At the center of John Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Achitophel” is God and religion. The poem is a satirical critique of contemporary politics, but Dryden couches his argument in a biblical story from the Book of Samuel. Instead of the happenings of 17th century England, “Absalom and Achitophel” focuses on David, the third king of Israel, and his illegitimate son Absalom, who, under the direction and influence of Achitophel, attempts to ascend the throne despite his common birth. Nearly all of the characters in Dryden’s poem are biblical in origin; however, each of them represents a contemporary figure. Religion is also reflected through multiple references to both Catholicism and Protestantism, and Dryden indeed comments on the anti-Catholic hysteria that consumed England, an overwhelmingly Protestant country, during the 1600s. Much of Dryden’s audience, both Catholics and Protestants alike, were highly religious and very familiar with the biblical story represented in “Absalom and Achitophel,” but this isn’t the only reason Dryden chose to situate his argument within a religious framework. Through his rehashing of the biblical story of King David and Absalom, Dryden effectively argues that King Charles II, and his successor—his brother and collateral heir to the throne, James—both have a divine right to occupy the throne, bestowed upon them by God, and that right is not to be infringed upon by the people or Parliament.
In keeping with the biblical story, Dryden’s David is anointed—a sacred ritual that indicates divine influence and presence by pouring consecrated oil over the head—as the king of Israel after the death of Saul, the first king of Israel. In his poem, Dryden uses David to represent King Charles II of England, suggesting that Charles also has divine influence and presence and is thus worthy of kingship. As Dryden first introduces David, he claims “Israel’s monarch” is “godlike” and “after heaven’s own heart.” Not only does Dryden compare David to God, he claims that they are very much the same. David is “after heaven’s,” or God’s, “own heart,” which is to say that David and God are kindred spirits and of the same mind. By extension, Dryden infers that the same applies to Charles, and like David, he, too, is “godlike” and after God’s “own heart.” After the death of Saul, his son Ishbosheth ruled Israel while David was in exile. Had “fortune” not “called” David back, Dryden writes, “At Gath an exile he might still remain, / A heaven’s anointing oil had been in vain.” Dryden draws a parallel between David’s exile and Charles II’s own exile after the execution of his father, Charles I, following the English Civil War. The monarchy was abolished for over 10 years before Charles II finally took the throne in 1660, and, Dryden thus implies, had Charles remained in Brussels in exile, “heaven’s anointing oil”—meaning God’s divine influence and presence—would have been wasted. Dryden’s representation of Charles II as King David implies that Charles has a divine right to be king just as David does. As the king, Charles is influenced by God himself, and this divine role cannot be limited or removed by earthly means.
As Achitophel encourages Absalom to usurp his father, Absalom is initially hesitant to agree. Per “heaven’s decree,” Absalom says, he has “no pretence to royalty.” In this way, Dryden argues that James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s own illegitimate son who also tried to usurp the throne, has no claim to the crown either. Absalom asks Achitophel what right he has to “take up arms for public liberty,” when his “father governs with unquestioned right.” As he is of common birth, Absalom doesn’t think he has the right to lead the people because David was given that right by God. Thus, Dryden implies that Charles, too, has been given the same right, not the Duke of Monmouth. Absalom even tells Achitophel that David has told him he would make him king if he could, but the crown, the King said with a “sigh,” “Is justly destined for a worthier head.” Absalom can’t be king, according to David, because God has already chosen someone else. Dryden argues the same of the Duke of Monmouth; Monmouth cannot be the king because the divine right belongs to another. When the time comes for David to “rest” “from his toils,” Absalom says, the “lawful issue” of the throne will ascend down a “collateral line” that ends with David’s brother, who, “though oppressed with vulgar spite,” is “dauntless and secure of native right.” In other words, the “lawful issue” of the English throne, in the absence of Charles, ascends down an adjacent line to James, who, despite his Catholicism, or “vulgar spite,” has still been chosen by God and is determined to claim his “native right.”
At the end of the poem, David publicly addresses Israel about Absalom’s ambition for the crown. “Had God ordained his fate for empire born,” David says, “He would have given his soul another turn.” Plainly put, if God had wanted Absalom to be king, he would have made him king. Ultimately, the rebellion of Absalom is quelled, and peace returns to Israel. “Once more the godlike David was restored,” Dryden concludes, “And willing nations knew their lawful lord.” Dryden suggests that the same argument applies to the Duke of Monmouth and James. Charles is the “lawful lord” until he dies, and then James is rightfully king by order of God. Like Absalom, if God had intended Monmouth to be king, he would have made him one.
God, Religion, and the Divine Right of Kings ThemeTracker
God, Religion, and the Divine Right of Kings Quotes in Absalom and Achitophel
Th’ inhabitants of old Jerusalem
Were Jebusites, the town so called from them,
And theirs the native right—
But when the chosen people grew more strong,
The rightful cause at length became the wrong,
And every loss the men of Jebus bore,
They still were thought God’s enemies the more.
Thus, worn and weakened, well or ill content,
Submit they must to David’s government;
Impoverished and deprived of all command,
Their taxes doubled as they lost their land,
And, what was harder yet to flesh and blood,
Their gods disgraced, and burnt like common wood.
This set the heathen priesthood in a flame,
For priests of all religions are the same.
From hence began that plot, the nation’s curse,
Bad in itself but represented worse,
Raised in extremes and in extremes decried;
With oaths affirmed, with dying vows denied.
Not weighed or winnowed by the multitude
But swallowed in the mass, unchewed and crude.
Some truth there was, but dashed and brewed with lies
To please the fools and puzzle all the wise.
This plot, which failed for want of common sense,
Had yet a deep and dangerous consequence,
For as, when raging fevers boil the blood,
The standing lake soon floats into a flood,
And every hostile humour, which before
Slept quiet in its channels, bubbles o’er,
So several factions from this first ferment
Work up to foam, and threat the government.
By buzzing emissaries fills the ears
Of list’ning crowds with jealousies and fears
Of arbitrary counsels brought to light
And proves the king himself a Jebusite:
Weak arguments! which yet he knew full well
Were strong with people easy to rebel.
For, governed by the moon, the giddy Jews
Tread the same track when she the prime renews,
And once in twenty years, their scribes record,
By natural instinct they change their lord.
What cannot praise effect in mighty minds
When flattery soothes and when ambition blinds!
Desire of power, on earth a vicious weed,
Yet, sprung from high, is of celestial seed:
In God ’tis glory, and when men aspire,
’Tis but a spark too much of heavenly fire.
Th’ ambitious youth, too covetous of fame
Too full of angel’s metal in his frame,
Unwarily was led from virtue’s ways,
Made drunk with honour, and debauched with praise.
Half loath and half consenting to the ill
(For royal blood within him struggled still),
He thus replied, ‘And what pretence have I
To take up arms for public liberty?
My father governs with unquestioned right,
The faith’s defender and mankind’s delight,
Good, gracious, just, observant of the laws,
And heav’n by wonders has espoused his cause.
What more can I expect while David lives?
All but his kingly diadem he gives,
And that,’ but there he paused, then sighing said,
‘Is justly destined for a worthier head.
For when my father from his toils shall rest
And late augment the number of the blest,
His lawful issue shall the throne ascend,
Or the collateral line where that shall end.
His brother, though oppressed with vulgar spite,
Yet, dauntless and secure of native right,
Of every royal virtue stands possessed,
Still dear to all the bravest and the best.
Why should I then repine at heaven’s decree,
Which gives me no pretence to royalty?
Yet oh, that fate, propitiously inclined,
Had raised my birth or had debased my mind;
To my large soul not all her treasure lent
And then betrayed it to a mean descent.
I find, I find my mounting spirits bold,
And David’s part disdains my mother’s mould.
Why am I scanted by a niggard birth?
My soul disclaims the kindred of her earth
And, made for empire, whispers me within:
“Desire of greatness is a godlike sin.”
Then let ’em take an unresisted course,
Retire and traverse, and delude their force;
But when they stand all breathless, urge the fight
And rise upon ’em with redoubled might,
For lawful pow’r is still superior found;
When long driven back, at length it stands the ground.
He said. Th’ Almighty, nodding, gave consent,
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran:
Once more the godlike David was restored,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.