DUE: Weekly Post #1
We begin our consideration of literature and ideas of the period with Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe."
It 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.
As you read this poem, draw on Birenbaum's principles of critical reading
and 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.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Dryden's: "Mac Flecknoe"
Be sure to read the introductory essay on Dryden, p. 173, and note what Demaria 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?
With this work we are introduced to 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?
How would you describe the tone of this poem? How does the tone differ from Addison's poem?
"Mac Flecknoe" differs from the poem by Addison both in tone and in form,
even though it uses the same poetic line and rhyme scheme (which is ...?)
While Addison writes an "essay," Dryden tells a story. In this way, "Mac Flecknoe" is a narrative.
What is the story that it tells?
"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?
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 desc
ribe 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.
How does Fleckno's catalogue differ from Addison's?
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?