The poem begins with the epigraph, “Si Propiùs stes / Te Capiet Magis.”
The epigraph, which translates to “Stand closer, it will charm you more,” comes from Horace’s poem “Ars Poetica,” in which Horace forms the following famous analogy: “As is painting, so it poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance.” With his epigraph, Dryden hones in specifically on the value of examining some poems more closely, suggesting that his is one that requires such attention from the reader. As will soon become clear, this is indeed the case—as a biblical allegory and political satire, Dryden’s poem has two layers of meaning.
The poet claims that they will not make apologies for the following poem. Undoubtedly, some people will not need an apology; however, those who believe they do will not receive one. The poem has been written on behalf of one party; thus, the poet expects to make enemies of the other. There is much good to be found in both Protestantism and Catholicism, the poet says, but little worth in dividing a nation. Still, there are not enough curses in Deuteronomy for an “anti-Bromingham.”
An “anti-Bromingham” is another word for a Tory. The Tory party is a political party formed in England to oppose the Exclusion Bill (which sought to exclude James II from royal succession), and Dryden implies here that he has written directly on behalf of Tories. Although Dryden was a Protestant when he wrote the poem, he converted to Catholicism later in life. His support for Catholicism is seen here and throughout the poem.
If a poem is any good, the poet claims, it will make its own mark on the world. Good poetry pleases even if it is a little painful, and no one can hold a grudge against one who entertains them. It is usually the poet’s highest aim to convince the opposition. But, in this case, the poet aims to please those in the middle. Those who are politically moderate and the least troubled are not likely to be corrupt. The poet admits that he or she has been less aggressive in satirizing certain people, and opponents will likely criticize this, but it is just as difficult to flatter as it is to condemn.
Dryden later claims that the Popish Plot was propagated by extremists and was complete nonsense, but the average English citizen bought into it and swallowed it “crude and unchewed.” In this passage, Dryden makes clear his hopes that his poem would entertain and inform those who did not have strong anti-Catholic or royalist sentiments, but who were nevertheless being persuaded by radical Protestants.
The poet asks that the reader does not fault them for not including their name on the poem. If the reader does not like the poem, however, that is likely more a reflection of the reader’s morals than the writing itself, the poet claims. The poet is not the creator of the story told in the poem and is merely recording history. Had the poet invented the story, they claim, it would have included reconciliation between Absalom and David. But the story is not yet over, and there is plenty of time for wisdom and mercy.
Given the time in which Dryden is writing, along with his reference to the Tories, readers can infer that Absalom and David represent Charles II of England and his own son, the Duke of Monmouth, respectively. Here, Dryden inadvertently encourages them to make amends, though this never ended up happening. Monmouth never gave up his desire for the crown, and after Charles II’s death in 1685, Monmouth tried to usurp James II. Monmouth was executed for treason just days later.
The purpose of satire, the poet says, is to correct what is wrong in society. Many will not like what they are about to read, but they mustn’t blame the poet. It is best to view the poet as one would view a doctor; their remedies may be unpleasant but are nevertheless needed for recovery. In that respect, this poem is as crucial to the body politic as medication to disease.
Dryden revisits the analogy of his poem as medication for a diseased body politic throughout “Absalom and Achitophel.” The Popish Plot and resulting Exclusion Crisis divided England and worsened ant-Catholic sentiments across the nation. Dryden hoped to cure England of this senseless hate and division with his poem.