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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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