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Popean order and Epicurean chaos in 'The Dunciad, in Four Books.'

The critical apparatus prefixed to and pervading The Dunciad obviously targets the scholastic pretensions and follies of Theobald and Bentley. Yet I have come across no examination of the connection between Pope's addition of 'Ricardus Aristarchus of the Hero of the Poem', and his fascination with Epicurean explanations for the structure and creation of the world, a connection which not only continues Pope's exploration of Lucretian poetics and natural history, but also provides a slightly different perspective on the ostensibly apocalyptic conclusion to the fourth book.(1)

The most famous explication of the Epicurean theory of creation occurs, of course, in Lucretius' de Rerum Natura. Lucretius dismisses any argument for a structured, ordered creation, claiming: 'Nam certe neque consilio primordia rerum / ordine se quo quaeque sagaci mente locarunt' ('For certainly neither did the first-beginnings place themselves by design each in its own order with keen intelligence').(2) Matter is created only when falling atoms swerve into each other randomly, 'incerto tempore ferme / incertisque locis spatio' ('at times quite uncertain and [in] uncertain places' (II.218-19)). It is these accidental collisions, not the shaping hand of a rational being, which originally guided and still oversee the creation of the universe; without these random impacts 'nil unquam natura creasset' ('nature would never have produced anything' (II.224)).

While Pope had insisted that the world is 'A mighty maze! but not without a plan', he also described an atomistic universe, albeit one governed by God. Man can 'behold the chain of Love / Combining all below and all above'(3) only by believing in a divine intelligence ordering creation.

See plastic Nature working to this end, The single atoms to each other tend, Attract, attracted to, the next in place Form'd and impell'd its neighbor to embrace. See Matter next, with various life endu'd, Press to one centre still, the gen'ral Good.


Moral certainty and values are rooted in the creation of life itself. The universe, according to Pope, is directed to a specific end, or 'gen'ral Good'. The exact contra-positions of Pope and Lucretius are well summarized by Miriam Leranbaum:

[for Lucretius] Reason shows that despite the appearance of order, the universe is compounded of disorder, chance, and accident. His picture of inevitable collapse is a logical deduction from his materialist premises. Pope... make[s] precisely the opposite point: despite proud man's egocentric and limited view, reason shows that beyond apparent disorder, there is universal order. (54)

One of the first claims Pope (through the words of his fictional commentator) makes in the Aristarchus essay is that the epic poet, when searching for his hero, must describe 'a real subject ... not one whom he is to make, but one whom he may find, truly illustrious'.(4) This is one of the most prevalent jokes of The Dunciad in any version: Pope insists that he is merely describing the dunces and their surroundings accurately, that the grotesquerie is not the product of his fancy, but the result of ongoing political corruption and cultural debasement. Moreover, Pope demonstrates Cibber's aptitude for the role of hero using the primary idea of the Epicurean model of creation. Cibber's personal character 'is a lucky result...from the collision of these lively Qualities [i.e. 'Vanity, Impudence, and Debauchery'] against one another' (259). Later, when referring to Cibber's weakness for gambling, 'Aristarchus' asks 'who fitter than the Offspring of Chance, to assist in restoring the Empire of Night and Chaos?' (264). The 'Daughter of Chaos' chooses as her successor one whose character has been formed by the chaotic collision of appropriate characteristics. As in An Essay on Man, Pope uses the Epicurean model of creation for his own ends.(5)

Pope's frequent citations from A Letter from Colley Cibber to Mr. Pope (1742) in the 'Aristarchus' essay illustrate an important satirical technique used elsewhere in the prefatory material to The Dunciad, in Four Books. He takes the words of a man he associates with Dulness and all her attributes - chaos, immorality, and absence of literary talent - and puts them in their proper place: the critical apparatus of The Dunciad, in Four Books. Strategically taken out of context, Cibber's remonstrances to Pope become proofs of his pre-eminence in 'Vanity, Impudence, and Debauchery'. The climax of this re-appropriation of Cibber's words comes when Cibber's own prophecy about his life is made the conclusion of the Aristachus essay: 'MY DULNESS WlLL FIND SOMEBODY TO DO IT RIGHT'. The expressions of one who embodies dulness are taken up into the rational plan of Pope's work; what was the product of chaos becomes ordered.

Pope does not limit himself to the recontextualization of Cibber's statements. He also uses Cibber's position as Poet Laureate to comment upon Britain's political and cultural decay.(6) Whereas The Dunciad Variorum features the Royal Seal heading a 'Declaration' by 'the Author' (and witnessed by the Lord Mayor),(7) The Dunciad, in Four Books features a Royal Seal and a declaration by the Lord Chamberlain that the 'Pretender, Pseudo-Poet, or Phantom, of the name of TIBBALD' has been made to 'evaporate out of this work' to make room for 'the LAUREATE himself' (252). What had been merely another satirical swipe at the values of the City encroaching onto the high cultural landscape of the Town becomes, in The Dunciad, in Four Books, another example of Dulness making itself (or herself) manifest in contemporary political and cultural life.(8) The ridiculousness of Cibber's appointment to the post of Poet Laureate is not a grotesque joke by Pope, but a grotesque reality effected, at least in part, by the environment fashioned by Walpole and the Hanoverians. Yet Pope exploits the reality to illustrate the cultural decline which has set in since 1729; he seizes an element of chaotic reality and, by placing it in his ordered work of art, reveals its true purpose - to demonstrate the extent to which Dulness has influenced English cultural and political life by the 1740s.

Donald Siebert and Leopold Damrosch have argued that the satiric energy in The Dunciad, in Four Books far outweighs the apocalyptic mood emphasized in the reading of Aubrey Williams.(9) Pope's use of Cibber's words in 'Aristarchus' seems to agree with the more purely satiric reading of The Dunciad: Pope the poet is always on hand to frame the follies of the dunces and allow them to reveal their true nature. Pope's artistic response to the dulness around him defuses the power of the dunces by recreating their vices in an artistic construction; order and structure are revealed in this epic satire in the same way God's plan is revealed (according to Pope, at least) in A n Essay on Man.

RICK RUSSELL Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

1 I do not pretend to have read every book and article on The Dunciad, but no mention of the connection appears in the following books and articles, all of which deal with similar issues on the poem: Aubrey Williams, Pope's Dunciad, A Study of its Meaning (London: Methuen, 1955); John Sitter, The Poetry of Pope's Dunciad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971); Donald Siebert Jr, 'Cibber and Satan: The Dunciad and Civilization', Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 10 (1976-7); Miriam Leranbaum, Alexander Pope's "Opus Magnum" 1729-1744 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); six essays collected in Maynard Mack and James A. Winn (eds), Pope: Recent Essays' (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980): Emrys Jones, 'Pope and Dulness'; Michael Rosenblum, 'Pope's Illusive Temple of Infamy'; B. L. Reid, 'Ordering Chaos, The Dunciad'; William Kinsley, 'The Dunciad as Mock-Book'; Traugott Lawler, "Wafting Vapours from the Land of Dreams": Virgil's Fourth and Sixth Eclogues and The Dunciad'; and elias Mengel, 'The Dunciad Illustrations'; Fredric Bogel, 'Dulness Unbound: Rhetoric and Pope's Dunciad', PMLA, xcvii (1982); Greg Hollingshead, 'Bishop Berkeley and the Gloomy Clerk: Pope's Final Satire on Deism', Durham Univ. Journal, lxxv (1982); Robert Griffin, 'Pope, the Prophets, and The Dunciad', SEL, xxiii (1983); Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope, A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Leopold Damrosch Jr, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Colin Nicholson, 'Figuring Out Credit in The Dunciad', in Colin Nicholson (ed.), Alexander Pope: Essays for the Tercentenary (Aberdeen University Press, 1988); Dennis Todd, "One Vast Egg": Leibniz, the New Embryology, and Pope's Dunciad', ELN, xxvi (1989); J. P. Vander Motten, 'Pope, Locke, and the New Dunciad', in C. C. Barfoot and Theo D'haen (eds), Centennial Hauntings: Pope, Byron, and Eliot in the Year 88 (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1990); Frederick Keener, 'Pope, the Dunciad, Virgil and the New Historicism of le Bossu', Eighteenth-Century Life, xv (1991).

2 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. and ed. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1975), I.1021-2.

3 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, ed. Maynard Mack, Twickenham Edition, 3rd edn (London: Methuen, 1963), Epistle III, lines 7-8, p. 92.

4 Alexander Pope, The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland, Twickenham Edition, 3rd edn (London: Methuen, 1963), 254. Compare this 'scholarly' discussion of Cibber's suitability for the role of hero to the earlier claims made for 'Tibbald' on p. 51. the notion of finding the right man for the role by chance is emphasized in the later version.

5 Aubrey Williams has noted the 'implicit kinship' between An Essay on Man and The Dunciad, in Four Books, claiming that the former work is 'a more sober counterpart to the ironic examination conducted in the Dunciad' (Williams, 84; cited in Leranbaum, 150).

6 Mack notes in his Life that Pope had come to see Cibber as the embodiment of all that a true poet must not be, 'an enemy both to esthetic standards and to independence of court servilities' (781).

7 This seal first appeared in the 1735 edition (see Sutherland, 237).

8 Sutherland claims that the signature '[contains][subset] Ch.' refers to the Lord Chamberlain and thereby maintains the link between artistic dulness and the powers-that-be; Mengel aregues that the '[contains][subset] could also be taken to be the 'illiterate' Cibber's own signature (Mengel, 770).

9 William's claim that the end of The Dunciad, in Four Books is a serious attempt by Pope to illustrate the onset of a second Dark Age and to show the satanic overtones of the dunces is argued most forcefully by him in the conclusion of his book (p. 158). Both Siebert and Damrosch deny the satanic overtones and argue that Pope is engaging in satire, not prophecy (see Siebert, 210-11 and 219-20; Damrosch, 266). I agree with Griffin's claim that the 'Aristarchus' section presents Cibber as the inverse of an epic hero (436-7), but I do not agree with his Williams-like conclusion that 'When the truth is inverted, the result is demonic' (440).
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Author:Russell, Rick
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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