mock-heroic effect is created by the element of incongruity generated by the use of high idiom and imagery for such an allegedly “low” character as Shadwell. The use of contemporary locations, stress, etc., has a further ludicrous effect. In Absalom and Achitophel the use of biblical parallels has an exalting effect but in Mac Flecknoe the reference to concrete historical details has the effect of the mock heroic. Thus, in a word, whereas Absalom and Actitophel is a heroic satire, Mac Flecknoe is a mock-heroic satire. However, in both the satirist works through high, and not low or vulgar, imagery and idiom.
This “exalting ” effect on his satiric objects is made possible only by Dryden’s effective and masterful handling of the heroic couplet-a poetic measure which it was to his credit to perfect into an excellent vehicle of satire by giving to it neatness, epigrammatic cogency and smart and felicitous phrasing, and fully exploiting the scope it has for balance and antithesis. To a large extent he regularised the heroic couplet by discouraging the licence taken by the earlier practitioners of this measure. He gave each line five regular stresses and avoided, as far as possible, what is called enjambement or the trailing of sense from one couplet to the next. His couplets are generally end-stopped and after every line there is generally a natural stop. However, he himself took liberties with the location of the caesura and shifted it within the line or even dispensed with it altogether at times. His handling’of the heroic couplet is not as strict and Disciplined as Pope’s. For instance, he sometimes uses an alexandrine instead of a regular pentameter, and sometimes the couplet grows into a triplet. Pope was strict to avoid such licence, and he even took Dryden to task for it. Nevertheless, Dryden’s heroic couplets are more energetic, racy, and spontaneous-looking than Pope’s. As a master of contempt—sometimes expressed in ironical terms—Dryden finds the couplet a very handy medium. Many of Dryden’s couplets come out with sizzling and scarifying intensity, and the sound of some of them, as Saintsbury puts it, resembles the sound of a slap in the face.
Dryden’s Major Satires:
(1) Absalom and Achitophel is Dryden’s first and by far his best satire. It was perhaps written at the suggestion of Charles II and was out just a week before the trial of Shaftesbury for sedition. It was thus political in nature and was the representation of the Tory point of view. Its purpose was to malign Shaftesbury as an enemy of peace and the nation and a seducer of the Duke of Monmouth-the King’s illegitimate son. The “poem” is conceived on near-epic dimensions though it contains many elements below the dignity of an epic proper. There is much too little action though considerable tenseness. Much of the interest of this work lies in the satirical portraits of Shaftesbury, the Duke of Buckingham, slingsby Bethel, and Titus Gates veiled behind the biblical or pseudo-biblical figures of Achitophel, Zimri, Shimei, and Corah respectively. The poem, says Sir Edmund Gosse, “really consists of satirical portraits cut and polished like jewels and flashing malignant light from all their facets.” There are some portraits of the allies of the King, too, but they are not so effective. Indeed Dryden is a great master of the satiric portrait which was quite fashionable at that time. Unlike Pope he gives his portrait a typical and, often, universal character and significance, so that the historical character sought to be satirised is often lost in the finished poetic portrait. (Pope was muchtoo malignant ever to lose sight of his target). There is a sensitive variation of tone with which Dryden handles one character after
another, as there is in each case a varying degree of contempt and remorse at the sense of wasted or misdirected talent.
(2) The two hundred odd lines which Dryden contributed to the second part of Absalom and Achitophel authored by Nahum Tate constitute its best part. The rest of the poem is beneath criticism, and even contempt. In his contribution.-he satirised Shadwell and Elkanah Settle in the characters of Og and Doeg respectively.
(3) The Medal, subtitled A Satire Against Sedition, was again, topical in genesis. In spite of Absalom and Achitophel, Shaftesbury was released from captivity. To commemorate his release the Whigs struck a medal bearing the effigy of their hero. This stung Dryden into action and The Medal was the result. He calls Shaftesbury “the pander of the people’s heart” and takes him to task for his seditious activities which would, Dryden alleges, plunge the country into ruin. He vigorously upholds, as in Absalom and Achitophel, Hobbes’s theory of political covenant.
(4) Mac Flecknoe is the only satire in which Dryden lashes a personal enemy even though his target-Shadwell-was a vigorous upholder of the Whig cause. The sub-title of the work is “A Satire on the True Blue Protestant Poet, T. S.” Of Course, “T. S.” is Thomas Shadwell. The Poem is of the nature of a lampoon. Dryden ridicules Shadwell by representing him as the fittest heir to Flecknoe-the king of the realm of dullness. Flecknoe was a very voluminous and terribly dull poet of Ireland. He is shown to single out Shadwell, one of his numerous progeny, as
Shadwell alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity
Then is described the coronation of Shadwell in a mock-heroic style. The poem was to serve as a model for Pope’s Dunciad–one of the most powerful poems of the eighteenth century.