John Dryden, "MacFlecknoe" (1684) "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.   For a modern parody of the "mock heroic" style, see "Al Pope"'s Ratiad (1994).

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 Nonsense.   "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." 

Summary: Click here for some small-group discussion guides on each of these works.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. 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 Dryden 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). 

  2. "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 for satire?

    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?
  3. "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 creation?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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 ocean-bound view? 
  8. 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?
  9. 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 Plato's?
  10. 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 Oroonoko.   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 Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
    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)

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