|Back | Poetry Guide Home | Up|
The earliest example of the form outside English is the Batrachomyomachia ascribed to Homer and parodying his work although it is unlikely that it is by him. After the translation of Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, English authors began to imitate the inflated language of Romance poetry and narrative (see, for example, Orlando Furioso) to describe misguided or common characters. The most likely genesis for the mock-heroic, as distinct from the picaresque, burlesque, and satirical poem is the comic poem Hudibras, by Samuel Butler in 1662-1674. Butler's poem describes a "trew blew" Puritain knight during the Interregnum in language that imitates Romance and epic poetry. After Butler, there was an explosion of poetry that described a despised subject in the elevated language of heroic poetry and plays.
Hudibras gave rise to a particular verse form, commonly called the "Hudibrastic." The Hudibrastic is poetry in closed rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter, where the rhymes are feminine rhymes of unexpected conjunctions. For example, Butler describes the English Civil War as a time which "Made men fight like mad or drunk/ For dame religion as for punk/ Whose honesty all durst swear for/ Tho' not one knew why or wherefore" ("punk" meaning a prostitute). The strained and unexpected rhymes increase the comic effect and heighten the parody. This formal indication of satire proved to separate one form of mock-heroic from the others. After Butler, Jonathan Swift is the most notable practitioner of the Hudibrastic, as he used that form for almost all of his poetry.
Poet Laureate John Dryden is responsible for some of the dominance among satirical genres of the mock-heroic in the later Restoration era. While Dryden's own plays would themselves furnish later mock-heroics (specifically, The Conquest of Granada is satirized in the mock-heroic "The Author's Farce"/"Tom Thumb," by Henry Fielding, as well as The Rehearsal (play)), Dryden's MacFlecknoe is perhaps the locus classicus of the mock-heroic form as it would be practiced for a century to come. In that poem, Dryden indirectly compares Thomas Shadwell with Aeneas by using the language of Aeneid to describe the coronation of Shadwell on the throne of Dullness formerly held by King Flecknoe. The parody of Virgil satirizes Shadwell. Dryden's prosody is identical to regular heroic verse: iambic pentameter closed couplets. The parody is not formal, but merely contextual and ironic.
After Dryden, the form continued to flourish, and there are countless minor mock-heroic poems from 1680 - 1780. Additionally, there were a few attempts at a mock-heroic novel. The most significant later mock-heroic poems were by Alexander Pope. Both The Rape of the Lock and Dunciad employ the language of heroic poetry to describe despicable or trivial subjects. In the former case, a minor spat over a snipped lock of hair receives the treatment of an heroic battle. In the latter case, the progress of Dullness over the face of the earth, the coming of stupidity and tastelessness, is treated in the same way as the coming of civilization is in the Aeneid (see also the metaphor of translatio studii). John Gay's Trivia (poem) and Beggar's Opera were mock-heroic (the latter in opera), and Samuel Johnson's "London" is a mock heroic of a sort.
By the time of Pope, however, the mock-heroic was giving ground to narrative parody, and authors such as Fielding led the mock-heroic novel into a more general novel of parody. Ironically, the ascension of the novel drew a slow end to the age of the mock-heroic, which had originated in Cervantes's novel.