Study Guide

Mac Flecknoe Literature and Writing

By John Dryden

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Literature and Writing

Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail. (43-44)

"Mac Flecknoe" is inundated with references to literature and narrative, from Ancient Greek and Roman myths, to seventeenth-century English dramas. Much of the poem's satirical roots stem from these references especially to classical heroic epics, giving context to Dryden's depiction of Shadwell as a heroic figure. This ironic comparison of Shadwell to the Greek hero Arion is one of many of its sort throughout the poem.

No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,
But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay: (98-99)

Dryden seems to view Shadwell as a scourge to poetry, a hack who gives English drama a bad name. Thus, Shadwell's coronation is decorated with the remains of good poets, as he takes the written word to a new low.

From dusty shops neglected authors come,
Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way. (100-103)

Here Dryden shares with us a thought concerning the state of literature of the day. First he makes a joke about books being used for toilet paper, a suggestion perhaps that there weren't many writers around even worthy of being read. He then names a few mediocre contemporaries. But, of all the bad writers going, Dryden makes it clear that Shadwell is by far the worst.

Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may'st wings display and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways. (203-208)

Dryden takes another shot at the quality of Shadwell's writing, as well as the overall quality of the day's popular literature. He finds acrostic poetry, a literary fad of the day, lacking in substance. "Mac Flecknoe," on the other hand, written in "keen iambics," proves that Dryden, unlike his contemporaries, was a serious, well-versed, and truly literary writer.

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