This post is written in haste, as I wanted to complete Hudibras before I’d leave for holidays. Hudibras is a master of philosophy and theology, and we get a long list of jokes on his useless knowledge and ability to argue. But then comes the main point of Butler’s satire – Hudibras is a Presbyterian, “true blue” and is a fine representative of this sect whose members like to beat others into submission through their military force, their religion consists mostly of disliking all other religions and are so perverse that they’d rather “keep the holiday/the wrong than others the right way” (some extreme Puritans fasted on Christmas). As you can see, Butler doesn’t like Presbyterians at all. And now, time to bed, as I have to catch an early plane. Adieu!
But Hudibras, contrary to what people might say, is not a fool, the proof of which is that he can speak Latin and Greek and even some Hebrew. The thing is, he does not want to use his wisdom too often not to wear it out, just like some people save their best clothes for Sundays. But he is never afraid to show off his linguistic knowledge. He is also an able logician and rhetorician, because he never speaks but by using some metaphors and colourful language.His English is “cut on Greek and Latin”, like some articles of dress which were in fashion at the time and had coarser, cheaper cloth on the outside, but were slashed to show off the more expensive satin lining. So is Sir Hudibras’ speech a mixture of three languages, and like many Dissenters, he also loves to use some English neologisms. These new words are so hard Demosthenes could have used them instead of the pebbles he allegedly put in in his mouth to cure his stammer. And he is also an able mathematician because he can always tell whether a grocer tries to cheat him on bread or butter or when the clock is going to strike.
This is a satirical poem against Puritans, published after the Restoration to much official acclaim (Charles II loved it). Of course nowadays we want our satirists to speak truth to the power and punch up, but it’s not so easy in the 17th century. Hudibras is a Puritan justice of peace who goes off on a mission (“a-coloneling”) a little bit like a knight errant. This happens during the Civil War, when men fight over Dame Religion like drunks over a prostitute, although they really don’t know why. People are whipped into frenzy by preachers banging their pulpits, “drum ecclesiastic”. The authorities still quarrel whether Hudibras was wiser or braver, but it’s difficult to decide, because his brain is only slightly bigger than his rage, which makes some people call him a fool. Montaigne’s cat (Montaigne famously wondered in his Essays whether he was playing with his cat, or his cat with him) might consider him a fool too. All that is written in a vigorous, rather irregular tetrameter, which came to be known as hudibrastic verse.
More of Dryden’s theoretical writings with very long titles (I can’t blame him since I am guilty of it myself; it’s only in belles-lettres where you can get away with a one-word title). Both of them are a bit self-aggrandizing, as you are going to see. The first one comes from an introduction to Dryden’s libretto to a never produced opera based on Paradise Lost. In this text Dryden defends himself against the charges of using too high-flown and bombastic style, saying that the most severe stylists such as Virgil and Horace sometimes also used bold metaphors when appropriate. So when you judge a poet for using too colourful language, perhaps the problem is with you, not with the poet. And why should Virgil and Horace be our yardsticks? Because they were admired by countless readers from all the later generations, so by taking issue with their language you also implicitly accuse all these readers of the lack of discernment. The reason why Virgil and Homer were the authors of such effective texts is because they studied Nature. In another fragment Dryden defines “wit” as “thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject”, which means that high and noble subjects require elevated style.
The next fragments, from Dryden’s introduction to a collection of translation of Roman satires, is about the difference between two modes of satire, named after two Roman poets “Juvenalian” and “Horatian”, the former being a savage attack on human depravity and the latter more of gentle mocking. Even though, as the Helpful Footnote informs us, Dryden seemed elsewhere to favour the Juvenalian, here he rather praises the latter, rather immodestly quoting his own portrait of Buckingham as Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel. He thinks rather highly of it himself and he thinks it is “worth the whole poem”.The real art of satire, Dryden argues, is to make somebody appear like a fool and knave without ever calling him thus. It’s like early English miniaturists, who could create an illusion of three-dimensional face without using shadowing. This mode of satire is preferable and safer also for the author, because “a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not.” It’s like a masterful execution, when the victim hardly notices his being dispatched, as opposed to clumsy hanging.
After crowning his heir, Flecknoe makes a speech. He imagines his son’s empire to stretch from Ireland to Barbados, which of course means it’s just mostly empty sea. Let George Etherege (another playwright, whom Dryden evidently admired) dominate the stage, Shadwell’s comedy fools are still going to be more foolish, because he finds them so easy to write, modelling them after himself. So he does not have to try being particularly good, he can create figures like Sir Formal (a foolish orator in Shadwell’s comedy The Virtuoso) without any effort. So don’t pretend to imitate Jonson, because he was so much better than you and his poetry to yours is like oil to water. Dryden makes also some jokes about Shadwell’s obesity (he’s a huge man but he doesn’t have enough sense to fill a thimble) and finally advises him through the mouth of Flecknoe to switch to poetry where he can do his puns and acrostics. He alludes probably to George Herbert, writing “There thou may at wings display and altars raise”, because Dryden really didn’t get metaphysical poets and considered image poems just purely superficial. Flecknoe is still declaiming when he is sent down through a trapdoor in a scene deliberately recalling one from The Virtuouso. He departs like Elijah in the Bible, with his mantle “borne upwards by a subterranean wind” (possibly a farting joke) resting on his disciple’s shoulders.
The next stage of the poem is going to take place near London’s Barbican, which was then, judging by Dryden’s description, in ruins and a major place for sex trade. At this place was located also the Nursery, not a pre-school but a kind of acting school, which is, however, described by Dryden in disparaging terms, as not the place where you can hear the great poetry of Jonson or Fletcher but bad puns and mediocre poetry. This is the spot which Flecknoe picked for the coronation of his heir, which is portrayed in mock-epic terms. Fame spread the renown of Shadwell all the way to Watling Street, which is actually not very far. The coronation is attended by other bad poets, whose works were used either for lining pie tins or as toilet paper, and by publishers who lost money on publishing them, including Herrington, Shadwell’s and Dryden’s own publisher. Shadwell is given a mug of ale instead of the orb and the script of Love’s Kingdom, Flecknoe’s own play (very bad, as the Helpful Footnote tells us) as his sceptre. He is crowned with poppies, which implies that his readers snooze, but also is apparently a sly hint at Shadwell’s opium addiction. As every notable event, this is also attended by omens: twelve owls fly over him, like twelve vultures flew during Romulus’s coronation.
The editor of the NAEL hails this poem as a “superb satire”, but in my opinion, when it takes miles of footnotes to understand the satire (unless you are a seventeenth-century scholar), it rather deflates it, like all explaining of a joke. “Mac Flecknoe” is a satire directed against a poet Thomas Shadwell, whom Dryden considered a lousy poet, perhaps justifiably. In order to do this, he picked another lousy poet Richard Flecknoe (who happened to be a Catholic priest), then recently deceased, and portrayed him as looking for a poetic heir in dullness and lack of imagination. Hence “Mac” of the title – as in “the son of” in Scottish and Irish. As a side note, when Dryden was stripped of his Poet Laureateship, it was Shadwell who got it. It must have hurt.
The poem begins with Flecknoe, “this aged prince”, looking for a successor. (Since the succession after Charles II was such a hot topic back then, I wonder if it is an undercurrent here.) Flecknoe does not look for long and immediately decides that Shadwell, masked here as Sh——, is his heir in stupidity. Omitting names was a convention in the satire of this era, but maybe it could be also a nasty joke, reminding the readers here about another word starting with “sh”, especially since later in the poem we have an image of Shadwell’s boat followed by little fishes like they follow “the morning toast that floats along” (“toast” meaning “sewage”). Other poets may have a moments of lucidity, but Shadwell is boring through and through. Even Flecknoe has to admit he was just sent to foretell the arrival of a bigger dunce than him, like John the Baptist was sent before Jesus. There are some jokes referring to Shadwell’s play, to elaborate to analyse here, and to the monotonousness of his verse. Here Flecknoe stops and weeps for joy.