The Dunciad was first published in three books anonymously, with the authorship finally acknowledged in 1735. The entire work was initiated by the poet laureate Lewis Theobald’s reaction to Pope’s edition of Shakespeare. The poem attacks Dulness in general, making Theobald its first hero. Eventually, all the authors of the day whom Pope disliked received attention. Individual invective, however, is extended to literary vices in general, in both the 1728 version and the later versions where Theobald is replaced as leading dunce by Colley Cibber.
The first book is organized into three parts. Part 1 describes the reign of Dulness. Part 2 consists of games in which poets, critics, and booksellers contend. The focus seems to be on the critics and their games, tests to decide if they can stay awake while certain material is read for them. Spectators and critics both fall asleep.
Book 3 has the king transported to the Elysian Fields, where he has visions of the past and future triumphs of the empire of Dulness and how they shall extend to the arts and sciences.
The general scheme of the poem shows Pope’s reliance upon John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682) and upon classical models. It begins, in fact, with a parody of the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) in its invocation, directed to the patrons whose purses inspire the dull writing that will be attacked in...
When Alexander Pope set out to criticize the general literary climate of his time and to avenge the slights given his own work by other writers, he took the theme of John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682), in which the poetaster Thomas Shadwell is crowned ruler of the Kingdom of Nonsense, and expanded it to make a true mock epic of three books. He added a fourth book when he rewrote the poem in 1742. The Dunciad acclaims the goddess Dulness, daughter of Chaos and Night, and her chosen prince. In the first edition the prince of dullness is the scholar Lewis Theobald (Tibbald); in the second edition he is Colley Cibber, playwright and poet laureate.
This poem lacks the close-knit quality of Pope’s other fine mock epic, The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714). The Dunciad is longer, and the fact that the hero appears only at intervals explains a certain disunity. Tibbald-Cibber appears at the middle of book 1, is present only as a spectator at the epic games described in book 2, and merely dreams the trip to the underworld, modeled on that of Aeneas in book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). The important points in the poem are made in the descriptive passages in these episodes and in conversations that contain criticism of individuals and trends.
Pope relied, for satirical effect, on the classical epic as his model. The Dunciad, like The Rape of the Lock, begins with a parody of the Aeneid:
The mighty Mother, and her Son, who bringsThe Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings,I sing.
The invocation is appropriately directed not at a muse but at the Patricians, the patrons whose purses inspire dull writing. The dedication to the author’s friend Jonathan Swift that follows is an eighteenth century, rather than a classic, convention.
Pope describes in detail the abode of Dulness and the allegorical figures gathered around her throne: Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, and Poetic Justice, who is weighing truth with gold and “solid pudding against empty praise.” The gods are notoriously interested in the affairs of mortals; Dulness looks out upon the ingredients of dull writing and the numerous creators of it. Her eye lights upon the hero, who is raising to her an altar of tremendous tomes of his writing. She anoints him as king of her realm, and the nation croaks Aesop’s line, “God save King Log.”
In the second book Pope designs appropriate contests for his various groups of enemies. The booksellers race to win a phantom poet. A patron is designated for the poet who tickles best, but he is carried off by an unknown sycophantic secretary. Journalists swim through the muck of the Thames River:
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes aroundThe stream, be his the Weekly Journals bound;A pig of lead to him who drives the best;A peck of coals...