Richard Flecknoe

Denis Florence M'Carthy, in Poets and Dramatists of Ireland (1846) 109-15.

This writer, who, under the name of Mac Flecknoe, has been damned to everlasting fame in Dryden's celebrated satire upon Shadwell, is, perhaps, entitled to a place in this volume, as the "best abused" poet who has ever written in the English language. From the extreme scarcity of his works, and the total oblivion into which they have fallen, we are not in a satisfactory position to decide, with what justice he

In prose ad verse, was owned, without dispute,
Through all the realms of Nonsense — absolute.

But, we are satisfied, if the great body of his writings at all resembled the few fragments we have been able to discover, that in his case the verdict of posterity has been pronounced contrary to evidence. Flecknoe, however, had three great faults which in England, at all times, require genius of a very high order to overcome — he was poor, he was a Catholic priest, and he was an Irishman! Need we wonder then at the ease with which this presumptuous scribbler was run down, and the mock homage which he has ever since received from posterity, as the anointed "Prince of Dulness." In some curious lines by Marvel, descriptive of Flecknoe, when at Rome, the national intolerance of poverty and consequent leanness in the individual, is strikingly displayed. Marvel should have headed his description with the words of Julius Caesar, "Would he were fatter."

Obliged by frequent visits of this man,
Whom — as a priest, poet, musician—
I for some branch of Meichizedec took,
Though he derives himself from my Lord Brook.
I sought his lodging, which is at the sign
Of the sad Pelican, subject divine
For poetry. There three stair-cases high,
Which signifies his triple property—
I found at last a chamber, as 'twas said,
But seemed a coffin set on the stairs head,
Not higher than seven, nor larger than three feet;
There neither was a ceiling, nor a sheet,
Save that the ingenious door did, as you come,
Turn in, and show to wainscot half the room:
Yet, of his state, no man could have complained,
There being no bed where he entertained;
And, though, within this cell so narrow pent,
He'd stanzas for a whole apartement....

This basso relievo of a man,
Who as a camel tall, yet easily can
The needle's eye thread without any stitch:
His only impossible is to be rich.
Lest his too subtle body, growing rare,
Should leave his soul to wander in the air.
He, therefore, circumscribes himself in rhymes;
And, swaddled in's own paper seven times,
Bears a close jacket of poetic buff,
With which he doth his third dimension stuff.
Thus armed underneath, he over all
Doth make a primitive sotana fall:
And over that, yet casts an antique cloak,
Worn at the first council of Antioch,
Which by the Jews long hid and disesteemed,
He heard of by tradition, and redeemed:
But were he not in this black habit decked,
This half transparent man would soon reflect
Each colour that he past by, and be seen
As the cameleon, yellow, blue, or green.

Now, let us judge for ourselves as to his merits as a writer. In 1665 he published a work under this title, "Sixty-nine Enigmatical characters all drawn to the life, from several persons, humours, dispositions: pleasant and full of delight. The second edition, by the Author R. F., Esquire: London, printed by William Crook, at the sign of the Three Bibles, on Fleet-bridge, 1666." He inscribed this work, in a short dedication, to Beatrix, duchess of Lorraine, to which he signed his name Rich. Flecknoe. — That all his cotemporaries did not regard him in the light that Dryden and Marvel represented him, is clear from the following lines prefixed to his "Characters," and written by no less a person than the Duke of Newcastle.

Flecknoe! thy "Characters" are so full of wit
And fancy, as each word is throng'd with it:
Each line's a volume; and who reads would swear,
Whole libraries were in each Character.
Nor arrows in a quiver stuck, nor yet
Lights in the starry skies are thicker set,
Nor quills upon the armed porcupine,
Than Wit and Fancy in this work of thine.

The "Characters" are principally written in prose. He has, however, written one in poetry, which alone ought to be sufficient to rescue Flecknoe from the critical purgatory in which he has been suffering for two centuries.

Whether a cheerful air does rise,
And elevate her fairer eyes:
Or a pensive heaviness
Her lovely eyelids does depress:
Still the same becoming grace
Accompanies her eye and face.
Still you'd think that habit best,
To which her count'nance last was drest.
Poor Beauties! when a blush or glance
Can sometimes make look fair, by chance,
Or curious dress, or artful care,
Can make seem fairer than they are.
Give me the eyes, give me the face,
To which no art can add a grace:
Give me the looks, no garbe nor dress
Can ever make more fair, or less.

In Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe," Shadwell, "mature in dulness from his tender years," is given as the "perfect image" of our poet. That Flecknoe, however, was not "a dull fellow," may be seen from his description of one:"—


He is the mute of the company, and only plays a part in the dumb show: or if he say anything, like a pump he labours for it, and presently his spirits sink down again and leave him dry. He sits nodding in company, like a sleepy person over watcht; and rouse him with a question, he stares on you like one newly-awakened out of sleep. He looks with his mouth, and thinks you would sell him a bargain: ask him anything and 'tis impossible to ask him anything he understands. If he be bookish withal, he is yet the greater dunce: being just like a narrow neckt bottle hastily turned downward. Like a dull horse, let him go on his own pace, and he advances somewhat: but spur him, and, through diffidence of his strength, his wit fails, tongue shuffles, falters, trips, and falls flat down at last, never arriving at a period."

The circumstances of Flecknoe's life are enveloped in much obscurity. "It appears," says Sir Walter Scott, "that he either laid aside or disguised his spiritual character, when he returned to England: but he still preserved extensive connections with the Roman Catholic nobility and gentry." In addition to his other writings, Flecknoe composed four plays; namely, "Damoiselles a Is Mode;" "Erminia;" "Love's Dominion;" and "Love's Kingdom;" none of these were acted but the last. To this play Flecknoe subjoined a remarkable discourse upon the English stage. It is one of the earliest and most valuable essays of the kind in the English language; and was considered by Langbaine to have been the best thing Flecknoe ever wrote. Prefixed to "Love's Kingdom," is the following prologue:—

(Spoken by Venus, from the clouds.)
If ever you have heard of Venus' name,
Goddess of beauty, I that Venus am:
Who have to-day descended from my sphere,
To welcome you unto "Love's Kingdom" here;
Or rather to my sphere am come, since I
Am present nowhere more — nor in the sky,
Nor any island in the world than this,
That wholly from the world divided is;
For Cupid, you behold him here in me,
(For there, where Beauty is, Love needs must be,
Or you may yet more easily descry
Him 'mong the ladies, in each amorous eye;
And 'monget the gallants, may as easily trace
Him to their bosoms, from each beauteous face.
May then, fair ladies, you
Find all your servants true;
And, gallants, may, you find
The ladies all as kind,
As your noble favours you declare
How much you friends unto "Love's Kingdom" are;
Of which yourselves compose so great apart,
In your fair eyes, and in your loving heart.

The fountains drink caves subterrene,
The rivulets drink the fountains dry
Brooks drink those rivulets again,
And them some river gliding by—
Until some gulf o' th' sea drink them,
And th' ocean drinks up that again.

Of th' ocean then does drink the sky,
When, having brew'd it into rain,
The earth with drink it does supply,
And plants do drink up that again;
When turn'd to liquor in the vine,
'Tis our turn next to drink the wine.

By this who does not plainly see,
How, down our throats at once is hurled
(Whilst merrily we drinking be)
The quintessence of all the world.
Whilst all drink, then, inland, air, sea,
Let us, too, drink as well as they.