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.
In these first lines, Dryden clearly establishes his satiric voice. He is using grand language, tone, ideas, and historical allusion to discuss the leader of the realm of Nonsense, assuredly not the name readers were expecting. Comparisons to Rome, the evocation of such universal themes such as death and fate, and the use of heroic couplets serve to discomfit and amuse the reader when they start to realize what Dryden is up to. In the lines that follow, Dryden skewers Shadwell in the harshest of ways, but nowhere is the tone bitter or the insults blatant. Rather, through this mock-heroic style, Dryden suggests just how lacking in merit his subject is.
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: Sh—— alone my perfect image bears, Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Flecknoe uses an encomiastic tone to introduce his son, a man who wages war with wit and has been dull practically since he was born. This is tremendously ironic, of course, and Dryden heaps on the insults with spelling Shadwell's name as "Sh--," a stand-in for "shit" if there ever was one. He will continue to evoke shit throughout the poem; critic Virginia Brackett argues that lines 49-50 ("About thy boat little fishes throng, / As at the morning toast, that floats along") are an allusion to "sewage floating on top of the water." During the procession, "loads of Sh-- almost chok'd the way" (line 103). There is very little ambiguity about it - Dryden is saying that Shadwell and his work are no better than excrement.
Close to the Walls which fair Augusta bind, (The fair Augusta much to fears inclin'd) An ancient fabrick, 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 Hero's bred; Where unfledg'd Actors learn to laugh and cry, Where infant Punks their tender Voices try, And little Maximins the Gods defy.
It is absolutely no accident that Shadwell's glorious coronation takes place in a neighborhood such as this. The Roman edifices are now in ruins, suggesting that English arts are in ruins as well. The denizens of the neighborhood primarily include prostitutes and "unfledg'd actors" and "infant punks." Love is "lewd" and joy "polluted" (line 71). A few lines later Dryden adds that only clowns (Simkin) find "just reception" (line 81) and that it is a "monument to vanish'd minds" (line 82). The term "Maximins" refers to the inhabitants of Augusta, but ironically the Latin meaning of "greatness" does not apply. All is empty, vile, and ignoble. The past is glorious and the present debased.
Now Empress Fame had publisht the renown, Of Sh——'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, Shirly, Ogleby there lay, But loads of Sh—— almost choakt the way.
This passage absolutely drips with irony. The "Empress Fame" proclaims Shadwell's coronation and nations meet together to rejoice, which of course is a ludicrous thing to imagine given what we know of the corpulent and crass Shadwell. Dryden contrasts this grand image with scatological references and a disturbing image of the severed limbs of other poets (although the "limbs" are actually book pages, it still disturbs). The "martyrs of pies" refers to bakers' use of book pages underneath pies, and "reliques of the bum" refers to book pages being used as toilet paper. Thus, Shadwell's writings are ideally used for nothing better than wiping one's ass and lining the bottom of a street food.
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 plaid arround his face. As Hannibal did to the Altars come, Sworn by his Syre a mortal Foe to Rome; So Sh—— swore, nor should his Vow bee vain, That he till Death true dullness would maintain; And in his father's Right, and Realms defence, Ne'er to have peace with Wit, nor truce with Sense.
One of Dryden's favored techniques to lampoon Shadwell is to place him in the historical shadow of Rome and its heroes, which, of course, highlights just how far removed from these luminaries Shadwell truly is. Here he suggests that Shadwell is like Ascansius, the son of Aeneas and the founder of the city of Alba Longa. Clearly, Flecknoe is no Aeneas and Shadwell is no Ascansius. When one imagines a Roman hero, one thinks of an aquiline nose, a strong brow and set chin, and intelligent eyes. Here, Shadwell has "thick fogs" about his brow, and his face is filled with "lambent dullness."
Mac Flecknoe Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mac Flecknoe is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.