MAC FLECKNOE BY JOHN DRYDEN
In this post, you will be introduced to famous satiric poem Macflecknoe.by John Dryden. As you get along with the post, you are expected to understand for yourself why he is considered a noted satirist and a representative writer of his time.
OCCASION OF MAC FLECKNOE
Before we come to the text of the poem, we need to grasp the “story” behind it. That will definitely aid our understanding of the lines.
Macflecknoe (1682) is a devastating attack on Dryden”s fellow dramatist Shadwell. Originally a friend, Shadwell had quarrelled with Dryden and attacked his play, Aurangzeb. The poem we study is Dryden”s scathing retort. Shadwell is ridiculed by being represented as the “Mac” or “Son” of Richard Flecknoe, a contemptible Irish minor poet and playwright whom Dryden addresses as the unchallenged monarch of “all the realms of nonsense.” Shadwell is, therefore, the true heir in meaninglessness and inconsequence.
We must, however, remember that Shadwell was actually a fairly successful and well- thought of playwright. The ignominy is undeserved.
POLITICAL BACKGROUND: CONTEXTUALISING MAC FLECKNOE
No significant literary work of the Restoration exists independent of strong connections with the contemporary political scenario. There is also a political undertone in this satire. Shadwell is a Whig, member of a political party that opposed the king. The pro-monarchy party was that of the Tories. You can definitely make out on which side Dryden”s sympathies lay. A feud existed between the Whigs and Tories regarding the succession of the Duke of York, the Catholic brother of King Charles II, to the throne in 1680. A look at the pictorial depiction of the Stuart Line and the House of Hanover will help you understand the complex web. While the Tories were supporters of the King and Duke of York, the Whigs were opposed to the succession of the Duke of York to the English throne. It is believed that Charles II sought the help of Dryden in this connection, and shortly afterwards, Absalom and Achitophel, a political satire was written.
The identity of Shadwell as a Whig is also ridiculed by Dryden who is a Tory, in Mac Flecknoe. Hence there is political satire mixed with personal satire.
As a learner, you will be expected to differentiate between these two, and reason for yourselves, the factors that have made Macflecknoe an abiding literary text despite its highly topical nature.
SUMMARY WITH CRITICAL COMMENTARY
Dryden imagines a situation where the aged king Flecknoe, monarch of “all the realms of nonsense” decides to ensure succession to his throne (This theme would be of great contemporary relevance in Dryden”s time). Among his numerous progeny, he selects Shadwell as most worthy. This is because Shadwell resembles him the closest, and “never deviates into sense”. The extent of his inanity is presented in several ways through images of light and darkness and comparison of his actual corpulence and inertia with huge Oak trees. Notice carefully and you find a ring of Chaucer”s style of humour and satire in Dryden too. We understand that the qualities Flecknoe looks for in Shadwell are negative qualities in a human being, nonetheless, these very aspects are glorified. You will definitely find parallels here with Chaucer”s “extolling‟ of the Wife of Bath (whom you have read) and other characters whose flaws/vices are censured not by criticism but by glorification!
Flecknoe sees himself as a mere forerunner (L30 onwards) preparing the way for the grand arrival of Shadwell from the north (Norwich). Popular playwrights Heywood and Shirley were only replicas of the prototype Shadwell. On a glorious ceremonial occasion Shadwell, leading a host of minor musicians, had sung before the royal barge of the English king during a Thames river pageant. Flecknoe considers this a greater achievement than his own stint at the court of King John of Portugal. Lines 40-62 elaborate mockingly on the performance- at Shadwell”s desperate efforts to produce a semblance of rhythm and harmony by tapping his feet, waving hands while fingering a screeching lute. Aided by a crowd of similarly ungifted musicians, the final result is so unmusical and dull, that overcome with emotion, the father concludes that Shadwell alone is fit for the throne.
On the fringes of the walled city of London also known as Augusta where once stood a watchtower is now the haunt of prostitutes and brothel houses. Here existed a school for training of young actors and actresses. Dryden sneers at the rant, bombastic language and exaggerated mannerisms the players used to create an effect. This was the cradle of substandard actors, where great dramatists like Fletcher and Jonson could never be seen. Interestingly, Flecknoe deemed this as the most suitable platform or throne for Shadwell. It seems Dekker had foretold of such an event.
The following section (ll 92-129) is a description of the coronation in all its pomp and splendour. The tone is mocking of course but every step is faithfully presented. (You will see similar mock-heroic effects later perfected by Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock) Crowds came from remote areas, (i.e countrified, unrefined dregs) from Watling Street and Bunhill Fields. (From the tone in which the multitudes are referred to, you can well make out the intense elitism that pervaded poetry of this period, and also understand at a later point, why the Romantic revolution came about in poetry). The Guard of Honour was presented by petty officers (Yeoman), unpaid stationers, and captained by
Herringman- Shadwell”s real-life publisher. The red carpet was a patchwork cobbled from the works of Heywood and Shirley mutilated by Shadwell to construct his own dramas. Flecknoe appears in procession carried aloft on the chariot of his own dullness and Shadwell- aka Ascarius, the future hope of London, is seated on his right. Shadwell takes the oath of office- to uphold dullness and wage eternal war with good sense. Flecknoe anoints him. Instead of the customary orb and sceptre that mark royal power, a tankard of beer and Love’s Kingdom is placed in his hands and he is crowned with a wreath of poppies. At this climactic moment, twelve owls fly past him, signifying the fulfilment of a prophecy. The crowds cheer at these signs of future empire.
In an outburst of prophetic frenzy, Flecknoe blesses his dutiful son (ll 130- 166): that he may hold sway in space and time from Ireland to Barbados and even beyond; that his works will better his father”s in quantity and quality of meaninglessness. In the Prologue to his play Virtuoso, Shadwell had regretted the many defects in composition due to lack of time.
May Shadwell continue to labour long and hard for such insane results. George Etherege created foolish characters and heroes which delighted audiences and reflected his cleverness. May the characters he creates be clones (dummies) of Shadwell, serving to expose his innate dullness. Sir Charles Sedley had written the Prologue to Epsom Wells. Dryden hints perhaps he had helped Shadwell in the composition itself. Flecknoe advises Shadwell to rely on his innate lack of wit when creating the florid, bombastic speeches of Sir Formal (a character in Shadwell’s play) and not imitate anyone else as these dialogues come very naturally and effortlessly to him.
Flecknoe continues with another reference to Shadwell”s corpulence. Ben Jonson too had a large paunch. He warns Shadwell not to be swayed by friends who hail him as another Jonson, for similarity lies only in size and not in stature/ genius. He is a true son of his father in poor literary judgment, poor imitations of superior writers and in plagiary. These thefts however merely demonstrate the substantial worthiness of Etherege and Fletcher while scum- like Shadwell”s works float on the surface. (ll 167- 180)
The list of Shadwell”s assets continues. Whatever type of character he invents has a natural tilt towards dullness. His huge girth produces little sense. His poetry is weak and fails to move; his tragic plays are laughable and comedies boring and satires have no barb. Since fame will not come in writing poetry or plays, Flecknoe suggests Shadwell write lightweight trick verses (ACROSTICS) and sing them to himself. (ll 181- 204)
At this point, Bruce and Longville (characters in a Shadwell play) pull Flecknoe down a trap door, and his cloak/ mantle borne aloft by the wind alights on his son as a twofold blessing of longwinded emptiness.
DISCUSSION ON KEY ISSUES
We have gathered that Macflecknoe is intended to mock on or satirize Shadwell. All satire degrades- a person or a whole body- by evoking scorn, contempt and laughter. A satire can attack viciously or in a gentle manner using abuse or wit. Frequently the author uses one of two models. They either employ elevated address or high- flown comparison to describe a petty subject or deflate pomposity, self- importance and arrogance by belittling them.
Dryden uses the first method in Macflecknoe treating the idea like an epic/ heroic poem in both form and style, only to ridicule Shadwell as trivial or unimportant. Like the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, the minor poet Flecknoe too is the ruler of the great realm of Nonsense. Epic poetry concerns great actions or events involving legendary heroes and is usually of national importance. Homer”s Odyssey, Virgil”s Aeneid or our own Ramayana and Mahabharata are such poems. The characters are presented as larger than life often by adopting formulas and fixed epithets; tracing a global lineage; the supernatural and the marvellous is associated with them, and along with an elevated tone similies, long comparisons or descriptions, invocations are standard devices.
Dryden uses the epic machinery with remarkable success. The introduction (Exordium) establishes the theme of “succession”, a matter of profound relevance to the contemporary British as well as Flecknoe. (This remark is a glance at the rumbles over royal succession elaborated in Absalom and Achitophel.) Shadwell is chosen amongst a large family as most “fit” to “wage” “immortal war” on “with” or intelligence and till “death true dullness to maintain.”(Satan in Paradise Lost Book I vows to wage immortal war against God). Set passages feature in epics describing the valiant hero arming for battle or vast armies ranked behind his leadership. Milton, for instance, shows Satan as huge as Leviathan, his spear the tallest Norwegian pine, his shield the full Moon over Tuscany (Paradise Lost book i). Dryden jeers at Shadwell”s impressive physical size as flatulence and inertia of “thoughtless” i.e. lacking thought solemnly like “oaks”. While riff-raff congregate for Shadwell’s coronation; through soldiers or fallen angels numerous as fallen autumn leaves stand behind Aeneas and Lucifer. Supernatural happenings are often foretold where heroes are concerned. In this case, twelve owls fly past Shadwell, a parody of the twelve vultures saluting Romulus.
Many such parallels can be found on a close reading of the text. Satire thrives on allusions especially if they are contemporary and local. These references heighten mockery by contrasts and similarities. Public memory will recall the pageantry on land and river associated with the Restoration and chortle over the parallels Dryden draws in his poem. In the political war, Shadwell, a Whig ( i.e. opposed to royal politics) is exposed as dedicating his works to the Duke of Newcastle and to his son The Earl of Ogle, to seek patronage. References to plays running in London theatres, recently published poems, dramatis personae- their behaviour, foibles and activities are liberally sprinkled through the lines adding to the bite of the lampoon. The given notes support this claim.
Dryden’s skill in the heroic couplet is evident in this poem. It rises to a grand style as required by an epic but the balanced epithets and the rhythms of common speech permit the deadly scorn to blaze through. Though no real epic simile is to be found, we can spot images plenty. Shadwell is presented in terms of less and more- “beams” of light to
“fogs” and “night”, “floats” and “sinks”, the fishes clustering for the “breakfast toast” and finally the bathos of the coronation scene. Of his satires, Dryden says “It is not bloody, but it is ridiculous enough. I avoided the mention of great crimes, — representing blind sides and little extravagances. Sadly Macflecknoe does lapse occasionally into coarseness and personal spite.
The position of Dryden in English literature is unquestioned. He made a notable contribution in prose, poetry and drama- as a literary critic and as a satirist. In place of slipshod and loose blank verse, he substituted the discipline of the heroic couplet as the Metre for all poetry for a whole century and turned satire into a poetic form.
In this post you have learnt about:
- The predominant satiric modes of the Restoration period.
- The art of transcreating literary battles into abiding works of satire.
- The Neo-classical trends prevalent in the literature of the times, and how it became a medium of reflecting upon social mores.
- In comparison with the literature of other periods, you will also have noticed the remarkable absence of commoners from the elitist poetry of the times. In contrast, the foppery of the upper classes is a visible feature.