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The dunciad as a political satire by alexander pope

Share via Email Alexander Pope's longest and most elaborate poem, The Dunciad, has a good claim to be the greatest unread poem in the language. Glitteringly witty, the jewelled machinery of Pope's verse is as enjoyable now as it ever was, yet the work into which he put the most invention and the most gusto is little known outside seminar rooms.

Perhaps it is because the poem is so full of obscure names - the 18th-century hacks and literary dunces whom it mocks; or because the verse is encrusted with Pope's own prefaces and notes and appendices - an apparatus of mock-learning that mimics the pretensions of would-be scholars and critics. The Dunciad has become forbidding when it is truly a thing of delight and dark brilliance.

Pope happened upon a rich subject that poets had hardly sampled. He took stupidity as his inspiration. Or, rather, he took a special kind of stupidity, which he called "Dulness".

Dulness presides over the efforts of hack writers and bad poets. Dulness is promoted by vain patrons and ruthless publishers.

  • They compete in such ludicrous competitions as book sellers racing through excrement, ditch-diving, urinating, and attempting to stay awake while dull and awful literature is read aloud;
  • Glitteringly witty, the jewelled machinery of Pope's verse is as enjoyable now as it ever was, yet the work into which he put the most invention and the most gusto is little known outside seminar rooms;
  • As, for example, in 1725 he published an edition of Shakespeare which was vehemently criticized by Lewis Theobald in his Shakespeare Restored 1726;
  • The writers and publishers in the poem are made to behave like characters in pagan epic;
  • Instead of the running and wrestling and discus-throwing of the sun-bronzed heroes of ancient epic, these modern competitors test themselves in pissing contests or in diving into the Fleet Ditch, London's largest sewer.

Dulness is the literary spirit of Pope's age but a capacity that flourishes in most ages. Dulness is lack of imagination, lack of talent, lack of taste. It produces the pedantry of the academic or the deadly learning of the scholarly critic.

It is also a poem devised to settle scores and has the inventive animus of all great satire.

Darkness visible

If you think that the best literature should be tolerant or magnanimous, you will not warm to Pope, who wrote: The scholar and self-promoter Lewis Theobald had rubbished, in loving detail, Pope's edition of the works of Shakespeare in his book Shakespeare Restored. In case this title did not make its point, a subtitle gave the reader a fair taste of its contents: You might be much less sensitive to slights than Pope and still feel that revenge was in order.

Theobald - belittlingly re-spelled as "Tibbald" - became the ludicrous "hero" of Pope's satire, the King of Dunces. He would reign over subjects who included all Pope's other literary foes. In a way, Pope loved - or at least needed - what he mocked.

  1. Glitteringly witty, the jewelled machinery of Pope's verse is as enjoyable now as it ever was, yet the work into which he put the most invention and the most gusto is little known outside seminar rooms. It was an epic of Grub Street, which was a real place as well as a metaphor - a street now gone under the Barbican development, inhabited by real hacks and the booksellers who employed them.
  2. The objective being to expose human follies, especially the feminine, characterization is naturally from the general rather than the individual point of view. The Dunciad became a bestiary of his enemies - including a few who were made his enemies by being put in the poem.
  3. Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown, Breaks out refulgent, with a heav'n its own.
  4. Dumbing down, we might say, has become the essential inclination of Pope's fellow citizens. Even when it dealt in low passions - the pursuit of money, the operation of literary envy - it was to look like high literature.
  5. Part of the pleasure for its first readers was guessing at the contemporary personalities it mocked, and it excited a brisk trade in "keys", pamphlets that offered to decode its satire and identify Pope's victims.

He collected pamphlets attacking him and brooded on his revenges. The Dunciad became a bestiary of his enemies - including a few who were made his enemies by being put in the poem. It was an epic of Grub Street, which was a real place as well as a metaphor - a street now gone under the The dunciad as a political satire by alexander pope development, inhabited by real hacks and the booksellers who employed them.

The world that Pope described with a kind of appalled delight was one drowning in print, where everything was ephemeral, of the moment. The coffeehouses were populated by "clubs of Quidnuncs": Quid nunc is Latin for "What now? The lowest, most mercenary journalists worked for the Gazettes, government-funded newspapers that lived for only a moment - for half a line in Pope's dismissive memorial: And Monumental Brass this record bears, "These are, - ah no!

Part of the pleasure for its first readers was guessing at the contemporary personalities it mocked, and it excited a brisk trade in "keys", pamphlets that offered to decode its satire and identify Pope's victims.

The furore made for quick sales, and the poem's success made its victims all the more furious. Pope's sister told how, after its publication, the poet would not go for his constitutional walks along the Thames near his Twickenham home without a loaded pistol and his Great Dane, Bounce. On one occasion, the son of the "Mighty Mad" critic John Dennis arrived at Lord Bathurst's house, where Pope was dining, with his sword ready and demanding satisfaction.

The poet's aristocratic friends apparently managed to calm young Dennis's fighting spirit.

  1. Another mode of satiric portraiture adopted by Pope is through describing these very ordinary human beings in epic terms, thus achieving the desired comic effect through ironic juxtaposition.
  2. The chef is a modern "priest", performing strange transformations of animal flesh.
  3. Political vacuity rules the state, and the prime minister, Robert Walpole, appears as a wizard, passing a cup of forgetfulness around the governing classes.

The diminutive poet was ill-suited to physical confrontations. So The Dunciad was alive with feuds and animosities. It was also an elaborate literary artefact, lovingly presented even in its appearance on the page. A year after it was first published, Pope produced his Dunciad Variorum, with the names inserted and an elaborate accretion of prefaces, commentaries and footnotes. In her recent edition, Valerie Rumbold chose to print the two versions as, in effect, separate texts. With a parade of mock-learning, Pope treated his own poem as if it were some true epic, deserving of minute annotation.

Even when it dealt in low passions - the pursuit of money, the operation of literary envy - it was to look like high literature. He had toyed with the possibility of attempting the highest genre of poetry: Instead, he wrote a poem better suited to his unheroic times: Its subtitle, An Heroic Poem, was, however, accurate in one respect.

The poem was written in the high manner of an epic.

It is larded with imitations and echoes of Homer and Virgil. In its latest versions, it provided at the foot of each page a collation of "Imitations", passages of Greek and Latin poetry that the learned reader might find mimicked in Pope's modern version. It also gloriously travesties Milton's Paradise Lost. Tibbald is Satan as well as Aeneas. He is enthroned, "the Antichrist of Wit", like Satan in Hell.

Literary London is his empire, a place of absurdly Miltonic "darkness visible". The writers and publishers in the poem are made to behave like characters in pagan epic.

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In a series of parodies of episodes from Homer and Virgil, they have contests and parades, they pray to their gods and fight their peculiar battles. The whole of Book II is taken up by the heroic games of the booksellers. Instead of the running and wrestling and discus-throwing of the sun-bronzed heroes of ancient epic, these modern competitors test themselves in pissing contests or in diving into the Fleet Ditch, London's largest sewer.

For the relationship between print and excrement is close in the poem. In a wonderful set piece in Book III, the King of Dunces even travels to the underworld, like any self-respecting hero of pagan epic.

  • The furore made for quick sales, and the poem's success made its victims all the more furious;
  • Pope had made his small fortune out of translating Homer into elegant English couplets, and was in an easy position to mock the postures into which the need for money forced other writers;
  • In the epic manner, he is granted a vision of the whole of human history, where he sees how Dulness has triumphed down the centuries.

In the epic manner, he is granted a vision of the whole of human history, where he sees how Dulness has triumphed down the centuries. Pope had made his small fortune out of translating Homer into elegant English couplets, and was in an easy position to mock the postures into which the need for money forced other writers: Pissing into the sky or diving into drains, the booksellers are comically unstoppable.

The worst writers achieve a kind of inadvertent creativity, and there is a fantastic delight in the dunce poet's creation of weird life forms. How hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie; How new-born nonsense first is taught to cry, Maggots, half-form'd, in rhyme exactly meet, And learn to crawl upon poetic feet. This edge of fantasy - this enjoyment of the incongruous - is special to the poem.

Pope along with his great model Dryden suffered a huge loss of prestige in the 19th century, disparaged as clever but unpoetic. Matthew Arnold thought that he was confirming posterity's verdict when he described these two, with their wit and rhyming rationality, as "not classics of our poetry", but "classics of our prose".

But this is all wrong. Byron called Pope "the most beautiful of poets", and even The Dunciad, a poem of cultural darkness and confusion, strikes out in strangely lovely sallies. Describing the absurdities of the pantomimes that became fashionable on the London stage in the 1720s, with their elaborate stage effects, Pope cannot help but express a poetic delight in the preposterousness.

Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown, Breaks out refulgent, with a heav'n its own: Another Cynthia her new journey runs, And other planets circle other suns.

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The forests dance, the rivers upward rise, Whales sport in woods, and dolphins in the skies; John Rich's theatrical shows at Covent Garden are sublimely stupid - creations of a new world with its own new moon Cynthia.

It is a poem full of strange and wonderful transformations. At the end of Book II of the poem, in the last of the mock-heroic games, dunce critics compete to stay awake as dunce authors read aloud from their works. Pope mimics their narcolepsy in an epic simile that would be lovely if we forgot for a moment that it was occasioned by overwhelming boredom.

As to soft gales top-heavy pines bow low Their heads, and lift them as they cease to blow: Thus oft they rear, and oft the head decline, As breathe, or pause, by fits, the airs divine; These lines are from a late version of the poem.

In the 1740s, near the end of his life, Pope went back to The Dunciad, changing the "hero" from Tibbald to a new foe, the poet laureate Colly Cibber, and adding a long and brilliant fourth book.

Alexander Pope as a Satirist

The early versions of The Dunciad were ebullient poems, in which the denizens of Grub Street disported themselves. The new Book IV presented "the Goddess coming in her Majesty to destroy Order and Science" and was an all-embracing anatomy of a culture fallen into banality and ignorance. From opera-going to the art collecting of virtuosi to new fashions in philosophy, all the rages of the day are shown as mad.

Pope manages to imply that fashionably atheistical philosophy is somehow related to the vogue for French cookery among the wealthy. The Dunciad is, among other things, the first English satire on celebrity chefs and the greedy foodies who adore them. The chef is a modern "priest", performing strange transformations of animal flesh.

The wealthy have spawned the poem's "young Aeneas", an aristocratic youth whom we follow on his pleasure-seeking Grand Tour. The Stews and palace equally explor'd, Intrigu'd with glory, and with spirit whor'd; Try'd all hors-d'oeuvres, all liqueurs defin'd, Judicious drank, and greatly - daring din'd; Now everything is Dulness.

Discuss Dunciad as a mock heroic epic. Dunciad as a satire

Dumbing down, we might say, has become the essential inclination of Pope's fellow citizens. Political vacuity rules the state, and the prime minister, Robert Walpole, appears as a wizard, passing a cup of forgetfulness around the governing classes.

The greatest in the land have taken to gambling or gastronomy, and frolic their days away in cricket or dancing or fiddle-playing.

At the end is a mock-apocalypse, which is also a reversal of the Creation that was described in Paradise Lost Lo! Thy hand, great Anarch! It is the end of everything. And yet, characteristically, it is also a curtain falling, a mere stage effect. Is everything truly dark, or has it all just been a pantomime?