The Medal Background

The Medal Background

In 1681, a grand jury was convened in Middlesex to consider a bill of charges filed against the Earl of Shaftesbury on the grounds of having committed high treason. The Earl of Shaftesbury had already been earlier immortalized through his infamous representation in John Dryden’s landmark work Absalom and Achitophel along with hints and suggestions that he also makes a rather furtive and less obvious appearance as the title character of Dryden’s 1679 comedy Mr. Limberham. The grand jury ultimately dismissed all charges of treason leveled at the Earl of Shaftesbury and in celebration of their political victory, the Whigs commemorated the event by striking a medal with the legend “Lætamur” emblazoned upon it and taking to the streets in joyous celebration deemed to be rather overripe by that Party's political opposition among whom Dryden publicly counted himself.

Dryden explains that the legend is a Polish word translating into rejoice, although it may actually be a Latin word for “joy.” Whatever the proper translation, real point was the joy with which his political opponents celebrated their victory. So outraged was Dryden by the actions of the grand jury and the response of those supporting the Earl of Shaftsbury that he was moved once again to attack not just the Earl and his supporters, but—in a much more immediate way—the jurors deemed to be truly responsible. “The Medal” therefore becomes a poem that casts a dark eye upon the jurors characterized with and almost vicious glee as absolute and unqualified ignoramuses. By contrast, the celebrants get off rather easily with his depiction of them as essentially ignorant drunken carousers. Needless to say, those on the hot end of Dryden’s red hot poem-poker were not exactly thrilled with this response.

Of the replies to “The Medal” the most famous are almost certainly “The Medal of John Bayes” by Thomas Shadwell and Samuel Pordage’s “The Medal Revers’d.” Shadwell’s retort would hit a particularly sensitive nerve within Dryden and was largely responsible for the rejoinder to it that Dryden would publish just two year later titled Mac Flecknoe: A Satire upon the True-blue Protestant Poet T.S.

What sets Dryden’s “The Medal” (often listed as The Medall with an extra “l”) apart from the works of Shadwell and Pordage lies less in its literary value than it its value as political commodity. Savage though it may well be against the Whigs, the poem’s powerful deconstruction of the Earl’s benefiting directly from what Dryden views as demagoguery of the most ridiculous level is undeniably convincing. Even more convincing that Dryden was on the right side of history is the unerring accuracy with which he uses “The Medal” to predict the coming lack of stability regarding its constitution which would see England beset by troubling divisions for the next three decades.

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