"Mac Flecknoe" is aerodynamically designed to sound awesome when read aloud. End-stopped, end-rhymed, and about as heroic as it gets, the poem, written in iambic pentameter, takes on a rolling, dramatic quality. Think Chaucer. Think Shakespeare. Think epic.
Dryden also employs the lofty, sometimes melodramatic diction one might expect of a grandiose epic of gods and kings. Check out just one excerpt:
Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail.
At thy well sharpen'd thumb from shore to shore
The treble squeaks for fear, the basses roar:
Echoes from Pissing-Alley, Shadwell call,
And Shadwell they resound from Aston Hall. (43-48)
The elevated "praise" of Shadwell here is richly detailed… as echoing through a public urinal. In moments like this, Dryden's rich soundscape and heroic tone expertly juxtaposes with the lowbrow stupidity of the poem's subject matter. In this sense, "Mac Flecknoe" is a crash course in irony, with Dryden utilizing an elevated, epic voice to parody his buddy (maybe frenemy?), Thomas Shadwell.
The main title, "Mac Flecknoe," doesn't clue us into a whole lot about what to expect in the poem. Unless you have your PhD in Mediocre Mid-seventeenth Century English-Irish Poetry, the name "Flecknoe" probably doesn't ring a bell. It's a reference to Richard Flecknoe, an utterly average and totally obscure poet—the relevance of whom is still unclear in relation to our author John Dryden, or Thomas Shadwell, the poem's actual subject. "Mac" was an informal term used to informally address a man of an unknown name, which hints subtly at the satirical and lowbrow tone of the poem. But that's about all we have to work with there.
The subtitle, however ("A Satire upon the True-blue Protestant Poet T.S."), gives us a pretty solid idea of the poem's content and purpose. Dryden tells us flat-out that that the poem is a satire, (or rather a "satyr" as it's spelled in the original), upon somebody named… T.S. Who is this mysterious T.S. we might wonder? T.S. Eliot? Taylor Swift? Tupac Shakur? Tom Selleck? These are all excellent guesses, if we do say so ourselves. We know now, though, that the T.S. in question is none other than English poet Thomas Shadwell, archrival of Dryden.
This connection is hardly obvious to us now. Shadwell is no Shakespeare, as Dryden makes abundantly clear. But folks reading the poem back in the 1680s would probably have been able to connect the dots. Seeing as this isn't the 1680s, however, and nobody knows who the wide world of sports Thomas Shadwell even is anymore (apparently for good reason), we're here to help. Check out our "In a Nutshell" and "Detailed Summary" for more.
The poem takes place in the "realm of nonsense." It might be tough to find this kingdom on a map, but Dryden, via old king Flecknoe, gives it a shot (check out lines 139-144). The realm's capital city, where Shadwell is ultimately crowned, Dryden ironically calls "Augusta"—an impressive-sounding, regal name that's basically just a stand-in for an especially grungy version of London. He mentions actual London neighborhood and street names throughout the poem, though, grounding this fictitious "realm of nonsense" in real-life geography, but this Augusta seems even more rundown and lowbrow than its real counterpart.
Dryden wrote "Mac Flecknoe" sometime in the late 1670s, squarely in the middle of what historians and critics now call the Restoration Period. Though this period marks the start of the Enlightenment in British history, by the sounds of "Mac Flecknoe," Dryden certainly didn't seem to find his fellow writers to be so enlightened. Dryden was a pretty important part of this seventeenth-century English Restoration literary scene, and this poem's settings allow him to focus squarely on those goings on. In "Mac Flecknoe," he dishes out critique after critique to pretty much all of his notable contemporaries, and especially to the very unfortunate, totally destroyed Thomas Shadwell.
Narrating in the style of the third-person omniscient narrators of classical epics like The Iliad and The Aeneid, we soon realize that our speaker actually refers to himself in the first person, briefly inserting himself in the story (check out lines 25-32). This speaker seems earnest at times, and totally tongue-in-cheek at others, but certainly does his part to propagate the opinion that Shadwell is as bad a writer as they come.
But let's be real. Sure, when talking poetry, it's never a good idea to mix-up the author and the speaker. But in this case we have to say that the speaker is pretty much just John Dryden. He pokes a bit of fun at his own expense, even referring to himself as a "dunce" (31). But this dose of self-deprecation occurs for the sake of irony; we get the sense that he doesn't take himself too seriously, unlike, say, Shadwell. For, ultimately, we get the sense that the opinions the speaker shares are Dryden's own. We know he was extremely critical of many of his contemporaries, and skeptical of the cheap, unimaginative nature of many of the day's popular poems and plays. "Mac Flecknoe," it seems, is at least in part Dryden's clever way of critiquing not just Shadwell, but the entire English literary scene.
Pack a bag, Shmoopers. In fact, pack a couple. This poem is long, with lots of obscure historical and literary references (just check out our "Shout Outs"). It's written in that weird Restoration-era English that mostly makes sense, until words start showing up (like "supinely" and "drugget") that haven't seen the light of day in four centuries. But if you can slog your way through, what you'll find is an extremely clever, totally hilarious critique of a bad artist producing bad art—a theme which will never stop being relevant.
One name stands out above all others in English Restoration literature. It's not John Dryden. (Sorry, we know that was probably misleading.) The writer we were thinking of is John Milton, best known for his towering masterpiece Paradise Lost. Milton pretty much invented the modern epic as we know it. But can you guess who invented the modern mock-epic?
That's right, you nailed it. Dryden made waves with his patented mock-epic, or mock-heroic poetic style, taking the dramatic power of Milton and turning it totally sideways for comedic effect. Later English writers like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift drew directly from Dryden's sharp wit and sense of comedic irony, as they perfected the art of satire. Those guys took his idea to the next level, but Dryden, with "Mac Flecknoe," did it first.
And pond'ring which of all his sons was fit
To reign, and wage immortal war with wit;
Cry'd, 'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Notice how each line is comprised of five iambs—that's just the fancy literary term for an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (it makes a sound like daDUM). That's the iambic pentameter part (penta- just means five). Of course the entire poem is made up of rhymed couplets, which combined with iambic pentameter, gives you your classic heroic couplet.
This form is typical of epic poetry, but "Mac Flecknoe" is no epic. It's a satire, employing the meter, rhyme, and elevated language of the epic to make an ironic point. You could call it a mock-epic, or mock-heroic, a unique poetic style that Dryden popularized in English Restoration literature. Whatever you call it, you better also call it groundbreaking and influential. Several decades later, legendary English satirist Alexander Pope would develop this form even further.
What's a king without a kingdom? Thomas Shadwell is heir to the throne of the "realm of nonsense," and this is the fictional setting in which the poem's action takes place. The "realm of nonsense" is pretty much exactly how you might imagine it to be: it is a place defined by bad poetry, bad taste, and complete squalor. Only Shadwell, the worst writer in town, is fit to take over. Lucky him.
In case you missed it, "Mac Flecknoe" pretty much entirely consists just of John Dryden going really out of his way to call someone stupid. That being said, Dryden offers no shortage of hilarious jokes, jabs, japes, and jests at his archrival Thomas Shadwell's expense. He uses irony, metaphor, puns, and even Shadwell's own writing to cleverly skewer his victim, easily winning this battle of wits. Wallace Shawn's character in The Princess Bride should have taken notes.
Totally epic, bro. Much of the poem's success depends on Dryden's ironic use of the kind of elevated diction and grandiose imagery typical of the epic genre. All this epic-ness makes the decidedly not-so-epic subject matter (read: Shadwell) seem even lamer by comparison. This ironic juxtaposition is the basis for the "mock-epic," and one Dryden's main satirical techniques.
There's a bit of lewdness in "Mac Flecknoe," as was the case for most comedies in the time of Dryden. The Realm of Nonsense is characterized by prostitution as well as bad poetry, with the new king Shadwell ironically taking his throne in the heart of the brothel district. That's about where the sex stops, though, with Dryden seeming to prefer his scatological humor, of which "Mac Flecknoe" certainly has no shortage (check out lines 15-18, 49-55, and 94-101—if you dare).
Welcome to the world of "Mac Flecknoe," which contains more shout outs than sense. Dryden throws out numerous references to the classics, including to numerous Greek and Roman stories and myths and the Bible. His entire poetic style is a shout out to the epic tradition, following in the footsteps of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, while employing Chaucer's heroic couplets.
And then, of course, Dryden manages to name drop every single freaking English literary figure within 100 years. Most of these references are pretty obscure; guys like John Ogleby and Thomas Dekker aren't exactly heavy hitters in British literature. But Dryden does remind us of a few noteworthy names, including the great playwright Ben Jonson.
But the name Dryden really wants us to remember is Thomas Shadwell. Dryden's archrival and fellow English poet and playwright, the unfortunate Shadwell is the butt of pretty much every joke in "Mac Flecknoe," and the axis around which the entire poem revolves. Dryden takes care to reference what seems like every piece of writing Shadwell ever produced, and mock every one of his characters worth mentioning—probably not the most flattering shout out Shadwell could have hoped for.