John Dryden

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Mac Flecknoe

    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;
5   In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute,
    Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute.
    This aged prince, now flourishing in peace,
    And blest with issue of a large increase;
    Worn out with business, did at length debate
10   To settle the succession of the state:
    And, pondering which of all his sons was fit
    To reign, and wage immortal war with wit,
    Cried, 'Tis resolved; for nature pleads, that he
    Should only rule, who most resembles me.
15   Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
    Mature in dulness 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,
20   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.
25   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 Shirley2 were but types of thee,
30   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.
35   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 didst cut thy way,
    With well-timed oars before the royal barge,
40   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.
45   At thy well-sharpen'd thumb, from shore to shore
    The trebles squeak 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,
50   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's3 feet ne'er kept more equal time,
    Not even the feet of thy own Psyche's4 rhyme:
55   Though they in number as in sense excel;
    So just, so like tautology, they fell,
    That, pale with envy, Singleton5 forswore
    The lute and sword, which he in triumph bore,
    And vow'd he ne'er would act Villerius more.
   
60          Here stopp'd 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 dulness he was made.
   
           Close to the walls which fair Augusta bind
65   (The fair Augusta much to fears inclined),
    An ancient fabric raised to 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:
70   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 Nursery6 erects its head,
75   Where queens are form'd, and future heroes bred;
    Where unfledged 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,
80   Nor greater Jonson dares in socks appear;
    But gentle Simkin7 just reception finds
    Amidst this monument of vanish'd minds:
    Pure clinches the suburban muse affords,
    And Panton8 waging harmless war with words.
85   Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,
    Ambitiously design'd his Shadwell's throne.
    For ancient Decker9 prophesied long since,
    That in this pile should reign a mighty prince,
    Born for a scourge of wit, and flail of sense:
90   To whom true dulness should some Psyches owe,
    But worlds of Misers10 from his pen should flow;
    Humourists and hypocrites it should produce,
    Whole Raymond families, and tribes of Bruce.11
   
           Now Empress Fame had publish'd the renown
95   Of Shadwell's coronation through the town.
    Roused by report of fame, the nations meet,
    From near Bunhill, and distant Watling Street.
    No Persian carpets spread the imperial way,
    But scatter'd limbs of mangled poets lay:
100   From dusty shops neglected authors come,
    Martyrs of pies, and reliques of the bum.
    Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby12 there lay,
    But loads of Shadwell almost choked the way.
    Bilk'd stationers for yeomen stood prepared,
105   And Herringman13 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 sate,
    Rome's other hope, and pillar of the state.
110   His brows thick fogs, instead of glories, grace,
    And lambent dulness play'd around his face.
    As Hannibal did to the altars come,
    Sworn by his fire, a mortal foe to Rome;
    So Shadwell swore, nor should his vow be vain,
115   That he till death true dulness 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.
120   In his sinister hand, instead of ball,
    He placed a mighty mug of potent ale;
    Love's Kingdom14 to his right he did convey,
    At once his sceptre and his rule of sway;
    Whose righteous lore the prince had practised young,
125   And from whose loins recorded Psyche sprung.
    His temples, last, with poppies were o'erspread,
    That nodding seem'd to consecrate his head.
    Just at the point of time, if fame not lie,
    On his left hand twelve reverend owls did fly.
130   So Romulus, 'tis sung, by Tiber's brook,
    Presage of sway from twice six vultures took.
    The admiring throng loud acclamations make,
    And omens of his future empire take.
    The sire then shook the honours of his head,
135   And from his brows damps of oblivion shed,
    Full on the filial dulness: 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
140   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 paused, and all the people cried, Amen.
145   Then thus continued he: My son, advance
    Still in new impudence, new ignorance.
    Success let others teach, learn thou from me
    Pangs without birth, and fruitless industry.
    Let Virtuosos15 in five years be writ;
150   Yet not one thought accuse thy toil of wit.
    Let gentle George16 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.
155   Yet still thy fools shall stand in thy defence,
    And justify their author's want of sense.
    Let them be all by thy own model made
    Of dulness, and desire no foreign aid;
    That they to future ages may be known,
160   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 Sedley17 interpose,
    To lard with wit thy hungry Epsom prose.[156]
165   And when false flowers of rhetoric thou wouldst cull,
    Trust nature, do not labour to be dull;
    But write thy best, and top; and, in each line,
    Sir Formal's18 oratory will be thine:
    Sir Formal, though unsought, attends thy quill,
170   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.
175   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's20 vein,
180   Or swept the dust in Psyche's humble strain?
    Where sold he bargains, whip-stitch, kiss my a—e,
    Promised a play, and dwindled to a farce?
    When did his muse from Fletcher scenes purloin,
    As thou whole Etheridge dost transfuse to thine?
185   But so transfused, as oil and 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,
190   By which one way to dulness 'tis inclined:
    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.
195   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 thyself to write,
200   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.
205   Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command,
    Some peaceful province in Acrostic land.
    There thou mayst wings display and altars21 raise,
    And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
    Or, if thou wouldst thy different talents suit,
210   Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.
   
      He said; but his last words were scarcely heard:
    For Bruce and Longville had a trap prepared,
    And down they sent the yet declaiming bard.
    Sinking he left his drugget robe behind,
215   Borne upwards by a subterranean wind.
    The mantle fell to the young prophet's part,
    With double portion of his father's art.
   
   
    FOOTNOTES:
   
    1'Mac Flecknoe:' Richard Flecknoe, from whom this poem derives its name, was an Irish priest, and author of plays.
   
    2 'Heywood and Shirley:' play writers in Queen Elizabeth's time.
   
    3 'St Andre:' a famous French dancing-master.
   
    4 'Psyche:' an opera of Shadwell's.
   
    5 'Singleton:' a musician of the time.
   
    6 'Nursery:' a theatre for training actors.
   
    7 'Simkin:' a character of a cobbler, in an interlude.
   
    8 'Panton:' a famous punster.
   
    9 'Decker:' Thomas Decker, a dramatic poet of James I.'s reign.
   
    10 'Worlds of Misers:' 'The Miser' and 'The Humourists' were two of Shadwell's comedies.
   
    11 'Raymond' and 'Bruce:' the first of these is an insipid character in 'The Humourists'; the second, in 'The Virtuoso.'
   
    12 'Ogleby:' translator of Virgil.
   
    13 'Herringman:' Henry Herringman, a bookseller; see 'Life.'
   
    14 'Love's Kingdom:' this is the name of the only play of Flecknoe's, which was acted, but miscarried in the representation.
   
    15'Virtuoso:' a play of Shadwell's.
   
    16 'Gentle George:' Sir George Etheredge.
   
    17 'Alien Sedley:' Sir Charles Sedley was supposed to assist Shadwell in writing his plays.
   
    18 'Epsom prose:' alluding to Shadwell's play of 'Epsom Wells.'
   
    19 'Formal:' a character in 'The Virtuoso.'
   
    20 'Nicander:' a character of a lover in Shadwell's opera of 'Psyche.'
   
    21 'Wings and altars:' forms in which old acrostics were cast. See Herbert's 'Temple.'
   
   

First published 1676.

Contributed by Robert Clark.