Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 21. The new Dunciad and Colley Cibber

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

§ 21. The new Dunciad and Colley Cibber

The new Dunciad (1742) embodied materials on the misapplication of learning, science and wit originally designed for another poem. Its appearance seems due to Pope’s irritation against the university of Oxford for declining to offer Warburton the degree of D.D. While gratifying many personal grudges, as in the notorious lines on Bentley, the satire was, to a large extent, general, falling on the Italian opera, the abuses of education at school and college, antiquaries, naturalists and freethinkers. The lines describing the final consummation of the power of dulness have won deserved praise; those on the fashionable tour, though less elevated, are almost equally brilliant.

Pope had frequently directed his satire at Colley Cibber. His most offensive line was in the Epistle to Arbuthnot (l. 97). In the new Dunciad, Cibber was introduced as “Dulness’s Laureate Son.” Cibber, in reply, published a letter in which he suggested that, if “Sawney” had been substituted for “Cibber” in the Epistle, the satire would have been equally just. To prove this, he told how, having met Pope in very doubtful company in years gone by, he would take credit for Homer in having saved his translator from serious harm. Cibber’s good-humoured patronage was sufficiently exasperating, and, to Pope, who was ambitious of fame as a moralist, this full-flavoured anecdote, with the derisive engravings which it occasioned, must have been particularly galling. In revenge, he installed Cibber in Theobald’s place as hero of The Dunciad in the new edition which incorporated the fourth book (1743). Pope has been reproached for allowing his rancour to inflict irreparable injury on his original design. Certainly, the change of the opening is ludicrously inapposite, but the hero’s personality is little to the fore in the later books. Cibber was no dullard, but neither were many of the other “dunces”; and he undoubtedly had much of the bad taste and folly that is apt to attend on cleverness. A man of his character was not so hopelessly unsuited for the throne.