Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dryden: Macflecknoe

Dryden’s MacFlecknoe would have been the literary romp of his day, a satire that makes today’s poetry wars look somewhat well-mannered. Wikipedia offers a very useful, short commentary on the poem’s background. The poem is essentially a satiric attack on a certain Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright, and a contemporary of Dryden with whom Dryden had various disagreements – mainly about poetry, although politics was also an issue. Shadwell may have seen himself as an heir to Ben Jonson, but wasn't anywhere near the same standard, and Dryden makes fun of his pretension (Dryden didn't seem to think much of Jonson, in any case).

These days, poets tend to carry out their arguments in prose, which is a loss for all of us, I think. Those who just want everyone to get along and stop fighting, laudable a notion as that may be, are trying to overturn what history has shown as inevitable, but Dryden’s approach at least has the merits of literary quality and entertainment for generations to come.

A minor poet (and priest), Robert Flecknoe, is characterised as a King of Nonsense looking for a successor and, according to Dryden, Shadwell is the ideal heir:

…'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Sh——, alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh—— alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh—— never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Sh——'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

Don’t hold back, JD! I guess this poem is all most people will ever know of poor old Flecknoe and Shadwell. Towards the end comes a passage of biting satire, this time mocking Shadwell's writing:

With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires never bite.
In thy felonious heart, though venom lies,
It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.
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.
Or if thou wouldst thy diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.

Just as well Dryden isn’t around today...


Mairi said...

Any record of a reply from Shadwell?

Rob said...

I'm not sure, Mairi. There had been a history of argumemets between the two men.

Certainly, this article suggests that Shadwell's reputation was so completely destroyed by Dryden's poem that it never recovered -

Dryden clearly wasn't a guy to mess with.