Mac Flecknoe is a satiric poem of 217 lines, written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter). The poem has been commonly adjudged the best short satiric poem in the English language. In it, John Dryden seeks to lampoon Thomas Shadwell, a well-known playwright and indifferent poet, by placing him in an incredible and wholly invented fictional world. He is portrayed as “Mac” (or the son of) Flecknoe—Richard Flecknoe having been an even less accomplished poet than Shadwell. Both of them, the poem implies, are of Irish (and hence of outlandish, remote, and barbarian) stock.
The poem unfolds in a mock-heroic scene; all the machinery of the epic is utilized to exalt the “form” of the poem—high diction, lengthy similes, heroic and kingly actions, archaic vocabulary and spelling—while the content is debased, low, and farcical.
In the fictional setting, Flecknoe is presented as being the exalted king of the realm of Nonsense, which extends all up and down the empty Atlantic Ocean; he dwells in the pompous city of Augusta (in fact, synonymous with London). At the outset, the king determines to relinquish his crown and to choose at once the dullest of his children to assume the throne. In a trice, he determines upon “Sh—,” a corpulent and stupid oaf whose writings are wonderfully bad enough to render him properly deserving of this regal selection. Crowds of third-rate poets and hack authors throng to his ceremonial inauguration. There, the father, like an ancient priest, becomes dazed, inspired, and oracular, proceeding to give a vast seventy-one-line speech, prophesying that his son’s reign will be as distended as his body is oversized and predicting, under his aegis and tutelage, the virtual triumph of inept and monstrous art throughout the land of Nonsense.
The fond father is never permitted to complete this mantic oration, for a trapdoor mechanism drops open, and the still-declaiming father, the would-be seer, drops down into a pit and disappears, leaving only his mantle as garment and emblem to the aspirant and expectant son. Thus the poem jolts and jostles to a sudden disruptive halt by the introduction of an underground deus ex machina. The new king has never received a proper coronation and is appropriately left speechless by this ill omen that abruptly silences the sanctimonious forecasting of his future successes in the land of high witlessness and ineptitude.