The Marks of Character: Physiology and Physiognomy in 'Absalom and Achitophel.' (John Dryden Poem)

By Berland, K. J. H. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Marks of Character: Physiology and Physiognomy in 'Absalom and Achitophel.' (John Dryden Poem)


Berland, K. J. H., Philological Quarterly


Unlike the rest of us, poets may choose their forebears. In his literary criticism, Dryden self-consciously patterned his poetic stance on the heritage of Shakespeare, envisioning a traditional line of poets that allowed him to assume a place in the progress toward the perfection of English verse. Dryden was generous to his masters. Late in his life he lavished praise on Chaucer for his ability to portray characters who remained true and recognizable centuries later. The Canterbury Tales, Dryden proclaims, contain the "Manners and Humours . . . of the Whole English Nation." He discerns in Chaucer's comprehensive mastery of characterization the essence of literary art in the representation of timeless verities of human nature clothed in the particular.

Not a single Character has escap'd him. All his Pilgrims are severally distinguish'd from each other; and not only in their Inclinations, but in their very Physiognomies and Persons. Baptista Porta could not have describ'd their Natures better, than by the Marks which the Poet gives them. The Matter and Manner of their Tales, and of their Telling, are so suited to their different Educations, Humours, and Callings, that each of them would be improper in any other Mouth.(1)

The poet identifies his characters with "Marks," consistent, visible indications of certain tendencies of personality and disposition. Like Chaucer, Dryden approaches characterization by tracing the cause of action in disposition and appetite.

In Absalom and Achitophel, no single character escapes Dryden. He uses a specialized typology of marks, some of which signal to the audience how to interpret speech or action, and others that suit a character's physical appearance to his inward nature. This satiric typology Dryden usually applies controversially, introducing a startling and subversive tone to the narrative. His satirical targets all bear the marks of what Lord calls their "eccentric and egocentric" villainy, recognizable in "idiosyncrasies of appearance and manner," and "unforgettable physical features."(2)

Students of Dryden's satire have usually understood the significance of these features as part of a symbolic mechanism by which outward signs indicate an inward condition, but the precise nature of this relationship has never been fully explored. I will contend that the relation of physiological constitution to public character is an essential part of Absalom and Achitophel. One of the principal weapons in Dryden's satiric arsenal is the attack in which he links striking physical features and personal failings of character; what has eluded Dryden scholars is that in so doing he uses a well-established typology of discernible, recurring patterns in the characters of men revealed in face and form.

Dryden chose as his epigraph to Absalom and Achitophel the well-known lines from Horace's Ars Poetica:

Ut picture poesis: erit quae, si proprius stes,

Te capiat magis, et quaedam, si longius abstes.(3)

Although Dryden edits the quotation as it appears at the head of the poem, the tag was sufficiently well-known to readers of his day that they must have recognized Dryden's implicit message. A poem is like a picture, as Horace suggests; some strike the fancy the nearer one stands, others, the farther away one stands. The tag is most often quoted as a warrant for introducing a correspondence between visual and literary images. Dryden, throughout his career, was very interested in the ways in which poems are like pictures, occasionally experimenting with poetic techniques appropriated from (or approximating) the visual arts. Dryden's choice of this epigraph clearly suggests to his readers that what follows will involve such an experiment.

The poem bears out the suggestion on three levels. First, Absalom and Achitophel contains more visually-based description of people than any other of Dryden's poems. Second, verbal depiction goes beyond what we might call naturalistic representation whenever an author or artist distorts a feature for satiric effect. …

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