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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Sharma, K.N. "Dryden's Mac Flecknoe as a Mock-heroic Poem." BachelorandMaster, 11 Feb. 2018, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/mac-flecknoe-as-a-mock-heroic-poem.html.