Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. II. Ben Jonson to Dryden
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
 
Extracts from Absalom and Achitophel: Achitophel
By John Dryden (1631–1700)
 
[From Part I; 1681.]

OF these the false Achitophel 1 was first,
A name to all succeeding ages curst:
For close designs and crooked counsels fit,
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit,
Restless, unfixed in principles and place,        5
In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace;
A fiery soul which, working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay
And o’er-informed the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity,        10
Pleased with the danger, when the waves went high,
He sought the storms; but, for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide;        15
Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please,
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave what with his toil he won        20
To that unfeathered two-legged thing, a son,
Got, while his soul did huddled notions try,
And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy.
In friendship false, implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state;        25
To compass this the triple bond he broke, 2
The pillars of the public safety shook,
And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke;
Then, seized with fear, yet still affecting fame,
Usurped a patriot’s all-atoning name.        30
So easy still it proves in factious times 3
With public zeal to cancel private crimes.
How safe is treason and how sacred ill,
Where none can sin against the people’s will,
Where crowds can wink and no offence be known,        35
Since in another’s guilt they find their own!
Yet fame deserved no enemy can grudge;
The statesman we abhor, but praise the judge.
In Israel’s courts ne’er sat an Abbethdin
With more discerning eyes or hands more clean,        40
Unbribed, unsought, the wretched to redress,
Swift of despatch and easy of access.
Oh! had he been content to serve the crown
With virtues only proper to the gown,
Or had the rankness of the soil been freed        45
From cockle that oppressed the noble seed,
David for him his tuneful harp had strung
And Heaven had wanted one immortal song.
But wild ambition loves to slide, not stand,
And Fortune’s ice prefers to Virtue’s land.        50
Achitophel, grown weary to possess
A lawful fame and lazy happiness,
Disdained the golden fruit to gather free,
And lent the crowd his arm to shake the tree.
Now, manifest of crimes contrived long since,        55
He stood at bold defiance with his Prince,
Held up the buckler of the people’s cause
Against the crown, and skulked behind the laws.
The wished occasion of the Plot he takes; 4
Some circumstances finds, but more he makes;        60
By buzzing emissaries fills the ears
Of listening crowds with jealousies and fears
Of arbitrary counsels brought to light,
And proves the King himself a Jebusite. 5
Weak arguments! which yet he knew full well        65
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.        70
 
Note 1. Achitophel = Shaftesbury. [back]
Note 2. The triple bond is the Triple Alliance of 1667, undone by the alliance concluded with France in 1670, when Shaftesbury was a member of the Cabal. [back]
Note 3. This and the following lines, referring to Shaftesbury’s conduct as Lord Chancellor, were inserted in the second edition. The Abbethdin was the Jewish Chief Justice. [back]
Note 4. The Plot is the Popish Plot. [back]
Note 5. Jebusites = Roman Catholics. [back]
 
 
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