Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel served as an introduction to the political
party system in Britain, and as a capstone to the political and religious controversy
of the seventeenth century. Typically, Dryden's poetry looks both backward and forward.
Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" can serve as an excellent introduction to eighteenth-century
British literature because it 1) sets forth the principles of good
literature that define the age (albeit through irony) and 2) characterizes the style of the period.
Dryden's sharp satire represents the dominant literary spirit, at least before 1750.
Dryden’s compact mock-epic is a delight to read because it can be sheer fun. In it
Dryden raises insult to an art form by giving purely elegant expression to the
adolescent impulses of rivalry, name calling, scatology, and personal attack.
The sophistication of the heroic tone at the start and the subtlety of Dryden’s irony
may initially misguide readers, and so you should keep in mind that this is intended
to be funny. The poem has a clear narrative, and so you can read for the story.
As you read this poem, begin to assess the literature as both communication
and artistic object.
First of all read the poem for comprehension. Read it all the way through
in order to grasp what
is happening in each couplet. Then read it in terms of artistry, asking
how the poet achieves the effects he has. Read the poetry out loud as well
in order to become accustomed to the aesthetic pleasures of eighteenth-century verse
-- the rhythms and
the rhymes. Definitely read each poem several times.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
Dryden's: "Mac Flecknoe"
Be sure to read the introductory note and pay attention to what it says about the original
transmission of this poem. How does this affect your understanding of the poem? For instance,
is it significant that the poem was originally anonymous
and that Dryden did not claim ownership until 1692, about a month before Shadwell's death?
As in Absalom and Achitophel Dryden gives us a fine example of satire. The
New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) offers this explanation of the term:
"Satire, as generally defined, is both a mode of discourse or vision
that asserts a polemical or critical outlook ('the satiric'),
and also a specific literary genre embodying that mode in either prose or verse,
especially formal verse satire. From earliest times satire has tended toward
didacticism. Despite the aesthetic and often comic or witty pleasure associated
with much satire their authors incline toward self-promotion as judges of morals
and manners, of behavior and thought. The franchise is theirs, they assume, to pass
and execute verbal sentence on both individuals and types. Numerous satirists ridicule or
berate shortcomings of their own times within a context
whose values -- ideally -- will outlast the occasion or crises of the moment.
Whatever they diagnose as corrupt, they confidently venture to 'heal' --
in Pope's phrase -- albeit severely, 'with morals what [their satire] hurts
with wit' (Epistle to Augustus 262). Pope nonetheless follows in a
long tradition of satirists who
denied vindictiveness; they insisted, rather, that they were indignant
because of social wrongs, and that they aimed to assure human betterment" (1114).
If satire tends toward didacticism, what is Dryden's poem aiming to correct? Compare the
"purpose" of this satire with that in Absalom and Achitophel.
"Mac Flecknoe" differs from Absalom and Achitophel in both tone and style,
even though it uses the same poetic line and rhyme scheme (which is ...?). While
Absalom and Achitophel adopts a straight heroic style, "Mac Flecknoe" is a mock-heroic.
What are the differences? Both both poems also tell a story. What the story
does "Mac Flecknoe" tell? How does this contribute to the mock-heroic?
"Mac Flecknoe" is a poem that uses the political concerns over proper
succession to illustrate a problem in the literary kingdom.
What parallel (metaphor) does Dryden construct? What are the
implications of the comparison? What similarities does it have in this regard with
Absalom and Achitophel?
Describe the "action" of the first section (lines 1-63).
What is the subject of Fleckno's speech, which dominates this early part of the poem?
Why is he describing his "son"? In what sense is Sh____ his "son"?
Note how Dryden creates the satire on Sh_____, particularly in lines15-26,
through a series of reversals. If the occasion ordinarily calls for praise,
what do the lines suggest about Sh___? About Fleckno?
By reversing our expectations (instead of praise we read ridicule),
what literary criticism does Dryden offer?
In the second section (lines 64-93), Dryden describes the scene
of Sh_____'s coronation. Where does Fleckno build Sh______'s throne?
What is the significance of the environment? How does it characterize
the main agents in the poem?
The third section (lines 94-138) describes the coronation.
The success of this satire relies in part on Dryden's brilliant
conception of details. Observe the ironic treatment of details
in this otherwise sacred and solemn ceremony. How does Dryden describe
those who attend the occasion? The throne? The crown? The vows?
The scepter? Other details?
The last section (lines 139-217) is almost entirely the speech of Fleckno.
How does this propensity toward grandiose speech characterize "the yet
declaiming Bard"? What does he prophesy about the successor to his throne?
Note how in this speech Dryden constructs a pattern we will begin to recognize -- the catalogue of past writers.
Who does Fleckno include in his list and why?
What does Dryden achieve in this ironic catalogue of greatness?
What does Dryden's poem (and its success) suggest about the culture's literary values?
What does the author respect? What does he denigrate?
We have seen the word "dullness" used several times. What might
this word encompass for the eighteenth-century writer?
6. Critical Essays
Dryden's critical writing may be of interest to you because it helps to clarify his
goals as a writer and because his criticism ultimately sets the literary agenda
for the following age. The following notes will give you a sense of the topics covered
in the brief excerpts included in our anthology. Many of these literary issues have
been introduced already or will be introduced in the upcoming weeks.
Excerpts from Essay on Dramatic Poesy: 1) elements of bad writing – good introduction to the
new literary values of the Restoration. 2) defines wit through the example
of the ancients, compares modern writer Cleveland. 3) describes the strengths
of Shakespeare and Jonson – the Homer and Virgil of English dramatic poetry.
Excerpt on Heroic Poetry – why heroic literature calls for bold language;
defines wit as the proper alignment between thought and expression.
Excerpt on Satire – the art of fine raillery “a vast difference betwixt the
slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates
the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.” Praise for
his portrait of Zimri.
Excerpt from Preface to Fables: Praise for Chaucer’s good sense, originality,
breadth. Justification for Chaucer’s “musicality.
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