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The Dunciad is a satiric poem by Alexander Pope in the form of a mock-epic. As with Pope's Rape of the Lock, the satire is achieved by taking many of the formal structures of the classic heroic epic and applying them to trivial or silly goals. In The Dunciad, the plot revolves around the crowning of a new "King of Dulness." In the first few editions of The Dunciad (1728-1732), Lewis Theobald, who had published a scathing attack on Pope's edition of Shakespeare, held the dubious honor of the crown, but was replaced in the 1742 edition with Colley Cibber.
What makes the work so confusing for the modern reader is that it is filled with topical references to writers and political events of the period. Some of the writers or other famous figures appear under their own names, and others are referenced only indirectly. Although this would not have been a problem for Pope's audience, just as veiled references to modern celebrities are perfectly comprehensible to us, many students find it hard to follow unless they are reading an annotated edition.
For writing an essay about The Dunciad, one way both to produce a well-focused essay and to understand the poem better is to focus on a single character, such as Colley Cibber. In Book I, Cibber appears both under his own name and as Bayes, a name take from George Villiers' play The Rehearsal, which is about a playwright named Bayes attempting to compose a play by plagiarizing from a selection of classical dramas. In drawing a parallel between Cibber and Bayes, Pope is attacking Cibber in two ways. First, Cibber himself started life as an actor and then playwright before becoming Poet Laureate, and was commercially very successful, according to Pope, undeservedly, because his work was unoriginal and was crassly commercial, as opposed to Pope's own more highbrow efforts. Pope satirizes Cibber as a plagiarist in the following lines:
Next o’er his books his eyes began to roll,
In pleasing memory of all he stole;
How here he sipp’d, how there he plunder’d snug,
And suck’d all o’er like an industrious bug. (I. 127-131)
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