Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590
Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. ,employs the mock epic form to assail bad poets and poetry, represented by its victim, the dramatist Thomas Shadwell. Dryden establishes true literary norms through attacking inferior ones. The date of composition and occasion for the satire are uncertain,...
(The entire section contains 590 words.)
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Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S.,employs the mock epic form to assail bad poets and poetry, represented by its victim, the dramatist Thomas Shadwell. Dryden establishes true literary norms through attacking inferior ones. The date of composition and occasion for the satire are uncertain, but it is generally thought that composition followed the death of Richard Flecknoe (c. 1678), an obscure poetaster. After the brief introduction, the satire introduces Flecknoe as a speaker deliberating his choice of a successor to the throne of Nonsense. Through the use of the convention of a mock coronation, Dryden gives the poem a narrative structure, a reflection of his view that satire is rightly a form of heroic (epic) poetry.
The introduction is a masterful passage combining irony and mock solemnity, contrasting the seriousness of succession with a throne epitomizing dullness. Sober aphorisms and allusions to Augustan Rome are deflated by allusions to the realm of Nonsense. Flecknoe selects Shadwell as the most fitting of all of his sons to occupy the throne of Nonsense and uphold dullness. Dryden incorporates numerous references to Shadwell’s life and allusions to his dramas, with Flecknoe concluding: “All arguments, but most his plays persuade,/ That for anointed dullness he was made.” Flecknoe chooses as the coronation site a run-down section of London near the Barbican, associated with inferior poets. The poem then describes the coronation, complete with procession, satiric description of Shadwell, the paraphernalia of office, and cheers of the assembled throng of hack writers and booksellers. Flecknoe urges his successor to find new ways to be dull, but to avoid boastful comparisons of himself with Ben Jonson and John Fletcher. Suggesting that Shadwell has been unsuccessful in all major literary genres, Flecknoe exhorts him to confine his talents to acrostics, pattern poems, and songs that can be sung to the lute. At the conclusion, as Flecknoe falls through a trap door, his mantle is borne aloft to settle on Shadwell.
The satire enables Dryden to develop at length one of his most congenial concepts, that of regal succession, though it gives an ironic twist to a theme that is usually serious. Monarchical allusions such as those to Augustan Rome, a distant ideal, serve to enhance the withering satire. Shadwell is ironically endowed with the name of a Roman successor, and Flecknoe is compared to Augustus Caesar, ironic elevations of the trivial that are characteristic of high burlesque. In the realm of literary succession, names of great dramatists and poets are used to deflate the pretensions of obscure poetasters, as in a passage describing the coronation site:
Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;But gentle Simkin just reception findsAmidst this monument of vanish’d minds:Pure clinches the suburbian Muse affords,And Panton waging harmless war with words.
The major genres, such as Jonsonian comedy and the tragicomedies of John Fletcher, give way to punning and inferior wordplay as forms of entertainment. While the poem upholds important neoclassic principles, the overarching framework emerges from its narrative structure and from recurrent patterns of contrast: wit and dullness; sense and nonsense.
What provoked Dryden’s mock attack on his literary rival remains unclear. As a poet, Shadwell produced only crude and inferior verses, but critics have found merit in his comedies, modeled after the comedies of humor produced by Jonson. Except for serious students of the period, they are now forgotten, and for most students of literature Shadwell’s name survives through Dryden’s satiric masterpiece.