What is the most humorous passage from John Dryden's poems "Mac Flecknoe," or "Absalom and Achitophel?"

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some people will consider that one of the funniest passages in John Dryden’s poem Mac Flecknoe is the passage in which Richard Flecknoe chooses Thomas Shadwell as his successor as most idiotic of all English poets:

And pond'ring which of all his Sons was fit
To Reign, and wage immortal War with Wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for Nature pleads that He
Should onely rule, who most resembles me:

Sh-------- alone my perfect image bears, [15]
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh—— alone, of all my Sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh—— never deviates into sense. [20]
Some Beams of Wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Sh——'s genuine night admits no ray,
His rising Fogs prevail upon the Day . . . .

Partly the humor of this passage depends on its mock-heroic tone. Dryden, in other words, uses language that would be appropriate to lofty events and characters, but he uses it to describe events and characters that are sublimely ridiculous. The effect is one of constant, comic satire – comic partly because it is implied rather than openly stated. The humor of this passage also depends, in part, on its use of extreme language: Flecknoe is not simply a stupid poet; he is the king of stupid poets. Shadwell will not simply engage in occasional skirmishes with wit; he will “wage immortal War with Wit” (emphasis added). Partly the humor of the passage depends on its use of paradox: Shadwell was “Mature in dullness from his tender years.”

Partly the humor of the passage derives from the fact that what is presented as praise is actually scathing satire: Shadwell is “confirm'd in full stupidity.” The whole passage implies a comic inversion of values, in which Shadwell is praised not for intelligence but precisely for its opposite:

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh—— never deviates into sense.

The “praise” Dryden offers consists of constant, clever mockery. Dryden not only attacks Shadwell but displays his own wit in the process.


literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I find that the following is the most humorous passage from John Dryden's poem "Mac Flecknoe":

In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.
  I find this passage humorous based upon the fact that I have always found the title of the poem humorous as well.  Outside of the title, I have also been intrigued by the "realms of Non-sense." The poem makes me think about walking into a land painted by Salvador Dali and arranged by Dante. The fact that there are, in reality, different levels of nonsense.   Dryden's poem, therefore, forces me to imagine a place where the nonsensical moves in depth and seriousness (which creates an ironic situation). Not all things which are considered nonsense are humorous. There are some very dark things that one could consider nonsense. Based upon that is where the idea of Dante's levels of hell always enter. The different realms of nonsense can be lightened or darkened by the closeness to hell or paradise (as seen in Dante's version).