Analysis of Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel as a Heroic or Epic Poem.
The heroic poem was the species that summed up in in itself all that highly belonged to poetry. Absalom and Achitophel is a heroic treatment of a contemporary political situation written with a definite rhetorical object in view. It is more complete poem than satire, for while Dryden's mission was to attack Shaftesbury, he also wanted to praise the king and his followers. Here, as in an epic or heroic play, the plot, the characters, the wit, the passions, the descriptions, are all exalted above the level of common converse with proposition to verisimility. And the happy choice of Allegory combines with the predominantly elevated tone to give Dryden's party poem an air of universal philosophic truth.
Second: while an epic tells a story, it is essentially a patriotic and didactic composition. The moral element in Absalom and Achitophel with such figures as a King, the Mob and the Tempter, shows its kinship with a heroic poem.
Third: Dryden believed that panegyric was a branch of heroic poetry; his descriptions of the leaders of the king’s party are written in an elevated idiom. On Monmouth, the king’s favorite son and on the Duke of Ormonde (Barzillai) Dryden lavishes some of the finest lines of panegyric.
Fourth: Dryden also declared that Satire of a dignified kind was a species of heroic poetry. Shaftesbury, who is cast for the part of Satan, is described in heroic terms. In the portrayal of Buckingham (Zimri) and Corah (Titus Oates), however, there naturally is a lowering of the style.
Finally, the heroic basis of Absalom and Achitophel appears clearly in the speeches which recall the classical epic and Milton's Paradise Lost. They are superb examples of forensic oratory. It is an education in the ways of rhetoric to watch Achitophel in his first speech to Absalom which begins with cunning flattery and praises, to the artful temptation that he should betray his father. Even more skillful are the words: “more slow than Hybla drops and far more sweet”, which Absalom addresses the crowd. The hypocrisy of the speech is brilliant.
Despite the numerous resemblances, Absalom and Achitophel does, in some respects, differ from a heroic poem. A heroic narrative is expected to open with an invocation, or some such dignified figure. But Dryden's poem opens with a witty ironical setting. Further, in Dryden, there is no portrayal or development of character in action. Further still, Dryden's main purpose here is not narrative. Instead, there is dignified moralizing, which is much too numeroUs than decorum prescribed in a heroic poem.
It was Dryden's life-long aspiration to write a heroic poem, and it was in Absalom and Achitophel that he comes nearest to fulfilling his ambition.