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"A greater gust": generating the body in Absalom and Achitophel.

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 ..." (286), a model that exposes Aristotle's "emphasis on female subordination," since generation involves the active male and passive female supplying, respectively, the Aristotelian principles of form and matter. Furthermore, Greenfield claims, Dryden uses this traditional account to blame "maternal creative power ... as the primary and most dangerous source of any challenge to the [political] status quo" (271) and to attribute Absalom's decision to rebel to "his ignoble part, the mother's half" (277); that is, female "passivity" shows up in his "feminine readiness to be seduced" (280). Other influences of generation show up as she posits the relationships of the king to his mistresses as that of a rapist and his relationship to his son as homoerotic. That Dryden "figures maternal generation as the ultimate horror" (283) is evident, she concludes, in his having David allude to the begetting of the Exclusion Crisis as a "Mother Plot" and to the conspirators as "Viper-like," an allusion to the ancient belief that the female viper bites off the head of the male during copulation, then gets her comeuppance when her newborn offspring destroy her. This reading construes Absalom and Achitophel as a poem that denigrates the female in bodily generation, makes her a passive material object, and links the female with voraciousness and rebellion. (5)

Central to her argument is the passage referring to the progeny that David's promiscuous scattering of his Maker's image has produced. Greenfield quotes the passage in which Dryden distinguishes David's lawful spouse, the barren Michal, from
   the rest; for several Mothers bore
   To Godlike David, several sons before.
   But since like slaves they did ascend,
   No True Succession could their seed attend. (13-16)

Even though this passage consists of one of the poem's most forthright and unambiguous statements of exposition, Greenfield insists that it is "confusing" (272). Yet the confusion would seem to lie not in the lines but elsewhere; her deconstruction requires confusion as a basis for re-reading, even if the difficulties have to be manufactured in order to rewrite the poem. First, she speculates that since these mistresses were "like slaves," it follows that "perhaps they were forced to lie with the king" (273), even though such totally unsupported speculation diverts attention from the culminating point in the last line of the passage. That is, since the concubines had no more legal status than slaves, David's children by them have no claim to succeed him as king. For Greenfield, the implication seems otherwise: "it is because the women were passive objects of David's desire and possibly even victims of rape that their children are not fit for royalty" (273). No evidence is offered, and, indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. I need hardly explain the less than passive activity implied by the language of the text, as the concubines "Ascend" to dally with David. The historical Lucy Walters, mother of the Duke of Monmouth, Dryden's Absalom, was thought to have played an active role in making herself available to the young Charles, as Clarendon later recalled. James Kinsley, in some ways Dryden's best modern editor, suggests that his use of the word "slaves" may be "a sly inversion of the belief that Charles, as Pepys reported, was 'at the command of any woman like a slave'" (1827). (6) Yet, female passivity and rape are crucial to Greenfield's argument, so that the retrospectively modest claim, "perhaps [his mistresses] were forced to lie with the king," transmogrifies fantasy into fact. Her seemingly tentative but actually gratuitous use of "perhaps" soon becomes a more insistent reference to "the king's capacity to rape," which before long becomes an allegation of fact, as David's wife, becomes "clearly distinguished from the 'several Mothers' ..., for there is no indication that she has been raped" (274). Based on speculation out of thin air, David becomes "the man who has not only demonstrated the potential to rape but has also done so with women" (279).

Aristotle fares little better than David. For Greenfield, and for others, Aristotle has become a kind of godfather of Western phallogocentrism and held to be an arch anti-feminist. Accordingly, Greenfield traces the "erasure of the mother" (267) to the Aristotelian theory that in conception the active male supplies the form, while the female is the "passive principle" (270) and supplies only the matter. The assumption concerning matter in this reading is a commonplace, but it is not completely accurate. Since this issue of generation is important to the poem, it is worth pausing to examine just what Aristotle says. Aristotle is often charged with holding the view that women are only incompletely human, or less human than men. It is true that in the Generation of Animals, he does remark that because she does not produce seed, "a woman is as it were an infertile male" (728a17) and that the female state is "as it were a deformity" (775a16). (7) But these remarks appear more extreme when, as is so often the case, they are removed from their contexts and stated baldly as here. (8)

Aristotle is treating reproduction in this work from a strictly biological view. He examines the manner in which conception takes place in human beings according to their classification as vivipara, observing the facts and attempting to account for them according to this biological category. He cites the obvious facts of human development:

about the same age the males begin to produce and emit semen and the females first discharge the menses; the voice changes and signs appear at the breasts. Again at the decline of life the ability to generate ceases in the one, and the menses in the other. (De Partibus 727a6-10)

Aristotle attempts to account for more subtle differences as well:

There are also the following indications that this discharge [of menses] in females is a residue. As a rule neither blood-flows nor nose-bleeding nor anything else occurs in women unless the menses are suspended, and if any of these do occur the purgation becomes more difficult, showing that the secretion is being diverted to the former. Further, the females have neither such prominent blood-vessels nor so much hair and roughness as the males, because the residue that would go to these is discharged along with the menses. This too must be accounted the cause of the smaller physical bulk of the females compared with the males in vivipara; for it is only in them that the menses are discharged externally. Among them it is most conspicuous in women, for woman discharges more secretion than other animals. That is why she is conspicuously pale and lacking in prominent blood-vessels, and has an evident bodily deficiency compared with men. (De Partibus 727a11-29)

I have quoted this passage at length, both because it gives a sense of Aristotle's procedure and his tone. We are reminded of how limited are the conditions of his analysis, the impossibility of reaching more than tentative conclusions based on an investigation without scientific instruments, and the often imaginative way that data are combined to draw conclusions. That the inferences are always incomplete and sometimes incorrect should come as no surprise. From a modern perspective, his characterization of "bodily deficiency" in women makes him suspect of misogyny, but the context makes clear that "bodily deficiency" denotes the relative size and complexion of women to men. Women appear to be paler and smaller than men. Throughout the passage, Aristotle applies the available data to the reproductive process and the ways in which the evident physical differences between men and women might compliment each other in that act.

What rankles so many about Aristotle's remarks are single phrases, as when he designates "the female state as being as it were a deformity" or that "a woman is as it were an infertile male." Again, the modern perspective makes such language appear fatally sexist. While it is unlikely that Aristotle is without any traces of sexism or patriarchy, neither of these phrases provides the evidence for what is so often assumed. Aristotle does not regard metaphor as does Coleridge, for whom metaphor creates a new unity. For Aristotle, figurative comparisons are not true. (9) With what sometimes seems to be a philosophical wit, he employs similes and metaphors to emphasize apparent likeness, which is only that. Thus, because "females are weaker and colder in their nature" than men, they might seem to be deformed (Generation 775a14-15). His point is that that is not really the case. Whether females are from the vantage of modern science biologically weaker or colder than males is beside the point; such is the state of Aristotle's science. Given his data, he concludes that, measured on a quantitative scale, women are smaller and colder and thus might seem to be deformed. Their size and temperature, he insists, however, "occurs in the ordinary course of nature." The charge that Aristotle claims that women are deformed is false. By his use of "as it were" or "like," Aristotle signals his readers that they are not to take the comparison as truth. Perhaps his most famous comparison will further clarify a matter that so confuses post-Romantic theory. In the Poetics, Aristotle compares the unity of a play--or work of art--to that of a "living creature" or "organism" (1459a22). The comparison has fascinated modern critics, not incidentally because Coleridge uses similar language in his discussion of the "organic unity" of the poem. But, whereas Coleridge gives a sense of the poem mysteriously growing into form within the poetic imagination, this is not the case with Aristotle. For him, nature and art exist in sharply distinct categories; there is no way that art can behave like nature, except in metaphoric language. The essential difference in the operation of nature is that it works from within, whereas the artist works from outside his material. A tree takes form as soil and water are absorbed into it and are developed from within its being; a block of wood becomes a sculpture by the external action of the artist in shaping it. Thus, in saying that the unity of a play is "like that of an organism," Aristotle is actually drawing attention to the fact that it is not the case. The same thing is true elsewhere, including the references to women as appearing to be "as it were" deformed or "as it were" infertile males. Just as a play does not really have the unity of an organism, neither are females really infertile males or deformed creatures. Whatever their accidental or apparent differences, men and women are essentially no different; as Aristotle insists, "they are the same in kind" (De Partibus 731a1).

As I have shown in the earlier essay on fathers and sons--indeed, as Greenfield acknowledges--Dryden's debt to Aristotelian hylomorphism is clearly evident in the poem; where Aristotle employs as a metaphor of conception a sculptor working with wood, Dryden uses a metaphorical tiller of the soil, although in his case, the allegorical David is the ploughman, and "the Soyl [is] ungrateful to the Tiller's care" (12). The actual description of male-female generation in Aristotle may not make him a feminist, but neither does he theorize biological generation in such a way as to denigrate women.

While Aristotle makes the male dominant, the female is more than simply a passive, inert, or inconsequential body. In the Generation of Animals, Aristotle theorizes conception in terms of male initiated movement, with the female immediately responding to the male and joining in "the same movement" (De Partibus 737a21). Instead of a binary opposition of male activity and female passivity, each responds by complementing the other.

What Aristotle stresses is the ideally proportional movement in this procreative dance of matter and form. Once conception has occurred, maternity prevails, "as the parts ... are present potentially in the matter" (Generation 741b6-7). Qualities of movement in male and female determine what characteristics are inherited from which parental line and from which preceding generation in that line:

When the movements which are fashioning the embryo relapse, they relapse into those which stand quite near them: for example, if the movement of the male parent relapses, it shifts over to that of the father and in the second instance to that of the grandfather. And in this way too [not only on the male side, but also on the female] the movement of the female parent shifts over to that of her mother, and if not to that, then to that of her grandmother; and so on with the more remote ancestors. (Generation 768a14-21)

A falling off of motion or deficiencies in the seed or menses, such as too much heat or moisture, affect the offspring; if the heat of the seed, Aristotle says, "is very deficient it fails to make them [the combination of seed and menses] 'set'; what it must have ... is the mean proportional ..." (Generation 767a17-19). Throughout his discussion, Aristotle stresses equality and balance of contribution in the proportional activities of fathering and mothering in the act of conception.

Dryden's occasional remarks indicate a similar understanding of inherited qualities with emphasis on character as well as the transmission of physical appearance. For example, in dedicating the Fables to the Duke of Ormond, he remarks approvingly that "'Tis observed by Livy and others, that some of the noblest Roman Families retain'd a resemblance of their Ancestry, not only in their Shapes and Features, but also in their Manners, their Qualities, and the distinguishing Character of their Minds" (Poems 1439-40). More specifically and closer to home, he remarks of Henry IV (who was, not incidentally, maternal grandfather to Charles II), in "The Vindication of The Duke of Guise,"

As for the Parallel betwixt the King of Navarre, and any other Prince now living, what likeness the God of Nature, and the descent of Vertues in the same channel have produced, is evident; I have only to say that the Nation certainly is happy where the Royal Vertues of the Progenitors are derive'd on their Descendants. (Works 14: 318)

Ideally, matter and form interact and, as it were, inspire each other, so that "When Beauty fires the Blood, how Love exalts the Mind" ("Cymon and Iphigenia," Poems line 41). The converse is equally possible, as the rest of this passage from "Cymon and Iphigenia" makes clear:
   His Soul bely'd the Features of his Face;
   Beauty was there, but Beauty in Disgrace
   He look'd like Nature's Error; as the Mind
   And Body were not of a Piece design'd. (54-55; 58-59)

Dryden invokes departures from balance and proportion in creating satiric norms. Achitophel's progeny, "that unfeather'd two Leg'd thing," (170) the narrator implies, has resulted from Achitophel's disproportion of soul to his "pygmy body" (along with the suggestion of a similar disproportion in his mating with Mrs. Achitophel). For Aristotle, what is critical in the act of conception is a harmony of movements in contributing form and matter; menses, Aristotle says, in Generation of Animals, are produced in females and correspond to the semen in males (727a 26), and "nothing," he adds, "is generated unless the moisture of what we call the menses is present in proportion [to the semen]" (De Partibus 727b11-12). But, proportion is just what Achitophel's siring has failed to achieve. According to the Aristotelian paradigm of conception, Achitophel's spouse has done her part; it is the father whose "fiery soul" has "Fretted the Pigmy Body to decay" (156-57), that is, whose mind and body "were not of a Piece design'd," and whose political intriguing and scheming have sapped his strength and distracted him even in the midst of conception, performed "while his Soul did hudled Notions try" (171). Achitophel's brilliance does not compensate for his imbalance, and his offspring is no more than a "shapeless Lump" (172). Dryden's use of the phrase "hudled Notions" makes Achitophel's disproportion a matter of will and not simply a result of whatever deformity is implied by an "o'r inform'd" physique (158).

Conversely, Dryden presents, as an ideal of paternal generation, the king's chief supporter, the Duke of Ormond, allegorized as Barzillai, and his late son, the Earl of Ossory. The perfection that Barzillai's son has achieved before his death is grounded in a proportionality in mother and father; this fortunate beginning provides the circumstances that had set him on his own course of a brief life with "all parts fulfill'd of Subject and of Son" (836). He has seized on the good fortune of his birth in a way markedly different from the manner that Achitophel encourages Absalom to pursue, when Achitophel prompts him to seize Fortune by the hair and revolt against his father. Barzillai's dutiful son has used what he has received by virtue of his birth to act honorably, bravely, and finally to die a noble death. Much has been achieved by one to whom much has been given; the son has achieved the pietas of his father. (10) But, there is something even more crucial to the poem than pietas in the baroque apotheosis of this dutiful son. Absalom has been exposed as a type of false messiah, but the presence of this false figure suggests that a true type may also be present in the poem. Barzillai's son, virtuous and obedient, now appears in implied contrast to Absalom as a genuine type of Christ in his demonstration of a oneness with the father based on love and sacrifice. And just as the allegorized Ossory is a type of Christ, so Christ has served as a type of Israel. Christ is the Son; Israel has been the Son of God: "Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my Son, even my first born." (11) The twofold typology enjoins the rebellious Israelites to become loyal and obedient subjects, adhering to the law.

Dryden implicitly contrasts Barzillai's virtuous and obedient son with Absalom, but in terms other than those Greenfield chooses to present the pair. Ignoring the element of time and the virtuous son's past or his future, she mistakenly distinguishes David's and Barzillai's sons exclusively on the basis of matter and form, claiming that Absalom is "grounded in maternal earth" (281), while the latter's soul is "free of matter" (280), based on the line that describes Barzillai's son rising to heaven: "Now, free from Earth, thy disencumbered Soul / Mounts up" (850-51). She is wrong on both counts. It is Absalom who laments his "maternal earth," not the narrator. Absalom is rationalizing his position rather than facing up to the condition of his soul. In the case of Barzillai's son, she disregards the fact that his soul has ascended to heaven because on earth this son has perfected his human self ("all parts fulfill'd" [836]), the totality of matter and form. The allegorized Ossory's disencumberedness of soul is no more permanent than is that of Anne Killigrew, similarly apotheosized (approximately four years later) in a description of her soul revolving "Among the Pleiads a new kindled star"(175). In "To the Pious Memory of [...] Anne Killigrew," to celebrate her achievements in life as a preparation for immortality, Dryden joins in choric intertextuality with John Donne to acknowledge that anticipated moment of bodily resurrection, when "sinews o'er the skeletons are spread, / Those closed with flesh and life inspires the dead" (Works 3: lines 186-87).

A further confusion lies in Greenfield's assumptions that value must be associated with soul or form, that matter is either worthless or evil, and that by associating the female role with the material contribution in conception, women are thereby denigrated. Such confusion continues to be a modern commonplace, based in part on conflating Aristotelian, Platonic, Neoplatonic, or gnostic ideas about form and matter--or Foucauldian (for whom the body is only "the inscribed surface of events ... the locus of a dissociated self ... and a volume in perpetual disintegration" [Foucault 83]), but that is a conflation beyond the scope of this discussion. Dryden's lines on bodily resurrection indicate that he does not deny the value of matter. Nor does Aristotle. As the passages on generation make clear, the matter of the female is activated in conception. Matter joined with form actualizes being, which in Aristotle's thought constitutes a good. The answer to Hamlet's question, Aristotle would emphatically assert, is simple; it is better to be than not to be. Second, for Aristotle, matter and form need each other; they are inseparable, except in analysis. Third, Aristotle's philosophy holds that matter is the individuating principle; without it, individuals cannot come to be. Attributing the material contribution to the female does not disvalue her or her role, whatever subsequent Platonist, Calvinist, or contemporary suspicions of matter as existentially burdensome might do to color readings of the philosopher's account of matter. Like so many others, Greenfield wrongly assumes that in ascribing a material role to the female, Aristotle must be adversely judging women.

Where, then, does Absalom fit into this paradigm of generation? Greenfield's account simply ignores the paradigm. The references to the sons of Achitophel and Barzillai operate in the poem to contrast with David's son, Absalom. And they contrast not only as individuals, but in relationship to their fathers as begetters and whose reflections they bear. Achitophel's son reflects his father's diminished capacity for fatherhood as a consequence of an imbalance that has devolved into an evil working out its way in his obsessive schemes of self-aggrandizement.

Finally, Achitophel's and Barzillai's sons function to establish pairs of characters in relationship to the king and Absalom. In Greenfield's argument, Dryden absolves David for Absalom's having been seduced into rebellion by blaming the mother for her son's being "feminized," so that Absalom is passively predisposed to Achitophel's seduction and to be the object of his father's homoeroticism. Dryden has loaded the dice--or the testes--so that "the political problem," Greenfield says, "is the consequence of feminine longing" (278). There is no question that David has, after all, sired Absalom in a memorable way: "Whether, inspir'd by some diviner Lust, / His Father got him with a greater Gust" (19-20). These lines, however, do nothing to suggest that Absalom has been feminized; instead, they indicate that his father's generative movements have resulted in a son who closely resembles his father, in the manner that Aristotle accounts for inherited characteristics in terms of movements.

Passivity is no more a feature of Absalom than it is of the female role in bodily generation. That Absalom's "readiness to be seduced" (280) indicates he has inherited "his mother's half" (270), as Greenfield claims, that it shows him to be "passive" and "feminine" (278) flies in the face of Aristotle's account of generation as well as Dryden's characterization of him. Rather than presenting Absalom as passive, the portrait highlights an active nature, both in his accomplishments ("early in Foreign fields he won Renown" [23]) and in his natural disposition ("His motions all accompanied with grace" [29]). David's admiration for a son who is a war hero and who, in peacetime, seems "as he were only born for love" (26) is compounded by the king's perception of "His Youthfull Image in his Son renew'd" (32). This image includes the king's mildness. Dryden's David is a much milder character than the warring hero of scripture, a figure who glories in the slaughter of his enemies almost as much as he delights in love. A Virgilian and Christian disposition toward peace here offsets the sometimes genocidal militarism of the Patriarchs, but it is not passive.

Nor is there anything homoerotic in David's fondness for Absalom. The basis of Dryden's characterization of David's inordinate affection for his son lies in its allegorical roots; in 2 Samuel, King David "longed to go forth to Absalom" (13.39), who had been separated from him for three years. The context of the passage shows that David's love for his son was clear to others, that Joab "perceived that the king's heart was toward Absalom" (14.1). The same is true of Dryden's description of Absalom as "Beautifull" (18), which no more suggests "effeminate beauty" (Greenfield 278) than does the verse in 2 Samuel: "in all Israel, there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty" (14.25). Homoeroticism is implied in neither the biblical source nor Dryden's allegory. The importance of the Book of Samuel to Absalom and Achitophel is not limited to its having provided the vehicle for couching an immediate crisis in a scriptural parallel, which is where most criticism leaves it. The Book of Samuel does far more than simply provide the skeletal allegory that Dryden (as well as the dissenting rebels) had chosen to shape political issues. As is Dryden's poem, the entire Second Book of Samuel is pervaded by the twin themes of generations of loyalty to the king and the preservation of legitimate government. This open or exoteric use of sacred history as allegory reinforces contemporary political history by providing a parallel in both theme and narrative.

Dryden uses scriptural allegory to enhance the authority and respect for monarchy at a time when it had become suspect throughout much of Europe, as well as England. A century before the Exclusion Crisis, France had undergone an assault on kingship with the assassination of Henry III; and, as Paul Monod observes, "confessional reform was sapping the strength of Renaissance monarchy from Stockholm to Madrid" (36). In England, those who supported "the good old cause" modeled their call for governmental rule by the godly on precedent or parallel from the Old Testament. Their earlier attempts to identify Cromwell as David are supplanted and vitiated by Dryden's allegory with its closer contemporary parallels in the threat to legitimacy posed by generational disequilibrium, as indicated in the poem's title. (12) The parallels of Dryden's allegory more closely echo the theme of generational loyalty found in 2 Samuel than do his predecessors and thus implicitly challenge the esoteric hermeneutics of dissenting biblical commentators, who find everywhere in scripture signs of apocalyptic innovation.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics likewise emphasizes generational solidarity and provides an explanation for such parental love, one consistent with the scriptural and biological framework on which Dryden has already drawn: "parents love their children as themselves: [an] offspring is, as it were, another self, 'other' because it exists separately" (1161b27-29). And this separateness, it should be emphasized, is the gift of matter, the principle of individuation. Existence as a separate individual would be impossible without the contribution of the mother. If David's love for his son is stronger than the reverse, it is in the customary order of parent-child relationships, since "parents know better that the offspring is theirs than children know that they are their parents' offspring, and the bond which ties the begetter to the begotten is closer than that which ties the generated to its author" (1161b20-21). The observation provides a gloss on why David persists in loving a rebellious son drifting away from his father. Aristotle clearly envisages parent-child relationships as distinct from homoerotic attachments. As he observes in the Politics, "it is surprising ... that Plato ... should think it a matter of indifference that ... 'lovers' may be father and son" (1262a 3). As for Absalom's "seduction," during the exchange with Achitophel, Absalom actively challenges his mentor's arguments; he is won over, finally, not as a consequence of passivity, but from Achitophel's rhetorical skill in goading Absalom's active ambition. He laments his fate, "My large soul" (385), which nearly qualifies him for kingship, except for one difficulty: "I find, I find my mounting Spirits Bold, / And David's Part disdains my Mothers Mold" (369-70). Whatever his disdain for it, his "Mothers Mold" has not been biologically deficient. The failure of sustained allegiance to his father stems not from any connection with qualities associated with his mother's body, but from his father's "Royal Blood" (314). Dryden allows Absalom to voice this dilemma, one that ultimately derives from David's promiscuity, now articulated in a context shorn of the humor with which the narrator had introduced this awkward issue at the beginning of the poem, but instead uttered with the muted implication that the king's failure to observe family fidelity is being repeated by his son, albeit in another form, as he prepares to desert his father and join Achitophel's rebels. (13)

Dryden thus constructs an Absalom who is in fundamental ways the renewed image of David, and Absalom corroborates that image in his behavior. David's marital infidelity becomes Absalom's political disloyalty. His father's popularity with women and his successes in seduction are repeated in his son's political popularity and his successful wooing of the crowd. Dryden makes the connection between sex and politics by describing Absalom's interaction with the people as a form of seduction. Whereas David seemed "inspir'd by some diviner Lust" and the "greater Gust" (19) that produced a son, Absalom, "Fir'd with near possession of the Crown" (685), manifests his own version of that paternal energy. He is even shown to be his father's son in the habit of repressing his delight; like David, who "with secret Joy" (31) admired seeing his image in his offspring, so Absalom, "His Joy conceal'd" (688), glories in the crowd's admiration of him. In this psychological chiasmus, Dryden links them in a phrase and then goes on to develop Absalom's seduction of the crowd. He projects himself as humbled before them, "bowing popularly low" (698), like an innocent suitor. He then develops an intimacy, as "with familiar ease [he] repeats their Names" (691) and so "glides into their secret hearts" (693). With his "looks, his gestures, and his words" (690), his "kind compassionating look / And sighs" (694-95), he needs to say "Few words" (696), which now drip slower than honey and are "far more sweet" (697).

Insofar as Absalom's behavior results from an inherited proclivity, his flaw derives from the male and not the female body. David's admiration of his generative gift, seeing in this brave, heroic figure his own "Image in his Son renew'd," comprises part of a larger dramatic irony concerning heritage, since David "coud not, or he woud not see" (36) Absalom's faults, which also stem from that inheritance. His son's reflection blinds the king as it charms him. David fails to consider that his own deficiency in maintaining household fidelity has its inherited counterpart in Absalom's failure to maintain political loyalty. Moreover, against an Aristotelian background, as seen in the Nicomachean Ethics, Absalom's inclination to rebel would include nurture as well as nature, since "models [of government] as it were can be found in the household" (1160b23). Contrary to the view that Absalom's mother is to blame for the political crisis, Dryden quietly but firmly indicates otherwise: Absalom's temptation is served both by a predisposition inherited from his father and by his father's example.

It must be emphasized that to imply disapproval of David, however subtle, is not to condemn him. Dryden finds fault with the king in his personal body but not in the body of his kingship. Nor does the poem suggest that absolutism offers an excuse for ethical lapses, since there is nothing in the poem to depict the king as an absolute monarch or to support a theory of absolutism. Greenfield resorts to an untenable dichotomy that aligns Dryden, Hobbes, and Filmer as absolutists, set against the more progressive-looking views of Locke. Because Filmer makes Aristotle the basis of a patriarchal model for absolute rule, Dryden is assumed to follow suit in the political "erasure of the mother" (267). But this dichotomy relies on politics by association, first with Aristotle (whose own political statements are adamantly opposed to anything like the absolutist government as envisaged by Filmer), and second with Dryden, whose poem nowhere supports Filmer's politics. (14) As in the example that I have just quoted, where he finds a basis for politics in the household, Aristotle often relies on a political analogy with the family, headed by the male parent, and carefully disavows anything resembling arbitrary rule centered in patriarchy, the executive, or the monarch. "The community or the association of fathers and children," he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, "has the form of kingship, since the father's concern is for his children [and] kingship means paternal rule" (1160b25-27). Aristotle then contrasts this relationship with the politics of the Persians, where "the rule of the father is tyrannical, since they treat their sons like slaves" (1160b28-29). Aristotle opposes tyrannical relationships, whether those of kings toward citizens, fathers toward sons, or husbands toward wives. He grants the husband head of household status, in keeping with his status as primary provider and protector; if the husband attempts to usurp his wife's authority and so reach beyond his proper "sphere," Aristotle rebukes him, saying that in doing so the husband thereby "transforms the association into an oligarchy" (1160b36). In government, as in the household, aristocratic rule entails shared powers. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle argues for multiple virtues shared by men and women: "Communities as well as individuals should lack none of these perfections [of body and mind], in their women as well as in their men. Where, as among the Lacedaemonians, the state of women is bad, almost half of human life is spoilt" (1361a 9-12). Dryden is likewise explicit about the capacity of men and women for shared virtue, expressed in his many poems celebrating women, as, for example, on the occasion of Anastasia Stafford's marriage in which "Never was happy pair so fitly tied; / Never were virtues more allied)("On the Marriage of [...] Anastasia Stafford," Poems 71-72).

Absalom and Achitophel supports monarchy, but as part of a balanced government, and not in support of arbitrariness or absolutism. David's concluding speech shows him upholding both the legal order and a sense of compassion. Yet, he will not cave in to the rebels and their "Mother Plot," the poem's final reference to generation or bodies. This reference is also used by Greenfield to cap her argument that Dryden's misogyny shows up here by calling the rebels' conspiracy a "Mother Plot" and so shifting to the maternal part in generation the responsibility for giving birth to the political crisis. The king predicts that the conspirators will expose their true selves in the manner of vipers by attacking the womb of government, the very source of their political freedom. David likens the plotters to this viperous offspring:
   By their own arts 'tis Righteously decreed,
   Those dire Artificers of Death shall bleed,
   Against themselves their Witnesses will Swear,
   Till Viper-like their Mother Plot they tear:
   And suck for Nutriment that bloody gore
   Which was their Principle of Life before.
   Their Belial with their Belzebub will fight;
   Thus on my Foes, my Foes shall do me Right[.] (1010-17)

The passage exposes what for Greenfield is the poet's heart of darkness: "Dryden figures maternal generation as the ultimate horror" (283). In her reading, these lines amount to a "reconfiguration of the 'several mothers'"; the king "blames his problems on feminine fertility," and "the mother here becomes the plot against the king, her pregnant body the bloody incubator of revolt" (283). Greenfield pounces on a note supplied by the California editors of Dryden, which cites Edward Topsell's History of the Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, to buttress her contention that "the birth of the vipers is the result of a Mother Plot," a phrase Dryden introduces to "exonerate the father by emphasizing the gestatory danger of a certain kind of intensive maternal thinking" (283-84). Her second-hand use of Topsell is perhaps less supportive than it seems, since Topsell includes this legend only to refute it (but both Dryden's editors and Greenfield overlook Topsell's correction of the legend and thus get him backward). The model of the voracious male-destroying female and her vengeful brood is one that Topsell locates in Herodotus, while also citing Aristotle, Pliny, Theophrastus, and others who have written on vipers. (15) After compiling such references, Topsell returns to the account of the voracious female to add the disclaimer that the account in Herodotus is "merely fabulous" (2: 802). He then explains that the legend is the result of a mistranslation and consequent misreading of Aristotle: "Out of the words of Aristotle, evily understood by Pliny and other ancient writers, came that errour of the young Vipers eating their way out of their mothers belly, for instead of the little thin skin which Aristotle saith they eat thorough, other Authors have turned it to the belly, which was clean from Aristotles meaning" (2: 803). And, Topsell emphasizes, "nor yet [do] the female Vipers kill the male in copulation, or that the young ones come into the world by the destruction of their dams" (2: 804).

For his part, Aristotle carefully classifies developments and reproduction based on the observable facts of nature, as, for example, when eggs are hatched outside the body of the mother (oviparous), or, as with most mammals and many reptiles, when the young are produced from within the body (ovoviviparous). He specifically cites vipers for their unusual embryology (they give birth from internal eggs), and he distinguishes them from other animals both because of this anomaly and because they are cold blooded (Generation 718b30-36).

Yet, Topsell's refutation aside, Dryden does make use of the viper legend, as do his predecessors, Spenser and Milton, and Milton's Paradise Lost is of particular importance in understanding the viper passage in relation to the trajectory of Dryden's satire. The passage recalls the occasion in Book 2 of Paradise Lost when Sin reminds Satan of that
   odious offspring whom thou seest,
   Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
   Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
   Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
   Transformed; but he my inbred enemy
   Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart
   Made to destroy. I fled, and cried out Death!
   Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed
   From all her caves, and back resounded Death! (2.781-89)

At the moment he conspires against God, Satan cohabits with the Sin that he has generated out of his head, thereby freakishly engendering Death. Satan's generation of Sin and Death grotesquely inverts creation. His generation of these privations is no more an act of creation or maternity than is the plot of the rebels and their leader. Where Satan begets Death whose "shape had none" (2.667), Achitophel has begotten a comparable "shapeless Lump" in the body of his spouse and a lawless scheme in the body politic. In alluding to the Miltonic passage, Dryden provides a denouement for the typology that makes a Satan of Achitophel both in his satiric portrait and in his temptation of Absalom. Critics have overlooked this development of typology, perhaps as a result of concentrating on the separate speeches and portraits instead of seeing them as part of a complex drama with an overarching, satiric trajectory. Achitophel stands revealed as fully evil in act as well as description. A progenitive failure, jealous of his king, he is now exposed as having repeated Satan's act of having spawned Sin in his generating rebellion against lawful order and his king. The legend of rebellious vipers and the Miltonic account of Sin and Death combine to emphasize the deformity of the malefactors' scheme against their monarch. Indeed, as G.E.R. Lloyd has shown, the Greeks who subscribed to the legend saw the vipers as an anomaly in nature and used the story "to convey, implicitly or explicitly, messages not just concerning the norms and boundaries that they breach and span, but concerning norms and boundaries in general" (Science 11). As I have pointed out in the earlier study, the references to deviations from a sexual mean in the individual malefactors suggest a connection with the real life counterparts of the allegorical figures. Moreover, Achitophel and his "sons of Belial" echo the condition of Milton's Satan, who embodies "unsated lust" and whose devil rebels are all sexually frustrated, as there is no sex or generation in hell. (16) Satan curses the sun, as it
   gently warms
   The Universe, and to each inward part
   With gentle penetration, though unseen,
   Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep (3.583-86)

since the sun's potency reminds him of God. And the name Belial itself recalls the ancient god of lust.

The allusive power of David's reference condemns those plotting against his rule as a comparable horror in nature. Both Milton and Dryden follow the classical use of anomalous creatures to emphasize the malcontents' deviation from natural, ethical, and political norms. Rather than casting blame on the generative bodies of women, the Mother Plot distinguishes this deranged and monstrous anomaly from what is normative on biological, ethical, and political grounds. The folklore of the viper's assault on generation suits Dryden's purposes in conveying the baseness of the conspirators. The anomaly in nature is a much more serious expression of the same anomaly expressed in MacFlecknoe, where Flecknoe praises Shadwell's efforts at generating plays as "Pangs without birth, and fruitless Industry" (Works 2: line 148). David's speech denigrates neither maternity nor women; his words conjure up images of males perversely attempting to absorb maternity to themselves. Against this complex tangle of corruption, Dryden establishes a satiric norm comprised of Nature and both biblical and classical values. By invoking as a norm the Aristotelian paradigm that balances male and female roles, Dryden implicitly pays tribute not only to the father and son who express an ethical ideal, but also to the wonder of the material world and the active co-equal participation of women in sexual generation.

(1) A study of the poem appeared as "Fathers and Sons: The Normative Basis of Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel," Papers on Language and Literature 17 (1981): 363-80. Phillip Harth mischaracterizes my study in claiming that it argues for "a primarily moral theme" in the poem, whereas I make no claim for the primacy of a moral over a political theme, but argue instead for its presence and the pattern in which an ethical theme is revealed that previous criticism had overlooked. That Harth says he is "unable to find" the "moral theme" delineated both in my study and a subsequent article by Howard Weinbrot may be an admission, but it is not a refutation. There is, of course, no necessary inconsistency or contradiction in a poem that combines moral stricture and political support. Indeed, it may be said that Dryden's political affirmation grows out of his ethics. A preoccupation with Absalom and Achitophel as "propaganda" and its sources in political pamphlets, such as Harth's, may obscure the poetic character of the text. See Harth's Pen for a Party: Dryden's Tory Propaganda in its Contexts (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993) 304-305. Studies that have developed points raised in my discussion of fathers and sons in Absalom and Achitophel include Michael McKeon's "Historicizing Absalom and Achitophel" (The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature. Ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. New York: Mentheun, 1987. 23-40); Howard D. Weinbrot's "Nature's Holy Bands in Absalom and Achitophel: Fathers and Sons, Satire and Change" (Modern Philology 85 [1988]: 373-92); James D. Garrison's Pietas from Vergil to Dryden (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992. 226). See also Peter Schakel's "Teaching Absalom and Achitophel" (Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Christopher Fox. New York: AMS Press, 1990. 209-21). More recently, I have argued for a topos in the poem that further corroborates my argument ("Dryden and the Exoteric Tradition: Absalom and Achitophel and the Ages of Man." Dryden and the World of Neoclassicism. Ed. Wolfgang Gortschacher and Holger Klein. Tubingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 2001. 219-30).

(2) Greenfield's essay is reprinted in Inventing Maternity: Politics, Science, and Literature, 1650-1865 (Ed. Susan C. Greenfield and Carol Barash. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1999. 86-110). My citations refer to the original publication. In a survey of questionable methodologies deployed in recent Dryden criticism, David Bywaters makes a brief but telling objection to Greenfield's approach ("Historicism Gone Awry: Recent Works on John Dryden." HLQ 63 [2000]: 248).

(3) Unless otherwise indicated as Poems, all references to Dryden's works are to line numbers from volume 2 of the California edition of The Works of John Dryden.

(4) Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the English Stage, quoted in Winn 498.

(5) Had Greenfield actually taken up the subject of the absent mother whose shadow, she claims, so horrifies the rebels and animates their ideology, she might have been onto something. Doing so would have required her to pursue Richard Hofstader's classic observation in The Paranoid Style in American Politics that "anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan" (21). She would also need to examine the poem for traces of the king's interest in loose women as his secret cohabitation with that Protestant bogey, Catholicism. Further, it would be necessary to see the Mother Plot as the Whore of Babylon and to see the product of the king's illicit liaison as the fortunate opportunity to return to the true national path in just the way the rebels regarded the Reformation as the fortunate offspring of the Mother Church. Such an approach would be in keeping with the lip-smacking doggerel of the opposition, as in such popular lines as those from "The Prince of Orange's Triumph" urging William of Orange to assume power in England:
   Now welcome to our English shore,
   And now we will engage-o,
   To thump the Babylonish whore
   And kick her trumpery out of door. (Poems on Affairs of State 295)

(6) Kinsley refers to Pepys's Diary of 27 July 1667. Also see Ronald Hutton's Charles II: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 25-26.

(7) The quoted phrases are from the translations of D.M. Balme and A.L. Peck respectively. All further citations will include the title of the work rather than the name of the translator.

(8) For example, see Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts (Ed. Alcuin Blamires), 39-41, where passages from the Generation of Animals are presented as brief fragments, sometimes arranged out of order to enhance the view that Aristotle is anti-woman. Moreover, the commentary accompanying these decontextualized passages assumes that by associating women with the contribution of matter to conception, Aristotle is making "an unflattering equation between women and 'matter'" (39). The addition of quotation marks around "matter" further implies a sense that it is somehow distasteful or suspect. I discuss below Aristotle's use of matter and value in relation to Dryden.

(9) Aristotle does not rule out the possibility that metaphor may contain insights, but any truth so contained in figurative language would be additionally accessible through non-figurative language. As G.E.R. Lloyd points out, Aristotle's strictures on metaphor are combined "with very considerable openmindedness ..." (Aristotelian 221).

(10) Barzillai's son has lived what Achitophel encourages Absalom to pursue, though only as so much empty rhetoric. See Garrison (note 1 above) 226.

(11) Exodus 4:22, and cf. Hosea 2: 1.

(12) On the tradition of Achitophel, Absalom, and David used in support of both Cromwell and Charles, see Works 2: 230-31.

(13) The association of marital fidelity and political stability is not unique to Dryden's poem. Stephen N. Zwicker, in "Virgins and Whores: The Politics of Sexual Misconduct in the 1660s," argues for a similar principle of monogamy as a normative force in Marvell's "Upon Appleton House," where he finds that in the poem, "sexual and political issues are one" (94) and that the poet links the failure to observe marital fidelity with "civic misconduct" (86). In my view, Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel treats sexual promiscuity less severely than Marvell and as less objectionable than other departures from heterosexual monogamy. And, whereas Marvell links members of the Court with profligacy, Dryden links the worse excess with the king's enemies.

(14) If the findings in a recent study are correct, the mother-child as political metaphor did not really come into prominence until the mid-eighteenth century, when it was used to reinforce the sense of connectedness between "the Mother country" and her colonies and to justify having them. For further discussion, see Peter N. Miller's Defining the Common Good: Empire, Religion and Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) 195-97; 222-223. For an alternate view, see Mary Severance's "Sex and the Social Contract" (ELH 67 [2000]: 453-513).

(15) Madeleine Doran provides a useful account of Topsell's approach to science in relation to the literature of the generations preceding Dryden in "On Elizabethan 'Credulity' with Some Questions Concerning the Use of the Marvelous in Literature" (The Elizabethan Age, Ed. David Stevenson. New York: Fawsett, 1967. 133-62).

(16) See the discussion in Clay Daniel's Death in Milton's Poetry (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1994) 26-48. Also, see Gregory W. Bredbeck's Sodomy and Imagination: Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991) 215.


Aristotle. De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I. Trans. D.M. Balme. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

--. Generation of Animals. Trans. A.L. Peck. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

--. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.

--. The Politics of Aristotle. Ed. Ernest Barker. London: Oxford UP, 1946.

--. Rhetoric and Poetics. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: Random House, 1954.

Blamires, Alcuin, ed. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Crump, Galbraith, ed. Poems on Affairs of State. Vol 4. New Haven: Yale UP, 1968. 4 vols.

Dryden, John. The Poems of John Dryden. Ed. James Kinsley. Vol. 4. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958. 4 vols.

--. The Works of John Dryden. Ed. H.T. Swedenberg, Jr., et al. 3 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1956-.

Foucault, Michel. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History." Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 76-100.

Greenfield, Susan C. "Aborting the 'Mother Plot': Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel." ELH 62 (1995): 267-93.

Hofstader, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. 1965. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.

Lloyd, G.E.R. Aristotelian Explorations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

--. Science, Folklore and Ideology: Studies in the Life Sciences of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Milton, John. The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton. Ed. Douglas Bush. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Monod, Paul Kleber. The Power of Kings: Monarchy and Religion in Europe 1589-1714. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

Topsell, Edward. The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents. Vol. 2. New York: De Capo Press, 1967. 3 vols.

Winn, James Anderson. John Dryden and His World. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Zwicker, Stephen N. "Virgins and Whores: The Politics of Sexual Misconduct in the 1660s." The Political Identity of Andrew Marvell. Ed. Conal Condren and A. D. Cousins. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1990. 85-110.

PROFESSOR DONNELLY is a member of the English Department at the University of Central Florida. An earlier version of this article was delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, St. John's College, Oxford University, January 2001.
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Date:Mar 22, 2004
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