The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 15. The Dunciad

Pope’s intention, apparently, was to draw down attacks from the offended authors so that he might have a pretext for the publication of The Dunciad, which he was now preparing to bring out. In the preface to the 1728 edition of this work, the reader is told that

  • every week for these last two months past the town has been persecuted with pamphlets, advertisements, and weekly essays, not only against the wit and writings, but against the character and person of Mr. Pope.
  • But it has been shown that, when the provocation is considered, the attacks made upon Pope were extremely few, and did not include a single pamphlet, while four of them, if not Pope’s own handiwork, were inspired by him. It was evident, too, that the composition of the poem had preceded the attacks. It seems to have been on the stocks, in some form or other, for several years. What determined its plan and hastened its completion was, undoubtedly, the pain given him by Theobald’s Shakespeare Restored, which must have been all the keener because he could not fail to perceive the justice of the criticism. In the preface to the 1729 edition of The Dunciad, the dedication to Swift is said to have been due to the fact that the latter had snatched the first draft of the poem from the fire and urged the author to proceed with it. Pope was certainly engaged on The Dunciad when Swift was his guest, and the latter claimed some credit for the work on the ground that his deafness had prevented conversation. But it has never been shown that he had any actual share in the composition of the work. The story of its publication reveals one of the most intricate series of manoeuvres in which Pope was ever implicated. Evidently, he felt anxious at the thought of putting before the public the whole mass of his personalities, and of acknowledging them under his own name. The Dunciad appeared, anonymously, in May, 1728. It bore on the title “Dublin Printed, London Re-printed for A. Dodd,” and was advertised as the second edition. Its success was immediate, and several further issues followed. Pope was emboldened to bring out a more elaborate form in 1729. Names, with a very few exceptions, were now printed in full, whereas, in the previous edition, initial and final letters, or initial only, had been the rule. The dedicatory lines to Swift, which had been purposely omitted, were restored and the poem was garnished with “Notes Variorum and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus.” An elaborate piece of caution on Pope’s part was to assign the copyright to Lords Bathurst, Burlington and Oxford, who afterwards assigned it to Lawton Gilliver. Its authorship was not openly acknowledged till 1735. The main idea of The Dunciad was taken from Mac Flecknoe, and, in emulating his master’s vigorous satire, Pope must have felt that he was put upon his mettle. The Dunciad, even in its earlier form, is four times the length of Mac Flecknoe, and, while Dryden’s assault is almost exclusively upon Shadwell, Pope, though aiming principally at Theobald, attacked, at the same time, whole battalions of his enemies. There are two sides to The Dunciad. Though Pope’s claim that the lash was lifted in the interests of all honest men must be rejected, he was not merely indulging in an outburst of personal malice. In places, especially in the book added later, there is effective chastisement of literary vices, without an undue admixture of the personal element. But his treating The Dunciad like a large open grave into which fresh bodies of his victims could be flung, has impaired the value of his general satire. The tremendous energy with which he “dealt damnation round the land” has had a result which would have astounded himself. Though our protests are challenged by the presence of some names, such as Bentley and Defoe, yet, with regard to the bulk of his victims, the reader is apt to feel even more than acquiescence in Pope’s verdict. Perhaps it is thought that his dunces must have been exceptionally dull, as dullards of the eighteenth century. Of course, Pope was unjust, but an element of injustice enters into all satire. If he chose to attack individuals by name, we can hardly complain that he did not select nonentities for the purpose. In allowing his personal resentment to make choice of Theobald as a hero, Pope was particularly unjust. Theobald had produced his share of unsuccessful work; yet it was plain that Pope was not provoked by his dramatic failures but by his immeasurable superiority in Shakespearean criticism. Again, he committed the error of insisting that literary inefficiency must be accompanied by moral degradation. Though dulness never dies, he tried to spread the belief that he had annihilated her particular representatives whom he attacked. To judge from the warfare that ensued, they showed an intolerable unwillingness to be extinguished. The legend that no man branded in The Dunciad could obtain employment from booksellers is incredible.

    The coarseness of a great part of the second book suggests that, if Swift had no more immediate share in it, Pope had, at least, been encouraged by his example. But it is impossible to dispute the brutal vigour of these Rabelaisian [char]. In the development of its plot and action, The Dunciad is inferior to Pope’s earlier and lighter mock-heroic. The chief space is occupied by what are really episodes in a main narrative that is barely more than introduced. In recalling it as a whole, we are apt to think of passages which had no place in the three book form.

    In the warfare arising out of The Dunciad, a considerable part was played for some years by The Grub-Street Journal, which virulently assailed Pope’s adversaries and praised those who appeared in his defence. It is certain that Pope had a large hand in this paper; but his subterranean methods have, apparently, made it impossible now to determine his precise share.