The Dunciad

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During the early days of Grub Street, a turbulent age of satire, party journalism, and personal attack, few writers had as many literary enemies as Alexander Pope. But amid this hurly-burly of hacks, critics, scholars, and publishers, the waspish, sickly Pope easily held his own, giving point to his pronouncement that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Like Dante in THE INFERNO, Pope salted away his enemies in THE DUNCIAD.

Two versions of THE DUNCIAD were required: a 1728 three-book version featuring Lewis Theobald Pope’s rival editor of Shakespeare, and a 1743 four-book version with Colley Cibber--actor, playwright, theater manager, and poet laureate--as the hero who epitomizes mediocrity and bad taste. Both versions enroll dozens of other names in the catalog of dunces.

Written in heroic couplets (rhyming iambic pentameter) and recalling the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, THE DUNCIAD moves from a specific to a general perspective. In book 1, Dullness recruits the hero out of Grub Street and crowns him king of her empire. Book 2 provides a pause in the main action as the legions of Dullness celebrate their epic games, including such appropriate competitions as urinating, racing through filth, diving into sewer ditches, and staying awake while dull literature is read (all are lulled to sleep, including the readers).

In Book 3, the hero in dreams visits the underworld, where he meets the souls of past dunces, who prophesy the imminent victory of Dullness’ kingdom. In Book 4 the conquest of Britain occurs, as the army of dunces overruns literature, politics, science, and learning, and “universal darkness buries all.”


Clark, Donald B. Alexander Pope. New York: Twayne, 1967. Provides a thorough examination of all of Pope’s major works. Interpretations and criticisms of several individual poems comprise the bulk of this study. Historical and biographical information are also provided.

Regan, J. V. “The Mock-Epic Structure of the Dunciad.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 19, no. 3 (Summer, 1979): 459-473. Focuses on the structure of The Dunciad. To illustrate how Pope’s poem follows epic conventions, as well as how it departs from them, Regan draws parallels between The Dunciad and Vergil’s Aeneid.

Rogers, Robert. The Major Satires of Alexander Pope. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1955. Convincingly argues that each of Pope’s satires reflects his own moral concerns on the ethical dilemmas he faced himself. This comprehensive overview of Pope’s satiric poems is essential for any discussion pertaining to the poet’s use of irony and wit.

Sitter, John E. The Poetry of Pope’s “Dunciad.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. This full-length study devoted to The Dunciad concentrates on the poem’s imagery, structure, and origins. Use of textual evidence makes the work an excellent starting place for critical analysis.

Williams, Aubrey L. Pope’s “Dunciad”: A Study of Its Meaning. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955. In order to interpret Pope’s meaning and to comment on his imaginative powers, Williams examines the poem from every possible angle. Provides one of the most thorough treatments of The Dunciad.

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