Alexander Pope

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Alexander Pope Poetry: British Analysis

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Alexander Pope’s poetry is an unmistakable challenge to the post-Romantic sensibilities of the twentieth century reader. John Stuart Mill’s dictum that “eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard,” seems entirely contradicted by the public and topical voice that characterizes the epistles, satires, and philosophic exordiums of Pope. The language of introspective reverie that poets, from the nineteenth century on, cultivate in lonely self-communion among the bowers of a refined aestheticism could not be further removed from the racy, tough, and contentious idiom of Pope. That is not to say that Pope’s language is devoid of sculptured phrases or chiseled locutions; on the contrary, his compositions are exquisitely wrought and develop with an inevitability that makes Pope, after William Shakespeare, the most quoted poet in the English language. Following the translation of the Iliad, however, Pope’s works became increasingly didactic and satirical in nature and engaged in topical assaults on the foibles, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings that characterized the literary and political arena during the reigns of Anne and George II. The astonishing thing is that these topical satires of literary hacks long since forgotten and social customs consigned to oblivion, touch, time and again, upon that which is enduring and universal in the moral being of humanity. The literary battles and political machinations that gave occasion to Pope’s vitriolic utterances may be forgotten, but the integrity with which Pope affirmed the centrality of letters, the tempering spirit of humanism, the need for standards, and the cultivation of reverence as indispensable ingredients of a just and balanced society, retains its relevance in the broken world of the twentieth century.

Like Vergil, Pope began as a writer of pastorals; his first poems, composed when he was sixteen, are delicate evocations of an idyllic world of shepherds and shepherdesses poised among settings reminiscent of François Boucher and Jean Fragonard. These highly stylized exercises won for him the accolades of contemporary critics and gave him the confidence to essay the next task that tradition prescribed for the developing poet: the epic. Pope’s translation of the Iliad, the first books of which appeared in 1715, was a watershed in his poetic career. Though Pope had already written poems that prefigure his later orientation as a satirist, it was the publication of the Iliad that triggered the wholly irrational and unexpected assault on Pope’s life, family, writings, and physiognomy by his political enemies and rivals to poetic fame. These attacks diverted Pope from the musings of Windsor Forest, the perorations of An Essay on Criticism, and the witticisms of The Rape of the Lock, and obliged him, to paraphrase a Nobel laureate, “to grab his century by the throat.” After 1719, Pope’s career is notable for the increasing venom of his pen and the sustained brilliance of his polemic.

An Essay on Criticism

Pope’s first important utterance gives us direct access to the critical values of the Augustans and remains the best and most compendious statement of a poetic tradition that extends from Horace to Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux. Indeed, as a distillation of neoclassical attitudes, Pope’s An Essay on Criticism is without a peer. The critical assumptions on which the poem is based could not be further removed from the splintered aesthetics and boneless relativism of the present: As a statement of poetic intention and practice, it provides a necessary corrective to the farrago of contradictions that characterize the contemporary critical scene. Pope vigorously attacks the notion that taste is a purely subjective matter, arguing that a deterioration in aesthetic values is both a symptom and a portent of a general disequilibrium in...

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the moral being of the individual and the political fabric of society. The poem’s controlling symbol is the sun—an emblem of universal reason and light whose rays are an expression of the original creative word, orlogos. Individual taste is evaluated from the perspective of this light-giving word, which is identified in the poem as “Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,/ One clear, unchanged, and universal light.” Though individual judgments may differ, they may and should be regulated—as watches by the sun—in accordance with objective standards of value and taste. Thus, the rules that govern the composition of poetry are not arbitrary inventions, but expressions of the natural law of measure and restraint: “Those Rules of old discovered, not devised/ Are nature still, but Nature methodized;/ Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained/ By the same laws which first herself ordained.”

The first duty of a poet and a critic, then, is to recognize the law of human limit, and to balance individual judgments by constant and circumspect reference to a hierarchy of inherited values. Pope does not recommend the self-abnegation of the poet in the face of his predecessors, but rather his need to adapt to his own time those values that inform ancients and moderns alike and are of continued relevance because their source is eternal and their origin beyond the vagaries of individual taste. Still, Pope maintains that the success of a composition must be estimated by the value and significance of the poet’s purpose and the artistic integrity with which that purpose is fulfilled, rather than by arbitrary and invidious comparisons between works of antithetical spirit and intention. In this regard, “Pegasus, a near way to take,/ May boldly deviate from the common track;/ From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,/ And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.”

There is, however, one important qualification to this expansionist poetics. Namely, that although the poet’s deviations may elude the letter of aesthetic law, they must not violate the spirit of that law: “Moderns, beware! or if you must offend/ Against the precept ne’er transgress its end.” As Pope argues at the opening of Part 2 of An Essay on Criticism, the poet and the critic must never allow themselves to become victims of pride or to equate the spark of their peculiar talents or insights with the all-embracing splendors of the eternal logos. Poets and critics of lesser rank, according to Pope, allow their obsession with the parts of a composition to take precedence over their comprehension of its total design. An efflorescence of decorative detail in a poet and a pedantic and small-minded preoccupation with minutiae in a critic are unmistakable indications of debilitated sensibility and false judgment: “But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,/ Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon.” To value sound over sense, expression over content, nuance over theme, is to sacrifice instruction to delight and to worship the dead letter at the expense of the living spirit.

Furthermore, the prosody of a poetic composition should be judged by the following criteria: “’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,/ The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Pope crystallizes this point in a series of couplets rich in verbal pyrotechnics. The lines sing, strain, limp, or lilt in accordance with the action described:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows:But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,The line too labours, and the words move slow;Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.

Here, as so often, the restraint of the couplet inspires Pope to rhythmic feats that make a game of art and bear witness to his own adage: “The winged courser, like the generous horse/ Shows most true mettle when you check his force.”

After attacking the patronage system and the proclivity of critics to celebrate poets of superior social rank while denigrating those genuine talents who arouse jealousy and spite, Pope goes on to affirm that, in their ultimate issues, literary, social, and moral values are mutually interdependent. A vacillating and fickle critic inconstant in his service to the muse is thus compared to a degenerate amorist who abandons the lawful embraces of his wife for the specious thrills of a strumpet. Constipated scribblers who “Strain out the last droppings of their sense/ And rhyme with all the rage of Impotence,” and Restoration rakes who combine “Dulness with Obscenity . . ./ As shameful sure as Impotence in love,” underscore Pope’s sense that larger issues of decorum, decency, and health are involved in questions of literary tact. For Pope, the authentic poet and critic is honest and circumspect, capable of elasticity in his judgment but constrained by nature and common sense. He does not neglect the rigors of composition in a false straining for effect nor abandon moral and metaphysical principles to flatter public taste. Pope never deserted the values adduced in An Essay on Criticism, and the poem may be profitably used as a yardstick to measure the underlying integrity of Pope’s poetic vision and the vigilance with which he applied it to the literary and cultural aberrations of his age.

An Essay on Criticism was followed by Windsor Forest and The Rape of the Lock; the former poem is an expression of unity in diversity in which the ecological balance of Windsor Forest is perceived as analogous to the balanced and harmonious development of the British realm following the Peace of Utrecht. Pope’s perception of a concordant cosmic design maintained by the mutual subservience of antagonistic forces adumbrates the more compelling philosophic arguments of An Essay on Man.

The Rape of the Lock

Pope’s most brilliant achievement in his early work is, of course, The Rape of the Lock. Its sophisticated humor and virtuoso technique are unsurpassed. In this genial spoof of a society abandoned to the pursuit of spurious values, Pope avoids the extreme indignation of his later satires. Instead, he takes an impish delight in the conventions and rituals that are the object of his gentle mockery. Though Belinda and the Baron may be self-regarding fools, the poet obviously relishes their behavior.

The poem itself derives from an actual quarrel between Arabella Fermour and her suitor, Lord Petre. At the request of his friend, John Caryll, Pope undertook the poem, hoping, through his raillery, to laugh the young beau and belle into common sense. Not surprisingly, the tempers of Miss Fermour and Lord Petre were not mollified when, in consequence of Pope’s poem, their misadventures became the talk of the town.

Pope’s principal strategy in this mock-epic is to stand the conventions of epic poetry on their heads. By counterpointing the dramatic situations and epic conventions of Homer, Vergil, and Milton with the fatuities of a vain coquette and a foppish lord, Pope exposes the pretensions and trivialities of the eighteenth century upper class. Hence, the battle for Troy, Latium, or Heaven becomes a bathetic war between the genders; the celestial powers of the Iliad or Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) are reduced to diminutive sylphs; and the ferocious appetites of the Homeric warrior are replaced by the pampered palates of a degenerate aristocracy. As in An Essay on Criticism, the controlling metaphor is the sun. Belinda’s propensity to arrogate to herself the divine attributes of that celestial orb reflects the expansive self-conceit permeating her entire culture. As they are over and over in Belinda’s world, the finite preoccupations of pleasure, seduction, flirtation, and gossip are accorded an infinite status. The worship of these things becomes, in consequence, obsessional and demoniac. Thus the sylphs who whisper in Belinda’s ear on the eve of her molestation by the Baron recall the seductive whispers of Milton’s Satan in the ear of the sleeping Eve. Moreover, as Belinda sits before her boudoir mirror and allows herself to be transformed by the ministrations of her attendant sylphs, the religious connotations of Pope’s imagery underscore the debasement of true worship into self-worship through “the sacred rites of Pride.” Still, Pope’s condemnation of Belinda’s world is not unequivocal: The radiance, iridescence, and bejeweled splendor of this perfumed society retain a vestige of that divine light that the society caricatures or distorts.

In the last analysis, however, Belinda’s chastity is not a positive virtue but an expression of vanity. Her aloofness is a deliberate and insulting challenge to her suitors, whose numbers swell as she remains unfixed and flirtatious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Belinda’s outcry in canto 4, after the Baron has successfully clipped and stolen a lock of her hair: “Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!” Belinda is not consciously aware of the comic and lewd implications of her statement, but Pope’s cruel joke is definitely intended at her expense. Belinda’s unconscious preference for a private seduction over a public insult—that the Baron should have seized “hairs less in sight”—reveals how virtue and chastity remain for her largely a matter of appearance. With the exception of Clarissa, who councils Belinda to exercise restraint, humility, and humor, the moral spinelessness of this society—its appalling indifference to standards and its inability to discriminate between the trivial and the tragic—is epitomized in Pope’s use of the couplet and in his juxtaposition of incongruous images. For example, Belinda’s cries at the Baron’s violation of her lock are described as follows: “Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,/ When husbands, or when lap dogs breathe their last;/ Or when rich China vessels fallen from high/ In glittering dust, and painted fragments lie!” The deaths of husbands and of lap dogs, the breaking of china, and the loss of virginity are reduced to the same level.

The poem ends in a mock apotheosis. In the midst of the fracas between Belinda and the Baron, the pilfered lock ascends comet-like to the starry heavens to assume its place among the other constellations. Pope concludes with a poignant reminder of mortality and an implicit plea for Belinda to attain fulfillment in marriage and love: “For, after all the murders of your eye,/ When after millions slain, yourself shall die;/ When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,/ And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,/ This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame,/ And midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name.”

Eloisa to Abelard

Following The Rape of the Lock, Pope’s efforts were directed toward a mode of composition with which he is not usually identified: the elegiac verses “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” and the romantic psychodrama, Eloisa to Abelard. The “Elegy” is, perhaps, only partially successful; its chief interest lies in the poet’s vacillation between a Christian and a Stoic understanding of the lady’s death. Eloisa to Abelard is another matter altogether. G. Wilson Knight claims that it “is certainly Pope’s greatest human poem and probably the greatest short love poem in our language”—a judgment from which few critics are likely to dissociate themselves.

In the form of an epistle to her beloved and banished Abelard, Pope’s Eloisa dramatically expresses the psychological tensions that threaten her reason and divide her soul. Confined to a monastery (ironically founded by Abelard), she receives, at length, a letter from her former lover that reawakens her suppressed passion. The recrudescence of these feelings not only threatens her stability, but also, in her own estimation, endangers her soul; and her situation is rendered even more poignant by the fact that Abelard, having been castrated by henchmen in the employ of her outraged uncle, can neither respond to nor share in her struggles against the flesh. Here the couplet is used not only ironically to counterpose discordant images, as in The Rape of the Lock, but also to reflect, in balanced antitheses, the very struggles of Eloisa’s soul. In the extravagance of her affliction, Eloisa takes on the attributes of a Shelleyan heroine, preferring damnation with Abelard to redemption without him: “In seas of flame my plunging soul is drowned,/ While altars blaze, and angels tremble round.” Even as she submits to the decrees of Heaven and composes herself to meet her maker, she erotically mingles her love for Abelard with her struggle for salvation: “Thou Abelard! the last sad office pay,/ And smooth my passage to the realms of day,/ See my lips tremble, and my eyeballs roll,/ Suck my last breath, and catch my flying soul!” Eloisa to Abelard belies the notion that Pope was incapable of composing in the pathetic mode. As Lord Byron observed, “If you search for passion, where is it to be found stronger than in Eloisa to Abelard.”

Between Eloisa to Abelard and An Essay on Man, Pope composed a preliminary version of The Dunciad (1728), but it was not until 1742 that the poem appeared in its final form.

An Essay on Man

Pope’s principal achievements from 1731 to 1737 were An Essay on Man and associated ethical epistles. These moral essays encompass a variety of subjects: two addresses, to the earl of Burlington and Lord Bathurst, respectively, on the uses of riches; a study of the Ruling Passion in the development of individual character, addressed to Lord Cobham; and an epistle to Martha Blount on the hypocrisy of women in sophisticated society. The key to each of these studies of the foibles and idiosyncrasies of human character is provided by An Essay on Man—Pope’s most celebrated poem during his own lifetime and the chief source of his international fame. The poem deserves close study. As a synthesis of eighteenth century apologetic thought on the nature of humankind, the existence of evil, and the harmony of the creation, it is unsurpassed. Apart from its creedal assertions—which are considerable and not to be dismissed as glib rationalizations or “moldy commonplaces,” as Thomas De Quincey would have it—the poem’s chief merit lies in Pope’s ability to express in taut and pellucid couplets the fundamentals of a religion derived from natural law. In a word, it exemplifies Pope’s dictum that “True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d/ What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Although Pope’s ontology is based on reason and observation as opposed to dogma or revelation, the poem does not deny metaphysical axioms. On the contrary, it continually approximates to “some sphere unknown.” The recognition of this metaphysical “sphere” is elaborated in language that is purged of sectarian or denominational accretions, reflecting Pope’s belief in a natural illumination or “way” vouchsafed to all men irrespective of particular creeds, forms of worship, or varieties of belief. In short, it is an eighteenth century Dao that reflects and transcends the thought and expression of the period. Pope’s poem is intended to develop in readers a capacity to recognize the interdependencies of all things; to attune themselves in thought and action to the whole of creation; and to accept in humility and reverence an appointed place in the cosmic design.

The first epistle is chiefly concerned with demonstrating that the human place in the scheme of creation is providentially ordained. Pope claims that apparent human limitations are blessings in disguise: If people were possessed of prescience greater than that with which divine wisdom has endowed them, they would pose a threat to cosmic order—that “great chain, that draws all to agree”—and attempt to make themselves the center of the universe. This would be in direct opposition to “. . . the first Almighty Cause,” that “Acts not by partial, but by general laws.” Although human limitations tax people sorely and the apparent indifference of the universe offends their sense of justice, it is precisely those limitations that allow people to exist at all and permit them to develop, through interaction with others, conscious senses of identity. If natural laws were suspended every time people were threatened by their operation, the world would turn topsy-turvy and the order of both the universe and human society would fall into chaos. Hence, “The general Order, since the whole began,/ Is kept in Nature, and is kept in Man.” Furthermore, if human beings were granted access to the divine plan and made privy to the Creator’s will, their stature as a being midway between the Infinite and nothing would be destroyed. Pope reasons: “If nature thundered in his opening ears,/ And stunned him with the music of the spheres,/ How would he wish that Heaven had left him still/ The whispering Zephyr and the purling rill?” To be sure, humans, through an act of faith, must develop the capacity to perceive the infinite in and through the finite, but to cherish the illusion that, in their present state, they are or should be equal to the “Mind of All” is to “invert the laws/ Of Order” and to sin “against th’ Eternal Cause.”

Pope cautions that humankind should not expect more from life than it is capable of providing and that people should look to death for the fulfillment of the hope that has been implanted in them as a sign of their transcendent destiny. Therefore, people should comport themselves authentically to the divine will: “Hope humbly then, with trembling pinions soar,/ Wait the greater teacher Death, and God adore./ What future bliss, he gives not thee to know/ But gives that Hope to be thy blessing now.” In the last analysis, true happiness is a consequence of a person’s adjustment to that “stupendous whole,/ Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.” From this proceeds the recognition that “All nature is but art, unknown to thee,/ All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see,/ All Discord, Harmony, not understood;/ All partial Evil, universal Good.”

For Pope, as it is in great things, so it is in small. As a microcosm of the universe, humankind’s internal being reflects those same polarities and tensions that, held in harmonious balance, sustain and animate the cosmic scheme. Just as nature may deviate from that balance in eruptions, earthquakes, and cosmic catastrophes, so human equilibrium may itself be usurped by the dominance of a particular passion or impulse. Pope argues, however, that the human mental constitution, despite its precarious balance, witnesses to the ingenuity of its Maker. Reason, by itself, is not enough to activate, kindle, and inspire people’s existence. Without the promptings of passion, humanity would sink into a contemplative torpor. Thus, “Two Principles in human nature reign;/ Self-love, to urge, and Reason, to restrain.” In the elaboration of these mental categories, Pope strikingly anticipates Sigmund Freud. Pope’s “self-love” and “Reason” are roughly equivalent to Freud’s “id” and “super-ego.”

Like Freud, Pope recognizes that “Self-Love”—the id, or pleasure-principle—is the source of those instinctual urges that give vitality and movement to our lives. He also affirms that “Reason”—the superego, or reality-principle—is necessary to direct those urges into socially acceptable channels and to keep them from becoming self-destructive. To expunge these passions altogether would destroy the human organism and rob life of its daring and splendor. Thus, “Love, Hope, and Joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,/ Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of pain,/ These mixed with art, and to due bounds confined,/ Make and maintain the balance of the mind.” Moreover, each person possesses “One Master Passion” that gives life impetus and direction. Without that passion, people’s lives would proceed without tremor, but their potential for virtue and creation would be severely diminished.

Like Freud, Pope here posits a theory of sublimation that recognizes that all virtues and achievements are transformations of subliminal and potentially destructive energies: “Nor Virtue, male or female, can we name,/ But what will grow on Pride, or grow on shame./ Thus Nature gives us (let it check our pride)/ The virtue nearest to our vice allied.” Hence, lust, restrained and harmonized by Reason, becomes love: Spleen becomes honesty; envy, emulation; avarice, prudence; and idleness or sloth—as Friedrich Nietzsche himself observed—philosophy. Finally, “Even mean Self-love becomes, by force divine,/ The scale to measure others’ wants by thine./ See, and confess, one comfort still must rise,/ ’Tis this, Though Man’s a fool, yet God is wise.”

After examining the internal economy of human nature in the second epistle, Pope next scrutinizes the relationship between the individual and society. Not surprisingly, Pope’s perception of society as an association of countervailing forces parallels his remarks on human psychology and cosmic order. Just as virtue is a product of sublimated vice, so human institutions—families, religious organizations, political bodies—are a product of human weakness. If humans are born needy and deficient, that is not an argument against divine dispensation; on the contrary, it is precisely those deficiencies that necessitate the formation of a society based on mutual solicitude and love. In this way, self-love imperceptibly yields to social love—a love that is directly inspired by the human need for and reliance on one another. The image that Pope uses to characterize this movement from self-love to social love and, finally, to cosmic love, is that of a pebble dropped in a peaceful lake:

Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;The center moved, a circle straight succeeds,Another still, and still another spreads;Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace;His country next; and next all human race.

At length, these spreading circles and widening arcs of worship encompass the whole of Being and reflect, in miniature, the love of God for his creation. As Maynard Mack observes: “The controlling theme of An Essay on Man is the theme of constructive renunciation. By renouncing the exterior false paradises, man finds the true one within. By acknowledging his weakness, he learns his strengths. By subordinating himself to the whole, he finds his real importance in it.”

Although it is important to estimate Pope’s achievement in An Essay on Man in terms of his stated purpose, there is perhaps one legitimate criticism to which the poem gives rise: Pope’s failure to recognize and express the intense spiritual struggle involved in accepting one’s place in the divine plan. To be sure, Pope’s response to those who would question God’s justice is not dissimilar from the response accorded Job: “Where was thou when the foundations of the world were laid?” Unlike the Hebrew poet, however, Pope fails to dramatize the efforts of the individual to adhere to the divine will. Pope seems to regard all questionings of or disputations with Providence as manifestations of human pride. In this way, Pope vitiates the existential validity of his doctrines and devalues human beings’ struggle to bring their will and intelligence into conformity with the Creator. As one critic remarks: “The wisdom that teaches us not to weep cannot dry our tears, still less can it draw them forth.” In the final analysis, however, An Essay on Man is a compelling and thoughtful theodicy. As a poetry of statement, it comes as close as any statement or assertion can to justifying and explaining the cosmic order. If it leaves the existential dimension of that order out of account, it must be remembered that Pope’s intention is to “vindicate the ways of God to Man” through argument and persuasion rather than to justify those ways through drama or personal testimony.

Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

The next phase of Pope’s career is characterized by rage and indignation at a literary and social milieu in which intellectual blankness and moral bankruptcy are the accepted standard. Pope’s voice becomes increasingly apocalyptic as he contemplates, with derision and dismay, the opportunistic secularism of the Augustan Age. In the Horatian satires and epistles, Pope expresses his outrage at the moral breakdown in the court of George II and the brutalizing cynicism in the administration of Robert Walpole, where “Not to be corrupted is the shame.”

From an aesthetic point of view, the most interesting of these Horatian diatribes is Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. Again Pope astonishes readers with the expressive capabilities of the rhyming couplet. By using enjambment and an almost syncopated rhythm to resist the couplet’s natural tendency to fall into balanced antitheses with neatly placed caesuras in the middle of a line, Pope is able to capture the idiomatic flavor of a living conversation. One can hear Pope’s labored breathing as he slams the door on those flatterers and careerists who have pursued him to the very threshold of Twickenham: “Shut, shut the door, good John!, fatigued I said,/ Tie up the Knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead./ The Dog Star rages! nay ’tis past a doubt,/ All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out.” The poem is not merely an attack on Pope’s detractors—Atticus (Addison), Bufo (the earl of Halifax), and Sporus (Lord Hervey)—but a withering indictment of a literary establishment that pursues reputation, influence, fashion, and power to the neglect of truth.

The Dunciad

The ultimate expression of Pope’s outrage at a world that ravages the principles of order adduced in An Essay on Man and subverts the disciplined training of the moral sensibility and character to curry favor is, of course, The Dunciad. Like The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad is a mock-epic; but unlike its predecessor, the satire here is scathing to the last degree. In its first version, Pope’s principal antagonist was Lewis Theobald, a humorless and dry-as-dust pedant who is chiefly remembered for having pilloried Pope’s edition of Shakespeare. In the final version, Theobald is replaced by Colly Cibber, a negligible drudge who, according to Pope, achieved the position of poet laureate through flattery and the propitiation of Dullness. As the King of Dunces, Cibber presides over a factious following of dilettantes and poetasters. In book 4, the reign of Dullness shakes the very foundations of civilization as chaos supplants cosmos and moral order is overthrown. Educators, scientists, lawyers, politicians, pedants, and versifiers are all subjected to the withering scorn of Pope’s pen. Each has allowed the allures of self-advertisement to compromise the disinterested search for value and truth. In short, The Dunciad is a vision of cultural fragmentation and breakdown in which the holistic vision of An Essay on Man deteriorates into the deconstructionism, the intellectual madness and lawlessness of those who only “See Nature in some partial narrow shape,/ And let the Author of the whole escape.” The arts and sciences, perverted from their true function, become soulless self-reflections of man’s skill: “Art after art goes out and All is Night,/ Lo! thy dread empire, CHAOS! is restored,/ Light dies before thy uncreating word./ Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/ And universal Darkness buries All.”

The Dunciad is a trenchant and corrosive probing of the moral, political, and cultural decay of a society controlled by self-important publicists, crass careerists, and opportunistic power-brokers. It is perhaps regrettable that Pope felt the need to encrust this poem with tedious and obscure references to the intellectual disloyalists of his day. Even so, the cumbersome and tortuous inventory of malodorous statesmen and maleficent critics is arguably at one with the poem’s substance; the burden that they impose on the reader is a verbal equivalent to their stifling effect on a society from which every vestige of the spirit has been systematically expunged. Moreover, it is important to remember that these references are themselves a parody of “bookful blockheads ignorantly read/ With loads of learned lumber in their head.” As Austin Warren observes apropos of Pope’s dunces: “The context provides the categories which are permanent, while the proper names are annually replaceable.”

Viewed as a whole, Pope’s achievement is astonishing in its range and diversity. As the guardian and interpreter of a spiritual tradition distilled from the collective wisdom of Western culture, Pope articulates a “coherent romanticism,” as it has been termed by G. Wilson Knight, which has as immediate a bearing on the fractured world of the twentieth century as it had on the refractory world of the Augustans. For those who believe that the preservation of humanistic letters and the survival of spiritual values are inextricably intertwined, Pope’s poetry will continue to carry urgency and command attention.


Alexander Pope World Literature Analysis