Strap yourselves in dear reader - this one’s a beast.
Not with less glory mighty Dulness crown’d,
Shall take thro’ Grubstreet her triumphant round,
And Her Parnassus glancing o’er at once,
Behold a hundred sons, and each one a Dunce.
Me included, I suppose.
It could be said that The Dunciad is the third in the Scriblerus Trilogy; which also include the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and Peri Bathous - but then, a lot could be said about The Dunciad.
For a start, how do you know when you’ve read it? There’s the original anonymous Dunciad, the Dunciad Variorum and the later four volume Dunciad in which the King of the Dunces is no longer Tibbald but Colley Cibber. I expect the confusion is part of the point. Pope was very calculating in what he released to the public and how. In this case, he released the first Dunciad so he could gather attacks and responses in which to include in the Dunciad Variorum.
It was that version I decided to read, and was instantly presented with a problem. Notes. Chuck Zerby in The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote (which I really need to review on here at some point) estimated that the 358 lines of poetry is swallowed by roughly 7,000 lines of notes. It is near impossible to sit and read the poem, so swamped in various other kinds of textual analysis. Which again, is probably the point.
Many of the notes are included by the fictional Martinus Scriblerus, meaning that this is another satire on bad learning. In this case, it’s particularly the fledgling art of textual analysis that is under fire - and more particular of all, it’s a certain Lewis Theobald. Called Tibbald in the poem, he had tried his hand at most forms of writing with moderate success until he tried his hand at Shakespeare scholarship Shakespeare Restored, in which he highlighted, commented and fixed the many problems with Pope’s own (rather slapdash) edition of the national playwright. So Scriblerus’ swamping the poem with petty and pedantic notes are Pope’s comment on the petty and pedantic nature of Theobald (and scholars like him).
Pope also uses the chance to kick the people he doesn’t like - and to just keep sticking that boot in. It’s vicious.
Beginning with an advertisement and a letter to the publisher, the kicks start quickly.
‘The first objection I have heard made to the Poem is, that the persons are too obscure for Satyre.’ That’s nasty, and it’s a theme developed throughout this letter, Pope claims that he is doing the Dunces are service in attacking them ‘it is only in this monument that they must expect to survive’ - a prediction mostly proved correct by time. He says another objection may be that it may be unsporting that he, as a rich man, attacks ones who are poor. His response is that these writers might not be so poor had they written better. Finally he says that he is not being cruel because of their obscurity or poverty, but for their Folly and Dulness. Besides, Pope says, they were mean to him first.
The next part are a collection of testimonials. At first these are from established and well regarded people who praise both Pope and his works, then they are from the Dunces praising Pope in other works, and then quote of the Dunces condemning Pope for the same things they formerly praised him for (such as his smooth lines). It would take a more careful read and (heaven forfend) more notes to properly get the ins and outs - but the gist is that the Dunces don’t really know what constitutes as good or not.
Then finally, after some Homeric ‘arguments’, we get to the poem. It’s easy to forget there’s a poem in this poem.
And this is where I got stuck for two days.
It’s a poem. Written in Pope’s favoured heroic couplets, the first part describes the Goddess Dulness, whose great champion Elkanah Settle (fantastically named not-Dickens character, playwright and Dunstable native who nearly had a Wetherspoons named after him until they remembered Gary Cooper went to school there and named it after him instead) had died. She has to emerge from her cave of poverty and poetry and descend on “th’ imperial seat of fools”(London) to find a new king. She settles on Tibbald because of his “motley Images” and “Mob of Metaphors”.
To be fair to the poem, it does sound grand and elevated, that were you not to listen to the words, it would seem a mighty deity and her champion were being described but on closer inspection it is pure piss-take. Pope varies his rhythms with some lovely alliteration such as the Dulness being “Laborious, heavy, busy, bold and blind’.
The second section, which is the best, is the Olympic style competitions and parades to celebrate the new coronation. There’s a race in which two booksellers Curll (who we’ve dealt with here before) and Lintot chase a poet to catch his works, which are literally shitting out of him. Although Lintot ignores ‘the brown dishonours of his face’ it is Curll who catches him.
Curll then engages in a literal pissing contest with another bookseller, Chetham. The latter bookseller's stream “flies in his own face” whereas Curll’s arcs in a great ‘smoaking’ ‘burning’ arc - a lovely venereal disease reference there. Then there’s the tickling race, where the authors tickle and flatter potential investors. Then there’s a game for the critics where they have to prove the loudness of their asinine braying over good works - Richard Blackmore wins that.
Next comes the most famous bit, the part where gazette (read newspaper) writers dive into the Fleet ditch, London’s most notorious open sewer that “rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames”. (The Dr Johnson Reading Circle habitually eat pizza in a place built over the still flowing, though less repulsive, Fleet). John Dennis in ‘naked Majesty’ dives in but goes missing. Smedly dives in and also disappears. Welsted dives in, arms a-flailing and seems to win until with a thunder-crack Smedly reappears ‘in majesty of mud’ with a story of how he swam down to Hell itself. He wins the prize of being Dulness’s priest.
Finally, Richard Blackmore and Orator Henley have a bore-off, and everyone falls asleep.
The third section is probably the densest. Tibbald, in his boredom inspired sleep, drifts to the underworld where he is chosen as the Messiah of Dulness by previous incumbent, Elkanah Settle. Here he sees visions of how Dulness has increased in the world. He is shown the burning of Alexandra’s Library, the invasions of Goths and Vandals and the Mongols over the Great Wall of China.
Then he is shown visions of the future, where the new Mount Parnassus will be established in Grub Street. He is shown future Dunces like Theo Cibber before looking at the present. In this time, scholars are creating useless books ‘never to be read’ and tubthumping preachers like Henley preach nonsense. He views current theatre owners like Colley Cibber (King in a future version) and Jonathan Rich, who create nonsense where ‘whales sport in woods and dolphins in the skies’ and the human race hatch from one egg.
Finally he is shown the future apocalypse of Dulness where ‘universal darkness covers all’. From which Tibbald wakes with joy and the poem is over.
But the Dunciad isn’t.
There are still the Errata, where Pope corrects his mistakes in petty ways. For example, in the poem he derides Ned Ward for owning a pub in the City but corrects his error - the pub is actually just outside the City.
Then he includes an earlier introduction, just as belittling as the first.
Then he includes an indexed list of all the publications that have attacked Pope - a collection Pope owned and read, so he could get his revenge on such people.
Then a version of Caxton’s introduction to Virgil (why?), then some stuff in Latin I can’t read, then a nearly twenty year old article where the author complains that Pope’s pastorals aren’t rustic or dumb enough.
Next come comparisons between insults made of (recognised great poet) Dryden and the same insults made of Pope - so that Pope looks like the next Dryden.
And finally comes an official list of Pope’s works and a signed affidavit that Pope wrote the Dunciad.
And I haven’t even gone into the footnotes yet.
The notes are a joke in themselves, but also frequently explain the jokes in the poem itself. They also contain their own put downs and jokes. For example, Dennis is described as having public schemes that have been ‘kept private’ - AKA, not good enough to use. Tibbald is described as being the author of many works, and even more letters praising those works. Even poor Eusden, the poet Laureate is described as having works that rarely offend “but by their length and multitude.”
If anyone took a jackhammer to crack a nut, it was Alexander Pope.
Of course, Norman Inkpen in his Shit Jokes - A Study of Scatological Humour’ has a lot to say about this poem. Pope revels in the bodily fluids, he also seems to revel in the people he hates. From his folder of targets, to the sheer weight of insult and cruelty he throws at his Dunces, he is clearly inspired by them.
The Dunciad is obviously unfair to its targets. Included for ridicule are people like Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood who developed the novel, people like Ned Ward who captured the voice of the age, even critics like Dennis and poor Tibbald (or Lewis Theobald to give him his real name) , who pioneered modern techniques of criticism and close reading. In many ways, Pope is on the wrong side of history. What he calls Dulness, we call modernity and what he calls Chaos, we call relativism, and a more nuanced way of analysing. Despite this, Pope manages argue from that wrong side with more savage brio and panache than many have ever been able to on the right side. What would he say of today?..
See Dan Brown hide clues that shine bright as day
And EL James dissolve in Shades of Grey
Spawn of dark world where vampires glitter
Celebrity bards dive in the shitter.
If anyone wants to read more about the Dunciad, there’s a brilliant, insightful and far shorter article by John Mullen where he describes the poem as ‘a bestiary for Pope’s enemies’.