English Language and Literature ETDs

Publication Date

Winter 12-14-1976


The number and diversity of works in the mock-heroic mode have long made meaningful discussion difficult. The mode has been and continues to be a glittering, shapeless mass, obscuring all but the brightest or best-known stars in its blur of confused origins, purposes, and relationships. Setting down useful boundaries for one variety of mock­heroic, the little epic, is the purpose of this study. Represented most notably by MacFlecknoe, The Dispensary, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad, the little epic con­stitutes a small but dazzling genre that perfects the mode and epitomizes an age.

The theory of genre in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provides an effective method for examining and describing the little epic poems. As the best critics of the period used it, this theory calls for a complex, de­scriptive definition of literary kind: it requires us to consider together the purpose of the work; the most effec­tive means for achieving that purpose, given a particular audience and the practice of other writers who have at­tempted to use similar materials in similar ways. My analysis divides this task into three major parts. First, I look at the tradition--classical, continental, and English-­Dryden, Garth, and Pope thought they were working in. I identify the masterworks, La Secchia Rapita of Alessandro Tassoni and Le Lutrin of Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, and determine what ideas, methods, and devices the English poets borrow and also what changes and additions they make. Second, I examine the important formal criteria and use those criteria to discuss the structure of MacFlecknoe, The Dispensary, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad. And third, I study the rhetorical pattern created by the arrangement of formal parts and try to discover the effects of the poems upon their audiences and the manner in which the poets achieve those effects.

The analysis reveals an aggregate likeness• the traditional, formal, and rhetorical patterns of the little epics match. Dryden, Garth, and Pope draw upon literary tradition in similar ways for basic assumptions, models, and references. They write echoing songs; they mix the traditional genres of satire, epic, and burlesque; and they infuse their poems with the bite, fervor, and gusto characteristic of English literary masters. These poets also select and use formal elements similarly. Their sub­jects are wise fools or righteous knaves. The poems' form derives from epic, but it is diminished to fit the subjects. All that happens presents a negative example of what should be.

And finally, the little epics exhibit a similar rhe­torical design. They mockingly promote debased or degener­ate reality in order to reaffirm traditional ideals. The three poets create a dual perspective. Overt epic signposts present the pretender as he would like the world to see him, but rhetorical devices, mixed diction, and comparisons with nobility and ignominy in great epic help reveal inconsis­tencies and unmask the mock-hero. For resolution and closure Dryden, Garth, and Pope involve the audience in discovering positive solutions amid the poem's rich epic stores.

The little epics--MacFlecknoe, The Dispensary, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad--represent a unique and illustrious phase in the long history of mocking heroics. A comprehensive description of their common characteristics as a genre within the mode helps define their uniqueness and explain their lustre.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Edith Buchanan

Second Committee Member

Joseph Marshall Kuntz

Third Committee Member

Mary Beth Whidden

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