In this guest blog, Joseph Hone, an Oxford DPhil student, argues for the pertinence of one of the ‘most unread literary masterpieces’ – Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.
Portrait of Alexander Pope, oil on canvas. c. 1742. By Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745)
Have you ever warned somebody that a little learning is a dangerous thing, or that fools rush in where angels fear to tread? Have you ever said that to err is human, to forgive divine, or observed that as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined? If so, you have been quoting Alexander Pope. This is hardly surprising; after Tennyson and Shakespeare, Pope is the third most prolific writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
. What is surprising, however, is that most of us do not even realize it. Though the most celebrated poet of the eighteenth century, Pope has received a tough press over the last two hundred years. According to Wordsworth his verse was more delicate than grand, and in the twentieth century his heroic couplets were almost universally deemed to have aged badly. Similarly, his critique of ‘low-culture’ and ‘Grub Street dunces’ whiffs of snobbery to those not steeped in the social and political context of the period. No wonder critics like James Reeves, in his book The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope
(1976), have argued that Pope’s poetical talents have been wildly over estimated while his personal failings grossly overlooked. Such prejudice continues to blight the teaching of poetry to this day. Most school leavers have never even heard of the man (a little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed), whilst undergraduates consistently seem to avoid the period as much as they can. For all of the neglect and disdain, Pope remains an excellent poet. His evocation of early eighteenth-century life, from the sordid scribbling underclasses to the powdered wigs of society beaus, remains as energized and intimate as if it had been written weeks rather than centuries ago. There will always be people who refuse to read Pope; this blog is an attempt to save you from becoming one of them.
Simultaneously the most inaccessible and evocative of Pope’s works is the Dunciad. Amongst the most unread of literary masterpieces, the Dunciad provides a reading experience quite unlike anything before or since. The difficulties of the poem begin with the murkiness of its textual state. The first Dunciad was published in 1728 as a poem in three books, before being republished in 1729 covered with mock-scholarly notes by the pedantic caricature, Scriblerus. Some years later, in 1742, a fourth book of the Dunciad was published before the complete four-book mock-epic appeared in 1743. So which Dunciad do we read? The final edition of 1743 provides the most complete narrative, and in its recent form, edited by Valerie Rumbold, is the most readable it has ever been. Across the four books of his mock-epic, Pope tells the story of Bays – a caricature of theatre manager and poet laureate Colley Cibber. In reality Cibber was a prurient manager, but a dreadful poet. In his imaginative transformation he is the son and heir of the goddess Dulness, come to claim London as his rightful inheritance. The city, filled with lowlife hacks and poets, willingly supplicates to the new king, celebrating his return. These celebrations contain some of the most vibrant lines of poetry from the century, revelling in appalled delight at the scene. In a wonderfully scatological episode, the poets engage in celebratory games, challenging one another to dive the deepest into London’s sewers and piss the highest. It is the pirate publisher, Edmund Curll, who wins the competition, despite his genitals burning from venereal disease – a symptom of his notorious infidelity in printing texts:
Thro’ half the heav’ns he pours th’exalted urn;
His rapid waters in their passage burn.
Swift as it mounts, all follow with their eyes:
Still happy Impudence obtains the prize. (2.183-86)
Even now, the sewer-diving and the pissing contest are quite shocking, but they are full of cutting wit and derision. The dunce poets strive to sink into the depths of bathos rather than aspire to the profound; they have an ability to produce material from nothing. Like their bodily evacuate, their literary produce is vacuous – full of nothing. Characteristically, Pope revels in that which he deplores. The world of Grub Street, a real place at that time as well as a metaphor, becomes a shady refuge of appalling and ludicrous creative energies. Pope takes your hand and leads you through this poetical menagerie; there is a shock lurking behind every corner.
However, much of the true art of the Dunciad lies in its annotations, prolegomena, and appearance. Any English student that has come into contact with a masterfully edited critical edition – Alastair Fowler’s Paradise Lost, or Harold Love’s Rochester, for instance – will recognize the form of the page, with a handful of lines floating above the thick-set mass of critical commentary. Unlike the editions of Milton or Rochester, however, Scriblerus’s notes (along with Bentley’s in 1743) contain no discretion, scholarship, or critical sagacity. Rather, they are filled with conjecture and bad judgement, as empty as the ghostly dunces of the poem. The circular arguments and foolish pedantry of these dunces reminds us what not to do in our own critical work.
The Dunciad represents the jewel in Pope’s crown, but it by no means stands alone. His translations of Homer are rightfully canonical in their own respect, as are wonderful satires like The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Criticism, and Peri Bathous. If, however, you only read one text of Pope’s, make it the Dunciad. I urge you not only to plunder it for its vibrant picture of early eighteenth-century London, but for what it tells us about the now. There is a reason for Pope’s domination of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: the sentiments of his poetry survive beyond the moment. The Grub Street world of hacks and dunces lives on in the modern spheres of journalism and politics, whilst the temporal nature of cheap print and ephemera has boomed with the internet revolution. Let’s face it, the Dunciad has never been so pertinent.
Dunciad Book II 1760 illustration, showing the Goddess and poets asleep. 1760 Collected (Warburton) edition of Pope, London, Vol V. Artist F. Hayman, Engraver C. Grignion, Scanner & uploader Steven J. Plunkett. (Wikimedia Commons)
You can download and read the Dunciad, and other works by Alexander Pope for free by finding them in our ebook library. Go to http://www.writersinspire.org/ebooks and search for ‘Dunciad’ in the title or ‘Pope’ in the author name.