Mock-heroic, mock-epic or heroi-comic works are typically satires or parodies that mock common Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works to insert the heroic work by either putting a fool in the role of the hero or by exaggerating the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.
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 (1662–1674), by Samuel Butler. Butler's poem describes a "trew blew" Puritan 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 often feminine rhymes or 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 and Tom Thumb by Henry Fielding, as well as The Rehearsal), 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. (For an excellent overview of the history of the mock-heroic in the 17th and 18th centuries see "the English Mock-Heroic poem of the 18th Century" by Grazyna Bystydzienska, published by Polish Scientific Publishers, 1982.)
After Dryden, the form continued to flourish, and there are countless minor mock-heroic poems from 1680 to 1780. Additionally, there were a few attempts at a mock-heroic novel. The most significant later mock-heroic poems were by Alexander Pope. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a brilliant example of the Mock-Heroic style; indeed, Pope never deviates from mimicking Epic poetry such as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid . The overall form of the poem, written in Cantos, follows the tradition of epics, along with the precursory “Invocation of the Muse”; in this case, Pope’s Muse is literally the person who prodded him to write the poem, John Caryll: “this to Caryll, Muse!” (line 3). Epics always include foreshadowing which is usually given by an otherworldly figure, and Pope mocks tradition through Ariel the sprite, who sees some “dread event” (line 109) impending on Belinda. These epic introductory tendencies give way to the main portion of the story, usually involving a battle of some kind (such as in the Iliad) that follows this pattern: dressing for battle (description of Achilles shield, preparation for battle), altar sacrifice/libation to the gods, some battle change (perhaps involving drugs), treachery (Achilles ankle is told to be his weak spot), a journey to the Underworld, and the final battle. All of these elements are followed eloquently by Pope in that specific order: Belinda readies herself for the card game (which includes a description of her hair and beauty), the Baron makes a sacrifice for her hair (the altar built for love and the deal with Clarissa), the “mock” battle of cards changes in the Baron’s favor, Clarissa’s treachery to her supposed friend Belinda by slipping the Baron scissors, and finally the brilliant treatment of the card game as a battle and the Baron’s victory. Pope’s mastery of the Mock-Heroic is clear in every instance. Even the typical apotheosis found in the epics is mimicked in The Rape of the Lock, as “the stars inscribe Belinda’s name!” (line 150). Truly a master is at work, and he invokes the same Mock-heroic style in The Dunciad which also employs the language of heroic poetry to describe menial or trivial subjects. In this mock-epic the progress of Dulness 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 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. After Romanticism's flourishing, mock-heroics like Byron's Don Juan were uncommon.
- Mock-Heroics in The Rape of the Lock Opera
- Further discussion of Mock-Heroic style of The Rape of the Lock
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