Clubs of Quidnuncs

John Mullan

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.

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