This poem, as it celebrateth the most grave and ancient of things, Chaos, Night, and Dulness; so is it of the most grave and ancient kind. Homer (saith Aristotle) was the first who gave the form, and (saith Horace) who adapted the measure, to heroic poesy. But even before this, may be rationally presumed from what the ancients have left written, was a piece by Homer, composed of like nature and matter with this of our poet. For of epic sort it appeareth to have been, yet of matter surely not unpleasant, witness what is reported of it by the learned Archbishop Eustathius, in Odyss. x., and accordingly Aristotle, in his Poetic, chap, iv., does further set forth, that as the Iliad and Odyssey gave example to tragedy, so did this poem to comedy its first idea.
From these authors also it should seem that the hero or chief personage of it was no less obscure, and his understanding and sentiments no less quaint and strange (if indeed not more so), than any of the actors of our poem. Margites was the name of this personage, whom antiquity recordeth to have been Dunce the first; and surely, from what we hear of him, not unworthy to be the root of so spreading a tree and so numerous a posterity. The poem therefore celebrating him was properly and absolutely a Dunciad; which, though now unhappily lost, yet is its nature sufficiently known by the infallible tokens aforesaid. And thus it doth appear that the first Dunciad was the first epic poem, written by Homer himself, and anterior even to the Iliad or Odyssey.
Now, forasmuch as our poet had translated those two famous works of Homer which are yet left, he did conceive it in some sort his duty to imitate that also which was lost; and was therefore induced to bestow on it the same form which Homer’s is reported to have had, namely, that of epic poem; with a title also framed after the ancient Greek manner, to wit, that of Dunciad.
Wonderful it is that so few of the moderns have been stimulated to attempt some Dunciad! since, in the opinion of the multitude, it might cost less pain and oil than an imitation of the greater epic. But possible it is also, that, on due reflection, the maker might find it easier to paint a Charlemagne, a Brute, or a Godfrey, with just pomp and dignity heroic, than a Margites, a Codrus, or a Flecknoe.
We shall next declare the occasion and the cause which moved our poet to this particular work. He lived in those days, when (after Providence had permitted the invention of printing as a scourge for the sins of the learned) paper also became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of authors covered the land; whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause, yea of his money, by such as would neither earn the one nor deserve the other. At the same time, the licence of the press was such, that it grew dangerous to refuse them either: for they would forthwith publish slanders unpunished, the authors being anonymous, and skulking under the wings of publishers, a set of men who never scrupled to vend either calumny or blasphemy, as long as the town would call for it.
Now our author,1 living in those times, did conceive it an endeavour well worthy an honest satirist to dissuade the dull and punish the wicked, the only way that was left. In that public-spirited view he laid the plan of this poem, as the greatest service he was capable (without much hurt, or being slain) to render his dear country. First, taking things from their original, he considereth the causes creative of such authors — namely, dulness and poverty; the one born with them, the other contracted by neglect of their proper talents, through self-conceit of greater abilities. This truth he wrappeth in an allegory2 (as the construction of epic poesy requireth), and feigns that one of these goddesses had taken up her abode with the other, and that they jointly inspired all such writers and such works. He proceedeth to show the qualities they bestow on these authors,3 and the effects they produce;4 then the materials, or stock, with which they furnish them;5 and (above all) that self-opinion6 which causeth it to seem to themselves vastly greater than it is, and is the prime motive of their setting up in this sad and sorry merchandise. The great power of these goddesses acting in alliance (whereof as the one is the mother of industry, so is the other of plodding) was to be exemplified in some one great and remarkable action:7 and none could be more so than that which our poet hath chosen, viz., the restoration of the reign of Chaos and Night, by the ministry of Dulness their daughter, in the removal of her imperial seat from the city to the polite world; as the action of the Æneid is the restoration of the empire of Troy, by the removal of the race from thence to Latium. But as Homer singing only the wrath of Achilles, yet includes in his poem the whole history of the Trojan war; in like manner our author hath drawn into this single action the whole history of Dulness and her children.
A person must next be fixed upon to support this action. This phantom in the poet’s mind must have a name:8 He finds it to be ——; and he becomes, of course, the hero of the poem.
The fable being thus, according to the best example, one and entire, as contained in the proposition, the machinery is a continued chain of allegories, setting forth the whole power, ministry, and empire of Dulness, extended through her subordinate instruments, in all her various operations.
This is branched into episodes, each of which hath its moral apart, though all conducive to the main end. The crowd assembled in the second book demonstrates the design to be more extensive than to bad poets only, and that we may expect other episodes of the patrons, encouragers, or paymasters of such authors, as occasion shall bring them forth. And the third book, if well considered, seemeth to embrace the whole world. Each of the games relateth to some or other vile class of writers: the first concerneth the Plagiary, to whom he giveth the name of More; the second the libellous Novelist, whom he styleth Eliza; the third, the flattering Dedicator; the fourth, the bawling Critic, or noisy Poet; the fifth, the dark and dirty Party-writer; and so of the rest; assigning to each some proper name or other, such as he could find.
As for the characters, the public hath already acknowledged how justly they are drawn: the manners are so depicted, and the sentiments so peculiar to those to whom applied, that surely to transfer them to any other or wiser personages would be exceeding difficult: and certain it is, that every person concerned, being consulted apart, hath readily owned the resemblance of every portrait, his own excepted. So Mr Cibber calls them ‘a parcel of poor wretches, so many silly flies;’ but adds, ‘our author’s wit is remarkably more bare and barren whenever it would fall foul on Cibber, than upon any other person whatever.’9
The descriptions are singular, the comparisons very quaint, the narration various, yet of one colour. The purity and chastity of diction is so preserved, that in the places most suspicious, not the words but only the images have been censured, and yet are those images no other than have been sanctified by ancient and classical authority (though, as was the manner of those good times, not so curiously wrapped up), yea, and commented upon by the most grave doctors and approved critics.
As it beareth the name of Epic, it is thereby subjected to such severe indispensable rules as are laid on all neoterics — a strict imitation of the ancients; insomuch that any deviation, accompanied with whatever poetic beauties, hath always been censured by the sound critic. How exact that imitation hath been in this piece, appeareth not only by its general structure, but by particular allusions infinite, many whereof have escaped both the commentator and poet himself; yea, divers by his exceeding diligence are so altered and interwoven with the rest, that several have already been, and more will be, by the ignorant abused, as altogether and originally his own.
In a word, the whole poem proveth itself to be the work of our author when his faculties were in full vigour and perfection, at that exact time when years have ripened the judgment without diminishing the imagination; which by good critics is held to be punctually at forty. For at that season it was that Virgil finished his Georgics; and Sir Richard Blackmore at the like age composing his Arthurs, declared the same to be the very acmè and pitch of life for epic poesy — though since he hath altered it to sixty, the year in which he published his Alfred.10 True it is, that the talents for criticism — namely, smartness, quick censure, vivacity of remark, certainty of asseveration, indeed all but acerbity — seem rather the gifts of youth than of riper age. But it is far otherwise in poetry; witness the works of Mr Rymer and Mr Dennis, who, beginning with criticism, became afterwards such poets as no age hath paralleled. With good reason, therefore, did our author choose to write his essay on that subject at twenty, and reserve for his maturer years this great and wonderful work of the Dunciad.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59