An Exploration of ‘dulness’ in Pope’s Dunciad

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

One of Pope’s most fundamental premises in The Dunciad is the idea that the demise of the word cannot be blamed solely on the Grub Street hacks but also on academicians at large. Not only does the ‘uncreating word’ of Chaos (IV 653) pose as a religious and moral Armageddon – this allusion to the reinstatement of conditions that existed before creation being perhaps the most sinister image in the poem’s entirety – but also as a semantic and creative apocalypse. The textual critics such as the Tibbaldian hero of the previous editions of The Dunciad, clearly contribute to this dissolution, and their effect on the author’s ‘wits’ whom they study is violent and brutal:

When Dulness, smiling – ‘Thus revive the Wits!

But murder first, and mince them all to bits…

…Let standard authors, thus, like trophies born,

Appear more glorious as more hack’d and torn,

And you, my Critics! in the chequer’d shade,

Admire new light through holes yourselves have made. (IV 119-126)

Among the vast army of personae attacked by Pope in The Dunciad, two characters, Dr Busby and Richard Bentley are satirised at some length and as such, are held as the arch propagators of academic Dulness. Being projected very much as Dulness’ chief representative in schools, Busby’s heavy pedantry and a heavier hand is shown to debar pupils from genuine enlightenment:

We ply the Memory, we load the brain,

Bind rebel Wit, and double chain on chain,

Confine the thought, to exercise the breath;

And keep them in the pale of Words till death.

What’er the talents, or how’er design’d,

We hang one jingling padlock on the mind. (IV 157-162)

Warburton’s annotations to these lines likens the versified mnemonics in rote-learning as practiced by Dr Busby in Winchester to the bells put onto draught horses’ bridles, emphasises Pope’s own satire of an inescapable academic world in which, words instead of being a means to knowledge, are built into a barrier against it. This idea of textual Dulness as repressive, burdensome, and imprisoning has also been presented earlier to the reader:

Beneath her footstool, Science groans in chains,

And Wit dreads exile, penalties, and pains.

There foam’d rebellious Logic , gagg’d and bound,

There, stripp’d, fair Rhet’ric languish’d on the ground (IV 21-24)

But Pope’s satire extends beyond Busby’s stick-wielding classroom habits to political Dulness, immaturity and consequently independence, in the sense that the ‘Boy-Senator’, even after leaving school, still cringes in fear of being punished. As Valerie Rumbold notes, “…when such young men leave school Walpole takes on the absolute power of a Busby over them, making nonsense of their supposed role as representatives of a free people.” Pope seems to suggest that this education can be of little use as it takes no more account of the varying demands life will make on the students than it does of their varying talents. Seemingly, Busby’s academic Dulness not only stunts free-thinking creative growth, but also his influence resurfaces as a debilitating trait in his students later on in their careers.

Yet another perfect bte noire for the ‘ancients’ such as Pope, Bentley’s mangling of the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost is also exemplary for corrupting words in what is considered to be a superficial, unnecessary, and irrelevant exercise:

Turn what they will to verse, their toil is vain,

Critics like me shall make it prose again. (IV 213-214)

Bentley’s enlightened concern with accuracy is deliberately confounded with his Enlightenment arrogance, his inability to allow the dead poet his autonomy. As J. Philip Brockbank notes, “Our education, as transmitters of literary tradition, have some place in the creation story, and their function, according to Pope, has been to subdue all creative art to dullness.”

Having once censured ‘Dunce’ scholars such as Bentley and Theobald who either over-analyse texts (particularly problematic if the mistakes found therein are from Pope’s own works) or fragment literature to a series of meaningless words and disjointed letters, which cease therefore to signify, (“Tis true, on words is still our whole debate,/ Disputes of Me or Te , of aut or at,/ To sound or sink in cano , O or A,/ Or give up Cicero to C or K” {IV 219-222}) Pope’s satire on Dulness is further applied to the incongruity of things.

The way the characters in The Rape of the Lock attach immoderate importance to particular objects (the lock of hair itself), is one of Pope’s chief sources of social and cultural comment. In it, there is also a tendency for routine objects to be invested with almost religious significance and to be registered as precious or attractive. The same method is employed in The Dunciad, but the transitions which the objects experience are different. As critic Martin Blocksidge notes, “Wherein The Rape of the Lock the trivial was made significant, in The Dunciad, the potentially significant is trivialised in order to present a view of culture and learning which has become fatally fragmented and concerned with mere shards rather than with real objects.”

The whole superficiality of learning and apprehension is summed up in Pope’s treatment of the young man undertaking his grand tour. Pope offers a criticism of tourists which has with time become commonplace enough: that they are likely to visit places simply for the joy of having been there, rather than because they are particularly well equipped to get anything out of what they see. Pope’s ‘young Aeneas’ makes a breezy whistle-stop tour of Europe:

Intrepid then, o’er seas and lands he flew,

Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too…(IV 293-294)

Not only are Europe’s cultural monuments cheapened by the young man’s indiscriminating avidity before them (‘The Stews and Palace equally explor’d/ Intrig’d with glory, and with spirit whor’d’ {315-6}), some are degraded by time anyway. For example, the once-great city of Venice is now merely effete and vicious:

Where, eas’d of Fleets, the Adriatic main

Wafts the smooth Eunuch and enamour’d swain.

Led by my hand, he saunter’d Europe round,

And gather’d ev’ry Vice on Christian ground; (IV 309-312)

Introducing a satirical account of what was considered to be a necessary part in the completion of the education of the member of the ruling class in the eighteenth century, this Grand Tour did little to mature the minds of the young travellers but instead was blamed for introducing foreign corruption into politics, religion and culture, as well as allowing the men to indulge in unrestrained debauchery in a city of decadent carnivals involving masking and fancy dress. And Venice, in ‘dull’ decline despite a proud tradition of liberty, can furthermore also be seen as a specific warning to Britain.

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