Mac Flecknoe As A Mock Satire Essays

At a time when fiction from Grub Street hack writers (whom he called the “multitude of scribblers, who daily pester the world with their insufferable stuff ”) was becoming widely read, courtly poets and dramatists like Dryden felt a need to play the public role of arbiters of literary taste. Dryden was actively engaged in contemporary debates which sought to lay down standards of what was considered high and low art. He published his “Essay of Dramatic Poesie” in 1667 and “Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry” in 1692. Both of these served as prescriptive texts for what passed muster as “good” art. In an age of a revived interest in the classics, many of the instructions on good satirical writing are based on the works of Horace, Persius and Juvenal. While he did not think highly of Horatian verse which used word-play like anagrams and “ackrosticks” and was favoured by Francophiles poets, he admired Juvenal and Persius for their unity of plot and their use of Wit, which he saw as a more masculine device than lampooning or raillery.

In MacFlecknoe, Dryden’s definition of good art also comes to be strongly associated with class. When he says that bad poetry laden with “Pure Clinches” or puns is inspired by the “suburban Muse”, his implication is that it is only the genteel circles of London that produce and read good poetry – thus, Bun-hill and Watling Street are down-market parts of London which  by virtue of their economic demography can only produce low art. The world that MacFlecknoe reigns over is the world of artistic production which thrives in burroughs of London which weren’t seen as respectable – and it is this underbelly of the city: brothels “of lewd loves, and of polluted joys”, actors, and public playhouses which Dryden deems “realms of nonsense absolute.”

MacFlecknoe can be read as a satire directed against a representative of what Dryden perceived as a bad poet or dramatist. He stands for dullness and fog as opposed to sharp wit. He is the king of mediocrity. The poem is also a commentary the on Art and its’ relation to Nature. Dryden saw Art as “Nature’s handmaid”, that is, true Art should imitate nature as closely as possible. The flaw of MacFlecknoe’s poetry is that it is unnatural – poetry doesn’t flow naturally from his pen – his creative process is compared to labouring – he threshes out forced metric lines: “thy Paper in thy Thrashing-Hand”. Even the music in his plays is antithetical to nature: “The Treble squeaks doe fear, the Bases Rore;” Thus, Shadwell’s work is not true art because it is not a mirror of nature.1 Part of this conception of a non-masculine and unnatural art emerges in images of pregnancy or fertility which do not result in creative output – what Dryden calls “Pangs without birth, and fruitless Industry”.

The debates on taste between Shadwell and artists belonging to the Duke’s Company on the one hand and Dryden and the King’s Company theatre group on the other, was centred around a discussion on the literary merits of the comedy of humours, which worked with character types,  versus Dryden’s style which privileged Wit. Dryden found an inordinate reliance on the idea of Humours to be crippling to the art of characterization in dramaturgy. He found an antipathy to the use of Wit and quick repartee an equivalent to dullness and fogginess which are prevalent throughout the poem in descriptions of Flecknoe and MacFlecknoe. They are “scourge of Wit, and flayle of Sense”, and Flecknoe chooses the son “who most resembles [him]” to “wage immortal war with Wit” and “Ne’er to have Peace with Wit, nor truce with Sense”, since he perceives Shadwell and his group as adversaries of Wit. Dryden defines the humors as employed in Shadwell’s plays in the following terms:

    “A Humour is the Byas of the Mind,

        By which with violence ‘tis one way inclin’d:

        It make’s our Actions lean on one side still,

       And in all Changes that way bends the Will.”

To this imperfect, unharmonious art-form, Dryden prefers urbanity, grace, sharpness or saltiness, and polished elegance of Wit. Much of the poem, in spite of Dryden’s injunction to satirists not to sully people’s reputation, is an ad hominem attack on Shadwell in terms of not only his literary style but also his political beliefs (Shadwell was a Whig) and personal origins. Not only does he describe him as king of working class areas, but also mocks his origins as a northerner by jeering at him for his “Irish pen” even though Shadwell objected that he had barely visited Ireland, let alone live there. “Dryden deliberately and ironically metamorphosed Shadwell into a humours character to show us a fool who, like the humours of his plays, persistently incriminates himself”2

To lampoon Shadwell, Dryden employs the form of the mock epic. He uses the metaphor of kingship and succession, but inverts notions of heroism associated with the exploits of the prince to describe the epic proportions of his dullness and stupidity. It does this to magnify the mediocrity of his work. It uses notions of lineage to speak of Shadwell as the inheritor of a lowly and artless poetic legacy. Through parallels with heroes of the past, the absolutely unheroic qualities of the mock-hero become even more pronounced. Dryden also uses opposing parallels simultaneously to indicate the nonsensical nature of Shadwell/MacFlecknoe’s status as heir-apparent of the realm of low art. For example, he simultaneously compares him to Ascanius that is, to the figure of monarchical authority as well as the enemy to Hannibal – the enemy of the State that Ascanius is supposed to protect. By implication, then, Shadwell is a threat to the very realm of art which he is supposed to rule. These contradictions make it a realm of artistic meaninglessness.

Dryden elevates this figure of the king in order to belittle the actual persona of Flecknoe who replaces the symbols of kingship with parodic elements, for example, the mug of ale and Love’s Kingdom instead of the ball and sceptre. The coronation scene is also a travesty. There is an inversion of the grandeur and purity associated traditionally associated with kingship by using scatological imagery to describe Flecknoe and his son.

Dryden, as a Tory, believed in family blood-lines and inheritance of a legacy. He extends his political beliefs to his standards of literary style and form. The idea of succession implies that artistic mediocrity is hereditary. It is not only a father-son relation, but a whole family line which is corrupted by bad aesthetic values. This family is all the writers who Dryden perceives as producers of bad or low art. Thus it is a “filial dullness” that fills MacFlecknoe and his uncle Ogleby. But by talking of Shadwell’s lack of artistic finesse in terms of succession, Dryden shifts the discussion from the precise demerits of his poetic and dramatic practice to a inherent and unavoidable flaw in his “blood” which is inborn in him by virtue of being of a lineage of low artistic capability.

Thus, MacFlecknoe does engage in part in a discussion on what consists of bad literature, and thus, by corollary, arrives at a sort of definition of good literature in its discussion on the Humours versus Wit and the relation of Art to Nature, but most often betrays personal prejudices against the origins and beliefs of his rival poet Shadwell and uses these against him, offering many clear instances of lampooning.  He uses the form of the mock heroic to lampoon Shadwell by speaking of him in terms, again, of his origins in an artistically lowly blood line.

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Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe as a Mock-heroic Poem

In Mac Flecknoe, Dryden practically invented, as far as English literature is concerned, the mock-heroic poem. Spenser's Muiopotmos and Drayton's Nymphidia are earlier examples, but they are purely and delightful exercises of fancy, and do not have the satirical content of the classical mock-heroic. Dryden seems to have conceived the mock-heroic or parody as a kind of anti- image of the true heroic.


John Dryden (1631-1700)

A mock-heroic poem is a poem in which trivial and insignificant things are mockingly treated in a heroic or exalted manner. It is a ludicrous imitation of the heroic, applying formal style and dignified language to a trivial theme. Pope's The Rape of the Lock is the masterpiece example of a mock-heroic poem, but Dryden was his forerunner in more than one sense. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe is the first great mock-heroic poem in English. This personal satire, has all the characteristics of a comic, mock-heroic fantasy, the pompous crowning, by Flecknoe, a prince among poetasters, of an heir worthy of himself, which will supply Pope with more than one trait of his Dunciad James.

Mac Flecknoe is Dryden's mock-heroic fantasy in choosing to satirize Shadwell by representing him as the successor to Flecknoe on the throne of Dullness. Shadwell is raised to an unsought dignity that he cannot sustain. It is a make-believe dignity, of course, the throne is the throne of dullness. But so subtly does Dryden go to work in the heroic idiom that the words constantly give us a confused impression of grandeur, and it is only after a moment's reflection that we realize that what seemed to be praise is in fact denigration of the deadliest kind. The effect on the reader is one of a delighted, but slightly blurred, realization that Shadwell is being quietly taken to pieces. Dryden works here by a comic transformation of values. Flecknoe's opening speech rests upon a sort of ironical, 'Evil, be thou my good'

Shadwell alone my perfect image bears, Mature in dullness from his tender years, Shadwell alone of all my sons is he Who stands confinn'd in full stupidity. The rest to some faint meaning make pretence, But Shadwell never deviates into sense. Some beams of wit on other souls may fall, Strike through and make a lucid interval; But Shadwell's genuine night admits no 'ay, His rising Fogs prevail upon me day.

This has some of the qualities most characteristic of heroic utterance, notably the absence of all qualifications, the firm insistence on the superlative and the unlimited.

The destructive potential of mock-heroic has never been better illustrated than in Mac Flecknoe. Its obliteration of Richard Flecknoe himself is perhaps gratuitous, given the self- obliteration of the un-talented, but Mac Flecknoe has effectively substituted its eponymous hero for the historical Thomas Shadwell so firmly that the latter's genuine achievements stand for virtually nothing. How this is done is a perfect example of how a mock-heroic can work. What is involved is exploitation of the heroic manner itself, seen brilliantly exemplified in the opening lines:

 All humane things are subject to decay, And, when Fate summons, Monarchs must obey: This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young tom, and had govern'd long.

The only detail here, which might indicate the mock-heroic is the setting of Flecknoe's name beside that of Augustus. Suspicions about the poet's attitude grow when Flecknoe's kingdom is defined as one of `Verse and Prose', but the telling undercutting of his realm is held back until the sixth line:

Through all the Realms of Non-sense, absolute. Complete and undisputed power-over a realm of nonsense.

From this beginning Dryden goes on to define Shadwell with merciless precision, calling upon the language of epic and cleverly transforming it into the anti-world of mock-heroic:

As Mac Flecknoe proceeds, its effects are more coarsely achieved, and its ending (a brilliantly contrived parody of Ascension, which is also a mockery of Shadwell's own plays) does not have the resonance of the ending of the final book of The Dunciad, but Dryden has made a Mac Flecknoe which is a tribute to dullness. In the poem Flecknoe is finally dropped through the trapdoor to the 'hell' beneath.

In its original impulse Mac Flecknoe may be considered as a satire. Dryden also described it as Varronian satire, a category for which its primary qualification seems to be that it is based on a story of the poet's own invention. But the most helpful classification of the poem, as well as the most familiar, is that of the mock-heroic. Faced with the task of making Shadwell ridiculous, Dryden chose as his method the ironical politeness of the mock-epic.

The style of many passages in Mac Flecknoe is identical with the polished heroic idiom of Absalom and Achitophel. The joke that makes "a poem exquisitely satirical" consists in using this style, which was soon to prove a perfect medium for a poem about the King and weighty matters of State, to describe Shadwell and his insignificant affairs. Nor is Shadwell so insignificant before Dryden gets to work: it is the elevated style that makes him so. A small man is not in himself a ridiculous object: he becomes ridiculous when he is dressed up in a suit of armor designed for a hero. The difference between the important matters that the style is continually suggesting and the question of Flecknoe's successor is so marked that a shock of laughter follows.

The purpose of such a poem must be made clear, as wittily as possible, right from the start. Here Dryden succeeds perfectly, striking the full mock-heroic note with a grave sentential:

All humane things are subject to decay, And when Fate summons, Monarchs must obey.

These lines might form the opening of a panegyric funeral elegy on a royal personage; but the direction of the prosecution, which follows indicates the mock-heroic intention beyond all doubt. Right from the start, too, we have "the numbers of heroic poesy", which emphasize by their harmonious dignity the ludicrousness of the matter. The skillful manner in which Dryden mingles direct and oblique attack is particularly clear in Flecknoe's speeches, which are introduced and terminated with the due heightening of style and make up more than half of the poem.

One of the characteristics of the heroic idiom which Dryden adapts to his own purpose is the dignified description of time and place. The great event is ushered in by a formal passage:

Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown Of Shadwell's coronation through the Town. Rows'd by report of Fame, the Nations meet, From near Bun-hill and distant Watling-street

The scene of the solemnity is described with equal pomp:

Close to the Walls which fair Augusta bind, (The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd) An ancient fabrick rais'd t'inform the sight, There stood of yore, and Barbican it hight

The mock-heroic imagery of Mac Flecknoe is no less brilliant. The joyful business of comparing small men to giants and making pygmies of them in the process begins in the third line of the poem, where we hear that Flecknoe,

 like Augustus, young Was call'd to Empire and had govem'd long

The unfortunate Shadwell is compared in turn to Arion, to "young Ascanius Rome's other hope and Pillar of the State," to Hannibal, and to "Romulus by Tyber's Brook." The tendency to blasphemy which is never far away in Dryden, whether in satire or panegyric, becomes very marked in the account of the signs and omens which foreshadowed Shadwell's coming. Flecknoe's speech parodies John the Baptist's:

 Heywood and Shirley were but Types of thee, Thou last great Prophet of Tautology: Even I, a dunce of more renown than they, Was sent before but to prepare the way: And coarsely clad in Norwich Drugget came To teach the Nations in thy greater name.

It is not only in mock-heroic imagery that Mac Flecknoe excels. Brilliant examples of imagery may also be found, notably in the latter irony of Flecknoe's second speech, which makes relatively little use of irony and is written in a style closer to that of direct satire than most other parts of the poem:

When did his Muse from Fletcher scenes purloin, As thou whole Etherege dost transfuse to thine ? But so transfused as oils on Waters flow, His always floats above, thine sinks below. This is thy province, this thy wondrous way, New humours to invent for each new Play : This is that boasted .Bia4 of thy mind, By which one way to dulness, 'tis inclined, Which makes thy writings lean on one side still, And in all changes, that way bends thy will. Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense. A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ, But sure thou'rt but a kilderkin of wit.

In such a passage the satire is wholly conveyed by the images. Starting with the simple object of name-calling, the poet chooses an image: as he gives expression to it another starts up in his mind, and the new image is tossed about until a third presents itself to his attention. The result is satire of great power: satire which differs completely from anything in Le Lutrin.

Mac Flecknoe is full of mock splendor, an outrageous blending together of various shades of Christian and pagan coloring. Dryden's mocking epic became a literary landmark for its fusion of inharmonious Christian elements with utmost brilliance. The father-son relationship of Flecknoe and "Sh" is itself a good example. Throughout the poem, Dryden carefully develops the ludicrous parallel between Flecknoe's preceding his son as a dull poet and St. John, the Baptist, preceding Christ. The poem ends with inverted indexing to John the Baptist who is said to have risen to heaven having finished his moral assignments. Flecknoe, the precursor, falls through a trap door. Mac Flecknoe is full of such examples of overt parody.

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