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John Dryden’s mock-heroic MacFlecknoe (1676) ridicules the “True-Blue-Protestant Poet” Thomas Shadwell, who was a former colleague and later a callous literary rival of Dryden, through the words of late seventeenth-century Irish poet, Richard Flecknoe. In fact, during Dryden’s era, Flecknoe became a name used synonymously with writing inferior poetry, and Shadwell, who represents “Mac” (the son of) Flecknoe [MacFlecknoe], as Dryden’s satire shows, is another name used to signal the writing of mediocre poetry. Critics find it difficult to point to a date or an occasion that triggered the conflict between Dryden and Shadwell. Some consider Dryden’s lampoon of Shadwell as stemming from Shadwell’s savage attack on Dryden in his Medal of John Bayes while others claim that political and literary differences kindled the attacks. For instance, Shadwell was a loyal Whig, who favored the comedies of humour and realism while Dryden was a keen Tory and preferred the comedies of wit and powerful imagination. On the surface, Dryden’s satire captures the essence of wit, imagination, and style through his ingenuity and use of high and low diction. Indeed, MacFlecknoe entertains as it criticizes on several levels. This is first seen in Dryden’s crucial tongue in cheek retort to Shadwell, as Flecknoe’s heir, in which MacFlecknoe is crowned king of such an honor, and secondly, through Dryden’s dire critical response about the meaning of MacFlecknoe’s kingship not only within a social context but also about its literary prospects.
The opening remark from the speaker in MacFlecknoe sets the comical tone to come throughout the verse, yet it also offers an extended warning about the dangers of art within the political climate of Dryden’s time and those over the horizon: “All human things are subject to decay, / And, when fate summons, monarchs must obey;” (1-2). Decay here is the king of “Nonsense,” Flecknoe, whose kingdom and rule, marshaled by writing bad poetry, is approaching its end (6). Moreover, Flecknoe’s search for the proper heir to govern his monarchy of dullness is found only in the one who “resembles” his (Flecknoe’s) “perfect image” and is “[m]ature in dullness” (14-16), and it is Shadwell who is the prince of Flecknoe’s eye – the future king of inferior writing who will make the nation’s eyes water and ears cry since his work and body “stands confirmed in full stupidity” (18).
Nonetheless, Dryden’s view of Shadwell, while writing his satire, suggests that Shadwell was already entrenched in his reign of stupidity, as the speaker throughout this poem does not shy away from criticizing Shadwell’s own work and offspring characters such as, Epsom Walls and The Virtuoso with Raymond and Trifle respectively. Dryden’s mock-epic account displays gems of irony while he ushers in the “new” bad poet to his throne; he presents stiff commentary about the ever-changing nature of literature and art within a fallen London. The Biblical allusions Flecknoe makes further extend Dryden’s literary notion that his society is moving away from its literary peak established in Augustan Rome. In fact, the bad poets of the last age, for example, Heywood, Shirley, Dekker, and Ogilby, are merely Old Testament “types” (29) of the true Christ or in Shadwell’s case the “last great prophet of tautology” (30) where even Flecknoe’s rule was only a temporary state used as a vehicle “to prepare [MacFlecknoe/Shadwell’s] way,” so MacFlecknoe can greet his nation and its collective mind with an era of dullness (31).
The coronation location Flecknoe selects to crown MacFlecknoe as king not only describes Dryden’s fears of the political and literary decay his city and society is facing but also displays the grime and fecal matter to which Dryden lessens Shadwell: “Martyrs of pies and relics of the bum. / Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogilby there lay, / But loads of sh —- almost choked the way” (101-103). It is out of this fecal matter and the piles of shoddy poetry that Flecknoe erects MacFlecknoe’s throne in which it is surrounded by “brothel-houses” where “[s]cenes of lewd loves and of polluted joys” fill the streets and share with the “infant punks” (prostitutes) their tender voices try” (70-77).
The location Flecknoe chooses is Barbican, an old Roman watchtower that surrounds the old London city, and it has been in decay since the surrounding neighborhoods opened their streets to inferior and cheapened forms of entertainment. Shadwell’s approaching reign of inferior creativity adds to the city’s filth and its anxiety: “Close to the walls fair Augusta bind / (The fair Augusta much to fears inclined)” (64-65). The fears Augusta faces are similar to Dryden’s London: the political turmoil and threats of the Earl of Shaftesbury and the Popish Plot, a plot where Catholics would murder Charles II and place James I on the throne; and the idea that Dryden’s society is openly embracing the entertainments of decadence and the cheaper literary cultures of the time instead of yearning for the lost literary apex of London’s historic past.
This yearning for the literary superiority of the past is further compounded when Flecknoe crowns MacFlecknoe the legitimate king of dullness where Shadwell “[swears]. . . ./ [t]hat he till death true dullness would maintain” (114-15). Flecknoe further offers his new king advice about how to rule his new state in which the advice comes off as a paternal prep talk to a son: “My son, advance / Still in new impudence, new ignorance. / Success let others teach; learn thou from me” (145-47). The message here is for MacFlecknoe to make his fictional father and former king proud by continuing the reign of poppycock and dullness throughout the land. In fact, Flecknoe wants Shadwell not to let “false friends (like Ben Jonson) seduce [his] mind to fame,” not to mimic the art of Jonson, but to share, by relation, Flecknoe’s nature (171).
As Flecknoe’s tedious speech closes, he tells MacFleckoe to abandon poetry and drama, so he can focus his boredom in anagrams. Resembling one of Shadwell’s lifeless characters in Virtuosos (Sir Formal), Flecknoe falls through a trapdoor that invokes another Biblical allusion of the prophet Elijah whose mantle descends from heaven onto Elisha. Yet here, Flecknoe is portraying Elijah who does not fall from the heavens but falls below, causing his mantle and crown to rise high in the air on top of the head of the Elisha-MacFlecknoe; thus, completing the coronation of MacFlecknoe/Shadwell as the true king of tasteless art. The resolution at the end of Dryden’s satire, if there is one, is that Dryden finally had his chance to mock and present some payback to Shadwell’s savage attacks that were made on him. It is uncertain whether this mock-heroic poem ended the battle of insults between both poets.
However, the major resolution rests in Dryden’s attitude towards the nature of art and its place in the society of his day. The satire is humorous throughout, and Dryden never loses his poise while taking shots at the so-called, at least in his mind, king of dullness, Thomas Shadwell. Still, Dryden’s major conflict is embedded through his wit and irony, and I believe Dryden views his current society’s taste in art and literature to be inferior to what the literary scene of London once was. Moreover, the crowning of Shadwell/MacFlecknoe as London’s new poet laureate, a title stripped from Dryden and handed over to Shadwell (out of political/religious rather than creative reasons) further enforced in Dryden’s mind that London was falling deeper into corruption. London and its society, therefore, is crumbling before Dryden’s eyes and his pen can offer advice and heed off warnings for only those willing to read and listen: one cannot restore society’s values in superior art and literature by one’s self. Unfortunately, it takes many individuals, and even then it depends on the person (as an artist), as is the case with Jonathan Swift.
Swift’s Description of London’s Society
Jonathan Swift’s urban eclogue A Description of the Morning was first published in his friend’s – Richard Steele – literary paper, the Tatler, on April 30, 1709. During the time Swift published his poem, there was moderate political and religious turbulence, as far as readers can view from his poem. Still, like Dryden’s MacFlecknoe, some thirty-years before, Swift’s Description is a satiric verse that does not deride a specific person, as Dryden’s treatment of Thomas Shadwell does, but his poem does mocks individual, mundane characters within London’s society. Indeed, unlike Dryden’s satire, Swift’s satire offers his readers scenes of pictorial impressions of London society without uttering a single subjective comment; instead, Swift presents a series of objective snapshots for his audience to consider when they arrive at the conclusions that Swift’s picture convey to them. Swift, however, does display parodies of traditional Augustan literature such as the “Hackney -Coach” and the female servant “Betty,” where the latter symbolizes the dawn goddess – Aurora – and the former represents the chariot of the sun (1, 3).
The setting of his urban satire is at dawn, and the snapshots he provides include different individuals throughout London’s society. In fact, the first picture captures the maid, Betty, in an immoral act that suggests some sexual activity has happened the previous night between her and her master: “. . . from her Master’s Bed had flown, / And softly stole to discompose her own” (3-4). As if this image of the guilty servant were not bad enough, Swift has Betty leap up with the break of dawn to dishevel the sheets of her own bed as a way to cloak her sin. This image and its resulting meaning is what Swift wants to impose upon the memories of his viewers. Moreover, the next snapshots are simultaneously taken, perhaps, from a rotating camera. The master’s “Prentice,” his other housecleaner “Moll,” and the “Youth” are shown either beginning a task or, in the apprentice’s case, creating more work to do since his attempts to clean the floor are feebly done. Further snapshots display the cries of the “Chimney-sweep,” who were young boys exposed to London’s horrific realities of working long, unsafe hours and performing horrendous duties at a young age.
Swift’s camera is not restricted to the indoors, the insides of London’s society; his camera takes us on a photographic journey outside to the London streets he and his audience would have known. “Duns,” who were debt collectors, wait patiently outside an aristocrat’s house to receive payment (12). It is at this point, where Swift’s picture of London’s society becomes bleak since the low and middle-class have to begin their tasks much earlier than those of lazy luxury do if they are to survive in this society. This picture becomes clearer from the description of “Brick-dust Moll” whose screams echo the London streets (14). Now, the image of Swift’s second Moll is not the same person mentioned earlier. “Brick-dust Moll” is not a housecleaner in the general sense, but she is a working maid of the streets, a prostitute, of London’s underworld red-light district. Even the “Turn-key” and the so-called “watchful Bailiffs,” whose shifts end as the morning breaks, are morally corrupted because they allow criminals to roam the filthy streets under a moonlit sky only to split their stolen prizes with those in charge once the morning sun rises (15, 17).
Although Swift wrote this satire, it is objectively Swift-less. Swift’s panoramic view is no doubt his, yet his satire is tame compared to Dryden’s and Pope’s, as we will see. The snapshots he takes of London’s fallen society are what readers see from Swift’s lens; nevertheless, Swift does not pass judgment on the fallen even though he believes London’s society needed a radical restoration. He allows his readers to make their own judgments on what the impressions in the text create in the mind; something Alexander Pope does with swiftness.
Invasion of Human Vanity
Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic The Rape of the Lock (1717) takes a historical incident witnessed by his friend, John Caryll, and immortalizes the trifles behind such an incident in his verse. The incident Caryll encourages Pope to write about was a family feud that stemmed when Lord Robert Petre, who represents the Baron in Pope’s verse, snipped off a long curl of Arabella Fermor’s hair, which represents Pope’s heroine Belinda. Moreover, Pope’s first aim for writing his satire was to bring the two feuding families back together through the satirical and trivial events that were based on real life happenings. Now, it is not clear whether Pope was successful in mending the two families back with laughter; however, a stern commentary about London’s eighteenth-century society bubbles to the surface with each passing canto.
With Pope’s adaptations of traditional epic conventions such as the invocation and dedication of the Muse, John Caryll (canto I), the defensive gods, the Sylphs and sexual allegory (canto II), the games and feast that symbolizes epic battles (canto III), the plunge to the underworld of Spleen (canto IV), and finally the heroic battle of the sexes (canto V), he brings to light, by various comparisons, society’s fascination with trivial principles instead of its morally significant ones. What surfaces as Pope’s major conflict throughout his satirical verse is not to be taken lightly, but to be examined with a serious eye, and that is his view of the vanities within London’s society. In fact, Pope believed his current society to be falling deeper into its morally corrupted grave since most citizens, especially women, upheld their physical appearance above everything else, and men were disorderly beasts who sought sexual triumphs as morally respectable feats. This notion is magnified once the Baron snips a single lock from Belinda’s lovely head: “The meeting points the sacred hair dissever / From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!” (III. 153-54).
It is after the poems climax that trivial human vanity, especially as it concerns Belinda’s physical beauty and public reputation, overshadows significant moral ideals. In fact, Belinda’s friend, Thalestris, tells her to think about the public ramifications of the Baron not only cutting her lock but also showcasing it as a prize that not only disfigures her outward appearance but also her public honor: “Methinks already I your tears survey, / Already hear the horrid things they say, . . . . / And all your honour in whisper lost!” (IV. 107-10). Furthermore, Belinda adds that her own vanity in the public eye is more important than her moral chastity in the face of religion: “Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight” (IV. 175-76). Belinda’s allusion to her “[h]airs less in sight” suggests that she would much rather have the Baron see or snip her pubic hair than the missing beautiful lock that her public can view. In other words, Belinda would rather risk a violation to her chastity than breach her outward appearance, and it is here where Pope views the backward moral ideals of London society.
Pope’s message is further extended in the final canto and is literally put in the mouth of Clarissa, whose cameo appearance in canto III initially helped the Baron cut Belinda’s curl because it was she who handed him the scissors to do the deed, yet readers have difficulty accepting the message because of her earlier action: “But since, alas! frail beauty must decay, / Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to grey; . . . . / What remains but well our power to use, / And keep good-humour still whate’er we lose? (V. 25-30).
Clarissa’s speech, here, is perhaps Pope’s so-called moral of his mock-epic, where human vanity is ever-so fleeting with the hands of time with the trivial and the mundane things, like a lock of hair. For, in the end, nature will grant Belinda, as it did Arabella, with a healthy curl. Petty issues should not over extended their welcome within society since the message that Dryden, Swift, and Pope tried to reveal on their readers, respectively, was that London’s society, their society, should take a long look in the mirror and restore, if possible, the moral values traditionally held in Augustan Rome, the values once held by their city that were now only found spilling forth from their pens and crying out on their pages.
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