John DrydenTo help me with an article I’m writing, I spent part of yesterday reading two articles about John Dryden’s 1681 poem, Absalom and Achitophel, a satire written during the so-called exclusion crisis, an effort to exclude Catholics from the throne of England. In this poem, Dryden (pictured here) uses Biblical history — the story of David and his rebellious son Absalom — as a metaphor for the current English situation of Charles II and his rebellious son, James Scot, duke of Monmouth. While the particulars of this research probably aren’t of much interest to anyone but me, I soon became fascinated by the gender politics of the scholars themselves and what this politics means about the state of literary criticism.

I started reading an article by Jerome Donnelly, a retired professor at the University of Central Florida. His article, entitled “‘A Greater Gust’: Generating the Body in Absalom and Achitophel,” was published in Papers on Language and Literature Vol. 40 in 2004. The article quickly turns into a diatribe against another essay written by Susan Greenfield and published in ELH in 1995 and reprinted as part of a collection of essays entitled Inventing Maternity: Politics, Science, and Literature, 1650-1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 1999). Her essay is “Aborting the ‘Mother Plot’: Politics and Generation in Absalom and Achitophel.”

After reading the first couple of paragraphs of Donnelly’s article, I had to run to the library and check out Greenfield’s essay — his dismissal of her work was so vehement that I knew I had to read her essay first and then come back to his. (My first thought, in fact, was, “This is going to be good!”) In her work, Greenfield examines Dryden’s construction of the maternal in his poem. She concludes that “the poem’s emphasis on David’s promiscuity is gradually replaced by references to a feminine sexual desire and productivity so dangerous that the king appears politically reliable by contrast” (86). In effect, Greenfield argues that Dryden attempts to absolve Charles II’s promiscuous activities, which have, in effect, led to the exclusion crisis, by associating his rebellious son with the feminine and the feminized. She supports her reading with evidence from the period’s political theory (Filmer and Locke, especially) and from a close reading of the poem.

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