Knowing who’s who in Absalom and Achitophel

‘Annabal’ was the Duchess of Monmouth; ‘Zimri’ was the Duke of Buckingham; ‘Saull’ Oliver Cromwell, ‘Corah’ Titus Oates and so on.

Nicholas Crouch ms notes to Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. Photo: Paris O'Donnell

In a volume of literary miscellanea bequeathed by Nicholas Crouch to his college library in 1690, there is a 1682 edition of Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel.

Bound with it is a manuscript list identifying prominent contemporary figures which the poem’s characters represented:

‘Annabal’ was the Duchess of Monmouth; ‘Zimri’ was the Duke of Buckingham; ‘Saull’ Oliver Cromwell, ‘Corah’ Titus Oates and so on.

In his Life of Dryden, Samuel Johnson repeats Addison’s claim that Absalom and Achitophel  was popular because readers enjoyed decoding its allegory and identifying its characters.

But Johnson disagrees:

‘There is no need to enquire why those verses were read, which, to all the attractions of wit, elegance and harmony, added the co-operation of all the factious passions, and filled every mind with triumph or resentment.’

Such resentment could be a stimulus to physical violence. In 1679, Dryden was ‘soundly cudgell’d by 3 men’ in Covent Garden. The biographer Anthony Wood, wondered (mistakenly)  whether the assault had been provoked by Absalom. In other poems, Dryden used more obscure allegory to frustrate hostile interpretation or scrutiny. But to contemporaries Absalom’s characters seemed dangerously identifiable.

Nonetheless, the binding of the written list with the play suggests that identification was not straightforward for everyone.

Perhaps Crouch found the key (one of many circulating in print and in manuscript) useful to stir his memory.

The writing is certainly not Crouch’s, so someone else has given him this list.

There is a tantalising entry in Crouch’s diary for 6th April 1665 which reads ‘Dined with me Mr. Dryden & Rothera[m?]’

Entries for April 1665 in Nicholas Crouch's diary (Balliol College MS 355). Photo: Paris O'Donnell

The rest of the entry is difficult to decipher but seems to refer to the proctors of Cambridge University.

The Mr.  Dryden with whom Crouch dined was probably not the poet, although his identity could merit further investigation.

Perhaps Crouch’s crib came from someone in the know.

By J. Hinchliff &  P. O’Donnell.

The following sources were used in the creation of this post:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘John Dryden’.

Samuel Johnson, ‘Dryden’, in Lives of the poets, ed. R. Lonsdale (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), vol. 2.

Steven N. Zwicker, Politics and language in Dryden’s poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Andrew Clark, The life and times of Antony Wood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1898).

Comments welcome: email library@balliol.ox.ac.uk.

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