Marginalia can sometimes seem the best way into a writer’s head. Those, like Blake and Coleridge, who could not help scribbling in the margins of what they were reading let us imagine their thoughts just as they spring into life. Inspiration and irritation can appear equally raw. If you want to catch sight of Alexander Pope in the hatching of his satire, and you have a British Library reader’s card, you can call up item C.116.b.1-4, unpromisingly described by the electronic catalogue as ‘A Collection of 24 works, lettered “Libels on Pope”, being attacks on Pope and Swift’. Although the catalogue gives no indication that this is so, the four volumes in fact contain Pope’s own collection of attacks on himself. He has written at the front of the first volume a slightly amended quotation from the Book of Job: ‘Behold it is my desire, that mine Adversary had written a Book. Surely I would take it on my Shoulder, and bind it as a crown unto me.’ Grist to my mill, he might as well be saying. Many of the pamphlets are annotated in his own hand, leaving us the traces of both original irritation and original inspiration.
In his Life of Pope, Samuel Johnson told a story that has fixed Pope’s masochistic appetite for the mockery and abuse which were the lot of the embattled satirist. Johnson had heard the son of Pope’s friend Jonathan Richardson give an account of the poet greeting an attack by Colley Cibber, who was to be crowned King of the Dunces in the final version of The Dunciad.
I have heard Mr Richardson relate that he attended his father the painter on a visit, when one of Cibber’s pamphlets came into the hands of Pope, who said, ‘These things are my diversion.’ They sat by him while he perused it, and saw his features writhen with anguish; and young Mr Richardson said to his father, when they returned, that he hoped to be preserved from such diversion as had been that day the lot of Pope.
Pope was to claim that the publications of his many enemies were not only the justification for much of his satire, but the inspiration for it too. ‘Fools rush into my head, and so I write,’ as he put it in one of his Imitations of Horace. The Dunciad was even provided with a prefatory section entitled ‘Testimonies of Authors’, in which Pope gave excerpts from the verbal assaults of his antagonists. Continually enlarged through the work’s various editions, it also, characteristically, juxtaposed these calumnies with the judgments of admirers, concentrating on any who had a literary name.
In the poised, archly self-deprecating preface that he had written for the edition of his collected Works that he had published while still in his twenties, he had accepted the slings and arrows of the literary life with a mock sigh.
I believe, if any one, early in his life should contemplate the dangerous fate of authors, he would scarce be of their number on any consideration. The life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth; and the present spirit of the learned world is such, that to attempt to serve it (any way) one must have the constancy of a martyr, and a resolution to suffer for its sake.
The comically extreme religious analogy is a pointed one for Pope, a Roman Catholic, to be using. In 1716, when this was written, he still liked the tone of urbane disdain learned from the wits who were his early mentors, Wycherley and Congreve. Yet, beneath the show of gentlemanly carelessness, are the signs of an exquisite sensitivity that was a characteristic of the poet and much of his greatest poetry. Warfare was to be the occupation of a writer who was a brilliant satirist by virtue of his awareness of all the ways in which offence could be taken.
Scan his annotations to his collection of attacks on himself and you will see Pope embroiled in a struggle more compulsive than any of the fencing of the Restoration wits whom he followed. It is often impossible to know whether all his marginal lines and crosses, his underlinings and apostrophes, are scratched in anger or in triumph. Perhaps it is often both, for they usually draw attention to the obtuseness of critics and enemies – to their failures of comprehension, their errors of fact, their misquotations or mistranslations, their spelling mistakes. Pope particularly enjoys noting where he has been accused of a supposed fault of taste that he finds shared by Spenser, Milton or Dryden. He makes his marks and comments for himself, but evidently not only as the confirmation of his feelings as he reads. They are also the signs for future revenges. Many of the marginal lines and crosses are easy-to-find reminders of the most personally abusive passages – those given over to his physical deformity, Papist deceitfulness or cowardly malice. Where possible, he has inserted the names of the authors of anonymous pamphlets: future victims fingered.
There are writers who claim, with various degrees of credibility, not to read their critics. Pope was candidly addicted to the outpourings of his. He collected their work because he was out to take possession of them. The Dunciad, one of the darkest yet most ebullient poems in English, was to be the bestiary for his literary foes. Passages marked up in the British Library volumes were duly to re-emerge as footnotes to the poem. (They are thickest among the writings of Pope’s lifelong enemy, John Dennis: ‘high voiced and never enough quoted’, as Pope has him.) And once the poem had first appeared to settle those stored-up scores, it would duly produce a further flurry of attacks and more material for Pope’s collection, more material for more satire. Pope was a connoisseur of scurrilous or abusive Popeana. For the greater convenience of the reader of The Dunciad, he appended to the poem ‘A LIST of BOOKS, PAPERS, and VERSES, In which our Author was abused, before the Publication of the DUNCIAD’. It was a justification that implied tireless, perhaps self-torturing, vigilance. It included ‘the true Names of the Authors’. One of the most useful scholarly works on Pope is J.V. Guerinot’s Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope, 1711-44: A Descriptive Bibliography (1969); a good deal of its preliminary scholarship was in fact done by Pope himself.
It is easy to see why, on and off during the last twenty years of Pope’s life, The Dunciad was work in progress. It was first published in 1728 as a poem in three books, with a hero called Tibbald who was the lawyer, playwright and textual scholar Lewis Theobald. Theobald earned himself his role as King of the Dunces by finding fault with Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare in his Shakespeare Restored: or, A Specimen of the Many Errors, as well Committed, as Unamended, by Mr Pope in his late Edition of this Poet (1726), a title which we may think asked for trouble. In 1729 the poem became The Dunciad Variorum, slightly revised and now with elaborate encrustations of preface, commentary, appendix etc. The mock-epic had grown a mock-apparatus in which the judgments and the personal follies of particular dunces were paraded at length (sometimes in self-extinguishing detail). Yet still Pope wanted to add to what he told Swift was ‘my Chef d’oeuvre, the Poem of Dulness’. In 1742 he published The New Dunciad, a sequel to the earlier work that found out new practitioners and new forms of modern stupidity. Finally, in 1743, a year before his death, he combined this with a rewritten version of the previous three books as The Dunciad in Four Books; the hero was now no longer Theobald but George II’s Poet Laureate, Colley Cibber.
In what form are we to read the thing? It cannot live entirely without modern annotation, for it is full of particular characters and particular animosities; it is dense with Grub Street lore, which we are offered the delight of exploring. It is also veined with literary allusion. The notes that Pope himself began to provide from the time of the Variorum version, rather like those that Eliot was to add to The Waste Land, may be parodic, but they also genuinely advertise the weird erudition of his creation. So we require notes to Pope’s notes, and this before we have confronted the problem of the different versions of the poem. In the standard Twickenham Edition of Pope’s poetry, the volume given over to The Dunciad, edited by James Sutherland, attempts to present both the 1729 and 1743 versions of the work. It is wonderfully scholarly and informative, and unreadable except by the most sedulous academic. Sutherland’s notes bewilderingly intertwine with Pope’s, and the annotations to the 1743 Dunciad have to rely on endless cross-references to the annotations to the 1729 Dunciad. ‘The poem trickles thinly through a desert of apparatus, to disappear time and again from sight,’ Leavis observed when he reviewed the edition, but he noted that there seemed no way out of this for the editor of a supposedly standard edition.
At the end of his editorial labours, Sutherland called Pope’s magnum opus ‘a complication of monstrous and frozen beauty’, signalling not only his admiration for the poem but also his sense of its inaccessibility. Certainly it is commonly treated as beyond the range of even assiduous Eng. Lit. undergraduates, despite the fact that its leading characters – its desperate hacks and hard-nosed publishers – are so peculiarly modern. The layers of pseudo-commentary are daunting enough, but it is not as if these can be peeled away to reveal the verse; the verse itself, even when simply memorable, sends us off to other texts. For instance, near the opening of Book I, in every version of The Dunciad, the Goddess Dulness visits Georgian London and views with delight ‘her private Academy for Poets’ where, in a cave next to ‘the Magnific College of Bedlam’, modern bards incubate their strange creations. It is a dark place of nightmarish fecundity:
Here she beholds the Chaos dark and deep,
Where nameless Somethings in their causes sleep
The couplet in isolation seems clear enough, doing justice to a special mixture of feelings that often prevails in the poem: distaste and wonder. This is how the irradiated growths of modern verse-makers are brought to life:
How hints, like spawn, scarce quick in embryo lie,
How new-born nonsense first is taught to cry,
Maggots half-form’d in rhyme exactly meet,
And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.
The poetry is self-evident to the point of gleefulness.
Yet it is also steeped in an erudition that makes it all the more ridiculous and disconcerting. That introductory couplet recalls Milton’s apostrophe to ‘holy Light’ at the opening of Book III of Paradise Lost, Light which ‘as with a mantle didst invest/The rising world of waters dark and deep’. Dulness is uncreation; in a superbly absurd hyperbole, it wins back Milton’s ‘Chaos and eternal Night’ from Order and Light. Pope’s Chaos is always mock-Miltonic, and we gaze into this place like Satan, in Paradise Lost Book II, gazing into the ‘hoary deep’ where ‘Chaos umpire sits’: ‘this wild abyss ... Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,/But all these in their pregnant causes mixed/Confusedly’. But there is more. Pope is also recollecting a couplet from Samuel Garth’s mock-heroic poem The Dispensary, which had been the model for his own first experiment with the genre, The Rape of the Lock. And Garth’s lines (‘Here his forsaken Seat old Chaos keeps;/And undisturb’d by Form, in Silence sleeps’) themselves parody a solemn couplet in Abraham Cowley’s would-be epic ‘Davideis’, a couplet already parodied in Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, whose opening scene-setting is in turn being imitated in the opening of The Dunciad. If you are not dizzy from this, and are peculiarly well-read, you might also spot the surprising rebirth of lines by the Cavalier poet Thomas Carew addressed to his beloved:
Ask me no more where Jove bestows,
When June is past, the fading rose:
For in your Beauty’s orient deep,
These flowers as in their causes, sleep.
Appropriate in its strange way: Carew’s essence of beauty is the opposite of what lives in the work of dunces, and yet Carew’s sense of wonder is to linger on in Pope’s description of bizarre Grub Street productions.
All this in a single couplet. Untiring, a truly erudite reader (or one, like me, in possession of this new edition) will note that the lines open a passage emulating Virgil’s account, in the Georgics, of the generation of bees out of the carcass of a ritually slaughtered calf. Virgil, Carew, Cowley, Milton, Dryden and Garth all designedly echoed within two lines. Garth is the only one of these named in the notes that Pope himself provided. It is no wonder that the poem does not thrust itself onto university syllabuses. Of course it should – partly because it has a metaphorical wit and a rhythmic energy to rival anything in English poetry; partly because it satirises so triumphantly the vanities of a modernity that students certainly should recognise. In particular, it mocks what we might call cultural modernity. Pope’s London features, in a phrase that deserves currency, ‘clubs of Quidnuncs’: those so obsessed with current affairs that they are always asking ‘Quid nunc?’ – ‘What now?’ Up-to-date-ness is everything in the world of Duncedom.
In her introduction to this edition, Valerie Rumbold is quiet about her admiration for the poem, but it is clear that she has set out to rescue it for students – and their teachers. Johnson argued that ‘the alterations which have been made in The Dunciad, not always for the better, require that it should be published, as in the last collection, with all its variations’. Rumbold has agreed with this, basing her edition on the four-book version that Pope saw through the press in the last year of his life. She provides a full commentary on the same page as the verse and Pope’s own notes, but with a clear visual separation between her annotations and those that appeared in the original. Her notes are exemplary. Not only does she have a deep knowledge of Pope and his milieu, but she has actually thought about where paraphrase might be needed. Sutherland saw his job as identifying characters and allusions; Rumbold bothers to clarify difficult syntax and diction, not afraid to stoop to translation. Avowedly she aims at the ‘novice reader’; in the event, she has made the work freshly available to many who have once fancied themselves familiar with it.
She owes, as she acknowledges, a great deal to Sutherland. She has also learned – though of course she does not say this – from the obscurities of his edition. Separating simple paraphrase from more elaborate glossing, she often gives the reader some kind of freedom to decide how far to follow her footnotes. Her choice of the four-book Dunciad is not unproblematic. Additions which were not ‘for the better’ were brought to this version by William Warburton, whom Pope met in 1740 and who became his vindicator, flatterer, co-editor and, eventually, literary executor. Warburton wrote many of the notes to Book IV, usually either ponderously playful or earnestly assertive. (Rumbold’s comments on his annotations are sometimes openly irritated.) Pope’s notes to the first three books look forbidding, but are often alive with mischief and sarcasm. Grudges are keenly and wickedly pursued in the small print. Warburton was a deadening presence at the ailing poet’s side – a learned man but, by the poem’s standards, a Dunce. The poetry mostly escaped his baleful influence, though it has dissatisfied some for other reasons. Despite Pope’s attempts to recast the whole poem, Book IV makes for a work with changed purposes. The first three books are all Grub Street, featuring literary rogues whose ‘happy Impudence’ is entertainingly ludicrous; the last book is conceived in a more Swiftian spirit, comprehensively surveying the self-delusions of modern learning.
Books I-III were, and are, still active with the vengeful energy that one sees in Pope’s annotations to his own Popeana. The Dunces are Pope’s creatures, and he is closer to relish than to indignation when he imagines their desperate or ridiculous endeavours. The poem begins by exclaiming against the transplanting of the ‘Smithfield Muses’ (which inspire the low amusements of Bartholomew Fair) to polite society, but the verse actually delights in such incongruity, Pope’s couplets perfectly weighted to mimic ‘illpair’d’ creations. Dulness is his imaginative resource, and a Goddess with powers so much greater than common stupidity:
Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,
She rul’d, in native Anarchy, the mind.
In Book I, Pope has done little, beyond a shuffling of names, truly to transform Theobald into Cibber, yet Cibber, ‘the lively Dunce’, will never escape its picture of his literary productions:
Nonsense precipitate, like running Lead,
That slip’d thro’ Cracks and Zig-zags of the Head;
All that on Folly Frenzy could beget,
Fruits of dull Heat, and Sooterkins of Wit.
While composing the poem, Pope seemed to recognise The Dunciad as his own self-amusing poetic folly. ‘After I am dead’, he wrote to Swift, it ‘will be printed with a large Commentary, and letterd on the back, Pope’s Dulness’. When he got to Book II, he was still settling scores (this part of the poem is a gazetteer of Grub Street) but he imagined the competing hacks and publishers (‘th’industrious tribe’) in a merry, if mucky, competition. Parodying the heroic games in Homer and Virgil, booksellers first race to possess a tame poet created for them by the Goddess of Dulness (‘All as a partridge plump, full-fed, and fair,/She form’d this image of well-body’d air;/With pert flat eyes she window’d well its head;/A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead’); then the Goddess commands them to a urinating competition to gain the favours of Eliza Haywood, writer of sensationalist fiction. The commercially ruthless Edmund Curll, pornographer and prime foe of Pope, wins easily, pissing in a great bow that ‘smoking flourish’d o’er his head’. ‘Then follow the Exercises for the Poets, of tickling, vociferating, diving’. Authors tickle their patrons with incredible dedications. They vie with each other to demonstrate ‘the wond’rous pow’r of Noise’: ‘So swells each wind-pipe; Ass intones to Ass,/Harmonic twang! of leather, horn, and brass.’ They have a diving competition into the open sewer of Fleet-ditch, to see who can plunge deepest into the sable stream – a test for newspaper writers of ‘who the most in love of dirt excel,/Or dark dexterity of groping well’. Finally, Dunce critics compete to stay awake as Dunce authors read aloud from their works and, as if he really were some latterday Virgil, Pope fashions an epic simile lullingly to imitate the listeners giving in to sleep.
As to soft gales top-heavy pines bow low
Their heads, and lift them as they cease to blow:
Thus oft they rear, and oft the head decline,
As breathe, or pause, by fits, the airs divine.
It would be beautiful if you forgot for a second the occasion.
The powers of Dulness are eternal. Folly and vice being the time-honoured topics of satire, it is as if Pope is discovering a third, as great as these. In Book III, Cibber is taken into the underworld where, in emulation of the metempsychosis of souls in the Aeneid, he finds the spirits of dead bad poets waiting to be returned to the world in new bodies. Dulness has ever been. Its hero is given a vision of its progress through history – a satirical version of the stories of the fall of empires that fascinated Enlightenment thinkers. We see that science and learning might briefly flicker into life, but Dulness soon reclaims her dominion. Britain may have, for a while, escaped the darkness of the Middle Ages but, Cibber is reassured to see, the reign of Dulness is now come again. She shall proceed in triumph ‘thro’ Grub-street’, ‘And her Parnassus glancing o’er at once,/Behold an hundred sons, and each a Dunce’. Journalism will manage what superstition and religious bigotry could not. The victory of Dulness is to be celebrated in the theatrical excesses of fashionable pantomimes and operas (the theatre always being, for Pope, the forum for an age’s follies). The bizarre and elaborate stage effects of actual productions, incredulously documented in Pope’s footnotes, make for a comic apocalypse in the delighted jumble of the verse:
Hell rises, Heav’n descends, and dance on Earth:
Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jigg, a battle, and a ball,
‘Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
In its three-book versions, The Dunciad ended with the evaporation of this ‘Vision’: a vividly bad dream was over. When he added Book IV, Pope revised lines from the earlier version to provide a true ending – a memorable, even believable, narrative of cultural extinction. ‘MAKE ONE MIGHTY DUNCIAD OF THE LAND!’ Dulness commands ‘her Children’: her illiterate editors, fraudulent antiquarians, gullible patrons, obsessional virtuosi and, above all, official representatives of learning. The two largest characters in this Book are the schoolmaster and the academic. The former, based on Richard Busby, Headmaster of Westminster, boasts, half a century before Blake, of the mental ‘chain on chain’ with which he loads his pupils:
Whate’er the talents, or howe’er design’d,
We hang one jingling padlock on the mind.
The latter – who is Richard Bentley, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge – reassures the Goddess of Dulness that academe is truly her domain:
For thee we dim the eyes, and stuff the head
With all such reading as was never read:
For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it:
And write about it, Goddess, and about it.
Now Dulness truly includes both ignorance and learning, philistinism and erudition. Among the devotees of Dulness in Book IV are keen scientists and ingenious freethinkers. Dunces pompously preside over many an Oxbridge college and many a bishopric. ‘Like buoys, that never sink into the flood,/On Learning’s surface we but lie and nod’ Bentley boasts. Book IV is indispensable reading for all who might fancy themselves engaged in intellectual pursuits. It is not all mad or bogus learning. The poem retains and deepens its sense for the surreal in other aspects of culture. In its last book Pope manages to make the fashions among the ruling classes for Italian opera, or cricket, or French cuisine seem as much the symptoms of Dulness as Cibber’s absurdly self-satisfied autobiography or Bentley’s rewriting of Milton in his edition of Paradise Lost. In particular, this last part of The Dunciad has some of the finest, funniest satire you will find on the absurdities of chefs and gourmands. (Rumbold notes that both hors d’oeuvres and liqueurs first appear in English here, in mockery of the Frenchified affectation learned by a young aristocrat on his Grand Tour.)
It is thanks to the active stupidity of intellectuals, however, that the Goddess of Dulness, who presided over the pranks and pratfalls of fools and charlatans in Books I-III, is now, as the Argument to Book IV declares, ‘coming in her Majesty, to destroy Order and Science’. A great yawn goes ahead of her, and as a nation nods off, the end comes.
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
The concluding apocalypse is all abstraction, yet, as ‘the sick’ning stars’ are snuffed out, the darkness is visible too.
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.
We are back with the reversal of Milton’s creation; the penultimate line reminds us of the personification of Chaos in Paradise Lost as ‘the anarch old’ who directs Satan towards Eden. Yet, even with this disturbing grandeur of conclusion, there is bathos, as Chaos ‘lets the curtain fall’. The whole thing might be a theatrical show; this apocalypse cannot escape the recollection of the pantomimes of Book III. And this is the grimmest, funniest thought of all.
It is telling that we should end with another transformation of Paradise Lost, for the clarity of Rumbold’s annotation allows one to see, among other things, how Milton’s epic is The Dunciad’s master text. The echoes and recollections are everywhere. At the poem’s opening, Dulness, ‘her mighty wings out-spread/To hatch a new Saturnian age of Lead’, scandalously parodies Milton’s Holy Spirit, which ‘with mighty wings outspread/Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss/And mad’st it pregnant’. At the start of Book II, Cibber is enthroned in imitation of Satan in Book II of Paradise Lost, and, in one of his poem’s virtuoso displays of mimicry, Pope makes his couplets roll like Miltonic blank verse. When we visit the underworld in Book III, the Aeneid may provide the narrative model, but Milton imparts to the poetry its strangely mixed qualities. When we see the ‘poetic souls’ of dunces being released into the world, two contemporary booksellers imitate Heaven’s dawn in Book VI of Paradise Lost: ‘away they wing their flight,/Where Brown and Mears unbar the gates of Light’. When we see ‘the souls of the dull’ by the River Lethe, Pope almost inevitably turns to Milton. Cibber is wonderstruck:
Millions and millions on these banks he views,
Thick as the stars of night, or morning dews.
His amazement is deepened by reference to Satan’s host of rebel angels in Book V of Paradise Lost:
Innumerable as the stars of night,
Or stars of morning, dewdrops, which the sun
Impearls on every leaf and every flower.
Such transformations of Paradise Lost manage to be both grand by emulation, and comical by parody. They also let us see that Milton’s epic which imagines the beginning and end of all things is where Pope must turn to create his modern mock-epic of anti-creation. Allusion and imitation are in the marrow of The Dunciad and their pleasures are made freshly available by this superb edition.