The poem ‘Portrait of Zimri’ is a notable example of political satire in English literature. It lays out a scathing criticism of the Duke of Buckingham, whom the poet refers to as Zimri in the poem. The poet comments on his role in the political turmoil of England in the 17th century. Dryden uses vivid imagery and clever wordplay to paint a picture of a man consumed by ambition and greed, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Explore Portrait of Zimri
‘Portrait of Zimri‘ by John Dryden is a satirical poem that compares the character of Zimri to the Duke of Buckingham. The former was a biblical traitor who was killed by Phinehas, and the latter was a notorious courtier and libertine in the Restoration era.
‘Portrait of Zimri’ by John Dryden is a part of his political satire ‘Absalom and Achitophel,’ written in 1681. Dryden wrote it to support King Charles II of England. Throughout the poem, the poet presents Zimri as an allegorical character based on George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham, who was a notorious politician and a rebel against the king.
Dryden portrays Zimri as a vain, fickle, extravagant, and hypocritical man who has no loyalty or consistency. He mocks Zimri’s various occupations, hobbies, opinions, and vices and shows how he wasted his wealth, talent, and reputation. Poet also contrasts Zimri with Absalom and Achitophel, the main conspirators against King David. Dryden also goes on to imply that Zimri is a minor and insignificant figure in the plot.
‘Portrait of Zimri’ has several themes, but the primary one is the political situation in England during the late 17th century. The poem is a satirical commentary on the events leading to an attempt to overthrow King Charles II. It uses the biblical story of Absalom’s rebellion against King David as an allegory for the erstwhile political situation in England.
The poem also showcases various conspirators attempting to gain power and influence, often at the expense of others. It also highlights the flawed and imperfect character of these rebels and how their weaknesses often lead to their downfall.
In addition to that, the poet uses satire as a theme to criticize various political figures of the time, often portraying them as foolish or misguided.
Form and Structure
The poem ‘Portrait of Zimri’ by John Dryden is a satirical character sketch of George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. Dryden wrote this poem in heroic couplets, which are pairs of rhyming lines in iambic pentameter. The poem has two stanzas. The first stanza describes Zimri’s personal qualities, such as vanity, fickleness, extravagance, and lack of loyalty.
The second stanza focuses on Zimri’s political career, highlighting his corruption, incompetence, treason, and downfall. The poem is part of a larger work called ‘Absalom and Achitophel,’ an allegory of England’s political situation during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681.
Dryden uses several literary devices to amplify the irony and satire in this verse.
- Irony: The poet has used irony to bring out the unperceptive aspect of Zimri’s character, where he thinks he is very sharp but is stripped of his wealth by the people he considers fools. The following lines show just that. “Beggad’d by fools… He had his jest, and they had his estate.”
- Hyperbole: In the lines, “Beside ten thousand freaks that died in thinking,” Dryden has used exaggeration or hyperbole in a very clever manner, where he mocks pseudo-intellectualism.
- Juxtaposition: The poet has effectively used satire to juxtapose two varied thoughts or ideas. Take, for example, these lines, “In the first rank of (nobles) did Zimri stand,” or “In squandering wealth was his peculiar art.”
- Allusion: In this poem, Dryden uses the allusion of Zimri to establish the character of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke, along with his allies, tried to dethrone King Charles II.
Lines 1 – 4
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.
In the opening line of this poem, the speaker is referring to the conspirators against King Charles II of England. According to him, these are powerful nobles or princes. In the second line, Zimri is introduced as one of these leading plotters. Going further, the speaker describes Zimri as a complex and multifaceted person who embodies many different qualities or traits.
This poem is a section of a much larger poem, ‘Absalom & Achitophel.’ These first four lines establish the Duke of Buckingham, referred to as Zimri, as a wealthy and privileged man who possesses many talents.
Lines 5 – 10
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.
In the fifth through the tenth lines of the poem ‘Portrait of Zimri,’ the protagonist is characterized as a stubborn and misguided person. He is constantly changing his beliefs and interests. Further, he is shown to have many different pursuits and talents. He can be a chemist, indicating his scientific knowledge, a fiddler, indicating his musical abilities, a statesman, indicating his political knowledge; and a buffoon, indicating his sense of humor or perhaps his lack of seriousness in certain matters. However, according to the speaker, none of them last very long.
Poet also portrays Zimri as someone who indulges in various pleasures and hobbies. He is focused on socializing with women, indulging in alcohol, and creating art through painting and writing poetry.
The phrase “ten thousand freaks that died in thinking” refers to individuals who have devoted their lives to intellectual pursuits. However, they have ultimately failed or suffered as a result of their obsessive thinking. The phrase “died in thinking” suggests that these individuals have become so consumed by their thoughts that they have neglected other aspects of their lives.
We can observe that now the poet has used satire to elaborate on the fact that Zimri is always seeking new experiences and pleasures though he has a very fickle mind. Nothing stays with him for long. In the last line, the poet uses exaggeration and hyperbole verily to undermine shallow intellectualism.
Lines 11 – 16
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 the above-mentioned lines of the ‘Portrait of Zimri,‘ Zimri is described as unpredictable and impulsive. The phrase “blest madman” suggests that despite his erratic behavior, he is seen as a fortunate or happy person because he is always able to find something new to enjoy or desire. He is known for his extreme behavior in both criticizing and praising others, often taking his opinions to an extreme level. This makes him view others either as saints or evils.
The lines suggest that Zimri is both unpredictable and passionate in his actions and opinions. The last two lines can be interpreted as a critique of the man’s lack of nuance in his judgment of others. It can also refer to his tendency to view the world in black-and-white terms.
Lines 17 – 20
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.
In these four lines, Zimri is portrayed as wasteful and irresponsible with his money, giving away rewards without regard for merit. Zimri is shown to have been cheated out of his wealth by people who begged for money and whom he thought was foolish, and he can still find humor in the situation.
Overall, these lines in the ‘Portrait of Zimri’ suggest that Zimri is a careless and foolish spender of his wealth who is easily taken advantage of by others. Here the poet is establishing the fact that Zimri is a good-humored yet foolish man who could find enjoyment in any situation, even when he is duped.
Lines 21 – 26
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.
These last lines of ‘Portrait of Zimri’ state that Zimri had left the royal court and tried to form political factions, but he was never able to become a leader. Despite his efforts, Zimri was unable to gain power, and the real political work was done by Absalom and Achitophel.
The phrase “spite of him” implies that Zimri’s actions were not deliberate but rather the result of his incompetence or lack of resources. The fact that he is described as being “of means bereft” reinforces this idea, suggesting that he was not actively working against Absalom and Achitophel but was simply unable to contribute to their cause.
The final line, “He left not faction, but of that was left,” suggests that his inability to contribute effectively to the cause has weakened it to the point where only a remnant or fraction of it remains.
‘Portrait of Zimri’ is both a political parody and a section of a bigger allegorical heroic epic. It was composed at a period when politics was turbulent. Zimri, a character in the poem, is modeled after the Duke of Buckingham. The poem includes a personal assault, even though it is based on a political occurrence.
The poem ‘Portrait of Zimri’ has the rhyme pattern AABBCC and so on. This poem uses rhyming couplets, which gives it a distinct character.
In the poem ‘Portrait of Zimri,’ the poet, who was a supporter of King Charles II, uses the pseudonym “Zimri” for the Duke of Buckingham as a satire. In Hebrew, Zimri means “my praise,” and Zimri was the king of Israel for a week only and was never considered a threat to David. The Duke is also portrayed as someone who is privileged and wealthy but is highly incompetent and could never become a leader.
‘Portrait of Zimri’ is a small section of a bigger poem called ‘Absalom and Achitophel.‘ It was written by John Dryden during the 17th century when the political scene in England was very disorderly.
If you enjoyed ‘Portrait of Zimri,’ you will likely enjoy these other neo-classical poems, too:
- ‘On a Certain Lady at Court‘ by Alexander Pope – this poem is a satire where a mistress doesn’t return George II’s love.
- ‘London‘ by Samuel Johnson – This throws light on the condition of 18th-century England, especially London.
- ‘Farewell, Ungrateful Traitor!‘ by John Dryden – This poem asserts that men are incapable of being truthful or loving as much as women.