Mock Heroic

The genre of mock-heroic was taken up in England as an import from Italy and France (Bond 1932): the earliest instance of the kind is probably Alessandro Tassoni's La

Secchia Rapita, published pseudonymously in 1622, and depicting a feud, fomented by the seizure of a bucket, between two thirteenth-century Italian peoples: the Modenese and the Bolognians. The poem went through numerous editions in the next century and a half, and was translated into English in 1710 by John Ozell, who inserted into his long title the annotative detail: "A Mock-Heroic Poem, The First of the Kind." The earliest work to capitalize on Tassoni's seems to have been the French poet Boileau's heroi-comical poem Le Lutrin (from 1674), which recounts a feud between the priest and choirmaster of a French church, in which the former tries to reinstall an old reading-desk expressly so as to obscure his rival from the sight of the congregation. There are several early renderings into English, though the first full translation, once more by Ozell, is in 1708.

The translation into English of these early mock-epics was accompanied by a recognition of the newness of the kind of writing they exemplified. When, for example, Nicholas Rowe contributes a discussion of the mock-heroic form to John Ozell's translation of Le Lutrin, he professes reluctance to attempt a "Critical Account" of a mode of writing "that is so new in the World, and of which we have had so few Instances." Moreover, what instances there are he sees as standing in a direct line of descent from La Secchia Rapita, which is "the first of this Sort that was ever written." The foreign extraction of the mock-heroic kind also forms the basis of a rather self-serving anecdote recorded by Francis Lockier (later Dean of Peterborough) about his first brush with the famous poet Dryden. As a seventeen-year-old, Lockier was in the habit of visiting Will's coffee-house so as to rub shoulders with the literary eminences who gathered there. Happening to hear Dryden injudiciously talking up his Mac Flecknoe as "the first piece of ridicule written in heroics," the young Lockier summoned up the pluck to object that Boileau's Lutrin and Tassoni's Secchia Rapita better deserved the title of originals, being poems from which Dryden had himself borrowed. "'Tis true," replied Dryden, "I had forgot them."

The essential technique of mock-heroic consists of a comic breaching of the canon of fit style — the principle, that is, that the content and style of a work should be in sympathy with each other: we see this principle in practice when Dryden praises Horace for achieving a style "constantly accommodated to his subject, either high or low." Early usages of the term "mock-heroic" emphasize the way in which such works bring together a high style and low or trivial subject matter. John Ozell, for example, in the dedication to his translation of Le Lutrin, defines mock-heroic as "a Ridiculous Action made considerable in Heroic Verse"; and John Quincy, in the preface to his translation of Edward Holdsworth's Muscipula (2nd edn., 1714), cites Le Lutrin and Samuel Garth's The Dispensary as representative examples of mock-heroic, defining their technique as "raising the Diction, and labouring the Poetry most, where the Matter is lowest, and most proper for Ridicule." The achievement of a conspicuous elevation of style could best be achieved by mimicking the conventions of classical epic or by adopting the traits of an heroic style, these being identified alternatively with the closed decasyllabic couplet practiced by Pope in his translation of Homer's Iliad or with the sprawling grandiloquence of Paradise Lost.

The first great incarnation of the mock-heroic form in English is rightly seen as Dryden's Mac Flecknoe (1682) which lampoons two of the shallower literary talents of Dryden's day, Richard Flecknoe and Thomas Shadwell ( Jack 1952; Hammond 1985). The action of the poem consists of Flecknoe's abdication from the throne of dullness and the coronation of his successor, Shadwell, this conceit enacting a degrading parody of the relation between Aeneas and his son Ascanius in Virgil's great epic. The idea of harnessing a mock-heroic irony to the denigration of particular named (or hinted at) individuals, and moreover of subsuming these within the general defamatory category of dulness, was to exert a pronounced influence on one of the great achievements of eighteenth-century mock-heroic, Pope's The Dunciad (1728). However, the poem most responsible for the importation of Boileau's mock-heroic method into English is not Dryden's Mac Flecknoe but Garth's The Dispensary (1699), which recounts in allegorical form the feud between proponents and opponents of a dispensary intended to make available cheap medicines for the poor (Ellis 1965; Cook 1980; Colomb 1992). It begins with the god Sloth, who has long presided over the College of Physicians, being awoken by the sounds of the new dispensary being constructed. Determined to thwart the project, he sends his servant Phantom to rouse the apothecaries, the group whose livelihoods would be directly challenged by the establishment of such a charitable institution. The apothecaries hold a counsel, modeled on the debate of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost, and elect to obstruct the dispensary by force. Canto 5 describes the ensuing battle against the dispensarians, which ceases when the goddess of Health intervenes and conducts one of the physicians, Colon, to the underworld. Here he is able to consult on how the conflict might be resolved with the medical pioneer William Harvey, who advises the College of Physicians once more to dedicate itself to the healing arts.

Garth's poem works by representing in a facetious and scaled-down form some of the numerous conventions of epic: presageful visitations, oratorical set-pieces, a battle scene, a journey to an underworld, and so on. This portfolio of effects is taken up in numerous later mock-heroic poems, among them Pope's The Rape of the Lock, which appeared in 1712 and was reissued in expanded form two years later. Pope's poem registers "hits" against all the following epic conventions: the formal proposition of the poem's subject, a prognosticatory dream and warnings of impending calamity, a "machinery" of spirits or deities, the formal arming of the hero, a rallying speech to soldiers on the brink of war, a staged duel or battle, use of an engine to accomplish a military task, and a descent into a deathly underworld.

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