John Dryden, "MacFlecknoe"
"Annus Mirabilis" (1667) Criticism
Genre: Verse satire ("Mac"),
commendatory or "public" verse ("Annus"), and prose essay.
Form: rhyming couplets ("heroic
couplets," though "Mac" is "mock epic verse"), four-line
stanzas of rough iambic pentameter rhyming abab
("Annus"), and prose.
Characters: "MacFlecknoe" is the mocking
Scottish form for "son-of-Flecknoe," and the character stands for Thomas
Shadwell, whose pretention to be taken for the inheritor of Ben Jonson's poetic tradition
Dryden skewers by making him the son of Richard Flecknoe, a poet even Shadwell would see
was dull. Other characters represent contemporary or recent poets (Heywood, Decker,
Shirley, Fletcher), or they are allegorical, part of the epic "machinery of the
gods" by which Dryden mocks Shadwell, making him inherit the throne of
"Annus Mirabilis" personifies London as a Queen in ways that strongly evoke the
late Elizabeth I, but in the context of Dryden's imperial vision, she is courted
now by merchant fleets who bring her jewels and other trade goods from the
Empire's far-flung colonial "suitors."
Click here for some small-group discussion
guides on each of these works.
- "MacFlecknoe" traces its "hero"'s rise to stupidity in verse
deliberately mimicking the style of and alluding to the Aeneid and other
epics. Like the Odyssey, it starts in a kind of Olympus, only it's the realm
of Nonsense, until recently ruled by Flecknoe. The dying king of dullness searches
for a successor and, by virtue of his vices (as it were) MacFlecknoe (Shadwell) gets the
nod. The rest of the poem develops by a pattern of mock praise of poetic vices
wherein "success" is failure and the slightest deviation from the stultifying
norm is a clear sign that somebody's got poetic talent.
- "Annus Mirabilis" salutes London upon her survival of the plague and
the Great Fire (in 1666), looking back to the Civil War as a fatal flirtation with
factionalism and forward to a time of imperial dominion over "the British ocean"
and the new colonies of India and the rest of Asia.
- "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy" was written two years after the
Restoration and the reopening of the theaters, trying to call the English to a new sense
of poetic tradition that would take the best of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets and
infuse it with a sense of neoclassical balance, clarity, and profundity.
- His critique of Bad poets begins with the Metaphysicals,
which he defines by their most notorious example, John
Cleveland. The exotic, Mannerist images with which Donne and Herbert populated
their similes and metaphors could become enormously irritating and distracting when used
by poets with less skill and less serious intention. The other sort of poets he
condemns are the Dull, who affect classical balance to a
fault, making the counting of syllables their primary occupation rather than the
expression of noble sentiment. How does Dryden understand
the "job" of being an Author
and how does this affect the standards he applies to other poets in his
- His definition of "wit" emphasizes using common words rather than new coinages
or words borrowed from other languages (vs. Milton, for example, though he names Cleveland
as his archetypal bad example). For a historical discussion of the development of
comedy as a genre, click here.
- His "Shakespeare vs. Jonson" comparison contrasts the former's appeal
to Nature as a model for his characters with the latter's use of classical models.
Famous is Dryden's praise of Shakespeare for having "the largest and most
comprehensive soul," which enabled WS to sympathize with and represent anything in
Nature, but it is a Nature he found when he "looked inwards" (2117). This
reminds us of Sidney in A&S #1, and the notion that human nature is grounded in some
unmovable knowledge which it is sin or folly to deny, to ignore, or to seek to improve
(Faustus, Satan, Mosca). Shakespeare's comedy is faulted for its
"clenches" (puns), but he is generally praised as the best of his generation in
their one judgment. Jonson is praised as one who was best when a satirist, and whose
classical knowledge was wholly digested in his art rather than merely decorating it:
"[H]e has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by
any law [but h]e invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets is
only victory in him" (2118). This passage commonly is used when distinguishing
poetic adaptation of the tradition from mere plagiarism. Also, Dryden faults
Jonson's attempt to "Romanize our tongue" with Latin loan words (2118).
- "The Author's Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License" defends the
heights of expression demanded by the epic form, and mentions Milton specifically as a
descendent of Homer and Virgil in the line of those whose extraordinary tasks required
extraordinary language (vs. his recommendation of "easy" diction above).
Nature, however, is to be the poet's first and foremost source for imitation, though
imitation of other great poets may help to form the poet's style. Continuing his
attempt to define "wit," Dryden says it "is a propriety of thoughts and
words; or, in other terms, thought and words elegantly adapted to the subject" (i.e.,
high words for high subjects, and low words for low ones). This principle could be
used to defend the diction of both Milton and Rochester.
- "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire" calls for
more subtlety and art from satirists, who are accused of mere name-calling and
abuse. The function of well-written satire is defended as inoffensive to the witty
and insensible to the fools, since the wisdom of the former compels them to admit their
follies and the stupidity of the latter usually prevents them from realizing they're the
topic of the satire. His comparison between butchers and the legendary executioner
is famous. [HINT!] However, test this measure of good satire against the effects you
encounter in Mac Flecknoe. Is there a way to explain this poem's savage
attack on Shadwell by thinking about its publication history? What is the difference
between published, "public" satires and those circulated in private among
readers who would exclude the satire's target(s)?
- "The Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern" contains one of the most
extended praises of Chaucer in early literature, after Spenser's invocation of
Queene, Canto II. Chaucer is held up as the English Homer or Virgil, a founder
of the national literature, though his rhyming is not commended (also see Sidney).
Against those who tried to argue that Chaucer's verse was metrically regular (i.e., iambic
pentameter instead of four-stress), he argues that "common sense" is the best
guide for the poet and critic, and suggests "that equality of numbers in every verse
which we call heroic" (i.e., the heroic couplet) "was either not known, or not
always practiced in Chaucer's time" (2122). He was the first reader of Chaucer
took into account the possibility of historical changes in poetic technique, and in that
sense is the ancestor of all Chaucerian scholars, for which, let us honor him, though he
was deaf to the "great vowel shift." Dryden also praises Chaucer as he did
Shakespeare for his "wonderful comprehensive nature" (2122). He also
suggests that the tales were suited to their tellers and revealed dramatically their inner
lives, a thesis which remained largely unchallenged until David Benson's Chaucer's
Drama of Style (in 1986). His final contribution to Chaucer scholarship is his
observation that readers of the whole of Canterbury Tales tend to fall into a bemused
meditation on the richness of the human condition, rather than seeing any thesis or
dramatic concentration one might follow to achieve a comic or tragic catharsis, leading
him to exclaim "here is God's plenty" (2122). In effect, Chaucer threatens
to overwhelm Dryden's neoclassical critical vocabulary. Go Geoff!
Issues and Research Sources:
All Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
The Restoration confronts readers with a radically "modern"
world, including naked celebrities like Charles II's courtesans daring us to
look away and drunken atheists like the earl of Rochester telling us we are
fools if we think we are not merely material animals. Such
tradition-breaking "modes" cry out for satire. The satirist is the traffic
cop and arts reviewer of the modern world run amuck. Freedom of expression
and thought has its price, a fee for folly and pettiness and crime and vice that
is collected by satire's public exposure of these faults. Rude children
have been chalking or carving insults into public surfaces since the days of
classical Greece and Rome, but nobody confuses "Rufus Cretensis has
a funny looking nose" with witty satire. The former (see Sidney) mistakes
for wit what is mere vulgarity and the mockery of physical deformities.
The latter punctures inflated egos and makes obvious the failings of the famous
(and the would-be famous). Satire's victims have done something to deserve
the verbal lash, whereas mere bullying is undeserved. The most
successful satires are uncomfortable for their targets to witness, and
attempts to distinguish good from bad satire by the effects it has upon them by
distinguishing "raillery" [overt condemnation] from artful satire: "A witty man
is tickled [by satire] while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.
The occasion of an offense may possibly be given, but he cannot take it [without
admitting the fault]. If it be granted that in effect this way does more
mischief; that a man is secretly wounded, and though he be not sensible himself,
yet the malicious world will find it out for him; yet there is still 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. A man may be capable, as [English hangman] Jack Ketch's wife said
of his servant, of a plain piece of work, a bare hanging; but to make a
malefactor die sweetly was only belonging to her husband" (2257-8).
Dryden's "decapitation" metaphor contains at least two important meanings for
the (usually male) target of the satire: headlessness a metaphor for
mindlessness and life-threatening challenges to a way of thinking; and
headlessness as symbolic castration, also linked to speechlessness/silence (see
Freud and Lacan).
- "MacFlecknoe" was originally circulated in manuscript and apparently never was
intended for mass publication.
- Does that give Dryden any defense against charges that he violates any of his own rules
Note that the essay on satire (above) praises the character "Zimri" from
Absolom and Achitophel--see p. 1804-5, ll. 544ff., for that excellent and accurate
characterization of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who was forced to admit the
truth of it.
- What does it do for a culture when people can be brought to admit their follies and
repent their crimes?
- What role does art have in that task today?
- "MacFlecknoe" plays with the epic conventions in a manner known as "mock
heroic," in which high style and the typical poetic strategies of the epic are
used to satirize far lower subjects than the hero's defense or destruction of
a mighty city, or his reclamation of his birthright. Compare the poem's
opening lines, as they evoke Flecknoe's past greatness (ll. 1-10),
with Beowulf's opening lines on the Spear-Dane's mythic founder's great
achievements (ll. 1-11). Dryden's poem also evokes the Roman
historians of the Imperial Family by reference to Caesar Augustus, and he
refers directly to Virgil's Aeneid in constructing MacFlecknoe's
dubious "virtues." How might these English and Latin allusions affect
Shadwell's claim to be Jonson's heir in the neoclassical line of poetic
- How does "Annus Mirabilis" view the English past? What key events does
it draw attention to as the steps by which she arrived at this turning point in her
history? What does that suggest about how Dryden might have structured and taught
English 211 if it were offered in 1668?
- Modern readers who have never seen a
great city burn need to read Samuel Pepys' diary entries for September 2-5,
1666 (see the Norton excerpts). For an overview of how much of the
city burned and the cultural significance of what was lost, see the
Great Fire of London Map (1666). Comparisons with New York City or
Washington D.C. on September 11, 2011, would be oddly inappropriate because
so much more damage was done to London in this four-day-long fire.
Dryden's poem quickly seizes upon the paradoxical effects of the
conflagration. The fire-storm that arched over miles of the city
leveled buildings that were among the oldest, almost all set within the
medieval city walls, and extended the destruction to the warehouses along
the northern bank of the Thames, including the Vintry Ward where Geoffrey
Chaucer grew up. (Click
here for the "Agas Map" of London and click on section C5 for the Vintry
Ward, squarely in the center of the fire zone.) This meant that
London, alone, among the capitals of Europe, entered the modern era with a
completely rebuilt central core, including the docks that were needed to
support its emerging trading empires in the Far East, North America, and the
Caribbean. Dryden could not know it, but the fire also largely rid the
city of its deeply entrenched rat population, the reservoir from which the
plague-bearing fleas brought periodic mass death to the human population.
- Compare the London-as-"Maiden Queen" (1185) simile with Marlowe's and
Ralegh's evocations of pastoral courtship in "The Passionate Shepherd to His
Love" and "The Nymph's Reply." Who was the
real "Maiden Queen" of England's past and how does Dryden's poem use her
reign to evoke the New London after the fire? How does Dryden use the
"Courtship" and "Promise of Rich Presents" motifs to suggest what the future
holds for England's capital, and what does that suggest about the shift of
values which has overtaken the world of Marlowe and Ralegh? (Another
comparison could be made, in English 212, with the dressing of Belinda in
Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," especially Canto 1, ll. 121-148.)
- In the excerpts chosen by the Norton editors, "Annus Mirabilis" concludes
with a distinctly river- and ocean-oriented, naval view of London's place in
the world. Previous empires centered in Macedonia (Alexander) and Rome
depended on armies and land-travel to conquer and maintain their colonies.
The new European imperial powers conquered by means of sea-power, using navies
to subdue and exploit distant cultures. How does the land-bound view of
the world differ in its assumptions about stability and power from the
- Can you see patterns of though emerging in Dryden's criticism that make him identifiable
as a man of his era? Of all those possible attitudes toward poetic experiment,
poetry's place in culture, the worth of previous poets, and their meaning to his
contemporaries, what did Dryden contribute to the study of English that you might find
continued in the current structure of Goucher's English Department, the major, and English
211, in particular?
- As an Englishman, Dryden identified something important about the English poets' use of
classical models which, he said, made the English superior to the French, who preferred a
"just imitation" with emphasis on balance, rather than the English
"high" or "lively" imitation with an emphasis on "sweep of
action" (in parts of the "Essay" you weren't assigned). He defends
the Elizabethan greats, like Shakespeare, on the grounds that their failure to observe
this or that neoclassical rule for writing resulted in a greater work, one more conforming
to real Nature than to secondary models derived from literature.
- How might you compare this with Sidney's view of the artist's position, and with
- Dryden's faith in Nature suggests that he did not believe that Nature was
"fallen" and corrupted. This marks a welcome change from the increasingly
negative views of humanity and Nature we see in the Mannerists like Donne and Herbert.
- Can you find reasons why he should think so in "Annus Mirabilis," and might
there be any hazards in his reasoning?
Especially consider what Aphra Behn will show the English twenty years later in
Dryden's religious epistemology represents a type of doctrine sometimes called
"fideism," a reliance on faith rather than reason for religious matters so as to
unplug morality from the hard facts about society and nature which were being discovered
by science. This later becomes rationalized by the "Deists" like Leibniz,
who argued that God's role in the universe was reasonably demonstrable (though by circular
logic) and that, therefore, this was the best of all possible worlds (since God, the
omnipotent, would have done better if He could).
- Does this suggest any dangers for the coming "Age of Enlightenment," as the
Eighteenth Century sometimes is called?
- Hint: in Pope's "Essay on Man" (1733), he concludes:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite
One truth is clear: Whatever is, is RIGHT.
(ll. 287-292--see the Norton for longer extracts of the whole poem)
Back to English 211,