Did you know that parodies have been a major part of English literature since the seventeenth century? In this lesson, we discuss how mock-heroic poetry uses the style of heroic poetry in an entirely different, wholly hilarious way.
Definition of Mock-Heroic Poetry
Anyone who’s listened to Weird Al or seen an episode of Community knows that there’s a great deal of humor to be found in parodies. Still, this tendency to poke fun at what’s already been created is by no means new. In fact, parodies became a major part of English poetry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.The kind of poetic parody that flourished during this time is known as mock-heroic poetry. Just as the name suggests, mock-heroic poetry mocks the conventions of heroic (also known as epic) poetry. It does so by taking the elevated, ‘heroic’ language of epic poetry and using it to tell rather ordinary (sometimes dull) stories.
In other words, mock-heroic poetry uses the same style as heroic poetry, but the content of the poetry is entirely different.
To get a better understanding of how mock-heroic poetry uses the same style as heroic poetry, let’s look at an example from John Dryden’s ‘Mac Flecknoe.’ Published in 1682, this poem is a satirical attack on the poet Thomas Shadwell, a rival of Dryden’s.In ‘Mac Flecknoe,’ Dryden depicts Shadwell as a prince in a kingdom of awful poetry. In the following passage, the aging king Mac Flecknoe proclaims Shadwell as the heir to the throne:This aged prince now flourishing in peace,And blest with issue of a large increase,Worn out with business, did at length debateTo settle the succession of the State:And pond’ring which of all his sons was fitTo reign, and wage immortal war with wit;Cry’d, ’tis resolv’d; for nature pleads that heShould 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 heWho stands confirm’d in full stupidityThe 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.There are two major ways in which this example (as well mock-heroic poetry in general) imitates the style of epic poetry. First of all, this example was written in heroic couplets.
To put it simply, heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that use a meter known as iambic pentameter. A line of iambic pentameter contains five iambs. An iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable, such as the phrase ‘and blest’ or the word ‘besides.
‘The second way in which this example imitates the style of epic poetry involves something known as rhetoric. When we use the term ‘rhetoric,’ we’re simply referring to language being manipulated in a certain way to achieve a certain goal. In the case of ‘Mac Flecknoe,’ Dryden is imitating the highfalutin,’ exaggerated rhetoric of epic poetry. For example, in describing Shadwell’s stupidity, Dryden compares Shadwell’s mind to a ‘genuine night’ that ‘admits no ray,’ equating his dim wit with the forces of nature.
The Rape of the Lock
Now that we’ve discussed how mock-heroic poetry uses the same poetic form and rhetoric as heroic poetry, let’s examine what makes the content of mock-heroic poetry unique. In order to do so, let’s read an excerpt from ‘The Rape of the Lock’ by Alexander Pope.First published in 1712, ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is considered the most successful mock-heroic poem in the English language.
By comparing a minor social misstep (a young nobleman cutting a lock of hair from a noblewoman) to the epic struggles of the gods in Western mythology, Pope takes the satirical spirit of ‘Mac Flecknoe’ to a higher level. Take, for instance, the following lines describing the female protagonist’s morning routine:And now, unveil’d, the Toilet stands display’d,Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.First, rob’d in White, the Nymph intent adoresWith Head uncover’d, the cosmetic Pow’rs.A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears,To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears;Th’ inferior Priestess, at her Altar’s side,Trembling, begins the sacred Rites of Pride.Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and hereThe various Off’rings of the World appear;From each she nicely culls with curious ToilAnd decks the Goddess with the glitt’ring Spoil.This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.Before you start laughing about the word ‘toilet’ in the first line (as I did), keep in mind that in the eighteenth century ‘toilet’ meant a dressing table.
Essentially, what these lines actually say could be summarized with the sentence: She walked to her dressing table and started putting on jewelry. However, because this is a mock-heroic poem, this simple action is described in hyperbolic (or dramatic, highly exaggerated) terms. By narrating these ‘sacred Rites of Pride’ on such a grand scale, Pope makes the inflated rhetoric of heroic poetry even more humorous. In other words, the more mundane the content, the more amusing the style of mock-heroic poetry becomes.
Now that we have an understanding of how mock-heroic poetry works, let’s summarize what we’ve learned.
Essentially, mock-heroic poetry uses the dramatic rhetoric of heroic poetry to describe decidedly ordinary situations. Mock-heroic poetry also uses heroic couplets, meaning rhyming couplets that use iambic pentameter. Using hyperbolic language, mock-heroic poetry draws its humor from applying the style of heroic poetry to rather mundane content.
Refer to the main points of this lesson on mock-heroic poetry as you prepare to:
- Describe the style of mock-heroic poetry and recall when this style was popular
- Summarize examples of this type of poetry
- Explain how dramatic rhetoric and heroic couplets are used to create mock-heroic poetry