At a time when fiction from Grub Street hack writers (whom he called the “multitude of scribblers, who daily pester the world with their insufferable stuff ”) was becoming widely read, courtly poets and dramatists like Dryden felt a need to play the public role of arbiters of literary taste. Dryden was actively engaged in contemporary debates which sought to lay down standards of what was considered high and low art. He published his “Essay of Dramatic Poesie” in 1667 and “Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry” in 1692. Both of these served as prescriptive texts for what passed muster as “good” art. In an age of a revived interest in the classics, many of the instructions on good satirical writing are based on the works of Horace, Persius and Juvenal. While he did not think highly of Horatian verse which used word-play like anagrams and “ackrosticks” and was favoured by Francophiles poets, he admired Juvenal and Persius for their unity of plot and their use of Wit, which he saw as a more masculine device than lampooning or raillery.

   In MacFlecknoe, Dryden’s definition of good art also comes to be strongly associated with class. When he says that bad poetry laden with “Pure Clinches” or puns is inspired by the “suburban Muse”, his implication is that it is only the genteel circles of London that produce and read good poetry – thus, Bun-hill and Watling Street are down-market parts of London which  by virtue of their economic demography can only produce low art. The world that MacFlecknoe reigns over is the world of artistic production which thrives in burroughs of London which weren’t seen as respectable – and it is this underbelly of the city: brothels “of lewd loves, and of polluted joys”, actors, and public playhouses which Dryden deems “realms of nonsense absolute.”

   MacFlecknoe can be read as a satire directed against a representative of what Dryden perceived as a bad poet or dramatist. He stands for dullness and fog as opposed to sharp wit. He is the king of mediocrity. The poem is also a commentary the on Art and its’ relation to Nature. Dryden saw Art as “Nature’s handmaid”, that is, true Art should imitate nature as closely as possible. The flaw of MacFlecknoe’s poetry is that it is unnatural – poetry doesn’t flow naturally from his pen – his creative process is compared to labouring – he threshes out forced metric lines: “thy Paper in thy Thrashing-Hand”. Even the music in his plays is antithetical to nature: “The Treble squeaks doe fear, the Bases Rore;” Thus, Shadwell’s work is not true art because it is not a mirror of nature.1 Part of this conception of a non-masculine and unnatural art emerges in images of pregnancy or fertility which do not result in creative output – what Dryden calls “Pangs without birth, and fruitless Industry”.

   The debates on taste between Shadwell and artists belonging to the Duke’s Company on the one hand and Dryden and the King’s Company theatre group on the other, was centred around a discussion on the literary merits of the comedy of humours, which worked with character types,  versus Dryden’s style which privileged Wit. Dryden found an inordinate reliance on the idea of Humours to be crippling to the art of characterization in dramaturgy. He found an antipathy to the use of Wit and quick repartee an equivalent to dullness and fogginess which are prevalent throughout the poem in descriptions of Flecknoe and MacFlecknoe. They are “scourge of Wit, and flayle of Sense”, and Flecknoe chooses the son “who most resembles [him]” to “wage immortal war with Wit” and “Ne’er to have Peace with Wit, nor truce with Sense”, since he perceives Shadwell and his group as adversaries of Wit. Dryden defines the humors as employed in Shadwell’s plays in the following terms:

    “A Humour is the Byas of the Mind,

        By which with violence ‘tis one way inclin’d:

        It make’s our Actions lean on one side still,

       And in all Changes that way bends the Will.”

To this imperfect, unharmonious art-form, Dryden prefers urbanity, grace, sharpness or saltiness, and polished elegance of Wit. Much of the poem, in spite of Dryden’s injunction to satirists not to sully people’s reputation, is an ad hominem attack on Shadwell in terms of not only his literary style but also his political beliefs (Shadwell was a Whig) and personal origins. Not only does he describe him as king of working class areas, but also mocks his origins as a northerner by jeering at him for his “Irish pen” even though Shadwell objected that he had barely visited Ireland, let alone live there. “Dryden deliberately and ironically metamorphosed Shadwell into a humours character to show us a fool who, like the humours of his plays, persistently incriminates himself”2

   To lampoon Shadwell, Dryden employs the form of the mock epic. He uses the metaphor of kingship and succession, but inverts notions of heroism associated with the exploits of the prince to describe the epic proportions of his dullness and stupidity. It does this to magnify the mediocrity of his work. It uses notions of lineage to speak of Shadwell as the inheritor of a lowly and artless poetic legacy. Through parallels with heroes of the past, the absolutely unheroic qualities of the mock-hero become even more pronounced. Dryden also uses opposing parallels simultaneously to indicate the nonsensical nature of Shadwell/MacFlecknoe’s status as heir-apparent of the realm of low art. For example, he simultaneously compares him to Ascanius that is, to the figure of monarchical authority as well as the enemy to Hannibal – the enemy of the State that Ascanius is supposed to protect. By implication, then, Shadwell is a threat to the very realm of art which he is supposed to rule. These contradictions make it a realm of artistic meaninglessness.

   Dryden elevates this figure of the king in order to belittle the actual persona of Flecknoe who replaces the symbols of kingship with parodic elements, for example, the mug of ale and Love’s Kingdom instead of the ball and sceptre. The coronation scene is also a travesty. There is an inversion of the grandeur and purity associated traditionally associated with kingship by using scatological imagery to describe Flecknoe and his son.

   Dryden, as a Tory, believed in family blood-lines and inheritance of a legacy. He extends his political beliefs to his standards of literary style and form. The idea of succession implies that artistic mediocrity is hereditary. It is not only a father-son relation, but a whole family line which is corrupted by bad aesthetic values. This family is all the writers who Dryden perceives as producers of bad or low art. Thus it is a “filial dullness” that fills MacFlecknoe and his uncle Ogleby. But by talking of Shadwell’s lack of artistic finesse in terms of succession, Dryden shifts the discussion from the precise demerits of his poetic and dramatic practice to a inherent and unavoidable flaw in his “blood” which is inborn in him by virtue of being of a lineage of low artistic capability.

   Thus, MacFlecknoe does engage in part in a discussion on what consists of bad literature, and thus, by corollary, arrives at a sort of definition of good literature in its discussion on the Humours versus Wit and the relation of Art to Nature, but most often betrays personal prejudices against the origins and beliefs of his rival poet Shadwell and uses these against him, offering many clear instances of lampooning.  He uses the form of the mock heroic to lampoon Shadwell by speaking of him in terms, again, of his origins in an artistically lowly blood line.



  1. tarikul islam Says:

    It was vry hlpful. Thanxx.

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