Mock-Heroic Poetry: Definition, Examples & Style

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 0:53 Example: Mac Flecknoe
  • 3:39 Example: The Rape of the Lock
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Did you know that parodies have been a major part of English literature since the seventeenth century? In this lesson, we discuss how mock-heroic poetry uses the style of heroic poetry in an entirely different, wholly hilarious way.

Definition of Mock-Heroic Poetry

Anyone who's listened to Weird Al or seen an episode of Community knows that there's a great deal of humor to be found in parodies. Still, this tendency to poke fun at what's already been created is by no means new. In fact, parodies became a major part of English poetry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The kind of poetic parody that flourished during this time is known as mock-heroic poetry. Just as the name suggests, mock-heroic poetry mocks the conventions of heroic (also known as epic) poetry. It does so by taking the elevated, 'heroic' language of epic poetry and using it to tell rather ordinary (sometimes dull) stories. In other words, mock-heroic poetry uses the same style as heroic poetry, but the content of the poetry is entirely different.

Mac Flecknoe

To get a better understanding of how mock-heroic poetry uses the same style as heroic poetry, let's look at an example from John Dryden's 'Mac Flecknoe.' Published in 1682, this poem is a satirical attack on the poet Thomas Shadwell, a rival of Dryden's.

In 'Mac Flecknoe,' Dryden depicts Shadwell as a prince in a kingdom of awful poetry. In the following passage, the aging king Mac Flecknoe proclaims Shadwell as the heir to the throne:

This aged prince now flourishing in peace,
And blest with issue of a large increase,
Worn out with business, did at length debate
To settle the succession of the State:
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:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty:
Thoughtless as monarch oaks, that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.

There are two major ways in which this example (as well mock-heroic poetry in general) imitates the style of epic poetry. First of all, this example was written in heroic couplets. To put it simply, heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that use a meter known as iambic pentameter. A line of iambic pentameter contains five iambs. An iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable, such as the phrase 'and blest' or the word 'besides.'

The second way in which this example imitates the style of epic poetry involves something known as rhetoric. When we use the term 'rhetoric,' we're simply referring to language being manipulated in a certain way to achieve a certain goal. In the case of 'Mac Flecknoe,' Dryden is imitating the highfalutin,' exaggerated rhetoric of epic poetry. For example, in describing Shadwell's stupidity, Dryden compares Shadwell's mind to a 'genuine night' that 'admits no ray,' equating his dim wit with the forces of nature.

The Rape of the Lock

Now that we've discussed how mock-heroic poetry uses the same poetic form and rhetoric as heroic poetry, let's examine what makes the content of mock-heroic poetry unique. In order to do so, let's read an excerpt from 'The Rape of the Lock' by Alexander Pope.

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