Dryden's Mac Flecknoe: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Context of the Poem
  • 2:38 Overview of the Poem
  • 3:41 Poem Analysis
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore 'Mac Flecknoe,' John Dryden's famous satirical poem. Our lesson will look at the context, form, meaning, and influence of the poem and will be followed by a short quiz.

Context of the Poem

One of the best recipes for great literature is a setting in which writers and poets mock and antagonize one another. One great example of this is the Restoration period, which lasted from 1660 to about 1698.

Like many eras of literature and art, the Restoration period is strongly influenced by its political context. Much of its literature takes as its subject the turmoil resulting from the political events that had occurred in previous decades, particularly the conflicts between Catholic supporters of a traditional royal government and Protestant supporters of more democratic parliamentary government. After the Protestants defeated the Catholics in the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, a Protestant Parliament ruled England from 1651 to 1660. The violence that took place during this time came to an end once Charles II claimed the throne, and this restoring of a traditional king is what gives the period the title 'Restoration.'

Many of the writers of Restoration literature believed the violence of the previous decades was caused by the strict adherence to extreme political and religious ideologies, hence Restoration writers' suspicion of anyone who held dogmatic positions. This context helps explain why the poetry and drama of the Restoration era was marked by witty and often relentless satire that mocks orthodox positions and those who held them. Restoration writers also despised any unrefined aspects of English culture and, in contrast to the Protestant calls for humble living, strongly embraced lavish lifestyles.

John Dryden, who lived from 1631 to 1700, produced some of the most influential works of Restoration satire. Known for his incredibly impersonal poems and his relentless wit, Dryden had a significant impact on the language and rhetorical forms used by future writers.

One great example of his influential work is Mac Flecknoe, which is believed to have been written in late 1678 or 1679, although it wasn't published until 1682. In the poem, Dryden mocks Thomas Shadwell, a fellow poet with whom Dryden had been friends for many years. Although it's not known exactly what events ended the friendship and began the feud, Shadwell and Dryden had quite a few differences, including their theories of literature, their religions, and their politics.

Overview of the Poem

Mac Flecknoe begins by explaining that the reigning king of dull poetry, Mac Flecknoe, is retiring from his position and that the throne of dullest poet must now be filled by another writer. The poem then humorously quotes Mac Flecknoe's departing speech. In the speech, Flecknoe relates that although he was able to produce impressively dull poetry throughout his career, Shadwell's ability to write terrible poetry easily surpasses his own.

The poem goes on to explain the beautiful throne that has been designed in preparation for Shadwell's rule. We then learn of Shadwell's coronation and of how people come from all over to praise the new king and of the animals that applaud him. After Shadwell promises to always wage war with wit, his father presents a speech that blesses Shadwell's rule and encourages him to continue to produce terrible poetry. The poem then ends with Shadwell officially becoming the reigning king of dullness.

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