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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 9

Sep. 27: Dryden, "Mac Flecknoe" and criticism

Reading Assignment:

    NAEL 2099-2105

Please be sure to read the introductory note to John Dryden AND the headnote to the poem itself. These will greatly aid your understanding and appreciation of this poem.


    Excerpts from Dryden's critical writing: NAEL 2114-2122
    Due: Post #4 Group B

    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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