In his preface to Absalom and Achitophel John Dryden sets forth the true end of satire as “amendment of vices by correction”. Restoration period was a great age of satire in general and verse satire in particular. The greater freedom of expression with the restoration of Charles II; the political strife between the Whigs and the Tories; the neo-classical interest in the classical satires of Juvenal and Horace – all these gave rise to a fine spirit of satire especially in the writings of John Dryden.
The Restoration period opens with a work very much exhibitive of its spirit—Hudibras of Samuel Butler which appeared in three parts in 1663, 1664 and 1678, each part consisting of three cantos. It was a powerful but “low” satire on the Puritans who had been subdued with the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660. Hudibras enjoyed excessive popularity with the courtiers and the king himself. The poem is formless, crabbed in versification and gross at numerous places, but none can deny the force of punches Butler leveled against the Puritans.
Before Dryden, satire enjoyed a quite low level among literary genres. But Dryden, especially with his Absalom and Achitophel brought it near the dignity of the epic.
Dryden found himself in his proper element when at the age of fifty he came to the writing of his most outstanding satire entitled Absalom and Achitophel. This work is of the nature of a political satire and was most probably written at the suggestion of the king himself to embody the royal and Tory point of view regarding the Exclusion crisis. Charles II had no legitimate issue and his throne was to come to his brother, the Duke of York, who was sought by the Whigs to be excluded from succession for his alleged Roman Catholic sympathies. Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, was favoured by the Whigs for succession. Monmouth was thought to have been incited by the wily Earl of Shaftesbury to take up arms against the king. Shaftesbury was put in the Tower. A week before the date of his trial came Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel which was obviously meant to secure Shaftesbury’s indictment. Therein Dryden represented Shaftesbury as a wicked seducer of the innocent Duke of Monmouth who was tempted by Shaftesbury as Adam had been seduced by Satan. Dryden also took occasion in the poem to lash at some other Whig leaders. The main interest of the poem lies in the satiric portraits which in their execution show the hand of a master.
As anti-Whig propaganda, ridiculing their leaders in a succession of ludicrous satirical portraits, Dryden’s poem is a masterpiece of confident denunciation; as pro-Tory propaganda it is equally remarkable for its serene and persuasive affirmation. When a London grand jury refused to indict Shaftesbury for treason, his fellow Whigs voted him a medal. In response Dryden published early in 1682 The Medal, a work full of unsparing invective against the Whigs, prefaced by a vigorous and plainspoken prose “Epistle to the Whigs.” In the same year, anonymously and apparently without Dryden’s authority, there also appeared in print his famous extended lampoon, Mac Flecknoe, written about four years earlier. What triggered this devastating attack on the Whig playwright Thomas Shadwell has never been satisfactorily explained; all that can be said is that in Mac Flecknoe Shadwell’s abilities as a literary artist and critic are ridiculed so ludicrously and with such good-humoured contempt that his reputation has suffered ever since. The basis of the satire, which represents Shadwell as a literary dunce, is the disagreement between him and Dryden over the quality of Ben Jonson’s wit. Dryden thinks Jonson deficient in this quality, while Shadwell regards the Elizabethan playwright with uncritical reverence. This hilarious comic lampoon was both the first English mock-heroic poem and the immediate ancestor of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad.
Among the other satirists of the age may be mentioned Oldham, Rochester, and Cotton. John Oldham (1653-83), the young friend of Dryden, looked for inspiration and guidance wholly to the ancient Roman writers, particularly Juvenal. His satire is too generalised and avoids personalities altogether. His most important and ambitious work is his Satire upon the Jesuits.
Rochester’s Satyr against Mankind (1675) is a cynical but light-hearted denunciation of all humanity. Rochester has plenty of wit in is satire.
Charles Cotton is known for Scarronides, or, Virgile Travestie, 1664 (1663) in which he burlesqued Virgil’s heroic poetry after the example of the French poet Scarron. The poem owed some of its popularity to the anti-heroic cult initiated by Butler’s Hudibras.
In the hands of Dryden satire became for the first time in English literature a polished and highly effective weapon of offence, correction, and even self-expression.