'Mac Flecknoe' by John Dryden

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All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.
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.
Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee,
Thou last great prophet of tautology:
Even I, a dunce of more renown than they,
Was sent before but to prepare thy way;
And coarsely clad in Norwich drugget came
To teach the nations in thy greater name.
My warbling lute, the lute I whilom strung
When to King John of Portugal I sung,
Was but the prelude to that glorious day,
When thou on silver Thames did'st cut thy way,
With well tim'd oars before the royal barge,
Swell'd with the pride of thy celestial charge;
And big with hymn, commander of an host,
The like was ne'er in Epsom blankets toss'd.
Methinks I see the new Arion sail,
The lute still trembling underneath thy nail.
At thy well sharpen'd thumb from shore to shore
The treble squeaks for fear, the basses roar:
Echoes from Pissing-Alley, Shadwell call,
And Shadwell they resound from Aston Hall.
About thy boat the little fishes throng,
As at the morning toast, that floats along.
Sometimes as prince of thy harmonious band
Thou wield'st thy papers in thy threshing hand.
St. Andre's feet ne'er kept more equal time,
Not ev'n the feet of thy own Psyche's rhyme:
Though they in number as in sense excel;
So just, so like tautology they fell,
That, pale with envy, Singleton forswore
The lute and sword which he in triumph bore
And vow'd he ne'er would act Villerius more.
Here stopt the good old sire; and wept for joy
In silent raptures of the hopeful boy.
All arguments, but most his plays, persuade,
That for anointed dullness he was made.

Close to the walls which fair Augusta bind,
(The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd)
An ancient fabric, rais'd t'inform the sight,
There stood of yore, and Barbican it hight:
A watch tower once; but now, so fate ordains,
Of all the pile an empty name remains.
From its old ruins brothel-houses rise,
Scenes of lewd loves, and of polluted joys.
Where their vast courts, the mother-strumpets keep,
And, undisturb'd by watch, in silence sleep.
Near these a nursery erects its head,
Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;
Where unfledg'd actors learn to laugh and cry,
Where infant punks their tender voices try,
And little Maximins the gods defy.
Great Fletcher never treads in buskins here,
Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;
But gentle Simkin just reception finds
Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds:
Pure clinches, the suburbian muse affords;
And Panton waging harmless war with words.
Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,
Ambitiously design'd his Shadwell's throne.
For ancient Decker prophesi'd long since,
That in this pile should reign a mighty prince,
Born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense:
To whom true dullness should some Psyches owe,
But worlds of Misers from his pen should flow;
Humorists and hypocrites it should produce,
Whole Raymond families, and tribes of Bruce.

Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown,
Of Shadwell's coronation through the town.
Rous'd by report of fame, the nations meet,
From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling-street.
No Persian carpets spread th'imperial way,
But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay:
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.
Bilk'd stationers for yeoman stood prepar'd,
And Herringman was Captain of the Guard.
The hoary prince in majesty appear'd,
High on a throne of his own labours rear'd.
At his right hand our young Ascanius sat
Rome's other hope, and pillar of the state.
His brows thick fogs, instead of glories, grace,
And lambent dullness play'd around his face.
As Hannibal did to the altars come,
Sworn by his sire a mortal foe to Rome;
So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain,
That he till death true dullness would maintain;
And in his father's right, and realm's defence,
Ne'er to have peace with wit, nor truce with sense.
The king himself the sacred unction made,
As king by office, and as priest by trade:
In his sinister hand, instead of ball,
He plac'd a mighty mug of potent ale;
Love's kingdom to his right he did convey,
At once his sceptre and his rule of sway;
Whose righteous lore the prince had practis'd young,
And from whose loins recorded Psyche sprung,
His temples last with poppies were o'er spread,
That nodding seem'd to consecrate his head:
Just at that point of time, if fame not lie,
On his left hand twelve reverend owls did fly.
So Romulus, 'tis sung, by Tiber's brook,
Presage of sway from twice six vultures took.
Th'admiring throng loud acclamations make,
And omens of his future empire take.
The sire then shook the honours of his head,
And from his brows damps of oblivion shed
Full on the filial dullness: long he stood,
Repelling from his breast the raging god;
At length burst out in this prophetic mood:

Heavens bless my son, from Ireland let him reign
To far Barbadoes on the Western main;
Of his dominion may no end be known,
And greater than his father's be his throne.
Beyond love's kingdom let him stretch his pen;
He paus'd, and all the people cry'd Amen.
Then thus, continu'd he, my son advance
Still in new impudence, new ignorance.
Success let other teach, learn thou from me
Pangs without birth, and fruitless industry.
Let Virtuosos in five years be writ;
Yet not one thought accuse thy toil of wit.
Let gentle George in triumph tread the stage,
Make Dorimant betray, and Loveit rage;
Let Cully, Cockwood, Fopling, charm the pit,
And in their folly show the writer's wit.
Yet still thy fools shall stand in thy defence,
And justify their author's want of sense.
Let 'em be all by thy own model made
Of dullness, and desire no foreign aid:
That they to future ages may be known,
Not copies drawn, but issue of thy own.
Nay let thy men of wit too be the same,
All full of thee, and differing but in name;
But let no alien Sedley interpose
To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom prose.
And when false flowers of rhetoric thou would'st cull,
Trust Nature, do not labour to be dull;
But write thy best, and top; and in each line,
Sir Formal's oratory will be thine.
Sir Formal, though unsought, attends thy quill,
And does thy Northern Dedications fill.
Nor let false friends seduce thy mind to fame,
By arrogating Jonson's hostile name.
Let Father Flecknoe fire thy mind with praise,
And Uncle Ogleby thy envy raise.
Thou art my blood, where Jonson has no part;
What share have we in Nature or in Art?
Where did his wit on learning fix a brand,
And rail at arts he did not understand?
Where made he love in Prince Nicander's vein,
Or swept the dust in Psyche's humble strain?
Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my arse,
Promis'd a play and dwindled to a farce?
When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,
As thou whole Eth'ridge dost transfuse to thine?
But so transfus'd as oil on waters flow,
His always floats above, thine sinks below.
This is thy province, this thy wondrous way,
New humours to invent for each new play:
This is that boasted bias of thy mind,
By which one way, to dullness, 'tis inclin'd,
Which makes thy writings lean on one side still,
And in all changes that way bends thy will.
Nor let thy mountain belly make pretence
Of likeness; thine's a tympany of sense.
A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ,
But sure thou 'rt but a kilderkin of wit.
Like mine thy gentle numbers feebly creep,
Thy Tragic Muse gives smiles, thy Comic sleep.
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 would'st thy diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.
He said, but his last words were scarcely heard,
For Bruce and Longvil had a trap prepar'd,
And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.
Sinking he left his drugget robe behind,
Born upwards by a subterranean wind.
The mantle fell to the young prophet's part,
With double portion of his father's art.

Editor 1 Interpretation


Mac Flecknoe is a classic poem written by John Dryden in 1682. It is a masterpiece of satire that has been appreciated for centuries. Dryden used his wit and humor to criticize the work of his contemporary, Thomas Shadwell, who was a popular playwright and poet. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, symbols, and literary devices used in Mac Flecknoe, and how Dryden's writing style makes it a timeless work of literature.


Before delving into the poem itself, it is important to understand the historical and literary context in which it was written. John Dryden was a prominent writer and literary figure in the Restoration era of English literature, which followed the Puritanical period of the mid-17th century. The Restoration was characterized by a revival of the arts and a return to the values of the monarchy. The era was also marked by a rise in satire, which was used to criticize the social and political norms of the time.

Thomas Shadwell was a contemporary of Dryden and was known for his comedic plays and poetry. He was also a target of Dryden's criticism, as the two writers had a long-standing feud. In Mac Flecknoe, Dryden takes aim at Shadwell's literary style and mocks him mercilessly.


The main theme of Mac Flecknoe is the decline of literature and the need for true poetic talent. Dryden uses the character of Shadwell to represent the mediocrity of contemporary literature and the lack of originality in the works of his contemporaries. He also emphasizes the importance of classical education and the need for poets to be well-versed in the literary traditions of the past.

Another important theme in the poem is the idea of succession. Dryden uses the metaphor of a king passing on his crown to his successor to represent the passing of literary tradition from one generation of writers to the next. In this case, the crown is passed from Flecknoe, who represents the old and outdated style of writing, to Shadwell, who is seen as his unworthy successor.


One of the most prominent symbols in Mac Flecknoe is the city of Nonsense. This represents the world of contemporary literature, which Dryden sees as lacking in substance and meaning. The city is characterized by chaos and confusion, with its inhabitants speaking in gibberish and engaging in absurd behavior.

The character of Flecknoe himself is also a symbol, representing the old and outdated style of writing that Dryden is critiquing. His name is a play on the word "fleck," meaning a fleck or spot, which emphasizes his insignificance and lack of importance.

Literary Devices

One of the most striking literary devices used in Mac Flecknoe is satire. Dryden uses humor and irony to criticize the literary style of his contemporaries, particularly Shadwell. He employs sarcasm and exaggeration to mock the absurdity of contemporary literature and the lack of originality in the works of his peers.

Another important literary device used in the poem is allusion. Dryden draws on classical mythology and literature to emphasize the importance of classical education in the creation of true poetry. He refers to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the works of Virgil and Ovid, to highlight the significance of literary tradition.

Writing Style

Dryden's writing style in Mac Flecknoe is characterized by wit, humor, and irony. He uses a mixture of formal and informal language, often switching between the two for emphasis. His use of meter and rhyme also adds to the poem's musicality and rhythm.

One of the most notable aspects of Dryden's writing style is his ability to create vivid imagery through his words. He uses descriptive language and metaphor to paint a picture of the world of contemporary literature, with its chaotic and nonsensical inhabitants.


In conclusion, Mac Flecknoe is a masterpiece of satire that has been admired for centuries. Dryden's use of literary devices such as satire, allusion, and metaphor, as well as his skillful writing style, make the poem a timeless work of literature. Through his critique of the mediocrity of contemporary literature and his emphasis on the importance of classical education and literary tradition, Dryden highlights the need for true poetic talent and originality in the world of literature.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Mac Flecknoe: A Masterpiece of Satire

John Dryden, the renowned English poet, playwright, and critic, is considered one of the greatest literary figures of the 17th century. His works are known for their wit, elegance, and satirical edge. Among his many notable works, Poetry Mac Flecknoe stands out as a masterpiece of satire. In this poem, Dryden takes aim at one of his contemporaries, Thomas Shadwell, who was a rival playwright and poet. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and literary devices used in Poetry Mac Flecknoe, and why it remains a timeless work of satire.

The poem is set in a mock-heroic style, a genre that was popular in the 17th century. In this style, the poet takes a trivial subject and elevates it to a grandiose level, using epic conventions such as grandiose language, heroic imagery, and exaggerated metaphors. In Poetry Mac Flecknoe, Dryden uses this style to mock Shadwell's literary pretensions and to expose his lack of talent.

The poem begins with a description of the titular character, Mac Flecknoe, who is the king of Nonsense. Dryden describes him as a "mighty monarch" who rules over a kingdom of "dullness." Mac Flecknoe is a parody of the heroic figure, a king who is supposed to be wise, just, and powerful. However, in this case, he is the opposite of all these qualities. He is a king of nonsense, ruling over a kingdom of dullness, where bad poetry reigns supreme.

The poem then shifts its focus to Shadwell, who is described as Mac Flecknoe's heir and successor. Dryden mocks Shadwell's literary ambitions, describing him as a "mighty poet" who is "destined to reign." However, the irony is that Shadwell is not a great poet at all. In fact, he is a mediocre one, who is only famous because of his connections and his ability to flatter those in power.

Dryden then goes on to describe Shadwell's literary style, which he compares to a "dull, flat, and unprofitable soil." Shadwell's poetry is described as "heavy and gross," lacking in wit, elegance, and imagination. Dryden mocks Shadwell's use of cliches and his inability to create original metaphors. He describes Shadwell's poetry as a "vast and undistinguish'd sea," where "no sight of land" can be seen.

Dryden's use of imagery is particularly effective in this poem. He uses metaphors and similes to create vivid images that highlight Shadwell's lack of talent. For example, he compares Shadwell's poetry to a "foggy day," where "no object does the sight sustain." This image conveys the idea that Shadwell's poetry is dull and lacks clarity. Dryden also compares Shadwell's poetry to a "dull lamp," which "sheds a faint and sickly ray." This image conveys the idea that Shadwell's poetry is weak and lacks energy.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as Dryden describes Shadwell's descent into madness. He describes how Shadwell becomes obsessed with his own poetry, and how he begins to see himself as a great poet, despite all evidence to the contrary. Dryden mocks Shadwell's delusions of grandeur, describing how he "fancies he's a poet born," and how he "dreams of laurels on his head." Dryden's use of irony is particularly effective here, as he contrasts Shadwell's delusions with the reality of his mediocre talent.

The poem ends with Mac Flecknoe passing on his crown to Shadwell, who is described as the "true successor" to the throne of dullness. Dryden's use of the mock-heroic style is particularly effective here, as he elevates the trivial subject of bad poetry to a grandiose level. The poem ends with a sense of irony, as Shadwell is crowned the king of dullness, despite his lack of talent.

In conclusion, Poetry Mac Flecknoe is a masterpiece of satire, which uses the mock-heroic style to mock Thomas Shadwell's literary pretensions. Dryden's use of imagery, irony, and wit is particularly effective in this poem, as he exposes Shadwell's lack of talent and his delusions of grandeur. The poem remains a timeless work of satire, which continues to be studied and admired by literary scholars and enthusiasts alike.

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