The Use of Heroic Couplet in Mac Flecknoe

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      The term "heroic couplet" is used for a measure consisting of two lines of ten syllables each, in iambic meter, rhyming together. It was given the name 'heroic' because it was the typical measure used in epic and heroic poetry to narrate the exploits of heroes. Dryden himself used the meter for translations, plays, and didactic verse as well as for satire and burlesque. Indeed, the bulk of his poetry was written in heroic couplets. It was his chosen medium, and he showed considerable skill in handling it. Compton-Rickett aptly observes: "Never before had the heroic couplet been used with such telling effect."

Dryden's use of Heroic Couplet: Flexible and Marked by Variety

      Dryden had plenty of practice in the handling of the heroic couplet, especially in the plays. The Indian Queen, Tyrannic Love and Aurangzeb. It is thus that he attained the astonishing and unique combination of ease and force, of regularity and variety which it displays in his famous satires. Dryden made use of the couplet in a flexible manner. He did not always rigidly end the sense of the verse within a couplet, or two rhymed lines. He sometimes lets the sense continue for three or even four lines before the full significance was clear, e.g” in Mac Flecknoe, we have:

Close to the walls which fair Augusta bind
(The fair Augusta much to fears inclined)
An ancient fabric raised to inform the sight
There stood of yore, and Earbican it hight.

      Sometimes, Dryden makes use of triplet, or three rhymed lines, instead of a couplet to change the monotony:

Where unfledged actors learn to laugh and cry
Where infant punks their tender voices try,
And little Maximins the gods defy.

Heroic Couplet: Most Suitably used for Satire

      Dryden’s heroic couplet is an apt and natural vehicle for satire. He uses it so well that at times the "couplet has not only the force... but thie actual sound of a slap in the face." There is something of an "olympian thunderbolt" about Dryden's couplet, for he charged it with "massive sense."

      In Mac Flecknoe, we have a grand use of the heroic couplet for satirical purposes. The measure lends itself to the mock-heroic form very well. How well does Dryden expose Shadwell as a corpulent man, a dull poet of the third-rate level, and a plagiarist, all in a tone of majestic praise:

Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence
Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense.
A tun of man in thy bulk is writ
But sure thou art but a kilderkin of wit.

      The charm of the poem increases with the grace and ease imparted to it by this special measure, for instance in the lines:

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Let Virtuosos in five years be writ
Yet not one thought accuse thee of wit.

      The heroic couplet helps Dryden to achieve an epigrammatic neatness in his satire:

Shadwell alone my perfect image bears
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.

      The couplet form is most suitable for the element of surprise or the "sting in the tail" involved in satire. The first line builds up a tone of praise which inflates the character, and thus adds emphasis to the deflation which follows in the next line. The first few lines of Mac Flecknoe show how effectively this measure can be used. Flecknoe is deliberating on the choice of a fit successor:

And pondering which of all his sons was fit
To reign and wage immortal war with wit.

      The sting comes in the very last word "wit", and punctures the victim painfully. Above all, the heroic couplet gives the effect of a dignified cadence. It brings out all the more vividly the discrepancy between the true "heroic" and the triviality of the object being described.


      Dryden gets the credit for making satire delightful and sonorous through the use of the heroic couplet. He wielded an incredible command over the couplet and made it especially suitable for satiric poetry. He avoided the mechanical rigidity resulting in monotony; which later poets developed in the heroic couplet.

University Questions

Discuss Dryden's use of the heroic couplet in Mac Flecknoe.
Discuss Dryden's handling of the heroic couplet, indicating its effectiveness as a medium of poetical satire, in Mac Flecknoe.

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