The Scribblerian club comprised Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Robert Harley, and Thomas Parnell most consistently, and the group met during the spring and summer of 1714. One group project was to write a satire of contemporary abuses in learning of all sorts, where the authors would combine to write the biography of the group's fictional founder, Martin Scriblerus. The resulting The Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus contained a number of parodies of the most lavish mistakes in scholarship.
For the mock-heroic structure of the Dunciad itself, however, the idea seems to have come most clearly from MacFlecknoe. MacFlecknoe is a poem celebrating the apotheosis of Thomas Shadwell, whom Dryden nominates as the dullest poet of the age. Shadwell is the spiritual son of Flecknoe, an obscure Irish poet of low fame, and he takes his place as the favorite of the goddess Dulness.
Pope takes this idea of the personified goddess of Dulness being at war with reason, darkness at war with light, and extends it to a full Aeneid parody. His poem celebrates a war, rather than a mere victory, and a process of ignorance, and Pope picks as his champion of all things insipid Lewis Theobald (1728 and '32) and Colley Cibber (1742).
In 1729, Pope published an acknowledged edition of the poem, and the Dunciad Variorum appeared in 1732. The Variorum was substantially the same text as the 1729 edition, but it now had a lengthy prolegomenon. The prefatory material has Pope speaking in his own defense, although under a variety of other names; for example, "A Letter to the Publisher Occasioned by the Present Edition of the Dunciad" is signed by William Cleland (d. 1741), one of Pope's friends and father of John Cleland, but it was probably written by Pope himself.
In these prefatory materials, Pope points out that the Keys were often wrong about the allusions, and he explains his reluctance at spelling out the names. He says that he wishes to avoid elevating the targets of the satire by mentioning their names (which, of course, did happen, as a number of persons are only remembered for their appearances in the poem), but he similarly did not want innocents to be mistaken for the targets. Pope also apologizes for using parody of the Classics (for his poem imitates both Homer and Virgil) by pointing out that the ancients also used parody to belittle unworthy poets. Pope's preface is followed by advertisements from the bookseller, a section called "Testimonies of Authors Concerning Our Poet and his Works" by "Martinus Scriblerus," and a further section named "Martinus Scriblerus, of the Poem."
Martinus Scriblerus was a corporate identity employed by Pope and the other members of the Scriblerians. Therefore, these two portions of the preface could have been written by any of its members, but they, like the other prefatory materials, were most likely written by Pope himself. The various Dunces had written responses to Pope after the first publication of The Dunciad, and they had not only written against Pope, but had explained why Pope had attacked other writers. In the "Testimonies" section, Martinus Scriblerus culls all the comments the Dunces made about each other in their replies and sets them side by side, so that each is condemned by another. He also culls their contradictory characterizations of Pope, so that they seem to all damn and praise the same qualities over and over again.
The "Testimonies" also includes commendations from Pope's friends. The words of Edward Young, James Thomson and Jonathan Swift are brought together to praise Pope specifically for being temperate and timely in his charges. The conclusion asks the reader "to chuse whether thou wilt incline to the Testimonies of Authors avowed" (like Pope's friends) "or of Authors concealed" (like many of the Dunces)--in short, "of those who knew him, or of those who knew him not."
Pope, however, had already a quarrel with Theobald. The first mention of Theobald in Pope's writings is the 1727, Peri Bathos, in Miscellanies, Volume the Third (which was actually the first volume), but Pope's attack there shows that Theobald was already a figure of fun. Regardless of the quarrels, though, Theobald was, in a sense, the nearly perfect King of Dunces. The Dunciad's action concerns the gradual sublimation of all arts and letters into Dulness by the action of hireling authors. Theobald, as a man who had attempted the stage and failed, plagiarized a play, attempted translation and failed to such a degree that John Dennis referred to him as a "notorious Ideot," attempted subscription translation and failed to produce, and who had just turned his full attention to political attack writing, was an epitome, for Pope, of all that was wrong with British letters. Additionally, Pope's goddess of Dulness begins the poem already controlling state poetry, odes, and political writing, so Theobald as King of Dunces is the man who can lead her to control the stage as well. Theobald's writings for John Rich, in particular, are singled out within the Dunciad as abominations for their mixing of tragedy and comedy and their "low" pantomime and opera; they are not the first to bring the Smithfield muses to the ears of kings, but they ferried them over in bulk.
The central premise of the poem is the same as that of MacFlecknoe: the crowning of a new King of Dulness. However, Pope's poem is far more wide-ranging and specific than Dryden's had been. His satire is political and cultural in very specific ways. Rather than merely lambasting "vice" and "corruption," Pope attacks very particular degradations of political discourse and particular degradations of the arts.
The political attack is on the Whigs, and specifically on the Hanoverian Whigs. The poem opens, in fact, with the goddess Dulness noting that "Still Dunce the second rules like Dunce the first," which is an exceptionally daring reference to George II, who had come to the throne earlier in the year. Furthermore, although the King of Dunces, Theobald, writes for the radical Tory Mist's Journal, Pope consistently hammers at radical Protestant authors and controversialists. Daniel Defoe is mentioned almost as frequently as anyone in the poem, and the booksellers picked out for abuse both specialized in partisan Whig publications.
The cultural attack is broader than the political one, and it may underlie the whole. Pope attacks, over and over again, those who write for pay. While Samuel Johnson would say, half a century later, that no man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money, Pope's attack is not on those who get paid, but those who will write on cue for the highest bid. Pope himself was one of the earliest poets to make his living solely by writing, and so it is not the professional author, but the mercenary author that Pope derides. He attacks hired pens, the authors who perform poetry or religious writing for the greatest pay alone, who do not believe in what they are doing. As he puts it in book II, "He (a patron) chinks his purse, and takes his seat of state... And (among the poets) instant, fancy feels th' imputed sense" (II 189-91). He objects not to professional writers, but to hackney writers. His dunce booksellers will trick and counterfeit their way to wealth, and his dunce poets will wheedle and flatter anyone for enough money to keep the bills paid.
The plot of the poem is simple. Dulness, the goddess, appears at a Lord Mayor's Day in 1724 and notes that her king, Elkannah Settle, has died. She chooses Lewis Theobald as his successor. In honor of his coronation, she holds heroic games. He is then transported to the Temple of Dulness, where he has visions of the future. The poem has a consistent setting and time, as well. Book I covers the night after the Lord Mayor's Day, Book II the morning to dusk, and Book III the darkest night. Furthermore, the poem begins at the end of the Lord Mayor's procession, goes in Book II to the Strand, then to Fleet Street (where booksellers were), down by Bridewell Prison to the Fleet ditch, then to Ludgate at the end of Book II; in Book III, Dulness goes through Ludgate to the City of London to her temple.
The action shifts to the library of Lewis Theobald, which is "A Gothic Vatican! of Greece and Rome/ Well-purg'd, and worthy Withers, Quarles, and Blome" (a Vatican Library for Northern European authors, and especially notable for vainglorious and contentious writing and criticism). Theobald is despairing of succeeding in writing dull poetry and plays, and he is debating whether to return to being a lawyer (for that had been Theobald's first trade) or to become a political hack. He decides to give up poetry and become an entirely hired pen for Nathaniel Mist and his Mist's Journal. He therefore collects all the books of bad poetry in his library along with his own works and makes a virgin sacrifice of them (virgin because no one has ever read them) by setting fire to the pile. The goddess Dulness appears to him in a fog and drops a sheet of Thule (a poem by Ambrose Philips that was supposed to be an epic, but which only appeared as a single sheet) on the fire, extinguishing it with the poem's perpetually wet ink. Dulness tells Theobald that he is the new King of Dunces and points him to the stage. She shows him,
The first game is for booksellers. (Booksellers at the time purchased manuscripts from authors, and the proceeds from book sales went entirely to the bookseller, with the author getting no more than the advance price.) Dulness therefore decides upon a race for the booksellers. She creates a phantom Poet,
The next contest Dulness proposes is for the phantom poetess, Eliza (Eliza Haywood). She is compared to their Hera. Where Hera was "cow-eyed" in Iliad, and "of the herders," Haywood inverts these to become a
The next contest is for authors, and it is the game of "tickling": getting money from patrons by flattery. A very wealthy nobleman, attended by jockeys, huntsmen, a large sedan chair with six porters, takes his seat. One poet attempts to flatter his pride. A painter attempts to paint a glowing portrait. An opera author attempts to please his ears. John Oldmixon simply asks for the money (Oldmixon had attacked Pope in The Catholic Poet, but Pope claims that his real crime was plagiarism in his Critical History of England, which slandered the Stuarts and got him an office from the Whig ministry), only to have the lord clench his money tighter. Finally, a young man with no artistic ability sends his sister to the lord and wins the prize.
Another contest, primarily for critics, comes next. In this, Dulness offers up the prize of a "catcall" and a drum that can drown out the braying of asses to the one who can make the most senseless noise and impress the king of monkeys. They are invited to improve mustard-bowl thunder (as the sound effect of thunder on the stage had been made using a mustard bowl and a shot previously, and John Dennis had invented a new method) and the sound of the bell (used in tragedies to enhance the pitiful action). Pope describes the resulting game thus:
The assembled horde go down by Bridewell (the women's prison) between 11:00 AM and 12:00 PM, when the women prisoners are being whipped, and go "To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams/ Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames" (II 267-8). The Fleet Ditch was the sewer outlet for the city at the time, where all of the gutters of the city washed into the river. It was silted, muddy, and mixed with river and city waters.
In the ditch, the political hacks are ordered to strip off their clothes and engage in a diving contest. Dulness says, "Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around/ The stream, be his the Weekly Journals, bound" (II 267-8), while a load of lead will go to the deepest diver and a load of coal to the others who participate. "The Weekly Journals" was a collective noun, referring to London Journal, Mist's Journal, British Journal, Daily Journal, inter al. In this contest, John Dennis climbs up as high as a post and dives in, disappearing forever. Next, "Smedly" (Jonathan Smedley, a religious opportunist who criticized Jonathan Swift for gain) dives in and vanishes. Others attempt the task, but none succeed like Leonard Welsted (who had satirized Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot's play Three Hours after Marriage in 1717), for he goes in swinging his arms like a windmill (to splash all with mud): "No crab more active in the dirty dance,/ Downward to climb, and backward to advance" (II 296-7). He wins the Journals, but Smedly reappears, saying that he had gone all the way down to Hades, where he had seen that a branch of Styx flows into the Thames, so that all who drink city water grow dull and forgetful from Lethe.
Smedly becomes Dulness's high priest, and the company move to Ludgate. There, the young critics are asked to weigh the difference between Richard Blackmore and John "Orator" Henley. The one who can will be the chief judge of Dulness. Three sophomores from Cambridge University and three lawyers from Temple Bar attempt the task, but they all fall asleep. The entire company slowly falls asleep, with the last being Susanna Centlivre (who had attacked Pope's translation of Homer before its publication) and "Norton Defoe" (another false identity created by a political author who claimed to be the "true son" of Daniel Defoe). Finally, Folly herself is killed by the dullness of the works being read aloud. The result is, appropriately, that there is no judge for Dulness, for Dulness requires an absence of judgment.
Settle gives Theobald full knowledge of Dulness. This is his baptism: the time when he can claim his divine role and begin his mission (in a parody of Jesus being blessed by the Holy Spirit). Settle shows Theobald the past triumphs of Dulness in its battles with reason and science. He surveys the translatio stultitia: the Great Wall of China and the emperor burning all learned books, Egypt and Omar I burning the books in the Ptlomaean library. Then he turns to follow the light of the sun/learning to Europe and says,
Settle then surveys the future. He says that Grub Street will be Dulness's Mount Parnassus, where the goddess will "Behold a hundred sons, and each a dunce" (III 130). He names two sons of contemporary dunces who were already showing signs of stupidity: Theophilus Cibber (III 134) and the son of Bishop Burnet.
Settle turns to examine the present state of "duncery", and this section of the third book is the longest. He first looks to literary critics, who are happiest when their authors complain the most. Scholars are described as:
From critics, he turns to the contrastive of triumphant dunces and lost merit. Orator Henley gets special attention here (lines 195 ff.). Henley had set himself up as a professional lecturer. On Sundays, he would discuss theology, and on Wednesdays any other subject, and those who went to hear him would pay a shilling each ("Oh great Restorer of the good old Stage,/ Preacher at once, and Zany of thy Age!" 201-202), while learned bishops and skilled preachers spoke to empty congregations. Next come the theatres: a Dr. Faustus was the toast of the 1726-1727 season, with both Lincoln's Inn Fields and Drury Lane competing for more and more lavish stage effects to get the audiences in:
Settle then reveals some current triumphs of dullness over good sense. He mentions William Benson as the proper judge of architecture,
The poem ends with a vision of the apocalypse of nonsense:
Aristarchus's "hyper-criticism" establishes a science for the mock heroic and follows up some of the ideas set forth by Pope in Peri Bathos in the Miscellanies, Volume the Third (1727). In this piece, the rules of heroic poetry could be inverted for the proper mock-heroic. The epic hero, Pope says, has wisdom, courage, and love. Therefore, the mock-hero should have "Vanity, Impudence, and Debauchery." As a wise man knows without being told, Pope says, so the vain man listens to no opinion but his own, and Pope quotes Cibber as saying, "Let all the world impute to me what Folly or weakness they please; but till Wisdom can give me something that will make me more heartily happy, I am content to be Gazed at." Courage becomes a hero, Pope says, and nothing is more perversely brave that summoning all one's courage just to the face, and he quotes Cibber's claim in the Apology that his face was almost the best known in England. Chivalric love is the mark of a hero, and Pope says that this is something easy for the young to have. A mock-hero could keep his lust going when old, could claim, as Cibber does, "a man has his Whore" at the age of 80. When the three qualities of wisdom, courage, and love are combined in an epic hero, the result is, according to Pope, magnanimity that induces admiration in the reader. On the other hand, when vanity, impudence, and debauchery are combined in the "lesser epic" hero (Pope uses the term "lesser epic" to refer to the satirical epic that would function like a satire play in the Classical theater), the result is "Buffoonry" that induces laughter and disgust. Finally, Pope says that Cibber's offenses are compounded by the outlandishness of his claims. Although he was "a person never a hero even on the Stage," he sets himself out as an admirable and imitable person who expects applause for his vices.
When Dulness chooses her new king, she settles on Bays, who is seen in his study surveying his own works: "Nonsense precipitate, like running Lead,/ That slip'd thro' Cracks and Zig-zags of the Head" (I 123-4) and "Next, o'er his Books his eyes began to roll,/ In pleasing memory of all he stole" (B I 127-8). The base of Cibber's pile of sacrificed books is several commonplace books, which are the basis of all his own productions. Although Cibber confesses "Some Daemon stole my pen... And once betray'd me into common sense," he prays to Dulness for inspiration, insisting that "Else all my Prose and Verse were much the same;/ This, prose on stilts; that, poetry fall'n lame" (I 187-90). The accidental common sense was The Careless Husband. When Cibber casts about for new professions, he, unlike Theobald in 1732, decides, "Hold-to the Minister I more incline;/ To serve his cause, O Queen! is serving thine" (I 213-4). The "minister" is Robert Walpole, an extremely unpopular Whig leader, and the "queen" is both Dulness and Queen Caroline of Hanover, who was a Tory enemy for her reconciliation of George II with Walpole. When the new king is about to burn his books in despair, Pope heightens the religious imagery, for Cibber says to his books, "Unstain'd, untouch'd, and yet in maiden sheets;/ While all your smutty sisters walk the streets" (I. 229-30), and it is better that they be burned than that they be wrapped in "Oranges, to pelt your Sire" (I. 236). Again, Dulness extinguishes the pyre with a sheet of the ever-wet Thule.
Cibber goes to Dulness's palace, and Pope says that he feels at home there, and "So Spirits ending their terrestrial race,/ Ascend, and recognize their Native Place" (I 267-8). The Christian Heaven-home of Puritan songs is altered for Cibber to the originating sleep of Dulness. While in the Dunciad A the palace had been empty, it is here crowded with ghosts (the same dunces mentioned in 1727, but all having died in the interim). Dulness calls forth her servants to herald the new king, and the book ends with Dulness's prayer, which takes an apocalyptic tone in the new version:
Most of Book II of the Dunciad B is the same as Dunciad A. The Dunce Games are largely the same, with a few changes in personnel. Cibber watches all, with "A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead" (II 44). The contest of booksellers is generally as it was in 1727, with Curll slipping on bedpan slops. However, when Curll prays to Cloacina, Pope provides more motivation for her hearing his prayer:
The "tickling" contest is the same, except that Thomas Bentley, nephew of Richard Bentley the classicist, replaces Richard Blackmore. This Bentley had written a fawning ode on the son of Robert Harley (a former friend of Pope's with whom he seems estranged). In the noise battle, Dulness tells her poets,
The progress by Bridewell to Fleet-ditch and the muck-diving games are the same, but, again, with some changes of dunces. Oldmixon, who had appeared in 1727 as one of the ticklers, is here the elderly diver who replaces John Dennis. Smedley and Concanen are the same, but Pope adds a new section on party political papers:
The book concludes with the contest of reading Blackmore and Henley.
In the survey of the formless poets waiting to be born (in print), Cibber sees the same faces as Theobald had, but with a few excisions and additions. The implied homosexual couple of critics from the Dunciad A are cut, but a mass of nameless poets contend, "who foremost shall be dam'd to Fame" (B III 158) (both cursed with fame and damned by the goddess Fama for being an idiot), and altogether,
As in the three book Dunciad, Settle shows the happy triumph of Dulness on the stage, but the lines are compressed and take on a new parodic context:
It opens with a second, nihilistic invocation:
Dulness takes her throne, and Pope describes the allegorical tableau of her throne room. Science is chained beneath her foot-stool. Logic is gagged and bound. Wit has been exiled from her kingdom entirely. Rhetoric is stripped on the ground and tied by sophism. Morality is dressed in a gown that is bound by two cords, of furs (the ermines of judges) and lawn (the fabric of bishops sleeves), and at a nod from Dulness, her "page" (a notorious hanging judge named Page who had had over one hundred people executed) pulls both cords tight and strangles her. The Muses are bound in tenfold chains and guarded by Flattery and Envy. Only mathematics is free, because it is too insane to be bound. Nor, Pope says, could Chesterfield refrain from weeping upon seeing the sight (for Chesterfield had opposed the Licensing Act of 1737, which is the chaining of the Muses). Colley Cibber, however, slumbers, his head in Dulness's lap. (In a note, Pope says that it is proper for Cibber to sleep through the whole of Book IV, as he had had no part in the actions of book II, slept through book III, and therefore ought to go on sleeping.)
Into the audience chamber, a "Harlot form" "with mincing step, small voice, and languid eye" comes in (B IV 45-6). This is opera, who wears patchwork clothing (for operas being made up of the patchwork of extant plays and being itself a mixed form of singing and acting). Opera then speaks to Dulness of the Muses:
Fame blows her "posterior trumpet," and all the dunces of the land come to Dulness's throne. There are three classes of dunce. First, there are the naturally dull. These are drawn to her as bees are to a queen bee, and they "adhere" to her person. The second are the people who do not wish to be dunces but are, "Whate'er of mungril no one class admits,/ A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits" (B IV 89-90). These dunces orbit Dulness. They struggle to break free, and they get some distance from her, but they are too weak to flee. The third class are "false to Phoebus, bow to Baal;/ Or impious, preach his Word without a call" (B IV 93-4). They are men and women who do dull things by supporting dunces, either by giving money to hacks or by suppressing the cause of worthy writers. These people come to Dulness as a comet does: although they are only occasionally near her, they habitually do her bidding. Of this last group, Pope classes Sir Thomas Hanmer, a "decent knight," who absurdly thinks himself a great Shakespeare editor and uses his own money to publish an exceptionally lavish and ornate edition (with a text that was based on Pope's own edition). He is outshone in darkness by one Benson, who is even more absurd, in that he begins putting up monuments of John Milton, striking coins and medals of Milton, and translating Milton's Latin poetry and who had then passed from excessive Milton fanaticism to fanaticism for Arthur Johnston, a Scottish physician and Latin poet. Unable to be the most fantastically vain man, Hamner prepares to withdraw his edition, but "Apollo's May'r and Aldermen" (B IV 116) take the page from him. (This was a reference to Oxford University Press, with which Pope had a quarrel based on their denying Bishop Warburton a doctorate in 1741). Dulness tells her followers to imitate Benson and tack their own names to statues and editions of famous authors, to treat standard authors as trophies (the busts made of them like hunting trophies), and thus "So by each Bard an Alderman shall sit" (B IV 131).
All of the dunces press forward, vying to be the first to speak, but a ghost comes forward who awes them all and makes all to shake in fear. Doctor Busby, headmaster of Westminster School appears, "Dripping with Infant's blood, and Mother's tears" (B IV 142) from the birch cane that he used to whip boys, and every man in the hall begins to tremble. Busby tells Dulness that he is her true champion, for he turns geniuses to fools, "Whate'er the talents, or howe'er design'd,/ We hang one jingling padlock on the mind" (161-2). Dulness agrees and wishes for a pedant king like James I again, who will "stick the Doctor's Chair into the Throne" (177), for only a pedant king would insist on what her priests (and only hers) proclaim: "The RIGHT DIVINE of Kings to govern wrong" (188), for Cambridge and Oxford still uphold the doctrine.
As soon as she mentions them, the professors of Cambridge and Oxford (except for Christ Church college) rush to her, "Each fierce Logician, still expelling Locke" (196). (John Locke had been censured by Oxford University in 1703, and his Essay on Human Understanding had been banned.) These professors give way to their greatest figure, Richard Bentley, who appears with his Quaker hat on and refuses to bow to Dulness. Bentley tells Dulness that he and critics like him are her true champions, for he had "made Horace dull, and humbled Milton's strains" (212) and, no matter what her enemies do, critics will always serve Dulness, for "Turn what they will to Verse, their toil is vain,/ Critics like me shall make it Prose again" (213-214). Picking fine arguments on letters and single textual variants and correcting authors, he will make all wits useless, and clerics, he says, are the purely dull, though the works of Isaac Barrow and Francis Atterbury might argue otherwise. He says that it is "For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,/ And write about it, Goddess, and about it" (251-2). They cement over all wit, throwing stone back onto the figures that authors had chiselled out of marble. As he makes his boast, he sees "A whore, a pupil, and a French governor" come forward, and the devout Bentley skulks away.
The French governor attempts to speak to Dulness but cannot be heard over the French horn sound that emerges, so the pupil tells his story. The "governor" is an English nobleman who went to school and college without learning anything, then went abroad on the Grand Tour, where "Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too" (294). He went to Paris and Rome and "he saunter'd Europe round,/ And gather'd ev'ry Vice on Christian ground" (B IV 311-312). At the end of his travels, he is "perfectly well bred,/ With nothing but a Solo in his head" (323-4), and he has returned to England with a despoiled nun following him. She is pregnant with his child (or the student's) and destined for the life of a prostitute (a kept woman), and the lord is going to run for Parliament so that he can avoid arrest. Dulness welcomes the three -- the devious student, the brainless lord, and the spoiled nun -- and spreads her own cloak about the girl, which "frees from sense of Shame."
After the vacuous traveller, an idle lord appears, yawning with the pain of sitting on an easy chair. He does nothing at all. Immediately after him, Annius speaks. He is the natural predator for idling nobles, for he is a forger of antiquities (named for Annio di Viterbo) who teaches the nobles to value their false Roman coins above their houses and their forged Virgil manuscripts above their own clothing. He serves Dulness by teaching her servants to vaunt their stupidity with their wealth.