Mac Flecknoe Assignment
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John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe - an exercise in literary snobbery
John Dryden’s mock-heroic satire Mac Flecknoe was written around 1678 and appeared in anunauthorized edition in October 1682. The poem was subtitled as: “A Satyr upon the True-Blue-Protestant Poet, T. S”. The poem is a direct attack on Thomas Shadwell, anotherprominent poet and playwright of the Restoration Era. He was the professed imitator of BenJohnson and his witty conversations and humorous writings made him popular in the era. Inthe poem, Dryden tried to depict Shadwell as the heir of Richard Flecknoe’s kingdom ofdullness. In this paper, Mac Flecknoe will be discussed as an exercise in literary snobbery bydiscoursing Dryden’s context and mock-heroic style of writing to satirize Shadwell’spretensions of poetic glory.
Dryden’s satire, Mac Flecknoe means “son of Flecknoe” as “Mac” means “son” in the Gaeliclanguage. The poem attacks Thomas Shadwell, lawful heir of Richard Flecknoe, who isruling “realms of Nonsense” for a long time. Richard Flecknoe was an Irish Catholic priestand minor poet and was once ridiculed by Andrew Marvell in a poem entitled ‘Flecknoe, anEnglish Priest at Rome”. Dryden was engaged in a literary debate with Shadwell on rhyme,wit, and humour and found out that he had no proper understanding of the true wit or merit ofBen Johnson whom he imitates. They have professional rivalry between them becauseDryden was appointed as the Poet Laureate in 1668 but later Shadwell succeeded him in theyear 1685. The Exclusion Bill of 1679 ceased the revelry and entertainment of theRestoration court and society which caused political turmoil which affected the fraternity ofpeople in the society and turned friends into enemies, like Dryden and Shadwell. As Shadwellwas a protestant Whig, he is referred to as “True-Blue-Protestant” in the poem’s subtitle. Dueto the Reformation, Christianity was divided into two groups and the Church lost its powerover political and social issues
The poetic satire of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century is obsessed with thedistinction between high and low art forms which increased a boundary between genuineliterature and ephemeral rubbish and was linked with the question of literary merit. AlexanderPope’s Dunciad, John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub weresatirizing the propagation of popular and populist pamphlets, novels and poems which wereflooding the literary marketplace. All of these happened due to the commercialization ofliterary culture and the rise of professional writers who do not write for gaining patronage butto earn money and maintain their livelihood without being tied to an aristocratic patron. Theywere collectively known as Grub Street.
Dryden gave his satire a narrative form and solemnity and grandeur of Homeric epical stylewith ingenious rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter which is also known as heroic couplet.Mac Flecknoe employs meter, rhyme, and elevated language of the epic to make an ironicpoint. It presents an imaginary coronation of the pseudo-literary sphere. Shadwell being thesuccessor of Ben Johnson and Richard Flecknoe being elevated to the great Roman Empire,Augustus was the point of sheer scorn. The poem describes how Flecknoe was, “blest withissues of a large increase”. The poem also refers to Shadwell as “Mature in dullness” and“confirmed in full stupidity”. According to Dryden, no ray of Enlightenment has “strikethrough” the intelligence of Shadwell as his “genuine night admits no ray’. Shadwell’sdimness even prevents the beams of daylight as the poem says, “His rising fogs prevail uponthe day”. The poem even comments upon his large stature as “goodly fabric” and comparedhis “thoughtless” nature with a dumb “oak”. The poet also portrays images of Shadwellcoming up from the Thames to accept his reign to satirize the poetic feet and rhyme ofShadwell’s works. Dryden sets the reign of Shadwell in the brothel district of London,Augusta which is surrounded by prostitutes. The mock-heroic style of Dryden’s satire isdiminishing Shadwell while sardonically connecting him with enormity. During hiscoronation, the streets are filled with “scattered limbs of mangled poets” and their literaryworks and according to Dryden, Shadwell’s reign is the destruction of true poetry. Shadwellreigned the throne with the vow of maintaining “true dullness” and war with the “wit” and“sense”. Dryden refers to the legend of twelve owls which symbolize darkness and stupidityand says that those owls flew from Shadwell’s “left hand” and it confirms the beginning ofhis reign. It is the sarcastic echo of Romulus’s establishment of Rome while he saw twelvevultures or crows. Flecknoe seeks divine blessings for Shadwell’s advancement in “newimpudence, new ignorance” and advised Shadwell to maintain his talent so that he will beable to write verses like him, “Like mine they gentle numbers feebly creep”. Towards the endof the poem, Dryden advised Shadwell to try a lower form of poetry like acrostics.
Hence, Dryden’s scornful attitude dramatically turned into Flecknoe’s praise for Shadwell.Dryden’s use of several allusions plays a vital role in the satire but it is also obscure formodern writers as he used contemporary allusions by bringing phrases about John the Baptist.Dryden narrated the satire in the style of third-person omniscient narrators of classical epicslike The Iliad and The Aeneid, but gradually the poet inserts himself into the story as the firstperson. Dryden’s political satire had “public” themes but Mac Flecknoe is a personal andparochial satire that articulated a broader view about the importance of having good taste andpoetic talent in a nation