Mac Flecknoe: as A Satirical Poem

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      The actual origin of Mac Flecknoe is not clear. Though published in 1682 as a retaliation for The Medal of John Bayes by Thomas Shadwell, it is purported to have been written long before, i.e., in 1676. Shadwell and Dryden had once been close friends and it is perplexing as to how and why the two men turned against one another. Perhaps, their political antagonism led them towards enmity. Whatever the actual reason, Mac Flecknoe is the only poem of Dryden which is devoted to satirizing a private rival. Apparently, Dryden uses the right which he recognizes in the satirist of attacking not only the vice, but the vicious, and the consequent product is a severe personal satire against Shadwell.

All through Mac Flecknoe, Shadwell is the target for Dryden's satiric weapons or irony, innuendo, sarcasm and raillery. Dryden's sharp wit is at its best in the poem. At the same time, however, we cannot dismiss Mac Flecknoe merely as a virulent personal satire. It has an impersonal and general quality, for Dryden has introduced into it an attack on general literary tastes and standards of the day. As Shadwell is portrayed, the peculiar qualities which made him fit for the kingdom of Nonsense, also expose the mindless literature of the seventeenth century.
Mac Flecknoe

"Mac Flecknoe" as a Personal Satire or Lampoon

      Dr. Johnson defined a lampoon as a personal satire or censure "written not to reform but to vex." A general satirist had the noble aim of not merely ridiculing vice but of correcting through laughter. Thus "reform" is part of the satirist's aim, while the lampooner is content with pouring scorn over his victim. We cannot deny that the definition of lampoon is partly applicable to Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell is ridiculed but there is no evidence that Dryden was intending to "reform" him. The main intention seems to reduce the rival to the level of a dunce. The fundamental impulse behind Mac Flecknoe is that of a lampooner. The poem has plenty of scurrilous and unfair satire against Shadwell.

      Dryden had declared that a personal satire was a "dangerous sort of weapon" to be used only when the victim was a public nuisance. Shadwell, to be fair, was no public nuisance to warrant the personal attack from Dryden. He may not have been a great writer, but he was not the absolute dunce as portrayed in the poem. Shadwell is attacked against the weakest spots of his literary career, and where it hurts most. "Dryden ridicules Shadwell's unsuccessful efforts at lyrical composition, his clumsy portraiture of characters whom he intended as elegant gentlemen, his bombastic taste for the language of his clumsy portraiture of characters whom he intended as elegant gentlemen, his bombastic taste for the language of his dedications and prologues, and his presumption of imitating Ben Jonson." Dryden naturally ignores Shadwell's shrewd insight into human nature which made his comedies a roaring success on the stage. A master satirist, Dryden cooly keeps away from those areas where he knows that he would need formidable efforts to demolish the victim.

Not merely Lampoon also General Satire

      All through Mac Flecknoe, Shadwell is the target for Dryden's satiric weapons or irony, innuendo, sarcasm and raillery. Dryden's sharp wit is at its best in the poem. At the same time, however, we cannot dismiss Mac Flecknoe merely as a virulent personal satire. It has an impersonal and general quality, for Dryden has introduced into it an attack on general literary tastes and standards of the day. As Shadwell is portrayed, the peculiar qualities which made him fit for the kingdom of Nonsense, also expose the mindless literature of the seventeenth century.

      Shadwell is the Prince of Dullness in his individual capacity; he also becomes representative of the bad poets in general and exposes the lack of taste in the literary scene of those days. Thus, Mac Flecknoe was certainly motivated by personal animosity, but Dryden enlarges its scope beyond lampoonery to include an objective attack on general literary taste. Furthermore, the poem is hilarious fun with a great deal of humor. Shadwell becomes a comic creation who can exist within the poem without reference to the actual personage.

      Mac Flecknoe deals with Shadwell's literary lapses alone, though the sub-title, "A Satire upon the True-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S." leads one to think that his religious opinions are to be attacked. Dryden does not castigate his rival's moral character or any personal aspect of life. He restricts himself to satirizing his literary career.

Dryden's Satiric Technique

      Mac Flecknoe rises beyond the level of a scurrilous lampoon on account of two reasons. The first, as we have already said, is that the attack on Shadwell includes an attack on general literary taste. The second and the more important reason for the greatness of Mac Flecknoe is Dryden's satiric art as embodied in the poem. All the weapons of satire are not only used with consummate skill, but also with smooth urbanity.

Mock-Heroic Framework

      The most important aspect of Dryden's satire is his use of the mock-heroic framework in Mac Flecknoe. It shows also his originality. Dryden considered satire to be a species of heroic poetry. He took inspiration from Boileu's Le Lutrin in which he found the "majesty of the heroic, finely mixed with the venom" of the satire. The sublimity of expression would increase the delight. Faced with the problem of ridiculing Shadwell, Dryden adopted the mock-heroic approach to the subject. The method involves incongruity and disproportion. Thus we find Dryden using vocabulary; images and ceremonies which arouse epic associations of grandeur, in order to make an enemy helplessly ridiculous. All the satiric devices in Mac Flecknoe are related to its mock-heroic frame.

Satire through Parody

      The heightened language of the heroic poetry when used in connection with an object of contempt, creates a discrepancy which produces laughter. The tone is one of praise, while the result is contempt for the victim. Walter Scott called Mac Flecknoe a Varronian Satire, i.e., one in which the author is not contented with general sarcasm for the object of attack, but where he has woven his piece into a sort of imaginary story, or scene, in which he introduces the person whom he ridicules as a principal character.

      In Mac Flecknoe, Flecknoe is the literary sire of Shadwell. He is the monarch of Dullness who, at the beginning of the poem, is shown deliberating on a fit successor to his throne. He chooses Shadwell as the supreme epitome of Dullness and a fit King for the realm of Nonsense. Shadwell is crowned king of this realm and Flecknoe's speech of praise and benediction comes to an appropriately abrupt end. Thus we have a story of sorts and a setting for introducing Shadwell as Mac Flecknoe, the chief actor. It is striking, however, that the chief actor never speaks but his picture comes out mainly through the speeches of Flecknoe. The setting provides a perfect means for Dryden to indulge his mock-heroic technique for satiric ends.

      A coronation and a question of succession are serious subjects, fit for heroic poetry. The mockery enters along with satire when we realize that the coronation is that of the King of Dullness and the heir is to be suitably stupid. The satire gains power when Shadwell is chosen as heir to the throne of Nonsense.

Exaggeration as an Effective Satiric Means

      Exaggeration has been used effectively by Dryden to satirize Shadwell. The choice of Shadwell as heir to the realms of Nonsense is justified by the abdicating king, Flecknoe. Shadwell could be relied upon to wage "immortal war" against wit and sense. He could be expected not to deviate into sense, for he had been "mature in dullness from his tender years." He is a man who "stands confirmed in full stupidity;" Others might allow a ray of intelligence to lighten their stupidity but Shadwell's mind would always be clouded by rising fogs. He is a man of "goodly fabric" who filled the eye. He is a "tun" of a man but a "kilderkin of wit." He is the last great prophet in tautology and his ability is best suited for acrostics and anagrams. There is no doubt about his suitability to the position to Monarch of Dullness. The castigation of Shadwell's wit, or lack of it, is given a humorous touch through exaggeration.

False Elevation followed by Deflation: Effective Satiric Means

      A technique which is very much part of the mock-heroic, and very effective for satiric purposes is that of "false elevation." Mac Flecknoe abounds in such false inflation. The basic situation of the coronation elevates merely to achieve the victim's deflation as soon as we know that he is to be crowned as king of Dullness. Masterly use of words is made by Dryden in this context. The combination of the "high" and the "low" is done skillfully, whether in a phrase, in a verse, or in a couplet. "Mature" in conjunction with "dullness", "thoughtless" with "monarch", "anointed" with "dullness", are simple means of elevating a victim in order to deflate him. Shadwell is a prophet, but he prophesies tautology.

      The same false inflation governs the various comparisons of Shadwell with legendary heroes. Shadwell is first compared to Arien the great musician of Greek legend, who charmed even the dolphins with his music. The effect of this comparison is quite devastating for Shadwell whose little barge is surrounded by "little fishes" as he plays on a trembling lute with "well-sharpened" thumb. Shadwell is also enhanced to the level of Hannibal in one line only to come crashing down in the next to the level of a perfect epitome of dullness. Hannibal, at the age of nine, swore eternal hostility to Rome. Shadwell, too, was made to swear by his father before ascending the throne, but the vow is ludicrous. He swears to fight perpetually against wit and intelligence.

      The coronation site, similarly, is described in a noble tone, which emphasizes the actual "lowliness" of the situation. No Persian carpets welcomed our hero, but the way was strewn with dusty and tom pages from inferior writers like Shirley, Heywood and Ogleby. Ruined publishers and stationers stood a guard of honor, the leader being Shadwell's own publisher, Herringman.

      On a throne of dusty volumes of his own creation, sat Flecknoe. By his side sat the heir-incumbent, Shadwell. Thick fog covered his forehead and "lambent dullness played around his face." The dignified phrases merely add poignancy to the satiric effect. Shadwell is a king, but a king of Dullness. Appropriately, he holds the royal emblems, which in this case are, a "mug of potent ale" and his father's worthless book Love's Kingdom. He wore poppies on his temples indicating his perpetual sleepy condition. Significantly enough, at the coronation, twelve aged owls are seen flying on the left-hand side of Shadwell. Once again the "Prince" is compared to a legendary hero, Romulus, the supposed founder of Rome, who saw twelve vultures. The twelve owls are taken by the crowd as prophetic symbols of the excellent rule of Dullness by Shadwell.

      The deflation is superb. Indeed, Dryden has mastered the art of elevating a victim by comparison with great men and in the process, reducing him to the size of a pigmy. The satiric effect is stupendous.

Flecknoe’s Speech: Supreme use of Direct Satire

      Flecknoe's speech on Shadwell is a consummate effort in satiric praise. Irony, both implicit and explicit, plays an important role in the speech. Shadwell's "skills" are greatly appreciated, but these skills are dullness, tautology, slowness and bombast. Each line pretends to praise while pouring ridicule on the victim. Shadwell should not have any trouble in being dull, because it is natural to him. His tragedies produce laughter while his comedies send one off to sleep. As for his satires, they lack bite or effect. He is capable of producing effortlessly the bombastic rubbish of Sir Formal Trifle's speeches. He takes five years to compose a single play. He needed no external aid to produce words of dullness and stupidity.

      Direct satire underlies such lines as Flecknoe's advice:

Leave writing plays and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in Acrostic land.

      The style here is Juvenalian, where ridiculous qualities, though nominally praised, are given their exact names: "dullness", "nonsense", "tautology", etc. Few lines could be more devastating in effect than:

success let others teach, learn thou from me
Pangs without birth, and fruitless industry.

Irony and Innuendo

      Dryden achieved supreme skill in the ability to leave his victim clearly and wholly ridiculous. "What share have we in nature or in art?" asks Flecknoe of his son. Shadwell is a negation of all creative power in nature and in art. It conveys his complete sterility that he never speaks a word in the poem. A meaningless writer, he is barren of thoughts, feelings, and, ultimately of words. The ridiculous and pungently satirical effect is achieved through ironical praise. Shadwell and Flecknoe are praised in terms related to art, religion and kingship. The consequence is that the reader is clearly cognizant of Shadwell's lack of art or prophecy. It is superb ironical skill - deflation of a character through praising him for the very things which he implicitly lacks.

      Innuendo plays an important part in satire in Mac Flecknoe. The use of the word 'fabric', suggests a massive structure, and the use of "goodly" with it, gives a rounded amplitude to that structure. "Swelled with pride," and "big with hymn" indicate an accompaniment of grossness in the intellectual sphere as well. Apparently, innocent words become infected with irony. The word "mature" gives to Shadwell's dullness something of the pulmp vacancy and the full stupidity in which Shadwell is confirmed.

      The very surroundings, as in epics, seem stamped with the character of Shadwell - obese in looks and intellectually vacant. The scene of coronation is swarming with Flecknoe's "issue of a large increase", bulging like Shadwell with absurdity, congested with his writings, which "choked the way." The hollowness is suggested by the resounding echoes from Pissing alley and Aston-Hall.

Satire, Good Humoured, Not Abusive and Vituperative

      Personal motives might have governed Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, but the laughter is not cruel or malicious. True, Shadwell was not actually such a dull writer and Dryden does exaggerate unfairly. But there is plenty of good humor and gaiety in the poem. It is a masterpiece of comic creation. It evokes a "magnificence of stupidity - whether Shadwell deserved it or not. It is colored by robust humor and generosity of imagination. Remarkably enough, though it attacks Shadwell brutally, it is free of personal malice. We enjoy and appreciate the comic figure of Shadwell, we do not feel indignant. The strength of Dryden lies in his dispassionate use of Shadwell as material for comic creation. "Shadwell becomes his own condemnation." Therein lies Dryden's satirical skill in making a personal satire unanswerable by an opponent.


      Mac Flecknoe is Dryden's gayest poem, though it originated in personal enmity. "In itself inimitable, it became in turn, the model of a satire even more renowned, for Pope derived from it the idea of the Dunciad," says John C. Collins. The attitude of Dryden is "Olympian." There is little bitterness and there is plenty of spontaneous humor. We do not scorn Shadwell but wish him well in acrostic land. As a satire, Mac Flecknoe set an unprecedented mark. There are, furthermore, positive values implied in it. The poem gives a firm critical stand. It is an outcry not only against Shadwell, but through him, against all bad writing and the deteriorating literary standards. The positive standards are to be Jonson and Etherege and any falling away from them is deplored by Dryden.


Consider Mac Flecknoe as "one of the keenest satires in the English Language."
Write a short essay on Dryden's satiric method as revealed in Mac Flecknoe.
"As a personal attack on a rival dramatist. Mac Flecknoe is simply a lampoon, and a very unfair one at that...." Discuss.
"Mac Flecknoe is not Dryden's greatest poem but it is his gayest." Discusses Mac Flecknoe as a satire in the light of this observation.
"Mac Flecknoe": A Satirical Poem Or
Dryden's Satirical Skill as Revealed in "Mac Flecknoe"
"Mac Flecknoe" Must be allowed to be one of the keenest satires in the English language.

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