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27 pages 54 minutes read

John Dryden

Mac Flecknoe

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1682

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

During his lifetime, John Dryden (1631-1700) was an esteemed poet, literary critic, and playwright. His influence was so large that the literary period after the Restoration of Charles II is sometimes called the “Age of Dryden.” Dryden’s literary abilities were recognized by the Stuart Monarchy in 1668 when he was made England’s first Poet Laureate. In addition to his role as Poet Laureate, Dryden is best remembered for his refinement of English verse, his development of the critical preface, and his satires.

“Mac Flecknoe” is Dryden’s earliest satire. It was completed by 1679 but only circulated privately until published against Dryden’s will in 1682. The mock-heroic is a direct attack on Thomas Shadwell, one of Dryden’s contemporaries. Dryden, who strove to develop English verse, had little patience for what he considered second-rate poetry, including Shadwell’s verse. Mac Flecknoe positions Shadwell as the son of Richard Flecknoe (thus the title “Mac Flecknoe,” or Son of Flecknoe), an earlier poet known for his mediocre and predicable verse. The poem shows the coronation of Shadwell, who succeeds Flecknoe as king of nonsensical and dull verse.

Along with “Absalom and Achitophel” (1681), “Mac Flecknoe” solidified Dryden’s reputation as a talented poet and satirist. His use of irony and heroic verse, in particular, had a visible influence on later restoration satirists such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Poet Biography

John Dryden was born 9 August 1631 in Aldwincle All Saints, Northamptonshire. His maternal grandfather was the rector of All Saints church in Aldwincle, and his paternal grandfather was a baronet who sat in the House of Commons in 1624. Dryden, the oldest of 14 children, was the second cousin, once removed, of Johnathan Swift, a near-contemporary and author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Dryden came of age during the Civil War and Parliamentary Revolution (1642-1651). Both sides of his family supported the Parliamentarian cause against the king. He attended Westminster School, receiving a humanist education in Greek and Latin, and in 1650 he was accepted to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduation, Dryden worked as an administrator under Oliver Cromwell, the chief of the Parliamentary Armies who had then taken control of state and government.

In 1659, after Cromwell's death, Dryden published his first major work, Heroic Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell. The next year, Dryden flipped his political leanings and published “Astraea Redux,” a celebration of the return of King Charles II, whose father the Parliamentarians executed in 1649. In April 1668, Dryden was named England’s first Poet Laureate.

Dryden found most of his success as an author of heroic tragedies. Dryden, however, was also drawn to satire. In 1678 or 1679, he wrote his first satire, “Mac Flecknoe,” and circulated it among friends. Later, in 1682, a pirated copy of the poem was published against Dryden’s will. “Absalom and Achitophel,” which Dryden himself published in 1681, tackled the Exclusion Crisis through biblical allegory. The two poems established Dryden as a strong satirist and later influenced Johnathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

Dryden later converted to Catholicism. When Protestants William III and Mary II took the throne in 1688, Dryden refused to abandon his faith. As a result, Thomas Shadwell was appointed to replace him as Poet Laureate. Without a government pension, Dryden earned a living as a playwright and translator. He died on 1 May 1700 from gout.

Poem Text

Mac Flecknoe

       A Satire upon the True-blue Protestant Poet T.S.

All human things are subject to decay,

And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:

This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young

Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:

In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute

Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.

This aged prince now flourishing in peace,

And blest with issue of a large increase,

Worn out with business, did at length debate

To settle the succession of the State:

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 only rule, who most resembles me:

Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,

Mature in dullness from his tender years.

Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he

Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,

But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,

Strike through and make a lucid interval;

But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,

His rising fogs prevail upon the day:

Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye,

And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty:

Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,

And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.

Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee,

Thou last great prophet of tautology:

Even I, a dunce of more renown than they,

Was sent before but to prepare thy way;

And coarsely clad in Norwich drugget came

To teach the nations in thy greater name.

My warbling lute, the lute I whilom strung

When to King John of Portugal I sung,

Was but the prelude to that glorious day,

When thou on silver Thames did'st cut thy way,

With well tim'd oars before the royal barge,

Swell'd with the pride of thy celestial charge;

And big with hymn, commander of an host,

The like was ne'er in Epsom blankets toss'd.

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, Shadwell call,

And Shadwell they resound from Aston Hall.

About thy boat the little fishes throng,

As at the morning toast, that floats along.

Sometimes as prince of thy harmonious band

Thou wield'st thy papers in thy threshing hand.

St. Andre's feet ne'er kept more equal time,

Not ev'n the feet of thy own Psyche's rhyme:

Though they in number as in sense excel;

So just, so like tautology they fell,

That, pale with envy, Singleton forswore

The lute and sword which he in triumph bore

And vow'd he ne'er would act Villerius more.

Here stopt the good old sire; and wept for joy

In silent raptures of the hopeful boy.

All arguments, but most his plays, persuade,

That for anointed dullness he was made.

Close to the walls which fair Augusta bind,

(The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd)

An ancient fabric, rais'd t'inform the sight,

There stood of yore, and Barbican it hight:

A watch tower once; but now, so fate ordains,

Of all the pile an empty name remains.

From its old ruins brothel-houses rise,

Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys.

Where their vast courts, the mother-strumpets keep,

And, undisturb'd by watch, in silence sleep.

Near these a nursery erects its head,

Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;

Where unfledg'd actors learn to laugh and cry,

Where infant punks their tender voices try,

And little Maximins the gods defy.

Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,

Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;

But gentle Simkin just reception finds

Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds:

Pure clinches, the suburbian muse affords;

And Panton waging harmless war with words.

Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,

Ambitiously design'd his Shadwell's throne.

For ancient Decker prophesi'd long since,

That in this pile should reign a mighty prince,

Born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense:

To whom true dullness should some Psyches owe,

But worlds of Misers from his pen should flow;

Humorists and hypocrites it should produce,

Whole Raymond families, and tribes of Bruce.

Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown,

Of Shadwell's coronation through the town.

Rous'd by report of fame, the nations meet,

From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling-street.

No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,

But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay:

From dusty shops neglected authors come,

Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.

Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,

But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way.

Bilk'd stationers for yeoman stood prepar'd,

And Herringman was Captain of the Guard.

The hoary prince in majesty appear'd,

High on a throne of his own labours rear'd.

At his right hand our young Ascanius sat

Rome's other hope, and pillar of the state.

His brows thick fogs, instead of glories, grace,

And lambent dullness play'd around his face.

As Hannibal did to the altars come,

Sworn by his sire a mortal foe to Rome;

So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain,

That he till death true dullness would maintain;

And in his father's right, and realm's defence,

Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense.

The king himself the sacred unction made,

As king by office, and as priest by trade:

In his sinister hand, instead of ball,

He plac'd a mighty mug of potent ale;

Love's kingdom to his right he did convey,

At once his sceptre and his rule of sway;

Whose righteous lore the prince had practis'd young,

And from whose loins recorded Psyche sprung,

His temples last with poppies were o'er spread,

That nodding seem'd to consecrate his head:

Just at that point of time, if fame not lie,

On his left hand twelve reverend owls did fly.

So Romulus, 'tis sung, by Tiber's brook,

Presage of sway from twice six vultures took.

Th'admiring throng loud acclamations make,

And omens of his future empire take.

The sire then shook the honours of his head,

And from his brows damps of oblivion shed

Full on the filial dullness: long he stood,

Repelling from his breast the raging god;

At length burst out in this prophetic mood:

Heavens bless my son, from Ireland let him reign

To far Barbadoes on the Western main;

Of his dominion may no end be known,

And greater than his father's be his throne.

Beyond love's kingdom let him stretch his pen;

He paus'd, and all the people cry'd Amen.

Then thus, continu'd he, my son advance

Still in new impudence, new ignorance.

Success let other teach, learn thou from me

Pangs without birth, and fruitless industry.

Let Virtuosos in five years be writ;

Yet not one thought accuse thy toil of wit.

Let gentle George in triumph tread the stage,

Make Dorimant betray, and Loveit rage;

Let Cully, Cockwood, Fopling, charm the pit,

And in their folly show the writer's wit.

Yet still thy fools shall stand in thy defence,

And justify their author's want of sense.

Let 'em be all by thy own model made

Of dullness, and desire no foreign aid:

That they to future ages may be known,

Not copies drawn, but issue of thy own.

Nay let thy men of wit too be the same,

All full of thee, and differing but in name;

But let no alien Sedley interpose

To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom prose.

And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would'st cull,

Trust Nature, do not labour to be dull;

But write thy best, and top; and in each line,

Sir Formal's oratory will be thine.

Sir Formal, though unsought, attends thy quill,

And does thy Northern Dedications fill.

Nor let false friends seduce thy mind to fame,

By arrogating Jonson's hostile name.

Let Father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise,

And Uncle Ogleby thy envy raise.

Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part;

What share have we in Nature or in Art?

Where did his wit on learning fix a brand,

And rail at arts he did not understand?

Where made he love in Prince Nicander's vein,

Or swept the dust in Psyche's humble strain?

Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,

Promis'd a play and dwindled to a farce?

When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,

As thou whole Eth'ridge dost transfuse to thine?

But so transfus'd as oil on waters flow,

His always floats above, thine sinks below.

This is thy province, this thy wondrous way,

New humours to invent for each new play:

This is that boasted bias of thy mind,

By which one way, to dullness, 'tis inclin'd,

Which makes thy writings lean on one side still,

And in all changes that way bends thy will.

Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence

Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense.

A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ,

But sure thou 'rt but a kilderkin of wit.

Like mine thy gentle numbers feebly creep,

Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep.

With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,

Thy inoffensive satires never bite.

In thy felonious heart, though venom lies,

It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.

Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame

In keen iambics, but mild anagram:

Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command

Some peaceful province in acrostic land.

There thou may'st wings display and altars raise,

And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.

Or if thou would'st thy diff'rent talents suit,

Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.

He said, but his last words were scarcely heard,

For Bruce and Longvil had a trap prepar'd,

And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.

Sinking he left his drugget robe behind,

Born upwards by a subterranean wind.

The mantle fell to the young prophet's part,

With double portion of his father's art.

Dryden, John. “Mac Flecknoe.” 1682. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“Mac Flecknoe” is a mock-heroic satire that envisions Thomas Shadwell (the “True-blue Protestant Poet”) as the heir to Richard Flecknoe’s poetic dullness. The poem adopts the tone of an epic, describing Flecknoe as a monarch who reigns over “all the realms of Non-sense, absolute” (Line 6).

The first stanza introduces Flecknoe’s desire to find an heir to “reign, and wage immortal war with wit” (Line 12). Flecknoe “has govern’d long” (Line 4) and is near the end of his rule. Fortunately, the King was “blest with issue of a large increase” (Line 8) and has many potential heirs. Of all the heirs, the king decides that “he / should only rule who most resembles me: / Shadwell alone my perfect image bears” (Lines 13-15). King Flecknoe then goes on to extol Shadwell’s virtues, including that he “never deviates into sense” (Line 20). From Lines 15 to 30, Flecknoe builds up Shadwell’s faults to heroic proportions. Most epic heroes have defining traits: Odysseus is clever, for instance, and Achilles is wrathful. In these lines, Shadwell gets his own (mock) heroic quality—his inability to make sense, even accidentally.

This heroic depiction of Shadwell is redoubled by Flecknoe’s prophecy. “Even I, a dunce of […] renown” (Line 31), he says, “Was sent before but to prepare thy way” (Line 32). Flecknoe sees his purpose as auxiliary to Shadwell, like John the Baptist to Christ. The king proceeds to list Shadwell’s accomplishments alongside his own from Line 33 to 59 before finally coming to the conclusion that “All arguments, but most [Shadwell’s] plays, persuade” (Line 62) that Shadwell is the proper heir.

The perspective shifts in the second stanza to present Shadwell’s life among “brothel houses” (Line 70) and “polluted joys” (Line 71). Shadwell comes of age as a poet and a playwright in a “Nursery” (Line 74) located in a disreputable part of London. The speaker suggests that no great poet would come from such a place, calling the Nursery a “monument of vanished minds” (Line 82). Rather than creating works of merit, the “suburbain Muse” (Line 83) provides simple puns and “harmless war with words” (Line 84).

The third stanza pictures Shadwell’s royal procession through the city of London and ends with his coronation. Shadwell’s way to the throne is covered with second-rate poetry (especially Shadwell’s own) that has been soiled by use as pastry liner or toilet paper (Lines 98-103). The stanza progresses from there using classical allusions to depict Flecknoe passing his kingdom down to Shadwell. The standard royal regalia of orb and crown are respectively replaced with “a mighty mug of potent ale” (Line 121) and “poppies” (Line 126).

The last stanza comprises another speech by Flecknoe. Like his previous speech, it begins as a prophecy that to Shadwell’s “dominion may no end be known” (Line 141) and that he may “advance / Still in new impudence, new ignorance” (Lines 145-46). Former King Flecknoe continues in this vein until Line 172, when he shifts tone and offers Shadwell advice. Much of this advice, which continues until Line 210, flirts with insult. Flecknoe’s speech is soon interrupted, however, as he falls through a trap door set by “Bruce and Longville” (Line 212). As Flecknoe falls, his mantle catches an updraft and falls onto Shadwell’s shoulders, solidifying his place as new ruler over Flecknoe’s kingdom.

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