"A Greater Gust": Generating the Body in Absalom and Achitophel

By Donnelly, Jerome | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

"A Greater Gust": Generating the Body in Absalom and Achitophel


Donnelly, Jerome, Papers on Language & Literature


When my study of the "normative basis" of Absalom and Achitophel first appeared, it challenged the prevailing interpretation of the poem by arguing that Aristotelian hylomorphism provides a basis for structuring references to the begetting of sons, that the contrasting father-son pairs were crucial to understanding the norms of the satire, that Dryden implies muted criticism of the king's morals while wholeheartedly supporting his politics in the Exclusion Crisis, and that the ethical norm of the poem is contained in the relationship between the figures of Barzillai and his son. Critics whose work focused on the poem as a series of parts--from Dryden's opening lines on the king's promiscuity as an example of his wit, to his satiric portraits, to his use of biblical allegory, to his orations by the king and the poem's titular characters--had overlooked the trajectory of the poem, which includes the contrasts of characters, including the contrasts of pairs as paternal figures, related to their sons. However disturbing these findings may have been to some of Dryden's critics, those who disagreed with this new reading simply skirted it in subsequent discussion, or else professed not to see the features I had delineated. But they did not provide refutations. Others developed their own readings based on my fathers and sons argument. (1)

For all its innovations, deconstruction has treated Dryden with the same hostility exhibited by many of his more traditionally-minded critics. Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in a critical approach to Absalom and Achitophel, where feminism has joined deconstruction in making Dryden an absolutist both in his sexism and in his politics and where, despite the poem's title and its seeming concentration on paternity, we are told that representations of maternity are "equally important." Such is the approach of Susan Greenfield, whose position serves as a convenient point of departure for a reconstruction of the poem's sexual roles and their concomitant values. (2)

Her argument depends largely on a tradition concerning bodily generation that derives from Aristotle, who, along with Dryden, is presumed to operate from a sexist position. By asserting that the poem embodies "Dryden's attack on maternity" (267), Greenfield perpetuates a tradition of assailing Dryden under the guise of examining his poems, a tradition often involving misrepresentations that began during the poet's lifetime with John Dennis, the Duke of Buckingham, and perhaps most notably Jeremy Collier, who, as Dryden rightly complained in the "Preface to Fables," "perverted my Meaning by his Glosses; and interpreted my Words into Blasphemy and Bawdy" (Poems 1462). (3) Collier had misrepresented Dryden in describing him as implicitly materialistic:

Our Minds (says [Dryden]) are perpetually wrought on by the Temperament of our Bodies, which makes me suspect that they are nearer Allied than either our Philosophers, or School-Divines will allow them to be. The meaning is, he suspects our Souls are nothing but Organiz'd Matter. (4)

My contention is that Greenfield has performed a modern equivalent of what Dryden describes as Collier's efforts and that, in her discussion of form and matter as Dryden associates them with the male and female contributions to generation, she labors under a confusion as egregious as that of Collier. While I do not wish to dwell on her argument, Greenfield deals with the poem almost as if it demanded an esoteric reading, yet instead of finding hidden fissures in the text, she creates them in her reading. My own argument consists simultaneously of a refutation of her position and a reading that rehabilitates the values embedded in Dryden's poetic treatment of the male and female contributions to body and soul in procreation and how those roles are integral to the experience of the poem.

Greenfield argues that "Dryden develops a model of maternal generation in order to defend the royalist tradition . …

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