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The Well Read Poem

Nov 22, 2021

In this sixth season of The Well Read Poem, we will read a number of examples of classic satire in verse. English poetry is particularly rich in satire, and we will take a close look at some of the best instances of literary mockery that the past several centuries have bequeathed to us. Some of these are playfully teasing, while others are deliberately savage. All of them taken together, I trust, will provide a happy introduction to the fine art of verbal annihilation. Today’s selection is from a longer piece called Absalom and Achitophel, by John Dryden. This passage titled Zimri is a satirical character sketch of the Duke of Buckingham. Poem begins at timestamp 5:19.

"Zimri" from "Absalom and Achitophel"

by John Dryden

A numerous host of dreaming saints succeed;
Of the true old enthusiastic breed:
'Gainst form and order they their pow'r employ;
Nothing to build, and all things to destroy.
But far more numerous was the herd of such,
Who think too little, and who talk too much.
These, out of mere instinct, they knew not why,
Ador'd their father's God, and property:
And by the same blind benefit of fate,
The Devil and the Jebusite did hate:
Born to be saved even in their own despite;
Because they could not help believing right.
Such were the tools; but a whole Hydra more
Remains, of sprouting heads too long, to score.
Some of their chiefs were princes of the land:
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand:
A man so various, that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all Mankind's Epitome.
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and nothing long:
But in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon:
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking;
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
Blest madman, who could every hour employ,
With something new to wish, or to enjoy!
Railing and praising were his usual themes;
And both (to show his judgment) in extremes:
So over violent, or over civil,
That every man, with him, was god or devil.
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art:
Nothing went unrewarded, but desert.
Beggar'd by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.
He laugh'd himself from court; then sought relief
By forming parties, but could ne'er be chief:
For, spite of him, the weight of business fell
On Absalom and wise Achitophel:
Thus, wicked but in will, of means bereft,
He left not faction, but of that was left.