John Dryden (1631-1700)
Both Absalom and Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe are famous satires, but whereas the former is a political satire, the letter is both a personal and literary satire. Absalom and Achitophel is the most powerful satire in the English language. Taking the biblical story of David and Absalom, he uses it to ridicule the Whig party and also to revenge himself upon his enemies. Praising this political satire, A.W. Ward writes, "Absalom and Achitophel remains the greatest political satire in our literature, partly because it is frankly political and not intended, like Hudibras, by means of a mass of accumulated detail to convey a general impression of the vices and follies, defect and extravagances, of a particular section or particular section of the nation. With Dryden every hit is calculated, and every stroke goes home; in each character brought on the scene, those features are only selected for exposure on the praise which are of direct significance for the purpose in hand."
Mac Flecknoe is a personal satire. In Mac Flecknoe there is no single reference to the bitter political controversy of the time, nor even to the medal bearing Shaftesbury's image. Only the political and dramatic activities of Shadwell are mentioned, and his corpulent person is made fun of. Dryden presents Shadwell as a dull poetaster, an idiot who is shorn of all abilities for composing fine dramas. Dryden exposes the dramatic skill of Shadwell by saying that his comedies make the readers weep and his tragedies create laughter.
Absalom and Achitophel is a longer poem than Mac Flecknoe and whereas only two characters, Mac Flecknoe and Flecknoe, bear the brunt of his satirical shafts in Mac Flecknoe, a number of characters are satirized in Absalom and Achitophel. In both these poems the characters are indirectly named. In Absalom and Achitophel Charles II appeared as King David, Duke Monmouth as Absalom, Shaftsbury as Achitophel and the Duke Buckingham as Zimri. In Mac Flecknoe Flecknoe is Richard Flecknoe, an Irish poet, and Mac Flecknoe is no other than Thomas Shadwell (1642- 92).
In Absalom and Acltophel Dryden mirrors the English life of the time, in a vigorous manner. The Whig leaders are mercilessly subjected to satire. But Mac Flecknoe is not of temporal or local interests, and the portrait of Shadwell is both typical and individual so that the satire becomes a defamation against vice and folly in the abstract". Moreover, Mac Flecknoe is not as biting in effect as Absalom and Achitophel is. In Mac Flecknoe Dryden sank the greater part of his resentment in the humor of the conception and the reader enjoys the fun without thinking much of its application to an individual. He laughs in pure amusement, and only with an effort realizes what it meant to the subject of the satire.
Mac Flecknoe is a mock-heroic poem. It inspired Pope in writing both The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Praising the mock heroic element in Mac Flecknoe T.S. Eliot writes, "The piece of Dryden's which is the most fun, which is the most sustained display of surprise after surprise of wit from line to line is Mac Flecknoe. Dryden's method here is something very near to parody; he applies vocabulary, images and ceremony, which arouse epic associations of grandeur, to make an enemy helplessly ridiculous. But the effect, though disastrous for the enemy, is very different from that of humor which merely belittles, such as the satire, of Mark Twain, Dryden continually enhances, he makes his object great in a way contrary to expectation; and the total effect is due to the transformation of the ridiculous into poetry."
Both Absalom and Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe are written in the heroic couplet. Though Mac Flecknoe has its own place among Dryden's masterpieces in English satirical poetry, it gives way to Absalom and Achitophel which has been praised by Saintsbury in these words: "There has been nothing in the least like this before. The prodigality of irony, the sting in the tail of every couplet, the ingenuity by which odious charges are made against the victim in the very words almost of the phrases which his party were accustomed to employ, and above all the polish of the language and the verse, and the tone of half-condescending banter, were thing of which that time had no experience. The satire was as bitter as Butler's but less grotesque and less laboured."