The Dunciad, by Alexander Pope

Ricardus Aristarchus

of the

Hero of the Poem.

Of the nature of Dunciad in general, whence derived, and on what authority founded, as well as of the art and conduct of this our poem in particular, the learned and laborious Scriblerus hath, according to his manner, and with tolerable share of judgment, dissertated. But when he cometh to speak of the person of the hero fitted for such poem, in truth he miserably halts and hallucinates. For, misled by one Monsieur Bossu, a Gallic critic, he prateth of I cannot tell what phantom of a hero, only raised up to support the fable. A putrid conceit! As if Homer and Virgil, like modern undertakers, who first build their house, and then seek out for a tenant, had contrived the story of a war and a wandering, before they once thought either of Achilles or Æneas. We shall therefore set our good brother and the world also right in this particular, by assuring them, that, in the greater epic, the prime intention of the Muse is to exalt heroic virtue, in order to propagate the love of it among the children of men; and, consequently, that the poet’s first thought must needs be turned upon a real subject meet for laud and celebration; not one whom he is to make, but one whom he may find, truly illustrious. This is the primum mobile of his poetic world, whence everything is to receive life and motion. For this subject being found, he is immediately ordained, or rather acknowledged, a hero, and put upon such action as befitteth the dignity of his character.

But the Muse ceaseth not here her eagle-flight. For sometimes, satiated with the contemplation of these suns of glory, she turneth downward on her wing, and darts with Jove’s lightning on the goose and serpent kind. For we may apply to the Muse, in her various moods, what an ancient master of wisdom affirmeth of the gods in general: ‘Si Dii non irascuntur impiis et injustis, nec pios utique justosque diligunt. In rebusenim diversis, aut in utramque partem moveri necesse est, aut in neutram. Itaque qui bonos diligit, et malos odit; et qui malos non odit, nec bonos diligit. Quia et diligere bonos ex odio malorum venit; et malos odisse ex bonorum caritate descendit.’ Which, in our vernacular idiom, may be thus interpreted: ‘If the gods be not provoked at evil men, neither are they delighted with the good and just. For contrary objects must either excite contrary affections, or no affections at all. So that he who loveth good men must at the same time hate the bad; and he who hateth not bad men cannot love the good; because to love good men proceedeth from an aversion to evil, and to hate evil men from a tenderness to the good.’ From this delicacy of the Muse arose the little epic, (more lively and choleric than her elder sister, whose bulk and complexion incline her to the phlegmatic), and for this some notorious vehicle of vice and folly was sought out, to make thereof an example. An early instance of which (nor could it escape the accurate Scriblerus) the father of epic poem himself affordeth us. From him the practice descended to the Greek dramatic poets, his offspring, who, in the composition of their tetralogy, or set of four pieces, were wont to make the last a satiric tragedy. Happily one of these ancient Dunciads (as we may well term it) is come down unto us amongst the tragedies of the poet Euripides. And what doth the reader suppose may be the subject thereof? Why, in truth, and it is worthy observation, the unequal contention of an old, dull, debauched buffoon Cyclops, with the heaven-directed favourite of Minerva; who, after having quietly borne all the monster’s obscene and impious ribaldry, endeth the farce in punishing him with the mark of an indelible brand in his forehead. May we not then be excused, if for the future we consider the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, together with this our poem, as a complete tetralogy, in which the last worthily holdeth the place or station of the satiric piece?

Proceed we therefore in our subject. It hath been long, and, alas for pity! still remaineth a question, whether the hero of the greater epic should be an honest man? or, as the French critics express it, un honnête homme:1 but it never admitted of any doubt, but that the hero of the little epic should be just the contrary. Hence, to the advantage of our Dunciad, we may observe how much juster the moral of that poem must needs be, where so important a question is previously decided.

But then it is not every knave, nor (let me add) every fool, that is a fit subject for a Dunciad. There must still exist some analogy, if not resemblance of qualities, between the heroes of the two poems, and this in order to admit what neoteric critics call the parody, one of the liveliest graces of the little epic. Thus, it being agreed that the constituent qualities of the greater epic hero are wisdom, bravery, and love, from whence springeth heroic virtue; it followeth that those of the lesser epic hero should be vanity, impudence, and debauchery, from which happy assemblage resulteth heroic dulness, the never-dying subject of this our poem.

This being confessed, come we now to particulars. It is the character of true wisdom to seek its chief support and confidence within itself, and to place that support in the resources which proceed from a conscious rectitude of will. And are the advantages of vanity, when arising to the heroic standard, at all short of this self-complacence? Nay, are they not, in the opinion of the enamoured owner, far beyond it? ‘Let the world (will such an one say) 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.’2 This, we see, is vanity according to the heroic gauge or measure; not that low and ignoble species which pretendeth to virtues we have not, but the laudable ambition of being gazed at for glorying in those vices which everybody knows we have. ‘The world may ask (says he) why I make my follies public? Why not? I have passed my time very pleasantly with them.’3 In short, there is no sort of vanity such a hero would scruple, but that which might go near to degrade him from his high station in this our Dunciad — namely, ‘Whether it would not be vanity in him to take shame to himself for not being a wise man?’4

Bravery, the second attribute of the true hero, is courage manifesting itself in every limb; while its correspondent virtue in the mock hero is that same courage all collected into the face. And as power when drawn together must needs have more force and spirit than when dispersed, we generally find this kind of courage in so high and heroic a degree, that it insults not only men, but gods. Mezentius is, without doubt, the bravest character in all the Æneis. But how? His bravery, we know, was a high courage of blasphemy. And can we say less of this brave man’s, who, having told us that he placed ‘his summum bonum in those follies, which he was not content barely to possess, but would likewise glory in,’ adds, ‘If I am misguided, ’tis nature’s fault, and I follow her.’5 Nor can we be mistaken in making this happy quality a species of courage, when we consider those illustrious marks of it which made his face ‘more known (as he justly boasteth) than most in the kingdom,’ and his language to consist of what we must allow to be the most daring figure of speech, that which is taken from the name of God.

Gentle love, the next ingredient in the true hero’s composition, is a mere bird of passage, or (as Shakspeare calls it) summer-teeming lust, and evaporates in the heat of youth; doubtless, by that refinement, it suffers in passing through those certain strainers which our poet somewhere speaketh of. But when it is let alone to work upon the lees, it acquireth strength by old age, and becometh a lasting ornament to the little epic. It is true, indeed, there is one objection to its fitness for such a use: for not only the ignorant may think it common, but it is admitted to be so, even by him who best knoweth its value. ‘Don’t you think,’ argueth he, ‘to say only a man has his whore,6 ought to go for little or nothing? Because defendit numerus; take the first ten thousand men you meet, and I believe you would be no loser if you betted ten to one that every single sinner of them, one with another, had been guilty of the same frailty.’7 But here he seemeth not to have done justice to himself: the man is sure enough a hero who hath his lady at fourscore. How doth his modesty herein lessen the merit of a whole well-spent life: not taking to himself the commendation (which Horace accounted the greatest in a theatrical character) of continuing to the very dregs the same he was from the beginning,

. . . ‘Servetur ad imum

Qualis ab incepto processerat’ . . .

But here, in justice both to the poet and the hero, let us further remark, that the calling her his whore implieth she was his own, and not his neighbour’s. Truly a commendable continence! and such as Scipio himself must have applauded. For how much self-denial was exerted not to covet his neighbour’s whore? and what disorders must the coveting her have occasioned in that society where (according to this political calculator) nine in ten of all ages have their concubines!

We have now, as briefly as we could devise, gone through the three constituent qualities of either hero. But it is not in any, or in all of these, that heroism properly or essentially resideth. It is a lucky result rather from the collision of these lively qualities against one another. Thus, as from wisdom, bravery, and love, ariseth magnanimity, the object of admiration, which is the aim of the greater epic; so from vanity, impudence, and debauchery, springeth buffoonery, the source of ridicule, that ‘laughing ornament,’ as he well termeth it,8 of the little epic.

He is not ashamed (God forbid he ever should be ashamed!) of this character, who deemeth that not reason, but risibility, distinguisheth the human species from the brutal. ‘As nature,’ saith this profound philosopher, ‘distinguished our species from the mute creation by our risibility, her design must have been by that faculty as evidently to raise our happiness, as by our os sublime (our erected faces) to lift the dignity of our form above them.’9 All this considered, how complete a hero must he be, as well as how happy a man, whose risibility lieth not barely in his muscles, as in the common sort, but (as himself informeth us) in his very spirits! and whose os sublime is not simply an erect face, but a brazen head, as should seem by his preferring it to one of iron, said to belong to the late king of Sweden!10

But whatever personal qualities a hero may have, the examples of Achilles and Aeneas show us, that all those are of small avail without the constant assistance of the gods — for the subversion and erection of empires have never been adjudged the work of man. How greatly soever, then, we may esteem of his high talents, we can hardly conceive his personal prowess alone sufficient to restore the decayed empire of Dulness. So weighty an achievement must require the particular favour and protection of the great — who, being the natural patrons and supporters of letters, as the ancient gods were of Troy, must first be drawn off and engaged in another interest, before the total subversion of them can be accomplished. To surmount, therefore, this last and greatest difficulty, we have, in this excellent man, a professed favourite and intimado of the great. And look, of what force ancient piety was to draw the gods into the party of Aeneas, that, and much stronger, is modern incense, to engage the great in the party of Dulness.

Thus have we essayed to portray or shadow out this noble imp of fame. But now the impatient reader will be apt to say, if so many and various graces go to the making up a hero, what mortal shall suffice to bear his character? Ill hath he read who seeth not, in every trace of this picture, that individual, all-accomplished person, in whom these rare virtues and lucky circumstances have agreed to meet and concentre with the strongest lustre and fullest harmony.

The good Scriblerus indeed — nay, the world itself — might be imposed on, in the late spurious editions, by I can’t tell what sham hero or phantom; but it was not so easy to impose on him whom this egregious error most of all concerned. For no sooner had the fourth book laid open the high and swelling scene, but he recognised his own heroic acts; and when he came to the words —

‘Soft on her lap her laureate son reclines,’

(though laureate imply no more than one crowned with laurel, as befitteth any associate or consort in empire), he loudly resented this indignity to violated majesty — indeed, not without cause, he being there represented as fast asleep; so misbeseeming the eye of empire, which, like that of Providence, should never doze nor slumber. ‘Hah!’ saith he, ‘fast asleep, it seems! that’s a little too strong. Pert and dull at least you might have allowed me, but as seldom asleep as any fool.’11 However, the injured hero may comfort himself with this reflection, that though it be a sleep, yet it is not the sleep of death, but of immortality. Here he will live12 at least, though not awake; and in no worse condition than many an enchanted warrior before him. The famous Durandarte, for instance, was, like him, cast into a long slumber by Merlin, the British bard and necromancer; and his example, for submitting to it with a good grace, might be of use to our hero. For that disastrous knight being sorely pressed or driven to make his answer by several persons of quality, only replied with a sigh — ‘Patience, and shuffle the cards.’13

But now, as nothing in this world, no, not the most sacred or perfect things either of religion or government, can escape the sting of envy, methinks I already hear these carpers objecting to the clearness of our hero’s title.

It would never (say they) have been esteemed sufficient to make an hero for the Iliad or Aeneis, that Achilles was brave enough to overturn one empire, or Aeneas pious enough to raise another, had they not been goddess-born, and princes bred. What, then, did this author mean by erecting a player instead of one of his patrons (a person ‘never a hero even on the stage,’14) to this dignity of colleague in the empire of Dulness, and achiever of a work that neither old Omar, Attila, nor John of Leyden could entirely bring to pass?

To all this we have, as we conceive, a sufficient answer from the Roman historian, Fabrum esse suae quemque fortunae: That every man is the smith of his own fortune. The politic Florentine, Nicholas Machiavel, goeth still further, and affirmeth that a man needeth but to believe himself a hero to be one of the worthiest. ‘Let him (saith he) but fancy himself capable of the highest things, and he will of course be able to achieve them.’ From this principle it follows, that nothing can exceed our hero’s prowess; as nothing ever equalled the greatness of his conceptions. Hear how he constantly paragons himself; at one time to Alexander the Great and Charles XII of Sweden, for the excess and delicacy of his ambition;15 to Henry IV of France for honest policy;16 to the first Brutus, for love of liberty;17 and to Sir Robert Walpole, for good government while in power.18 At another time, to the godlike Socrates, for his diversions and amusements;19 to Horace, Montaigne, and Sir William Temple for an elegant vanity that maketh them for ever read and admired;20 to two Lord Chancellors, for law, from whom, when confederate against him at the bar, he carried away the prize of eloquence;21 and, to say all in a word, to the right reverend the Lord Bishop of London himself, in the art of writing pastoral letters.22

Nor did his actions fall short of the sublimity of his conceit. In his early youth he met the Revolution23 face to face in Nottingham, at a time when his betters contented themselves with following her. It was here he got acquainted with old Battle-array, of whom he hath made so honourable mention in one of his immortal odes. But he shone in courts as well as camps. He was called up when the nation fell in labour of this Revolution;24 and was a gossip at her christening, with the bishop and the ladies.25

As to his birth, it is true he pretended no relation either to heathen god or goddess; but, what is as good, he was descended from a maker of both.26 And that he did not pass himself on the world for a hero as well by birth as education was his own fault: for his lineage he bringeth into his life as an anecdote, and is sensible he had it in his power to be thought he was nobody’s son at all:27 And what is that but coming into the world a hero?

But be it (the punctilious laws of epic poesy so requiring) that a hero of more than mortal birth must needs be had, even for this we have a remedy. We can easily derive our hero’s pedigree from a goddess of no small power and authority amongst men, and legitimate and install him after the right classical and authentic fashion: for like as the ancient sages found a son of Mars in a mighty warrior, a son of Neptune in a skilful seaman, a son of Phoebus in a harmonious poet, so have we here, if need be, a son of Fortune in an artful gamester. And who fitter than the offspring of Chance to assist in restoring the empire of Night and Chaos?

There is, in truth, another objection, of greater weight, namely, ‘That this hero still existeth, and hath not yet finished his earthly course. For if Solon said well, that no man could be called happy till his death, surely much less can any one, till then, be pronounced a hero, this species of men being far more subject than others to the caprices of fortune and humour.’ But to this also we have an answer, that will (we hope) be deemed decisive. It cometh from himself, who, to cut this matter short, hath solemnly protested that he will never change or amend.

With regard to his vanity, he declareth that nothing shall ever part them. ‘Nature (saith he) hath amply supplied me in vanity — a pleasure which neither the pertness of wit nor the gravity of wisdom will ever persuade me to part with.’28 Our poet had charitably endeavoured to administer a cure to it: but he telleth us plainly, ‘My superiors perhaps may be mended by him; but for my part I own myself incorrigible. I look upon my follies as the best part of my fortune.’29 And with good reason: we see to what they have brought him!

Secondly, as to buffoonery, ‘Is it (saith he) a time of day for me to leave off these fooleries, and set up a new character? I can no more put off my follies than my skin; I have often tried, but they stick too close to me; nor am I sure my friends are displeased with them, for in this light I afford them frequent matter of mirth, &c., &c.’30 Having then so publicly declared himself incorrigible, he is become dead in law (I mean the law Epopoeian), and devolveth upon the poet as his property, who may take him and deal with him as if he had been dead as long as an old Egyptian hero; that is to say, embowel and embalm him for posterity.

Nothing therefore (we conceive) remaineth to hinder his own prophecy of himself from taking immediate effect. A rare felicity! and what few prophets have had the satisfaction to see alive! Nor can we conclude better than with that extraordinary one of his, which is conceived in these oraculous words, My dulness will find somebody to do it right.31

‘Tandem Phoebus adest, morsusque inferre parantem

Congelat, et patulos, ut erant, indurat hiatus.’32

1 Si nil Heros Poëtique doit être un honnête homme. Bossu, du Poême Epique, lib. v. ch. 5.

2 Dedication to the Life of C. C.

3 Life, p. 2, 8vo edition.

4 Life, ibid.

5 Life, p. 23, 8vo.

6 Alluding to these lines in the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot:

‘And has not Colley still his lord and whore,

His butchers, Henley, his freemasons, Moore?’

7 Letter to Mr Pope, p. 46.

8 P. 31.

9 Life, p. 23, 24.

10 Letter, p. 8.

11 Letter, p. 53.

12 Letter, p. 1.

13 Don Quixote, Part ii. book ii. ch. 22.

14 See Life, p. 148.

15 Life, p. 149.

16 p. 424.

17 p. 366.

18 p. 457.

19 p. 18.

20 p. 425.

21 pp. 436, 437.

22 p. 52.

23 p. 47.

24 p. 57.

25 pp. 58, 59.

26 A statuary.

27 Life, p. 6.

28 p. 424.

29 p. 19.

30 Life, p. 17.

31 Ibid. p. 243, 8vo edition.

32 Ovid, of the serpent biting at Orpheus’s head.

By Authority.

By virtue of the Authority in Us vested by the Act for subjecting poets to the power of a licenser, we have revised this piece; where finding the style and appellation of King to have been given to a certain pretender, pseudo-poet, or phantom, of the name of Tibbald; and apprehending the same may be deemed in some sort a reflection on Majesty, or at least an insult on that Legal Authority which has bestowed on another person the crown of poesy: We have ordered the said pretender, pseudo-poet, or phantom, utterly to vanish and evaporate out of this work: And do declare the said Throne of Poesy from henceforth to be abdicated and vacant, unless duly and lawfully supplied by the Laureate himself. And it is hereby enacted, that no other person do presume to fill the same.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24