Once upon a time (the late seventeenth century), in place far, far away (England), there lived two poets: one named John Dryden, the other, Thomas Shadwell. They were both quite successful and well respected. One thing led to another, however, and they soon found themselves embroiled in some serious beef. One day, the writer by the name of John Dryden decided to up the ante.
The result was "Mac Flecknoe," John Dryden's literary takedown of Thomas Shadwell, an imaginative and hilarious satire extraordinaire. Whether it's epically ironic, or ironically epic (you'll have to read on and tell us which one you think), the poem pretty much carved out its own genre: the mock-epic, or mock-heroic.
Dryden completely skewers Shadwell, exposing him for what he was: a bad writer with bad taste, who would do anything for the cheap laugh. Though it really doesn't even seem fair to make fun of a guy who looks like this. Okay, maybe that's an unfair assessment of Shadwell. He was pretty well-known in his day, an important, albeit minor, figure in the English Restoration literary scene. But unfortunately for him, he's best remembered today for playing the hapless starring role in "Mac Flecknoe," where he gets shredded faster than a Kleenex at Edward Scissorhand's house.
How does Dryden achieve this razor-sharp, devastating effect, you might wonder? "Mac Flecknoe" is an incredibly rich, expertly crafted work of satire, layered in so much irony, sarcasm, and wit that you forget at times he's even joking. Written in Dryden's patented mock-epic style, the poem takes after its heroic, grandiose big brothers, classical and modern epics—like The Iliad and Paradise Lost—except for the minor detail that the whole thing is a massive joke.
See, "Mac Flecknoe" is a uniquely epic piece of writing that's less Homer, and more Homer Simpson—except maybe a bit smarter. Dryden mocks his victim, Shadwell, by depicting him as the lamest epic hero of all time: the terminally dull, hopelessly witless poet-king of the "realms of Non-sense" (6). Throughout the poem, Dryden shows no mercy to his victim, finding new and clever ways to use wit and irony, while pretty much inventing his own genre in the process. Today, "Mac Flecknoe" is hilarious as ever; we can still feel that 330-year-old burn just as sharply. Now that's what we call epic.
South Park. Stephen Colbert. The Onion. Though it probably seems like we're playing the loosest pop culture word association game of all time, these things actually have something significant in common. That something is satire. Satire is a tried and true tool for making people laugh and think at the same time. It's one of the most important forms of comedy in our culture today, lending itself to excellent and effective social and political commentary. So where does "Mac Flecknoe" fit into the mix? Well, in short, John Dryden basically invented the modern satire as we know it.
When we think about the origins of modern satire, names like Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Voltaire come to mind. These later writers, however, draw directly from the tremendous wit, hysterical hyperbole, and epic irony of "Mac Flecknoe." They echo Dryden's own mock-epic, or mock-heroic style, utilizing an extravagantly inflated tone to parody their subjects. Fans of the Colbert Report will notice a similar technique.
Still, "Mac Flecknoe" is no cakewalk. It is really long, really complicated, and contains more random references than an episode of Family Guy. Like any satire, it's a commentary on the social landscape of the day. Much of this cultural context is difficult to decipher even if you have your PhD in late seventeenth-century English Restoration Literature. But, like any truly great satire, it stands the test of time, remaining relevant even after many of the specific references lose their relevance.
That's because, ultimately—whether or not you know a lick about the late seventeenth-century London poetry scene— "Mac Flecknoe" is still hilarious, a shrewd commentary on an ever-relevant theme: terrible artists creating terrible art. Through his inventive use of satire, Dryden shows that he's not just a poet, but also a comedian, a critic, and a dissident. Today, the fine folks over at South Park, The Onion, and the Colbert Report have Dryden to thank for this tradition.
Also, thanks to "Mac Flecknoe," we have ridiculous stuff like this.Thank you, John Dryden—from the bottom of our satire-loving hearts.
Mac Flecknoe is a satiric poem of 217 lines, written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter). The poem has been commonly adjudged the best short satiric poem in the English language. In it, John Dryden seeks to lampoon Thomas Shadwell, a well-known playwright and indifferent poet, by placing him in an incredible and wholly invented fictional world. He is portrayed as “Mac” (or the son of) Flecknoe—Richard Flecknoe having been an even less accomplished poet than Shadwell. Both of them, the poem implies, are of Irish (and hence of outlandish, remote, and barbarian) stock.
The poem unfolds in a mock-heroic scene; all the machinery of the epic is utilized to exalt the “form” of the poem—high diction, lengthy similes, heroic and kingly actions, archaic vocabulary and spelling—while the content is debased, low, and farcical.
In the fictional setting, Flecknoe is presented as being the exalted king of the realm of Nonsense, which extends all up and down the empty Atlantic Ocean; he dwells in the pompous city of Augusta (in fact, synonymous with London). At the outset, the king determines to relinquish his crown and to choose at once the dullest of his children to assume the throne. In a trice, he determines upon “Sh—,” a corpulent and stupid oaf whose writings are wonderfully bad enough to render him properly deserving of this regal selection. Crowds of third-rate poets and hack authors throng to his ceremonial inauguration. There, the father, like an ancient priest, becomes dazed, inspired, and oracular, proceeding to give a vast seventy-one-line speech, prophesying that his son’s reign will be as distended as his body is oversized and predicting, under his aegis and tutelage, the virtual triumph of inept and monstrous art throughout the land of Nonsense.
The fond father is never permitted to complete this mantic oration, for a trapdoor mechanism drops open, and the still-declaiming father, the would-be seer, drops down into a pit and disappears, leaving only his mantle as garment and emblem to the aspirant and expectant son. Thus the poem jolts and jostles to a sudden disruptive halt by the introduction of an underground deus ex machina. The new king has never received a proper coronation and is appropriately left speechless by this ill omen that abruptly silences the sanctimonious forecasting of his future successes in the land of high witlessness and ineptitude.