Obscurities in Mac Flecknoe Enjoyed by Modern Reader

Also Read


      There are two types of literature - "absolute" and "contingent." Absolute literature is the type which can be enjoyed and appreciated on its own without reference to any outside topic, for it arises out of the author's subjective feelings. Contingent literature arises out of the author's trying to meet some topical or outside need. It necessarily requires some knowledge of the topic from which it arose for the reader to enjoy it to the full. Satire, by its very nature, generally falls in the sphere of contingent literature. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe being a personal satire, requires some understanding of the circumstances which gave rise to it, if we are to understand all the topical allusions in it. But if it were capable of being appreciated only when all such allusions are clear, the modern redder would hardly look at it for amusement. The fact that he reads it and appreciates it, indicates that the poem is enjoyable in spite of obscurities.

Contemporary Allusions Leading to Obscurities

      The Obscurities of Mac Flecknoe arise mainly because of the many allusions to contemporary events, people, localities and literary works, many of them now forgotten. The very name, Flecknoe, strikes us as obscure. Why has Dryden chosen this name? We have to go to some literary and historical authority to realize that Flecknoe was a poor versifier and dramatist, who had been satirized first by Andrew Marvell. Dryden quotes and alludes to a number of characters and dialogues from Shadwell's plays. He often parodies Shadwell's epilogues. But we hardly know the plays such as The Virtuoso, Epsom Wells or Psyche, or characters such as Prince Nicander, Sir Formal, Bruce and Longvil. Contemporary figures such as Panton, Ogleby, Villerius, Herringman, etc., are equally obscure to the reader of the present day. He is not familiar with the several localities of London which Dryden refers to; the very site of the coronation of Shadwell means nothing to the modern reader. One cannot deny that these obscurities puzzle us and check our complete enjoyment of the poem.

Enjoyable despite the Obscurities because of Style

      Dryden's use of the mock-heroic style, however, makes us appreciate and enjoy Mac Flecknoe. We cannot but laugh at the mock-heroic ceremony of the coronation - so masterly is Dryden's handling of the technique. We enjoy the mock-heroic verbal jokes and the incident of farcical nature. The grave air of the opening of the poem contrasts ludicrously with the subject. A monarch is deliberating on whom to choose as his successor, namely, a person fit to wear the crown of dullness. Shadwell appears to be the right choice. The joke is now elaborated. Dryden describes the bulk of Shadwell, comparing it with the regal oaks, which 'reign supinely'. The image of monarchy is consistently used to heighten the ridiculous effect.

      High-flown words are employed with telling effect in the coronation scene. Indeed, the comic effect of the poem is realized when we see that the coronation scene is appreciated in spite of its topical references. Shadwell arrives to the greetings of a guard of honor composed of ruined publishers. His way is strewn with heaps of sheets torn from the books of second-rate authors. The old king, Flecknoe, bursts forth into a speech in praise of his deserving son, Shadwell. We enjoy the speech even if we do not always understand the references to Shadwell's works. We cannot but appreciate the satirical thrusts in lines such as,

"Success let others teach, learn thou from me,
Pangs without birth, fruitless industry."
"What share have we in nature or in art?"

      We can easily take delight in the gusto with which Dryden phrases his deadly attack on his rival. The final scene in which Flecknoe disappears through a trap-door, needs no extraneous explanation for us to laugh and appreciate it.

Sheer Fun and Humour of the Poem

      It is not for nothing that Mac Flecknoe has been called as much a comedy as a satire. It is the gayest poem written by Dryden. It seems as if Dryden realized that Shadwell was nothing when compared to himself, and so could be treated with humor. Mac Flecknoe as one critic remarks, is characterized by a "withering gaiety." It is humorous satire at its best. It is Dryden's skill which makes a poem about the dullest writer so very sparkling in fun.

      The many epic comparisons for Shadwell, such as Arion, Romulus, Ascanius, and Hannibal, serve to heighten the sense of fun even while they ridicule Shadwell with consummate effect. The omen of twelve owls flying at Shadwell's coronation is a hilarious touch. It is fitting for a coronation in the empire of dullness and nonsense. The barbs of satire directed towards Shadwell cannot fail to amuse us. Shadwell becomes a comic figure in Dryden's hands. We laugh all the more because Dryden never indulges in vituperation or abuse in his satire. We are told in tones of praise, that Shadwell's "tragic Muse gives smiles" and his comic Muse sends the people to sleep. As for his satires, they simply lack 'bite' and do not offend. With beautiful comic and satiric skill, Dryden pushes Shadwell to the position of a minor poetaster; who revels in, and is fit for acrostics and anagrams. He has genius fit only for "torturing one poor word ten thousand ways."

      We can be amused at the description of Shadwell's huge bulk, his poor efforts at writing, his dullness and stupidity, and his tendency for being nonsensical, without much understanding of contemporary allusions. Shadwell is rendered an absurd and silly figure because of these "qualities." His fatness of body is matched by his mental inertia. Dryden reduces his rival to the comic figure who is worth mere laughter, and not even moral indignation. He is a "human thing" lacking the very essence of life - the ability to create. He is utterly sterile. Mac Flecknoe, significantly enough, does not utter a word throughout the poem - surely a sign of his complete barrenness of thought.


      Mac Flecknoe survives into the twentieth century and will continue to do so for many more centuries, on the basis of its sheer comic laughter. It may have been written out of personal motives, and ostensibly for correcting literary efforts. It contains many obscure allusions to contemporary places and people, the understanding of which, no doubt, enhances our appreciation of the poem. But we can enjoy the poem even if we do not understand the references because it is so full of pure fun and hilarity, we also enjoy the mock-heroic style which increases the comic effect. So long as it contains lines such as those which end the poem, we will read Mac Flecknoe, whether it contains obscure references or not.

The mantle fell to the young prophet's part
With double portion of his father's art;

University Questions

What is there in Mac Flecknoe that you can enjoy, without knowing the minor literature of Dryden's age?
It is said that there are many obscurities in Mac Flecknoe for the modern reader. How can he then enjoy this poem? Give a reasoned answer.
Account for the perennial popularity of Mac Flecknoe.

Previous Post Next Post