By: Travis J Patten
The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq; Vol. IV, Containing the DUNCIAD with the Prolegomena of Scriblerus, and Notes Variorum. London, Printed for L. Gilliver and J. Clarke, at Homer’s Head against St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleetstreet, MDCCXXXVI.
The early 18th century was a time of burgeoning literacy and the large market for the written word encouraged all sorts of people to turn their hand to writing. Many of these were Grubstreet hacks hired by booksellers to write whatever they thought would sell. The most famous of these, of course, was Samuel Johnson, who pulled himself out of Grubstreet by sheer genius; but most of these writers were insignificant and, today at least, unknown. But by a strange chance of fate, the names of some of these writers have been immortalized.
In 1726, Alexander Pope published an edition of Shakespeare entitled The Works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and Corrected by the former editions, By Mr. Pope. (At this time he was already a successful well-established writer; in fact he is generally considered the first writer to support himself by writing alone, without the aid of a patron.) In 1727, Lewis Theobald published a book entitled Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published. Pope was understandably irritated by this and in order to vent his spleen he anonymously published in 1728 The Dunciad.
The Dunciad is a wonderful book. Written because Pope was ticked off, it is a complex parody of the Aeneid suffused with reverse Christological motifs satirizing the whole Grubstreet literary industry and most particularly Lewis Theobald – Tibbald, in the poem – who, as the protagonist, is the chief of the Dunces. The second book concerns the games for the Goddess and has a lot of scatological (potty) humor. Johnson has this to say about it: “The beauties of the poem are well known; its chief fault is the grossness of its images. Pope and Swift had an unnatural delight in ideas physically impure, such as every other tongue utters with unwillingness, and of which every ear shrinks from the mention. But even this fault, offensive as it is, may be forgiven for the excellence of other passages – such as the formation and dissolution of Moore, the account of the Traveller, the misfortune of the Florist, and the crowded thoughts and stately numbers which dignify the concluding paragraph.” One knows that if Samuel Johnson is willing to overlook its bathroom humor, then it must be good.
Pope earned a lot of enemies with this work and it is related that afterwards he would not walk about town unaccompanied by his pet dane, and without pistols in his pockets. (Although it should be recalled that London was a very dangerous town anyway. Most respectable people did not walk abroad at night unaccompanied, Samuel Johnson being a notable exception, and even he was attacked one night by four ruffians. He didn’t get mugged of course, but instead kept them occupied until the authorities arrived; but after that he didn’t leave home without his club-like walking stick.) Johnson records that “ the ‘Dunces’ …held weekly clubs to consult of hostilities against the author: one wrote a letter to a great minister assuring him Mr. Pope was the greatest enemy the Government had; and another brought his image in clay to execute him in effigy; with which sad sort of satisfaction the gentlemen were a little comforted.”
The book was so important to Pope that he spent the last decade of his life revising it, and, of course, ticking off even more people in the process. The Dunciad went through three principal editions: The first was in three books; the second – the one presently under consideration – was the Variorum edition; Variorum because it contained notes on the characters pilloried therein from various sources. These make this edition much more interesting because not only do the notes parody scholarly pedantry but they contain nasty comments made about the various persons in the poem culled from other critics. Pope later wrote a fourth book, published separately, and then revised the whole poem to integrate the four books. This third edition also had a different hero – the then current Poet Laureate, Colley Cibber.
Here are the justly famous closing lines:
‘Signs following signs lead on the Mighty Year;
See! the dull stars roll round and re-appear.
She comes! the Cloud-compelling Pow’r, behold!
With Night Primæval, and with Chaos old.
Lo! the great Anarch’s ancient reign restor’d,
Light dies before her uncreating word;
As one by one, at dread Medæa’s strain,
The sick’ning Stars fade off th’ æthereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes, by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest:
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See sculking Truth in her old cavern lye,
Secur’d by mountains of heap’d casuistry:
Philosophy, that touch’d the Heavens before,
Shrinks to her hidden cause, and is no more:
See Physic beg the Stagyrite’s defence!
See Metaphysic call for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematicks fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Thy hand great Dulness! lets the curtain fall,
And universal Darkness covers all.
‘Enough! enough!’ the raptur’d Monarch cries;
And thro’ the Ivory Gate the Vision flies.