Portrait of Zimri – Introduction to Literature

Portrait of Zimri

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.

Author John Dryden


John Dryden a poet, literary critic and a dramatist, belong to Augustan era. Absalom and Achitophel appeared in 1681 and it is a political satire concerning events that occurred during the reign of Charles ll of England. As King Charles II did not have a legitimate child for the throne his brother James was suggested. But James was more inclined to Roman Catholicism and people were not in favour of that. However King Charles II had an illegitimate child called John of Monmouth/ Duke of Monmouth. As the King did not want his illegitimate son to be the king after him the Duke of Monmouth began to rebel against his father King Charles II. However since Dryden couldn’t write about these events openly he
cloaked them in a biblical story of events that took place in the reign of King David which were of a parallel nature. Charles ll becomes King David, Monmouth becomes Absalom, and Shaftesbury; Monmouth’s helper becomes Achitophel. So that Monmouth revolt against Charles ll instigated by Shaftesbury is presented as Absalom’s revolt against David instigated by Achitophel. And Duke of Buckingham who was another co-worker of Monmouth is presented as Zimri. As the poet was partial towards the king Charles II in his poem he satirizes the Duke of Monmouth and his supporters. The poem consists portraits of different characters and here there is an explanation of the portrait of Zimri.

Portrait of Zimri BY John Dryden, Summary and Analysis

The poem is an allegorical, mock heroic epic and also a political satire. The poem was written during a time of political turmoil. In the poem the character of Zimri is based on Duke of Buckingham. Although the poem is based on political event there is also a personal attack. And Dryden had highly ridiculed Zimri or else Duke of Buckingham’s character. He was a poet, dramatist and also a politician. Though he had a brilliant mind he was inconsistent, extravagant and wasteful. In the above extract with his dramatic language the poet criticizes the character of Zimri though it sounds like praise. Here the poet presents different aspects of his life for example his occupations, life style, his reactions, likes, dislikes, his attitudes towards people and the way he spends money. Thus Zimri can be described as a fickle, inconsistent, excessive, irrational, irresponsible and profligate. The poet ironically points out all the positive aspects of his character by describing him with a sense of positivity. The poet has used an effective sense of balance. “Was chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon:” These can be quite exaggerative but at the same time it shows the extremities of Zimri. This extract from Absalom and Achitophel brings the theme of a man must be rational and be guided by reason as they have a greater social and moral responsibility towards others in the society. At the same time the extract brings the idea that public figures are guided by reason, as they have greater social and moral responsibility towards others in the society.

The portrait of Absalom contains characteristic features of the neoclassical era, such as simplicity, clarity, order, good sense and decorum. The portrait appears to present the character in a simple narrative/ discursive manner. But it contains beneath this surface a very strong tone of irony with humour. Each couplet presents a self-contained idea or a description that helps to create Zimri as an excessive, irrational and irresponsible man. The restraint in the poetry lies
in the control of the irony, what Dryden calls in his preface to the poem “sweetness in good verse, which Tickles even while it hurts” the clarity of the portrait lies in the presentation of those features without ornamentation which bring out the irony.

Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins Hopkins is a Victorian poet. He was born in 1844 to a middle class family. He was converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of Great Cardinal Newman. In most of his poems it is clearly evident a sensory vividness and keenness in intelligence. Furthermore most of Hopkins’ poems are highly individualistic poetry and particular to himself and he is a unique in much of his subject matter.

The poem “‘Zimri’: The Duke of Buckingham” by John Dryden is actually an excerpt beginning at line 543 of the much longer poem Absalom and Achitophel:

Some of their chiefs were princes of the land: In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;

The poem is not written in stanza form, but for the purpose of paraphrase we can consider the first two full sentences to be the value of one stanza (though it is not). This portion extends from “Some of their chiefs …” to “that died in thinking.” Before Zimri enters–whom Dryden satirized, as Jack Lynch, Ph.D., of Rutgers University says, in an earlier play, The Rehearsal (1671)–the poem is discussing those who battle against governments that “enslave the nation” and who are described as:
… the herd of such, Who think too little, and who talk too much.
Zimri is added as one of these, since he was, in fact, involved in an unsuccessful plot against the King of England. With this background, it will be easier to understand the whole excerpt and paraphrase the first portion properly.


1. Some of their chiefs were princes of the land:
Some of the leaders of those who were against the government were royal princes.
2. In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;
In their top leadership, did Zimri hold a place.
3. A man so various, that he seem’d to be 4. Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Zimri was a man of many talents and interests and for that reason seemed to be the best of all types of experts.
5. Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Zimri had very fixed opinions that were always wrong!
6. Was everything by starts, and nothing long;
He tried every sort of occupation suddenly and without holding to one thing long.
7. But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Thus in the course of one lunar month,
8. Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon:
Zimri was a chemist, a violinist, a politician, and a fool’s fool:
9. Then all for woman, painting, rhyming, drinking,
As a fool, he gave all his time to flirting with women, painting, rhyming poems, and heavy drinking,
10. Beside ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
and was the companion of great crowd of other fools who died by trying to think!
The paraphrase should give a clear explanation, but, in case it doesn’t, the summary is this: Zimri was a leader of a rebellion against the royal court. This didn’t work out very well for him because, not only was he deeply opinionated, he was very foolish and wrong-headed. He experimented with every occupation imaginable but gave them all up for womanizing and drinking. In the end, his companions were people whose thinking was so ineffectual that thinking could be the death of them!
This is a funny poem because it is Horatian satire: that which is funny; witty; kindly, yet revealing of error; and tolerant (not Juvenalian satire: mean, angry, resentful). This satirical poem is to the Duke of Buckingham (Zimri) after political trouble (“He left not [the political] faction, but of that was left.”). Some satiric devices (Ms. T. Watson, AP English. Citadel High School, Halifax, Novia Scotia) Dryden uses are exaggeration, incongruity, irony, mock encomium, and comic juxtaposition, undergirded by a couplet rhyme scheme: aabbccdd etc. This sing-song of adjoining couplets adds an amusing lilt to satiric meanings.
The first four lines are introductory and give no clue to the satire that is to come:
Some of their chiefs were princes of the land: (a) In the first rank of these did Zimri stand; (a) A man so various, that he seem’d to be (b) Not one, but all mankind’s epitome: (b)
Line 5 has the first clue through the incongruity it introduces between epitome (line 4) and wrong (line 5). Epitome means the perfect example of some characteristic or quality: the epitome of generosity is the most generous person. Dryden is saying Zimri is so talented and “various” that he seems to be the epitome (the best) of the whole collection of humankind. He then promptly tells us that Zimri’s “stiff” (i.e., fixed, inflexible, unyielding) opinions are always wrong. Here we have incongruity: Zimri is the epitome of being wrong-headed. This satire is funny. Wrongness ought not to be epitomized!
Line 8 gives our next clue to the humor and satire: “Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon: ….” A buffoon is a ridiculous clown of a person. A chemist, a fiddler (musician), a statesman are all praise-worthy persons. The association of the clown with the chemist etc is mock encomium: praise is seemingly given or implied but, in truth, blame is being cast. Now we are firmly on the path of satire. With these two clues, we can look for the other satiric statements and enjoy the humor knowing that the Duke of Buckingham is being tolerantly (not maliciously) ridiculed for his foolishness.
Being almost out of room, I’ll list some instances of the other satiric devices and paraphrase some phrases.


1. Exaggeration: “Beside ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.”
2. Irony: “Beggad’d by fools, … He had his jest, and they had his estate.”
3. Comic juxtaposition: “In the first rank of [princes] did Zimri stand; […] In squandering wealth was his peculiar art:”


“A man so various” [with so many various talents]
“Was everything by starts” [he was everything, but inconsistently]
“in the course of one revolving moon” [in one month’s time]
“So over violent” [overly, too much so]
“Nothing went unrewarded but desert.” [nothing went unrewarded but that which deserved reward (ironic)]
“Beggad’d by fools” {beggared} [tricked by fools]
“laughed himself from court” [his behavior got him thrown out of the royal Court (not legal)]
“forming parties” [political parties]
“left not faction, but of that was left.” [didn’t leave the party; it abandoned him: political rejection]
Absalom: Biblical allusion; slew his brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:28-29)
Achitophel: Biblical allusion; adviser to Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 15-17)