Alexander Pope – “The Dunciad: Book the Fourth”Th

In the next excerpt, called “The Educator” by the editors, the Queen Dullness sits on her throne while people throng about her with their petitions. But they all fall silent when the ghost of Dr Busby appears, holding a wand and crowned with birch boughs, “dropping with infant’s blood, and mother’s tears.” Dr Richard Busby was a long-time headmaster of Westminster School, and in this capacity taught – and whipped – a big portion of England’s political and cultural elite (he is said to boast himself that he whipped sixteen future bishops), including Pope’s idol John Dryden. So when his ghost appears, they all behave like little boys scared of him. This being said, many of his former pupils remembered him affectionately and didn’t seem to hold a grudge, especially at the age when corporal punishment was taken for granted, both at home and at school. But in Pope’s version (and Pope couldn’t have known him personally, since he died when Pope was eight and attending a different school) Busby becomes the educator of future dull people, teaching everything by memory and stifling pupils’ creativity: “Whate’er the talents, or howe’er designed/We hang one jingling padlock on the mind.”

The next excerpt presents two people coming to the Queen to judge between them. One of them is a botanist who grew and cultivated a rare carnation he called Caroline (a fitting tribute, as the Helpful Footnote tells us, since Queen Caroline was a keen gardener.) But alas, the other man squashed it. The other man explains he is a naturalist who squashed the flower while pursuing a butterfly which he is now offering to the Goddess. The Goddess says that both of them did their part but they also should think about waking the minds of their brothers whose souls are just like night watchmen, keeping them awake. The scientific hobbies such as collecting hummingbirds, moss or shells, can enliven them, i.e. give their minds a new degree of dullness. Pope, just like his BF Swift, didn’t get science, and he goes on about how people studying flies lose the larger picture, i.e. forget their Maker. While listening to somebody droning on about the hobby you have no interest in can certainly be dull, Pope just didn’t understand that all these funny people studying some minutiae of biology did contribute to a larger picture of how we understand the world.


Alexander Pope – “The Dunciad: Book the Fourth” (excerpts)

The textual history of Pope’s long poem The Dunciad is very complicated and I’ll try to summarize it here succintly. In 1728 Pope publishes his satirical poem The Dunciad in three books, dealing with all his enemies, primarily the critic of his edition of Shakespeare Lewis Theobald. In 1742 he publishes The New Dunciad, a poem about the general entropy of literature in particular and England in general. Then he goes back to the old Dunciad, revises it extensively (including replacing his old enemy Theobald with his new enemy, a third-rate poet raised to the rank of Poet Laureate Colley Cibber), adds The New Dunciad to it as its Book the Fourth and reissues the poem as a whole. The first excerpt is an invocation to Chaos and Night, in which the poet asks these two powers to give him a moment to sing about them until everything succumbs to them. Again, like in “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot“, Pope complains about hot summer days which make everybody mad. He must have really hated the summer, or maybe he felt particularly unwell in hot weather. He depicts Goddess Dulness ascending her throne, with her Laureate (Colley Cibber) asleep in her lap. Under her feet various allegorical embodiments of rational virtues are trampled, while their mock counterparts are extolled. For instance, Rhetoric lies half-dead on the ground, while her robes and arms are taken by Sophistry and Billingsgate (Billingsgate was a famous fishmarket, so Pope means slang instead of good English). Morality lets out its last gasp, being strangled by Chicane (legal trickery) and Casuistry (theological trickery). It dies “when Dulness gives her Page the word”. The Helpful Footnote gives at least three explanations of the joke: the page referring to the court pages executing people by strangling in the Ottoman court (not very convincing, IMO), a pun on the name of Francis Page, a famous hanging judge (a bit better) and finally the page of writing (most convincing, with the pun on “page” as an underage servant thrown in for good measure).

Alexander Pope – “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (the end)

Pope claims he’s really a gentle soul who never answered back to his critics, even when they slandered him, because he was always a good boy doing whatever his parents taught him: his father believed “it was a sin to call a neighbour fool” and his mother was too innocent to believe that any married woman could be a whore. From that he segues to the panegyric to both of his parents, his father already dead and his mother, at the moment of writing this fragment (although not when the poem was finally published) still alive. They were of good families, with ancestors who shed blood for England, and their fortune was their own, not earned through court patronage, like the one of “Bestia” (probably meaning Duke of Marlborough). His father lived a long, innocent and uneventful life and died peacefully. Pope expresses his hope that his life and death are going to be similar, and his ambition is to give his mother as long and happy last years as possible. He hopes that Heaven may preserve his friend and keep him “social, cheerful and serene/And just as rich as when he served a Queen!” This alludes to the well-known personal honesty of Arbuthnot, who left the service of Queen Caroline no wealthier than when he entered it. Arbuthnot answers that he appreciates the blessing, but the grace of granting it belongs to Heaven. I guess when writing it Pope already realized his friend’s condition was beyond all hope. The poem is a challenging read. I guess the editors of the NAEL included it because it contains some of Pope’s best-known phrases, but the need to consult the Helpful Footnotes (or lack thereof) in order to get Pope’s references is rather exhausting. Also one can really feel that the poem was cobbled together from many passages written by Pope at various times, because the seams between them really show.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (ctd.)

Pope insists that his poetry was always ethical and curses those who in their writing “give virtue scandal, innocence a fear”. He is always going to criticize the poets who break the ethical code or fake patrons who betray the poets they pretend to support. He sets out to satirize Lord Hervey, whom he calls viciously “Sporus”, the beautiful slave boy whom Nero (if Suetonius is to be believed) had castrated and married. Arbuthnot protests a bit, saying that he is not worth Pope’s time and that satirizing him is like to break “a butterfly upon a wheel” (probably the second most famous line from the poem). But Pope says he is going to do it nevertheless and lashes out in a tirade: Hervey/Sporus is effeminate, tries to be witty but his stings never succeed, like hunting spaniels which are not allowed to really bite into their game; his smiles cover his emptiness, like the shallow brook which always looks enticing; his close friendship with Queen Caroline is compared to the relationship between Eve and toad (used as a disguise by Satan) in Paradise Lost. Pope returns again to the topic of the poet’s ethical code: they should not be proud, servile, or mercenary. For his part, he is proud to receive all the criticism, levelled not only at him but also his family, his friends, his morals, and making fun of his physical disability. Arbuthnot asks “But why assault the poor, affront the great?” and Pope answers he makes no distinction whether the objects of his satire are rich or poor, if they deserve it.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (ctd.)

Pope says he really doesn’t care about the criticism from bad poets, but he is stung by the unnamed, but easily identifiable, Joseph Addison, who has real talent, but is like Turkish sultans who execute all their brothers when they inherit the throne. Addison also apparently can’t stand anybody to be as talented as him and so he directed many oblique critical remarks at Pope, which “damn with faint praise… and without sneering, teach the rest to sneer”, says Pope in what is probably the most famous line of the poem. Pope claims he really doesn’t care about fame and like Asian monarchs, he doesn’t like to be seen. He’s happy to let other poets praise the figure which he called, following ancient Romans, Bufo (toad) – a self-important and self-styled patron of the arts. He is surrounded by flatterers whom he pays in meals, and later on, when he grew more cheap, in port. Only Dryden never flattered him, but the man was generous enough to help “to bury whom he helped to starve”. The Helpful Footnotes are strangely silent here and I had to do some digging on my own to find out that this pointed remark was aimed at Earl of Halifax, who, together with other members of the Kit-Cat Club, contributed to Dryden’s lavish funeral. On the whole, Pope he is quite happy that the powerful patrons like to support bad poets, because they left him Gay – John Gay, that is, who, as the author of the Helpful Footnotes notices, having just woken up, spent his last years at home of the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, while Pope wrote his epitaph. On the whole, Pope is quite happy with his life and he doesn’t need any patrons, because he can pay his own bills. He is also quite bored by the pestering questions about what his next work is going to be. I have life, you know, he notices peskily and he can only smile over his bad imitators.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (ctd.)

Pope describes in comical terms how would-be poets, trying to curry favour with him, compare even his various physical shortcomings to those of some historical celebrities, for instance that he is short like Horace, and when he dies, they will undoubtedly compare him to Homer, who is dead, too. He then describes his own way to poetry: he simply felt the calling from an early age and this was the only thing he ever did, so he left no other, more profitable job, to do it, nor did he disobey his father. He never had to support a family through his poetry, although he sometimes helped his friends. His Muse only helped him “through this long disease, my life”, as he writes in what is possibly the saddest line he ever wrote. Arbuthnot, for his part, helped to prolong this life and Pope hopes he is going to teach him how to bear it. He then indulges in some intensive name-dropping, listing various poets and aristocrats who liked and promoted his early poetry. As the Helpful Footnote explains, the key is that all these people knew Dryden in his late years and they lived long enough to know the young Pope, so Pope fashions himself as the new Dryden. Pope paints himself as the victim of unjust critics, who attacked his soft poetry, but he never answered back, because, as he adds in a masterful burn, “I waged no war with Bedlam or the Mint“, that is with mad men or the men who have to hide from their creditors. He also looks with disdain on those who (not incorrectly) pointed out to him the mistakes he made in his translations of Homer or editions of Shakespeare, comparing them to pieces of dirt stuck in amber – their names are going to be preserved for posterity in the same way, too, stuck in amber of Shakespeare’s poetry. Pope freely admits he made fun of bad poets, such as (unnamed but easily recognizable) Ambrose Philips. It’s not his fault that to their emptiness they add their pride and so it is hard to please them when writing honestly about their poetry, which is “prose run mad”.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (ctd.)

Pope continues to describe in comical terms how he is pestered not only by his enemies, but also by the aspiring poets who seek his help and advice, hoping that he will correct their verses, find them patrons or at least lend them some money. He could expect at least some peace from playwrights, because he has no connections with theatre, but unfortunately failed playwrights want to publish their plays, to prove to the world how they were wronged, and again they return to Pope to ask for help. He finds it impossible to keep a straight face when reading their poems. He paraphrases the legend of King Midas, saying that the person who knew the secret, be it his wife or his minister, had to reveal it to someone or they would burst. Of course the original story spoke about the barber, and the Helpful Footnote says this is an oblique allusion to Queen Caroline and the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, but it doesn’t quite explain the joke Pope is evidently making here. Pope himself doesn’t explain it either, because at this point the imaginary reader (identified with the letter A., so we may assume it’s Dr. Arbuthnot) interrupts him and warns him to steer clear of politics. Pope answers he is still going to express his opinions frankly, because no fool was ever hurt by criticism; on the contrary, even the worst poets seem to find their niche and are quite unaffected by criticism. He lists some of them, like Cibber and Ambrose Philips (known as Namby-Pamby), but when he comes to “Sappho”, by which he probably means Lady Mary Montagu, Arbuthnot again warns him to be careful. Pope answers that he doesn’t care, because he knows flatterers are actually worse than foes: like with snakes, it’s actually not the bite but the slaver which kills.