John Dryden’s satiric poetry

Ashley Marshall suggests that there is more to Dryden's satiric poetry than the expression of high-minded moral values. Trace how Dryden's personal vendettas motivated some of the cruder and more vicious attacks in Mac Flecknoe, and how his satires reflected his immediate political and religious circumstances as much as timeless ideals.

Today, John Dryden’s reputation is chiefly as a satirist of the Restoration period. Held up as a model for Jonathan Swift and especially Alexander Pope, he is usually studied as an esteemed precursor to the ‘Augustan mode’ of literature that flourished in the first half of the 18th century. In the late 17th century, Dryden penned two of the most celebrated verse-satires of the period – Mac Flecknoe (written in 1676–77) and Absalom and Achitophel (1681). Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel were both written while Dryden was Poet Laureate under King Charles II, and scholars have tended to whitewash both of them – to read them in terms of the high moral rules and theory outlined in the (later) prose work, Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693). In this light, Dryden has been depicted as a satirist committed to defending his righteous ideals about writing (Mac Flecknoe) and the succession to the throne of James II (Absalom and Achitophel). But is this really who Dryden was as a satirist – a respectable neoclassical author, keen to champion virtue and loyalty? Or are there other impulses behind his work?

Portrait of John Dryden

Painted portrait of John Dryden, who is sat next to a pile of books, dressed in blue silk, and with a dog at his feet

Portrait of John Dryden painted c. 1695.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © National Portrait Gallery, London
Held by© National Portrait Gallery

Mac Flecknoe 

Though Dryden wrote poetry before the Stuart Restoration in 1660, he wrote no satire to speak of until well after Charles II’s accession to the throne. A high percentage of the satire written in the 1670s is personal, heated and abusive, and Mac Flecknoe – Dryden’s first major satire – is no exception. Dryden’s target is poet-playwright Thomas Shadwell, whom he presents as successor to the fictional Mac Flecknoe, the present monarch of ‘the Realms of Non-sense’ (l. 6). Scholars tend to play down the crude lampoonery of Dryden’s mock-epic, treating the poem as a thoughtful critique of the ‘poetaster’ (a derogatory term for a bad poet) who serves to symbolise debased and witless art. The Kingdom of Nonsense is a kingdom of artistic meaninglessness, and the monarch Flecknoe recognises Shadwell’s unparalleled fitness to rule such a land:

… Nature pleads that He
Should onely rule, who most resembles me:
Sh------- alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh------- alon, of all my Sons, is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity. (ll. 13–18)

Scholars have described Dryden’s critique in high-minded ways, as a principled stand against cultural (cum political) degeneration, a righteous defence of true wit against the supposedly cheap humour of Shadwell. Mac Flecknoe, critics have suggested, establishes a series of dichotomies: wit versus humour, ephemeral versus permanent art, order versus disorder, England (or London) versus Ireland, civility versus barbarism. The poem has come to be seen as a noble critical appraisal of a cultural and sociopolitical crisis of values – a defensive rather than offensive venture.

Dryden’s original intentions, however, were apparently to do damage to Shadwell, a personal rival. That abusive impulse must not be ignored. In an oft-quoted passage, Dryden alludes to the fact that the leaves of unsold works were recycled in bakers’ shops and outhouses (outdoor toilets):

From dusty shops neglected Authors come,
Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum.
Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Sh-------- almost choakt the way. (ll. 100–03)

Dryden collapses the distance between the pages of Shadwell and the man himself, who is ingloriously reduced to faecal matter. Not only does he imagine his target as a ‘neglected Author,’ but also as an ephemeral – though dangerous – one. Is Dryden primarily making an object lesson of what he regards as ‘bad’ literature, and therefore defending high cultural standards? Perhaps so, but Mac Flecknoe does not, after all, transcend the abuse of Shadwell. Dryden’s personal hostility was real, and that Shadwell’s reputation is now inseparable from this lampoon is testimony to the effectiveness of Dryden’s smear.

Poems on Affairs of State, 1703

The poem 'To Mr Dryden, upon declaring himself a Roman Catholick', printed on page 221 in Poems on Affairs of State

A verse satire attacking Dryden personally.

View images from this item  (36)

Usage terms Public Domain

Absalom and Achitophel

Dryden’s other masterpiece of verse-satire, the biblical allegory Absalom and Achitophel, does have an obviously positive agenda. The poem – written as an indirect applicative satire, i.e. inviting the reader to draw parallels between the purely biblical story and contemporary politics – has a very serious message and a good deal more force. Dryden penned his greatest satire in the midst of the Exclusion Crisis (1679–81), which was an attempt to exclude Charles II’s Catholic younger brother James from the throne of England. Charles was officially without an heir – though he had sprinkled bastards across the land, and his favourite nullius filius (illegitimate child) was the Protestant Duke of Monmouth. Those in favour of excluding James (the Whigs) identified Monmouth as a more attractive inheritor of the throne. The king himself saw his brother as his rightful successor (the Tory position). In Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden writes as a pen for the Tory party. He champions the Stuart cause, condemning Monmouth (Absalom) and especially the Earl of Shaftesbury (Achitophel), endorsing patriarchalism (the concept that the monarchy held absolute power) over populism. Charles II (‘Godlike David’), in Dryden’s telling, has been so merciful that rebels grow ambitious to undermine the present government and the right order of things. The worst offender is ‘the false Achitophel’ (l. 150), who backs ‘the Peoples Cause, / Against the Crown’ (ll. 206–07). In Dryden’s poem, the scheming Achitophel seduces Absalom, who knows better (ll. 317–19) but cannot withstand the temptation to try for the crown. Dryden satirises the leading Whigs as untrustworthy rebels, debauched, unprincipled and unpatriotic.

Dutch picture bible: Bybel-Printen, 1659

Page 99 from the Dutch Picture Bible, containing an illustration depicting Absalom being speared to death and text in Latin, High Dutch, French, English and Flemish

Engraving depicting the death of Absalom.

View images from this item  (8)

Usage terms Public Domain

Absalom and Achitophel is tonally restrained, calm and controlled, but it reflects considerable anxiety on Dryden’s part. He is seriously and fiercely defending the present order, and he gravely warns the English against destabilising this system: ‘What Prudent men a setled Throne woud shake?’ (l. 796). In the end, Dryden fantasises that Charles will stand firm against his fractious subjects, punishing the rabble-rousing Exclusionists and preserving sacred order. The final lines reflect Dryden’s hopeful vision: ‘The mighty Years in long Procession ran: / Once more the Godlike David was Restor’d, / And willing Nations knew their Lawfull Lord’ (ll. 1029–31). As in Mac Flecknoe, Dryden shows his talent for personal attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a piece of very serious propaganda, more obviously ‘defensive’ than Mac Flecknoe, and its effectiveness depends upon prejudicial character sketches, ad hominem (to the person) satire meant to damage the credibility of popular leaders.

The Medall (1682) also functions as Tory propaganda, but the satire is direct and unrestrained, the stuff of diatribe rather than high allegory. Because of its relative lack of subtlety and its artistic indirection, literary critics have had less to say about it. Reading The Medall alongside Absalom and Achitophel, though, helps us appreciate the degree of Dryden’s hostility towards the Whigs in general (and Shaftesbury in particular), and the intensity of the partisanship that inspired him.

Dryden’s satires during the reigns of James II and William III

Dryden’s masterpieces of the 1670s and early 1680s are much better known and more often studied than the works he produced in the last decade of the 17th century, but those later works reveal quite different satiric impulses and techniques.

Under James II (r. 1685–88), Dryden remained Poet Laureate and a favourite of the king. As in the previous reign, he writes as a loyalist, an establishment man and a staunch defender of the status quo. In 1685, upon the accession of a Catholic monarch, Dryden even converted to Catholicism – a move which earned him considerable abuse from his enemies. What satire he produced in James’s brief tenure reflects his sense of security and contentment. In the allegorical masque Albion and Albanius (1685), he depicts the triumph of good (conservative Toryism, the Stuart monarchical line) over evil. The Hind and the Panther (1687) is more combative, an attack on the Church of England and on specific prominent Anglicans such as Edward Stillingfleet and Gilbert Burnet.

Note by Dryden authorising his wife to collect his Poet Laureate's salary

Handwritten note by Dryden authorising his wife to collect his Poet Laureate's salary

Handwritten note by Dryden concerning the payment of his Laureate’s salary.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Dryden’s satire under William III is vastly different – not in terms of core values, but in terms of technique and the nature of his satiric enterprise. William III had replaced James II by way of a coup, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 inspired by fear of a Catholic dynasty. Dryden, a Stuart champion and now a Catholic, was nothing like as comfortable under the new regime as he had been: he is embittered and poor, a Catholic in a violently and now officially anti-Catholic country. Under William, Dryden’s enemies are in charge; he becomes an outsider, fiercely unhappy with rather than protective of the status quo.

What marks Dryden’s Williamite satire is its quasi-covert nature. Eleonora (1692) uses a seemingly innocent elegy for a countess to convey – very indirectly – criticism of the present regime. The tragedy Cleomenes of the same year depicts the failed attempt at a revolution meant to restore an exiled king – manifestly a work sympathising with the ousted James. Alexander’s Feast (1697), the translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (1697) and Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) have all been read for concealed Jacobite sentiments. Arguably, Dryden’s best and most powerful satire of this period is the play Amphitryon (1690), a clear representation of the abuse of power. The villain of the play is the dictatorial tyrant Zeus, who assumes Amphitryon’s shape in order to sleep with his wife; when the treachery is revealed, Zeus’s response amounts to ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The play ends with no resolution: Amphitryon’s wife has been wronged; Amphitryon is furious; that their relationship will survive is unclear; and Zeus is thoroughly unrepentant. Zeus’s lasciviousness prevents us from making an automatic association with William: the sexually wanton Charles II would be a better contemporary parallel for late 17th-century audiences. Dryden is not, then, suggesting that Zeus equals William; what he is doing is making a more ideological point about power and justice. Dryden does not simply tell his readers who the bad guys and the good guys are; he instils patterns of thought.

The Works of Virgil, translated by John Dryden 1697

Frontispiece page with illustration of Virgil in robes and laurel next to a male figure and a cherub, from The Works of Virgil

Frontispiece to Dryden’s lavishly decorated translation of Virgil.

View images from this item  (23)

Usage terms Public Domain

Of Dryden’s late-life works – he died in 1700 – only the Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire gets any significant attention from satire scholars. The Discourse, a critical and theoretical work, has remarkably little to do with satire as Dryden and his contemporaries actually practiced it. It reflects, primarily, its author’s desire to make what had become in England a disreputable form of writing – often crude, vicious, ephemeral – into a creditable artistic mode. He defines satire in terms of a classical tradition, a mode for moral reformation; true satire shows positives as well as negatives, virtue as well as vice. Dryden dismisses personal satire or lampoonery as ‘dangerous... and for the most part Unlawful’ (Works, 4:59) – a judgment that might seem surprising (or hypocritical) coming from the author of Mac Flecknoe.

The Discourse has its own implied satiric targets, too; it is not just an exercise in satiric theory. Here Dryden identifies himself with Juvenal, of whom he has this to say:

His was an Age that deserv’d a more severe Chastisement. Vices were more gross and open, more flagitious, more encourag’d by the Example of a Tyrant; and more protected by his Authority. Therefore, wheresover Juvenal mentions Nero, he means Domitian, whom he dares not attack in his own Person, but Scourges him by Proxy. (4:69)

Nowhere does Dryden name William, but in praising Juvenal Dryden aligns himself with the wrathful critic of tyranny – and as this passage suggests, he is encouraging readers to understand the difference between who is named and who is meant. When ‘Juvenal mentions Nero, he means Domitian,’ and when Dryden invokes classical usurpers and despots, he is showing his own late-life tendency to ‘Scourge... by Proxy.’

Dryden can be preachy and playful, forceful and subtle, vindictive and full of extravagant praise, vicious and smutty and earnest, hopeful and darkly pessimistic. He was a master craftsman of tremendous literary talent and ambition, and no doubt he was motivated by a desire to uphold the values that he thought were under attack – but his satire is often uncompromisingly political and circumstantial, and he could most certainly play dirty. He has often been held up as a – or the – dignified forebear of high-principled, right-minded, moralizing ‘Augustan’ satire. The reality of his varied satirical works, however, suggests that as a satirist Dryden was more complex, less consistent and more capable of spite and partisan malice than he has usually been seen.

  • Ashley Marshall
  • Ashley Marshall is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, where she specialises in British literature of the long eighteenth century. She is the author of The Practice of Satire in England, 1650–1770 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) and Swift and History: Politics and the English Past (Cambridge University Press, 2015), as well as several articles in journals such as The Review of English Studies, The Huntington Library Quarterly, Modern Philology, Eighteenth-century Life, and Swift Studies. She is currently completing a  book about political journalism in London, 1695–1720.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.