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...
(The entire section is 595 words.)