The Dunciad Summary
by Alexander Pope

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The Dunciad Summary

The Dunciad is a mock-heroic satire in which Alexander Pope attacks various figures in the literary world of his time—and by extension, the widespread decline in intellectual and moral values he believes is occurring in Great Britain and the wider European world.

The work exists in three versions, published in 1728, 1742, and 1743, the year before Pope's death. In the first version, the chief object of Pope's satire is the writer and editor Lewis Theobald; in the others, it is the playwright Colley Cibber. Both of these men were Pope's rivals and enemies in the literary world; he accuses them of incompetence and the shamelessness inherent in having the audacity to publish and promote themselves in spite of their (alleged) lack of intelligence and literary ability.

The final version of The Dunciad consists of four books. It takes the form of an allegory in which a mythological story is grafted onto the actual world of literary London in Pope's time. In book 1, we are told that the goddess Dulness has decided to crown a poet named Bayes as the king of her realm of darkness. Bayes is actually intended to represent Colley Cibber, so named because he is poet laureate. (The word laureate comes from the ancient Greek victory symbol of the bay laurel wreath.) Cibber attempts to burn his literary works, but the goddess puts out the fire and proclaims him king.

In book 2, a series of Olympic-style games are held as a competition among these incompetent literary figures of Pope's time; these include a urine-spouting contest. Book 3 has Cibber fall asleep on the goddess's lap and then experience an allegorical dream of the past, the present, and a prophecy of the future of the Empire of Dulness. Book 4 shows the complete triumph of Dulness as a fulfillment of the prophecies seen in Cibber's dream. Allegorical figures appear representing good and evil. Those that represent good include Art, Science, Religion, Morality, Logic, and so on. The positive forces of man's intellect are depicted as defeated, in chains, while the force of Chaos overwhelms them. The goddess Dulness has succeeded in restoring to its previously supreme position the chaos from which the world had emerged, and in conclusion we are told that

They hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all.

Though the mock-heroic style was typically used by Pope, in The Dunciad we see a treatment of it quite different from the lighthearted, genial tone of what is arguably his best-known work, The Rape of the Lock. "Mock-heroic" is usually defined as a style in which the language of epic poetry is ironically used to describe trivial and comical events and people. In The Dunciad, however, the tone in which Pope's subjects (Cibber, Elkanah Settle, Edmund Curll, and many others) are satirized is angry and bitter. In the final book, Pope conjures an apocalyptic vision in which he appears to be depicting the actual destruction of mankind, and though outwardly there are incidental comic points, the overall intention is a deadly serious one. The poem is filled with topical references which would probably have not been intelligible to readers even a few decades after Pope's time, and the present-day reader needs a heavily annotated edition in order to make sense of Pope's allusions.

The Dunciad is also unusual within Pope's oeuvre partly because of the degree to which his subject matter is personal. Though the last book (which did not exist in earlier versions) gives a universal emphasis to the triumph of incompetency in art, most of the book seems to be an exercise in personal revenge against those Pope disliked. However, as is true of genuine satire, there is a positive opposite that is implicitly celebrated in The Dunciad. Pope dedicates the work to his friend Jonathan Swift, the other great satirist of the age. Too, though Italian opera is identified as one of the worthless institutions taking over the intellectual world (a view shared by many English intellectuals of the period), Pope...

(The entire section is 2,596 words.)