Analysis of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad

Alexander Pope has long been acknowledged as one of the leading satirists of his age. Adopting the 18th-century belief that the “lash” of satire could lead to change, he applied that lash liberally in various works targeting those who established themselves as leaders, politically, artistically, and socially, but whose wrongheaded approach simply misled the public. This method proves especially strong in his celebrated The Dunciad (1723), a poem in four books.

The Dunciad was born from discussions among Pope and other members of the informal literary society called the Scriblerus Club. Various voices of the Tory Party, including Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Arbuthnot, enjoyed concocting satires called the “Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus” that cleverly ridiculed certain individuals. Arbuthnot contributed the most to the “memoirs,” although they would be published under Pope’s name in the 1741 edition of his works. Pope and Swift worked together in 1727–28 to publish three volumes titled Miscellanies, also satire containing Pope’s “Treatise on the Bathos, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry.” All of the writings took sharp aim at inferior poets and critics who had gained the eye and ear of the public, establishing themselves as of much greater importance than their work merited. Those individuals reacted as expected, releasing vitriolic responses to Pope’s satire. They would all see themselves in unfortunate characterizations in Pope’s rebuttal, The Dunciad. Based in form on a Latin treatise, it labels the poetasters “dunces” and contains much detail regarding their individual exploits. Pope demonstrates through his own admirable execution everything wrong with the writing of poets like Colley Cibber, John Dennis, the Reverend Laurence Eusden, Lord Hervey, and others. No poet better represented the conservation of words and clean expression admired by the 18th century nor worked better in heroic couplets, preserving the fixed form, yet adding variations in rhythm.

Alexander Pope, 1688-1744 English poet and satirist. From the book 'Gallery of Portraits' published London 1833.

The Dunciad continues to earn much literary critical attention. The critic Brean S. Hammond sees Pope and other Scriblerians, including Swift, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson in his early writing days, as wishing to provide a countercultural force. They opposed the Whig forces, often represented in what they perceived as a low-brow popular culture, overburdened by artifice, while bereft of art. The Dunciad dramatizes the struggle between the Scriblerian values and those of the dunces. As Hammond points out, the characters in the poem struggle over actual physical territory, making Pope’s presentation concrete, rather than simply abstract. The “Smithfield muses,” a derogatory reference to the dunces, gather around St. James’s Palace and Westminster, an area hosting Bartholomew Fair and public amusement considered of a low nature.

Pope’s friend William Cleland supposedly wrote “A Letter to the Publisher,” which precedes the poem, although many believe Pope himself wrote it. In part, he discusses the fact that some have questioned why Pope spends so much energy writing about such weak subjects, persons “too obscure for satyr.” He responds that their obscurity “renders them more dangerous, as less thought of: Law can pronounce judgment only on open facts; Morality alone can pass censure on intentions of mischief.” He agrees with Pope that “no public punishment” remained, other than “what a good Writer infl icts.” Alluding to attacks on Pope’s physical condition, he notes, “Deformity becomes an object of Ridicule when a man sets up for being handsome; and so must Dulness when he sets up for a Wit.” Pope felt that such “vain pretenders” had to receive their due from a pen far sharper than their own.

The fictional character Martinus Scriblerus writes an introduction to the poem, advising readers that The Dunciad is fashioned after a poem by Homer featuring Margites, recorded “to have been Dunce the first.” He describes the desperate times in which the author existed, when paper proved so cheap that anyone could write and publish, and the public remained at the mercy of the dullards. He does the only thing he can, which is to write a satire in the heroic fashion, selecting a main hero; Pope will establish Colley Cibber as that hero. Cibber helped operate a drama house and eventually became poet laureate, although his works proved offensive, unimaginative, and miserably executed in the opinion of many. The support he gained by garnering wealthy and powerful patrons allowed his continued public exposure to ridicule.

Each of the four books begins with an Argument that describes its action. In the first, the Goddess in the City of the great Empire of Dulness must find a successor to the present Poet Laureate. “Bays,” an allusion to Cibber, sits among his books, contemplating whether to go to church, gaming, or a party, finally settling on raising an altar of “proper books.” Pope places Cibber first close to the walls of Bedlam, linking the dunces with madness to emphasize their irrational behavior. As the critic David Morris notes, satire consists of a moral, a psychological, and a literal study of the irrational. Pope suggests that people could choose madness or rationality. Madness can prove entertaining, a fact suggested in the characterization, from the “Cave of Poverty and Poetry,” that bards “Escape in Monsters, and amaze the town.”

Pope establishes Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, and Poetic Justice as allegorical figures who behold the development of a “nameless something,” more precisely masses of unidentifiable material called poems or plays. The product of the new poet monsters, they represent “new-born nonsense,” mere “Maggots halfform’d in rhyme” that “learn to crawl on poetic feet.” Cibber, or “Bays,” sinks “from thought to thought” into “a vast profound,” plunging as if to the bottom of an abyss or pool to locate his sense. Pope suggests that Cibber will go to any lengths, or depths, to become famous. Unable to locate the bottom limit of his despair or to work out any plan of his own, he steals from the writings of others, as the great heroes of literature observe him from a heavenly vantage point.

Pope returns repeatedly in many of his works to reflect upon the concept of “wit.” A popular term in his era, it suggests a talent all writers hoped to be described critically as possessing and exhibiting. However, Pope cautions that simply because one person deems another witty, that does not make him so. Wit remains a difficult commodity to gain, and Bays [Cibber] becomes fearful he will not produce any. One character in the poem urges Bays to seek a place in the dark of dullness, so as not to be judged by the measure of true wit:

And lest we err by Wit’s wild dancing light,
Secure us kindly in our native night.
Or, if to Wit a coxcomb make pretence,
Guard the sure barrier between that and Sense.

“Cibberian forehead, and Cibberian brain” will reduce the art of writing to a shameful shambles. The narrator then turns to Thomas Shadwell, the unfortunate subject of John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe: A Satire Upon The True-Blue Protestant Poet T.S., a satirical poem similar in approach to The Dunciad. Dryden had taken Shadwell to task for his The Medal of John Bayes, as Pope now singled out Cibber, the “Bays” of his poem. The Mother goddess crowns Cibber “king colley” in the closing lines of the first book, as he measures down to her lowly qualifications.

“Book the Second” focuses on the games played in celebration of Cibber’s “coronation,” a parody of the Olympic Games. Pope models his mockery after Virgil, who used the games as a serious subject to represent a peaceful enactment of war. As Morris explains, Pope does this precisely to debase the meaning of ceremony. Poets and critics attend the competition in honor of the new poet king, trailed by their patrons and booksellers, representatives of the latter group also receiving a lambasting by Pope in The Dunciad for scurrilous business practices. Various accidents occur during the gaming, all designed to make the participants look as foolish as possible. The “Exercises for the Poets” consist of “tickling, vociferating, diving.” The lines describing the poet Arnall’s dive well represent the tone of the second book, clarifying even further Pope’s assessment of the writing efforts of the dunces:

Furious he dives, precipitately dull.
Whirlpools and storms his circling arm invest,
With all the might of gravitation blest.
No crab more active in the dirty dance,
Downward to climb, and backward to advance.
He brings up half the bottom on his head,
And loudly claims the Journals and the Lead.

Pope based that character on William Arnall, “bred an Attorney, [and] a perfect Genius in this sort of work,” according to Pope’s footnote. Because Arnall had misused Pope’s friends, he landed in the satire. The imagery in this passage clearly suggests that Arnall creates metaphoric “waves” to distract from the fact that he remains unrepentantly dull. As a crab does, he retreats rather than advances, and moves downward, suggesting participation in low culture, rather than to the higher ground that would symbolize value. At the second book’s conclusion, critics read aloud, causing everyone to fall asleep and concluding the games. Pope implies that critical activity results in simple regurgitation, requiring absolutely no creativity. The result proves so dull that even the dunces cannot appreciate it.

In the third Book, The Dunciad’s hero naps. Pope again draws on classical sources, as sleep proved crucial to Homer’s hero, Odysseus, who enjoyed visits from his guide, Athena, while asleep. The nap echoes the classical pattern of the sleep journey, when the hero descended into Hades to consult dead warriors regarding how he might proceed. However, in Cibber’s case, he forgets the past, rather than awakening with a renewed understanding that might guide his future actions. The act clarifies nothing for him; rather, he will awaken believing himself the most fit to rule over the dull kingdom he sees in his vision. Pope emphasizes Cibber’s lack of metaphoric vision, as well as a material vision that might awaken in him any semblance of intellectual curiosity.

As summarized, in this book the ghost of Settle visits in Cibber’s sleep to show him the wonders of his kingdom. From the Mount of Vision, Settle displays the “past triumphs of the empire of Dulness.” They next view the present and then the future, discussing the failures of science. Cibber receives a miraculous vision and learns that the throne of Dulness “shall be advanced over the Theateres, and set up even at Court; then how her Sons shall preside in the seats of Arts and Science.” Pope makes the point that a lack of imagination in one area of culture may promote that same lack in another. While Arts differs greatly from Science, both may be equally destroyed by men of Cibber’s ilk.

Pope achieves his purpose to demonstrate through satire the quite serious effects of shallow thinking on all aspects of culture. Again Cibber makes an apt representative, as he was a comanager of Drury Lane Theatre and partially responsible for its popular farces. An example of Pope’s use of imagery in this section is his insertion of multiple images of owls. While viewed as representing wisdom in classical times, owls were thought stupid creatures in the age of reason. He thus employs the great birds, which have a magnificent appearance but no intellectual capacity, to emphasize the dark nature of the dunces’ power, as in this passage:

There, dim in the clouds, the poring Scholiasts mark,
Wits, who like owls, see only in the dark,
A Lumberhouse of books in ev’ry head,
For ever reading, never to be read!

No matter how much reading the “Scholiasts,” a term that suggests perverted scholars, undertake, they will never be able to write like the masters.

As all heroes do, Cibber must encounter monsters during his sleep vision. Most monsters are fantastical miscreants, the product of a fearsome creativity. However, the monsters Cibber encounters during his dream are the same as those of his day-to-day life, indicating he lacks imagination, and fantasy and reality are the same in his world. This is illustrated in the line spoken to Cibber, “Each Monster meets his likeness in thy mind.” Pope references himself, Swift, and Gay in this section, as losers in this “Revolution of Learning” led by Cibber. He also references the great architect Inigo Jones, whose marvels stood under great disrepair, neglected by London’s leaders during Pope’s time. The book concludes with Cibber’s celebrating a vision in which education has all but disappeared:

“Proceed, great days! ’till Learning fly the shore,
‘Till Birch shall blush with noble blood no more,
‘Till Thames see Eaton’s sons for eve play,
‘Till Westminster’s whole year be holiday,
‘Till Isis’ Elders reel, their pupils’ sport,
And Alma mater lie dissolv’d in Port!”

The fourth book of The Dunciad is most often seen anthologized in excerpts. The Goddess makes her ascent in great majesty to oversee the destruction of Order and Science, replacing them with the Kingdom of the Dull. She silences the Muses, while her children, various “Half-wits, tasteless Admirers, vain Pretenders, the Flatterers of Dunces, or the Patrons of them,” gather about, discouraging all progressive thought and activity. The instructors under her sway promise to bombard their charges with words in order to discourage thought: “Since Man from beast by Words is known, / Words are Man’s province, Words we teach alone.”

Literary Criticism of Alexander Pope

Pope especially slams the meaningless ritual demanded by those who seek an Oxford education. Those in charge “vest dull Flatt’ry in the sacred Gown; / Or give from fool to fool the Laurel crown.” As the parade of miscreants continues, “There march’d the bard and blockhead, side by side, / Who rhym’d for hire, and patroniz’d for pride.” Pope again satirizes those who attempt to balance their lack of talent with paid tributes to pompous patrons. He again blasts critics, echoing lines from his An Essay on Criticism suggesting that they attempt to see the whole work when reviewing it, not simply small parts:

The critic Eye, tht mircroscope of Wit
See hairs and pores, examines bit by bit:
How parts relate to parts, or they to whole,
The body’s harmony, the beaminig soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burman,
Wasse shall see, When Man’s whole frame is obvious to a Flea.

With reason lost, the next step is to “doubt of god / Make Nature still incroach upon his plan,” substituting a “Mechanic Cause” in the creator’s place, to “Make God Man’s Image, Man the final Cause,” and “See all in Self, and but for self be born.” In An Essay on Man Pope cautioned man not to fixate on himself at the expense of God and Science.

While passing judgment on various disputes, the Goddess suggests those involved “find proper employment . . . in the study of Butterflies, Shells, Birds-nests, Moss, etc., with particular caution, not to proceed beyond Trifl es, to any useful or extensive views of Nature, or of the author of Nature.” Now the dunces may truly enjoy their position, having been actually ordered not to engage in creative or intellectual activity of note. The poem closes as the group answers the Goddess’s call to make “One Mighty Dunciad of the Land!” Night and Chaos reign, evoking thoughts of Milton’s Paadise Lost, in a once creative and intelligent world:

Lo! Thy dread Empire, Chaos! Is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch! Lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

As Aubrey Williams writes, “Pope’s poetry can move us deeply because it so often stirs a sense of the innate precariousness of all things.” While his satire contains much humor, it also succeeds in projecting Pope’s belief that all “delights” remain transitory. He consistently stresses the relationship of art to everyday life and emphasizes that man’s unrelenting moral failure will lead to great losses, of both a material and a spiritual nature. The Dunciad stands as an inversion of the Christian vision, rule converted to misrule. Pope understands the occasional necessity for a shake-up in order; however, he strongly cautions against crowd mentality and radical change simply for the sake of change. He understands the courage required for those in the minority, as he and his fellow Scriblerians were, to refuse to accept mediocrity, although the loudest and best-placed voices in society demand it in the name of the people.

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Williams, Aubrey. Pope’s Dunciad: A Study of Its Meaning. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1968.

Categories: History of English Literature

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