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The Poet and His Theme

Though he was the greatest poet of his age, Alexander Pope was a deeply insecure man. When he believed himself slighted by critics or other writers, he struck back with even greater force. He was greatly concerned with the political and religious climate of the...

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The Poet and His Theme

Though he was the greatest poet of his age, Alexander Pope was a deeply insecure man. When he believed himself slighted by critics or other writers, he struck back with even greater force. He was greatly concerned with the political and religious climate of the time as well.

Pope's style in The Dunciad is similar to that of his earlier mock-heroic work, such as The Rape of the Lock. However, his previously humorous, lighthearted manner is replaced by a bitter, slashing tone that is surprising even in an age when angry rhetoric was not uncommon in satire. In some sense, his attacks on his literary rivals are justified (given that most of them are barely known today, except by specialists, even as names). A striking example of Pope's use of parody is the opening of book 2:

High on a gorgeous seat that far outshone
Henley's gilt tub or Flecknoe's Irish throne,
Or that whereon her Curlls the public pours
All bounteous fragrant grains and golden showers,
Great Cibber sate . . . .

This is a transformation of Milton's description of Satan in Paradise Lost. In other words, language originally appropriate to "great" subjects is parodied in order to describe the trivial and contemptible—in this case, the playwright Colley Cibber, who has been crowned "king of the dunces" in Pope's scenario. The very title of The Dunciad is a mock-heroic word, using the suffix -iad from the Iliad of Homer. So, the poem is an epic—not one about a great subject like the siege of Troy (or Ilium), but about "dunces" instead.

Symbols and Motifs

It would be wrong to claim that Pope is attacking only his incompetent rivals on the literary scene. As specific as the references are to these men, they—and the political figures who are also alluded to—are symbols of a greater danger that Pope identifies at the heart of modern civilization. In book 4, the evils which have become dominant in the world are described in apocalyptic terms, as grand-scale abstractions which have defeated all that is positive and good:

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o'er her head.
Philosophy that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause and is no more . . . .
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares, Morality expires.

At its conclusion, The Dunciad is thus revealed as an allegorical epic in which the personal attacks on Pope's contemporaries are a metaphor for the battle between right and wrong, between good and evil.

The Historical and Literary Context

England in the early eighteenth century was going through a period of political transformation. Pope, like his friend Swift, was against the Whig party, which became as much the object of his satire as his literary enemies. The Hanoverian succession was also a deeply divisive issue, and Pope, in veiled terms, attacked both George I and George II. The fact that he was able to get away with this is evidence that Britain was the only country in Europe at the time that was relatively democratic. Voltaire and other foreigners marveled at the degree of freedom of speech that Pope, Jonathan Swift, and others were able to exercise, and this became an inspiration to the Enlightenment philosophers on the Continent. Though much of Pope's moral outrage is based on his religious beliefs, there is evidence that Pope was basically a free thinker. His philosophy, expressed in The Dunciad and elsewhere, is a secular humanism that forms a core of what Thomas Paine later labeled the Age of Reason.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635


*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain. With a population of nearly seven hundred thousand people in the eighteenth century, London is the setting of the final campaign of “The War of the Dunces,” which culminates in the obliteration of high cultural standards. At the core of its East End is the old walled section, known as “the City,” center for the lower and middle classes, business, the trades, markets, counting houses, the Royal (stock) Exchange, jails, shanties, butcheries, shipping, coal wharves, and tanning factories. The East End was noted for its mobs, crime, jails, poverty, ugliness, dirt, sooty air, open sewers, and foul odors. London’s West End is associated with the royal court and aristocratic elegance, leisure, gardens, lovely parks, large squares, and beautiful houses. The mock-heroic journey of the dunces from the East End to the West End and back symbolizes the conquest of high culture by low standards.


*Smithfield. Lower-class section of East London, site of a bazaar and the occasional dramatic entertainment “agreeable only to the Taste of the Rabble.” The mock-heroic invocation to the muse in the poem’s opening lines announces the theme of cultural degeneration: the bringing of “The Smithfield Muses to the Ear of Kings.”


*Rag-Fair. Located near the Tower of London, a place where old clothes were sold to the poor. It is the site of the cave of Poverty and Poetry, mythical source of low standards and poor taste. References to Grub Street, a lane of unsuccessful authors who pandered to popular tastes, continue the linkage among poverty, crime, and low culture. From her sacred dome of Dulnes near the Tower, Goddess Dulnes and the dunces begin their evening movement through the City.


*Guildhall. Historic city hall of the City of London. Goddess Dulnes’s home is her “Guild Hall,” literally the seat of the lord mayor, popular government, and trade. It symbolizes the triple alliance of democratic politics, commerce, and vulgar standards that threatens to overwhelm the landed aristocracy and its high culture.


*Ludsgate. Western entrance to the City of London. Tracing the route of the lord mayor’s parade, the dunces leave the City by this western gate, built by King Lud and carved with images of kings whose heads have been scored off by vandals, symbolizing the antiaristocratic and philistine temperament of the dunces. Their move west to found the empire of dullness parodies Aeneas’s voyage west to found the Roman Empire.

*Fleet Street

*Fleet Street. London street that was the traditional home of many printing houses that published newspapers and popular reading. Traveling on this street, the dunces pass two jails, Bridewell, for vagrants, prostitutes, and the disorderly, and the Fleet, for debtors. These prisons suggest the criminality of lowering standards.


*Strand. Continuing Fleet Street and running parallel with the River Thames to its south, this street is the direct route of the dunces from the City to the West End and back. Places along it symbolize the encroachments of low life. They pass Drury Lane, noted for fighting and prostitution. At Fleet Ditch, a channel of sewage running into the Thames, the dunces hold their mock-heroic games, among them, contests of urinating, cat-calling, racing through slop, and diving in filth, symbolic of bad poetry, criticism, journalism, or unethical publishing.

*Elysian Shade

*Elysian Shade. The descent of Goddess Dulnes and the king of the Dunces parodies Aeneas’s descent to the underworld. While Aeneas learned of the greatness of the Roman Empire that he was to found, the king hears a prophecy that his dynasty of dullness will rule the world. By the poem’s apocalyptic end, this has come to pass, as the arts, learning, virtue, and religion have become imprisoned, have hidden, or have died, and “Universal Darkness Buries All.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

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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