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Last Updated on September 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

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...

(The entire section contains 2001 words.)

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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 has genuine praise for George Frideric Handel and acknowledges his greatness as a composer.

Nevertheless, the overall thrust of The Dunciad is highly pessimistic, and Pope ultimately predicts the downfall of legitimacy in art, science, and learning.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297

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 a-piece shall glad the rest.

As a final test the goddess promises her “amplest powers” to anyone who can remain awake as he listens to the verses of “Three College Sophs, and three pert Templars.” The book ends with the whole company lying asleep.

Grandiose heroic couplets and numerous parallels with classical visits to the underworld fill the third book. John Taylor, the Water Poet, replaces the ferryman Charon; Elkanah Settle, a Restoration poet, takes Anchises’ part in showing the hero the future of Dulness and her offspring. The high point of this book is the crowning of Tibbald-Cibber with a poppy wreath by Bavius, prototype of the worst of poets from ancient times.

The 1742 Dunciad, centering on the triumph of Dulness over England, reveals a slightly more mature outlook in the poet than does the earlier version. Tibbald was the object of a vindictive attack, occasioned by his criticism of Pope’s edition of William Shakespeare. Cibber is representative of the dull poet; as laureate he was well known for his poor occasional verse. The fourth book is far more concerned with the institutions promoting the rise of dullness than with individuals. The more frequent use of classical names, rather than contemporary ones, indicates the poet’s movement toward universality.

The last book is almost an entity in itself. It opens with a new invocation, to Chaos and Night. The pseudo-learned notes, effective satire written by Pope, point out the precedents for a second invocation when an important new matter is introduced. Evil omens presage the coming destruction as Dulness ascends her throne and Cibber reclines in her lap, making his only appearance in this book.

Around the goddess are Science, Wit, Logic, Rhetoric, and other abstractions in chains, reminiscent of several scenes in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). Various personages appear to tell of Dulness’s victory over the many arts and institutions. First to come is a harlot representing the Italian opera; she rejoices in the banishment of Handel to Ireland and the supremacy of chaos in music.

Pope uses an epic simile to describe the nations clustering around the goddess: “orb in orb, congloved are seen/ The buzzing Bees about their dusky Queen.” Present are the passive followers of Dulness and those who lead the advance: pompous editors who make mincemeat of good poets with notes and commentary, patrons who set up a bust of a poet after he has died neglected.

A specter, the head of Westminster School, modeled on Milton’s Moloch, speaks on the state of education:

As Fancy opens the quick springs of Sense,We ply the Memory, we load the brain,Bind rebel Wit, and double chain on chain,Confine the thought, to exercise the breath;And keep them in the pale of Words till death.

Pope criticizes the hair-splitting grammarians in Aristarchus’s boasts that he has turned good verse into prose again. Science is also satirized as the study that loses itself in detail; but Dulness still fears science, for an object of nature is capable of awakening a mind. Religion does not escape; the poet says that it has degenerated into a belief in a mechanistic God, made in humankind’s image.

Knowing the state of her kingdom, the goddess celebrates her mysteries, reflecting Pope’s interest in ceremony. As the rites are concluded a state of dullness encompasses the country, schools, government, army. Truth, philosophy, and religion perish as “Universal Darkness buries All.”

The Dunciad contains more of the heroic spirit than most other mock epics. Most mock epics are directed toward the amusement of the reader and do not age well past the time in which their jokes are caught without footnotes. The Dunciad, however, reveals Pope’s passionate conviction that the triumph of dullness was a real danger to art, science, and learning. He chose to deliver his warning to England in a humorous form, but his seriousness about his subject raises the latter part of the fourth book to the level of real heroic poetry.

There are many fine lines of poetry in The Dunciad, but it is more diffuse and less brilliant satire than either Mac Flecknoe or Pope’s own Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735). Missing are the biting, succinct couplets such as Dryden’s “The rest to some faint meaning make pretense,/ But Sh—— never deviates into sense” or Pope’s lines on Addison, “Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,/ And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.”

The greatest deterrent to the modern reader’s easy enjoyment of The Dunciad is probably the fact that so much of the poet’s criticism of contemporary people and issues is almost unintelligible; few names die faster than those of the fifth-rate writers of an era. Nevertheless, the satirical comments on universal conditions remain fresh and pointed. The Dunciad is worthy of a high place among mock-heroic poems.

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