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As related to Absalom and Achitophel


Absalom and Achitophel begins in the world of Old Testament history. The
vague biblical past of the opening lines lets the narrative to be set
from 2 Samuel in a wide historical frame that hopes to legitimize the
king's promiscuity by associating the king as father of the land:

In pious times, e'r priestcraft did begin,

Before polygamy was made a sin;

When one man on many multiplied his kind,

Ere one to one was cursedly confined;

When nature prompted and no law denied

Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;

Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart,

His vigorous warmth did variously impart

To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,

Scattered his Maker's image through the land. (l. 1-10)

The association between God and David is made through the clever
comparison of divine and human fertility. There is some irony in seeing
God's abundant creation reflected in the king's sexual extravagances, but
the irony doesn't reduce the status of the king. It serves, at the
beginning of the poem, to separate the person of the king from the office
of the king.

The opening scenes emphasize David as an indulgent father, not as head of
the country. David's pleasure in Absalom parallels God's attitude toward
Adam in the Garden. All of Absalom's motions are

accompanied with grace,

And paradise was opened in his face.

With secret joy indulgent David viewed

His youthful image in his son renewed:

To all his wishes nothing he denied;

And made the charming Annabel his bride. (l. 29-34)

The easy going nature of Absalom, put together with the specific
reference to paradise, help establish him as the figure from Eden that
will be seen again in the temptation. The characterization of David
emphasizes a combination of divine and human paternity. Like God, David
takes great joy in his creation; like God, he supplies Absalom with a
worthwhile bride. This serious presentation of David in his fatherly joy
and indulgence, as compared to the divine model, cannot be taken as
criticism of the king. It strengthens the casual relationship between God
and David established at the opening of the poem. When attention is
called to indulgence or weakness in David's character, it is in a context
that shows David's indulgence to be a reflection of his paternal, rather
than kingly, capacity:

What faults he had (for whom from faults if free?)

His father could not, or he would not see. (l. 35-36)

The emphasis is on David's paternal indulgence. The initial presentation
of David and Absalom closes with a declaration of the calm of David's

Thus praised and lived the noble youth remained,

While David, undisturbed, in Sion reigned. (l. 41-42)

In the temptation, Achitophel uses biblical language to persuade Absalom
of the kingship to which he is destined:

Auspicious prince, at whose nativity

Some royal planet ruled the southern sky;

Thy longing country's darling and desire

Their cloudy pillar and their guardian fire:

Their second Moses, whose extended wand

Divides the seas, and shows the promised land;

Whose dawning day in every distant age

Has exercised the sacred prophet's rage:

The people's prayer, the glad diviners' theme,

The young men's vision, and the old men's dream!

Thee, savior, thee, the nation's vow's confess,

And, never satisfied with seeing, bless. (l. 230-241)

The use of typology in the biblical context of the poem suggests a fine
distinction between Absalom's response to the temptation, and to
Achitophel's well-spoken words. By using types to persuade Absalom of his
role as savior, Achitophel becomes an ironic Gospel prophet, and Absalom
a false messiah. Achitophel is not slow to offer specific examples of his
predictions. He first claims that Absalom's nativity was marked by some
royal planet that ruled the southern sky - a favorable omen. The
astronomical sign, which is one of the messianic allusions of the
temptation scene, is not the correct nativity sign! The star of the real
Messiah rises in the east, not the south (Matt. 2:2, 9-11).

Next, Achitophel calls Absalom the country's cloudy pillar, guardian
fire, and second Moses (ll. 233-35). All three are familiar biblical
signs; and the pillar and fire are promised in Isaiah as signs of god's
renewed presence among the Israelites (Isaiah 4:5). The typical signs
that Achitophel mentions have general biblical meaning and would have
been persuasive for Absalom, the biblical prince.

In convincing Absalom of his messianic role, Achitophel portrays David as
an old man with declining powers and as a fallen Lucifer:

Had thus old David, from whose loins you spring,

Not dared, when Fortune called him, to be king,

At Gath an exile he might still remain,

And heaven's anointing oil had been in vain.

Let his successful youth your hopes engage;

But shun the example of declining age;

Behold him setting in western skies,

The shadows lengthening as the vapors rise.

He is not now, as when on Jordan's sand

The joyful people thronged to see him land,

Covering the beach, and blackening all the strand;

But, like the Prince of Angels, from his height,

Comes tumbling downward with diminished light. (ll. 262-274)

There is a great deal of irony in this, warning of Achitophel's deceptive
persuasion. Hoping to convince Absalom of the practicality of a "pleasing
rape upon the crown" (l 474), Achitophel associates David's old age with
his supposed political impotence. Achitophel attempts to remove the
kingship and the question of secession from the authority of Heaven and
the law of God by falsifying the account of David's return from exile.
According to Achitophel, David was called from Gath by fortune; according
to the Bible, he was called from exile by god and anointed by Heaven.
Achitophel's argument makes the sanctity of heaven dependent on the
arbitrary role of fortune's wheel, whose prizes must be grabbed. In the
context of biblical history, that ethic obviously contradicts the moral
code and world order implied by God's written law.

The end of Achitophel's description is the simile "like the Prince of
Angels," used to epitomize David's decline. Achitophel chooses this image
to contrast the descending, faltering light of David's kingship with the
rising royal planet of Absalom's aspirations; but the use of this simile
reveals more than the wordy resemblance. By identifying Godlike David
with Satan, Achitophel joins forces with the devil himself as a defamer
of God.

As the picture of David comes to a close, Achitophel characterizes
David's impotance more subtly. Asserting that David is powerless to
resist Absalom's claim to the throne, Achitophel asks, "What strength can
he to your designs oppose, / Naked of friends, and round beset with
foes?" (l. 279-80). The second line of the couplet alludes to Samson and
suggests the description, from Milton, of Samson being blind among his

Betray'd, Captiv'd, and both my eyes put out,

Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Blind among enemies, O worse than chains,

Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age! (Samson Agonisties ll. 33-34,

There are two ways of reading this allusion back into Achitophel's
portrait of David. The most obvious is that Achitophel unknowingly
predicts the final triumph of David as a Samson figure who wreaks havoc
on his enemies and asserts the force of God's law.

especially Christ among enemies and false friends. That relationship also
suggests the final victory of God over Satan and all antichrists.
Moreover, David as paralleled with Samson, given the typical relationship
that both Old Testament figures bear to Christ, plays off nicely against
David's own reference to Absalom as a false Samson, a pretend Messiah:

If my young Samson will pretend a call

To shake the column, let him share the fall. (l 955-56)

The couplet works in two ways, characterizing Absalom's revolt and
messianic claim as a 'fall' and ironically opposing it to the true
messianic 'call' and 'fall' to sacrifice and death which Samson, as type
of Christ, exemplifies. The words of Achitophel and the drama of his
temptation of Absalom characterize the two figures and confirm the
original relationship that has been established between David and God.
Throughout the poem that relationship is reconfirmed by association, by
direct assertion, and by the fallen characters' version of what is
asserted to be the true order of things. Those reconfirmations of David's
relationship with God - especially the increasing emphasis on David's
kingly role - work to transform David from private father to public king.

Once more the godlike David was restored,

And willing nations knew their lawful lord. (l. 1030-31)


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