Analysis of John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe

Although a first authorized published edition of Mac Flecknoe; or, A satyr upon the True-Blue-Protestant Poet, T.S. by John Dryden appeared in Miscellaney Poems in 1684, it had been circulated in unapproved versions since 1682. Critics cannot pinpoint the year that Dryden wrote it, but he may have done so as early as 1678. Written in 218 lines of rhyming couplets, it represents satire in which Dryden takes to task the poet and dramatist Thomas Shadwell, the T.S. indicated in its subtitle. Dryden critics still puzzle over the poet’s motivation in writing the poem. Although he had quarreled publicly with Shadwell over political matters, the two appeared still to hold one another in regard, and Shadwell proved a talented writer, undeserving of Dryden’s judgment that his work was dull and unworthy of commendation. Equally puzzling is the poem’s tone, which, for all of the work’s clever references, remains, as Earl Miner notes, not biting but rather “curiously affectionate.” Dryden intimates that Shadwell is part of an inner circle of writers struggling under specific political and religious upheaval in the London environment. Unable to stand the pressures, he bows to outside forces and sacrifices his art. Exposure to the upheaval and its resultant pressures led to obvious tension among factions, and jealousy or suspicion may have prompted a quarrel that led Dryden to expose Shadwell to ridicule.

The two poets had their political differences. The Protestant Shadwell supported Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, in the dispute over who should succeed King Charles II to the English throne. Shaftesbury championed Charles’s illegitimate son, the Protestant James Scott, duke of Monmouth, while Dryden supported the Catholic brother of Charles, James, duke of York. Dryden had caricatured Shaftesbury in his Absalom and Achitophel (1681). Dryden also attacked Shaftesbury in his satire The Medall (1682), which parodied the Whigs who celebrated Shaftesbury’s verdict of innocence when he was tried for his part in an attempt to overthrow Charles. Dryden characterized the jurors who freed Shaftesbury as ignoramuses, and his followers, who cast a medal celebrating his “innocence,” as ignorant revelers. The poem caused immediate response from poets supporting Protestant interests, Shadwell included. He attacked Dryden in his The Medal of John Bayes (1682). Mac Flecknoe appeared for the first time about six months later. The tensions present in London over not only religion, but also trade, created a paranoia supporting rumors such as the so-called Popish Plot. Dryden refers to London as Augusta in the poem, alluding to its nervous environment when he inserts a quiet parenthetical statement as line 65, “(The fair Augusta much to fears inclin’d).”

The name given to the poet in Dryden’s verse was from an Irish Catholic priest and minor poet, Richard Flecknoe, who had died in 1678. Dryden sets the scene as if Flecknoe appointed Shadwell to succeed him as the ultimate poet. Dryden employs “Sh——” to represent Shadwell throughout the poem, selected as Flecknoe’s successor to “realms of Nonsense” just prior to his death; the Mac prefix means “son of.” Why Dryden selected Flecknoe as the vehicle for his attack remains unclear. As the country worried about a successor to their monarch, the poem satirized succession issues and exposed various London figures to ridicule.

DRYDEN(1760)_p2.149_Mac_FlecknoeMac Flecknoe opens in Augusta with its ruler, Flecknoe, forced to determine who will assume his place as leader of the empire. The reference to Augustus recalls Julius Caesar’s choice of Octavius, later called Augustus, as his successor. Dryden thus shapes his poem as a mock-heroic, while parodying groups dedicating themselves to various poets and adopting the celebrated’s name, such as the Tribe of Ben [Jonson]. Flecknoe concludes that he must select the one who most resembles him, noting

Sh——alone my perfect image bears
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh——alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity. (15–18)

Dryden compares Sh——to the contemporary dramatists Thomas Heywood and James Shirley, again puzzling critics, as neither proved deserving of so derogatory a characterization. Flecknoe continues considering the fact that he has prepared the way for his “son,” alluding to John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the arrival of Christ. Dryden employs sententia as blown-out terminology, intended for use in high praise, but here applied to a low subject:

When thou on silver Thames did’st cut thy way
With well tim’d oars before the royal barge,
And big with hymn, commander of an host,
The like was ne’er in Epsom blankets toss’d. (38–42)

In the next few lines Dryden extends his conceit by comparing Mac Flecknoe to the fabled Arion, a Greek musician rescued while at sea by dolphins, and then employs the term Sh—— as a scatological reference, made clear from the term toast, an allusion to sewage floating on the top of the water. Critics sometimes argue Dryden did not intend such a reference, as he maintains the demand for a two-syllable term, Shadwell, in his rhythm. However, others disagree:

Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail.
At thy well sharpen’d thumb, from shore to shore
The treble squeaks for fear, the basses roar;
Echoes from Pissing Alley, “Sh——” call,
And “Sh——” they resound from Aston Hall.
About thy boat the little fishes throng,
As at the morning toast that fl oats along. (43–50)

Preparations are made for the coronation, and the speaker describes in lines 67–75 a brothel district in Augusta where a watchtower, an allusion to the grandeur of Rome, once stood, and “now, so Fate ordains, / Of all the pile an empty name remains.” Nearby “a Nursery erects its head / Where queens are formed and future heroes bred.” This nursery produces actors, and Dryden employs the contemporary association of acting with prostitution, as the nursery is near the brothel. Scholars explain that such imagery allows continuous contrast between the glorified past and a debased present. Dryden invents the term Maximins in line 78 to describe the inhabitants of Augusta who challenge the gods. He engages in wordplay on a classical term: Where Maximus means “greatest,” his term represents the opposite. The coronation celebration, involving a parade through the streets of Augustus, connotes the type of empty drama, all artistry and no art, of which Dryden accuses Shadwell and his ilk.

Dryden repeatedly uses the term dull in various forms, as Sh—— must take a vow to defend his father’s realm of “dullness.” As he continues, he adds to his multiple references or allusions ones to contemporary dramas, their characters and lines; to playwrights, including Ben Jonson, George Etherege, and Sir Charles Sedley; to the minor poet John Ogilby; to John Milton and Paradise Lost; to Romulus, one of Rome’s founders; to Virgils Aeneid; to Hannibal Barca, enemy of Rome; to the duke of Newcastle and his duchess, the poet Margaret Cavendish; to shape poems, such as those written by George Herbert; as well as to biblical stories and images. Many of his references serve to juxtapose the tawdry existence of the individuals who serve as targets of his poem against that of the high values held by classic and 17th-century laudatory writers. He signals readers that a heroic past has dissolved into a debased present, when artists are wasting a once noble heritage.

Both print and electronic versions of the poem supply exhaustive keys to Dryden’s multiple references. As with all satires, a thorough understanding of Dryden’s era is required in order to appreciate Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell represented political values that Dryden found anathema, but, possibly more importantly, he represented the sacrifice of art to social pressures, an act of which Dryden himself had stood accused.

Broich, Ulrich. Mock-Heroic Poetry, 1680–1750. Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1971. Donnelly, Jerome. “Mac Flecknoe.” The Literary Encyclopedia.
Miner, Earl, ed. Selected Poetry and Prose of John Dryden. New York: The Modern Library, 1985.

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