Is Mac Flecknoe a Personal Satire? Discuss

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      "The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction. And he, who writes honestly is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient, when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease," said Dryden in his Preface to Absolom and Achitophel. Thus, according to Dryden, satire has a curative effect. The aim of satire is to improve man and his life and do away with certain vices and follies which corrupt the society. Satire should have elements of universality. It is its universal appeal that enlivens and immortalizes satire. A personal satire or a lampoon, on the other hand, is an attack on a particular rival and is usually unaccompanied by any 'reformative' zeal.

Origin of "Mac Flecknoe": Personal Enmity

      Mac Flecknoe, according to many critics, originated in personal motives. It was retaliatory attack on Thomas Shadwell for having written The Medal of John Bays, which in turn was a reply to Dryden's The Medal. Thomas Shadwell's satire was a personal attack on Dryden, and an abusive one at that. Dryden could not pocket the insult meekly; hence he wrote Mac Flecknoe as a stinging reply.

      Whatever the exact occasion for Mac Flecknoe, it is, indeed, in the nature of a lampoon. The fundamental impulses behind it are those of a lampooner.

"Mac Facknoe": The Personal Elements

      As we read Mac Flecknoe, we are certainly made to realize that no desire to reform Shadwell prompted it. It is clearly an attack on Shadwell. But it is an attack on Shadwell's literary career, even though the sub-title of the poem declares it to be "A Satire upon the True Blue Protestant Poet, T.S." As a satire, the poem contains much of personal vilification a great deal of it underserved by Shadwell. Though not a great writer, Shadwell was not an absolute dunce as made out by Dryden. A remarkable handling of the mock-heroic technique, however, reduces Shadwell to a dullard. Throughout the poem, we come across words like "sense", "art", "tautology." "nature" and "nonsense" - words often used by Dryden in his prolonged critical warfare with Shadwell.

      With consummate skill, Dryden dresses up Shadwell in a heroic armor only in order to reduce him to the size of a pigmy. Flecknoe's part in the poem is simply representative and the main satire is directed against Shadwell "who stands confirmed in full stupidity." Dryden calls him the dullest son of Flecknoe"

Shadwell alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirmed 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 rays,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.

      Shadwell was a born enemy of wit, sense and intelligence. To add to it, he took an oath at the coronation ceremony:

So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain
That he till death, true dullness would maintain,
And, in his father's right and realm's defence,
Ne'er to have peace with wit nor truce with sense;

      As a dramatist too, Shadwell is a grand failure. His tragedies make one laugh and his comedies induce sleep. Dryden also ridicules, his presumptuous imitation of Ben Jonson:

Nor let the 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 art but a kilderkin of wit.

      All these lines fully illustrate that Mac Flecknoe is a personal satire. Shadwell is a dullard, a slow writer, fat in body and hollow in intellect, and above all a plagiarist. He is a man who has to make no effort to be dull; dullness was absolutely natural to him. He is attacked for his clumsy composition and bombastic language. Dryden ignores the plus points of his rival, for instance, his keen insight into human nature and his acquaintance with the foibles of individuals. All this indicates that Mac Flecknoe was certainly motivated by personal enmity; the satire is certainly a personal attack.

Universal Element or Impersonal Motive in "Mac Flecknoe"

      Mac Flecknoe, however, would not have been popular for so long if it had been merely a lampoon or personal satire. This satire also has an impersonal quality about it. In the poem, Dryden "found an opportunity to attack the prevailing literary standards and he exploited it fully. In this connection, the lines which describe the locality where the coronation of Shadwell is to take place, are important. Here Dryden refers to the brothels where vulgar sensuality and lustful pleasure predominated. The old mother-prostitutes enjoyed an undisturbed sleep. Close to it was a Nursery or theatre, where the immature boys and girls got training in acting. The clasical tragedies or comedies, such as the plays of Jonson and Fletcher were not enacted there, since the audience with blank minds only applauded the performances of clowns like Simkin Puns and tautology provided the entertainment to the mindless audiences. All this is a satiric attack on the vulgar taste of the common people and the inferior stuff that was provided on the stage to satisfy that taste. It is an attack on low literary standards.

Dryden Attacks the Contemporary Literary Scene

      Dryden also attacks the aspiring but inefficient poets of the age. His picture of Flecknoe and his followers is a just rebuff to those who vainly posed as the poets of the age. Dryden's references to The Virtuoso and Psyche illustrate the fact that such was the ideal for the poets who were no more than poetasters and plagiarists. Shadwell is a type of bad writer in the poem. Through him, Dryden attacks the would be poets of his day. When he mentions Heywood, Shirley and Ogleby; the satire moves from the personal to the general sphere, from a particularly bad writer to several bad versifiers.

The Poetic Style: "Transforming the Ridiculous into Poetry"

      Dryden's impulses were not merely personal but had a wider scope. He did not merely intend to attack Shadwell, but through him, all the bad poets of his day. Thus, certain impersonal impulses also enter the poem giving it a universal dimension. Tautology and bombast are not only to be attacked in Shadwell, but in all other poets who made use of them. If Shadwell's works are condemned, it is done not only because Shadwell was Dryden's rival, but because they represented low literary taste and standards. Ben Jonson and Etheredge are the positive standards and Dryden deplores any falling away from those standards.

      There is, indeed, a "poetic impulse," behind Mac Flecknoe. It shows the remarkable ability to "transform the ridiculous into poetry," The mock-heroic technique is very well used. Brilliant imagery, too, is to be found in the poem, especially in the comparison of Shadwell to the "monarch oaks" and to "Arion" and to "Hannibal." It is a comic genius of great ability that is at work in Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell himself is a supreme "comic creation", though it would be an exaggeration to class him with Shakespeare's Falstaff. The imaginative structure of the poem, with the fantasy of a coronation at the center, is at once pleasing and effective for satiric purposes.


      It would not be quite acceptable to declare that Dryden's satire never dwindles into an attack on individuals. In Mac Flecknoe, we have a great deal of personal satire, much of it unfair. But we have nothing spiteful. There is in it, an Olympian grace, a superb wit and humor; and an imaginative impulse which removes Mac Flecknoe from the sphere of a mere lampoon and saves it from being a malignant personal attack. It becomes almost a comedy. As James Sutherland writes, "If Mac Flecknoe is a lampoon, it is redeemed by its humor. Indeed, if Shadwell had been a purely imaginative character we should have looked upon him as a great comic creation, for the Shadwell of Mac Flecknoe really is, as has recently been suggested, a creature of the comic imagination."

University Questions

Discuss Mac Flecknoe as a satire prompted by personal and impersonal motives.
"Dryden's verse satire never dwindles to a personal attack on individuals. There is a strong poetic impulse at work." Discuss with reference to Mac Flecknoe.
"As a personal attack on a rival dramatist Mac Flecknoe is simply a lampoon; and a very unfair one at that." Discuss.
Is Mac Flecknoe a Personal Satire? Discuss.

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