The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Dunciad by Alexander Pope: The Literary Topography of Eighteenth-Century London, The

  • Przemysław UścińskiEmail author
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The Dunciad, an influential mock-epic satirical poem by Alexander Pope (1688–1744), offers a multifaceted depiction of eighteenth-century London as a place of corruption through the use of grotesquery, satire, irony, and banter. The general aim of all versions of the poem (first version published in 1728, subsequent “Variorum” version in 1729, The Dunciad in Four Books published in 1743) is to ridicule a contemporary culture influenced by the availability of print; the abundance of mediocre authors, greedy booksellers, and pedantic scholars; the corrupting influence of the Whig party; and the omnipresence of financial motivation. All these factors point to the urban environment as important in generating the experience of modernity. In that sense, it is an early poem about the modern city seen as a source of dangerous cultural tendencies, and its account of urbanity is interlaced with its indirect critique of early capitalism, which privileges commercial interests over knowledge and refinement (Brown 1985: 151–156). London is presented as a place of confusion, where people of different classes intermix, causing the degeneration of manners, culture, and poetry in particular (hence the burlesque mixture of the elevated tone and vulgar or grotesque events in Pope’s mock-epic). The poet “intends the urban geography of The Dunciad to signify in a densely allusory and symbolic way,” Brean Hammond observes, so that Pope’s “literary London is both an actual, material city and a transformation of it for particular semiotic purposes” (Hammond 2005: 220–223).

Famously, the poem refers to iconic locations in eighteenth-century London, such as Grub Street (the place metonymically evoking the shabbiness of urban life, especially in case of poor hack writers in London), the sewer of Fleet Ditch (which is ironically associated with the mythological river Lethe – the river of forgetfulness), Smithfield Market (at the time a livestock market and place of slaughter as well as a “dead” meat market, the symbol of “low” commercial activity and, because of the Bartholomew Fair, associated with carnival festivities and vulgar pastimes of the lower orders of society), and Bedlam (the Hospital of St. Mary Bethlehem – the first insane asylum in London, notorious for its poor, inhuman conditions).

London in The Dunciad

The mock-heroic action of the satire reflects the gradual spread of dullness from the city of London in the east (associated with the Grub Street and Smithfield Market) to the more respectable environs of the West End of Hanoverian London (St. James’s, the parish of St. Margaret’s and Westminster). Thus Pope ironically writes:

Let Bawdry, Billingsgate, my daughters dear,

Support his front, and Oaths bring up the rear:

And under his, and under Archer’s wing,

Gaming and Grub-street skulk behind the King. (Pope 2014: 137–138; Book I: ll. 307–310)

Billingsgate stands both for corrupted language in general and, more specifically, the foul language used by the fishwives at Billingsgate fish market. Grub Street is represented in the final versions of the poem by Colley Cibber (1671–1757), who replaces the scholar and playwright Lewis Theobald (1688–1744) as the main “hero” of the poem. Pope belonged to the circle of Tory satirists associated with the Scriblerus Club, which included, among others, Jonathan Swift and John Gay. This is why many persons satirized in the poem are more or less closely associated with Robert Walpole and with the ruling Whig party. Cibber’s career began at the Drury Lane Theatre, where he gradually became a popular comedian, wrote and adapted many plays, and worked as a theater manager. His strong “ties to Walpole and the King, the worlds of playhouse and bookseller,” and the fact that he was appointed Poet Laureate by George II in 1730 makes him an epitome of what Pope saw as the degeneration of polite urban culture and the assault on arts and poetry by careerists from the Grub Street and Drury Lane (Rumbold 2014: 11). The publication of the self-satisfied memoir An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber in 1740 might have been a deciding factor in selecting Cibber for the role of an iconic hack writer and usurper of the polite spheres of contemporary London.

Hence, Pope writes in the invocation: “The Mighty Mother, and her son who brings/The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings,/I sing” (97–98; I: 1–3). The phrase “Smithfield Muse” is itself an “ironic compound of high classical and low grotesque,” since Smithfield refers to both the meat market and the place where Bartholomew Fair, the very popular festive and commercial event, was held; Peter Stallybrass and Allon White note that “after Charles II’s return, Bartholomew Fair was extended from a market officially lasting three days to a fair of two weeks” (Stallybrass and White 1986: 110–11). The opening of the poem thus signals the directions of the aesthetic and socioeconomic critique offered by The Dunciad. Martin Scriblerus (a mock editor invented by Pope, a persona of a pedantic scholar) writes of the action of the poem in his preface that it depicts “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 Aeneid is the restoration of the empire of Troy, by the removal of the race from thence to Latinum” (72). Consequently, the general movement in the poem is westward, with subsequent sights and districts falling prey to corruption, for instance, Covent Garden and the vicinities of the Strand and Drury Lane: “Covent-Garden suffered under the political and social upheaval of the mid-seventeenth-century, the precinct was unable to achieve the aristocratic continuity enjoyed by the later estates in St. James’s and Mayfair. The number of residents who had been granted tithes, or held public office, declined rapidly during the Stuart period as they found more elegant accommodation still further to the west. Their places were taken by tradesmen, artists, and less reputable types.” The neighborhood of Drury Lane, for instance, “took a turn for the worse in 1663 when Theatre Royal opened off Brydges Street” (Pritchard 2012: 536).

Particular significance is given to the Fleet Ditch, a sewer which becomes the site of one of the “Heroic Games” presented in Book II of The Dunciad (in parody of the heroic games organized by Aeneas in Book V of the Aeneid and, to a lesser extent, of the funeral games in honor of Patroclus described in Book XXIII of Homer’s Iliad (Uściński 2016: 131–133)):

This labour past, by Bridewell all descend,

(As morning pray’r, and flagellation end)

To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams

Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,

The King of dykes! (189–191; II: 269–273)

One can contrast this parodic passage with Pope’s serious use of apostrophe and poetic vision in his youthful poem Windsor Forest:

Ye sacred Nine! that all my Soul possess,

Whose Raptures fire me, and whose Visions bless,

Bear me, oh bear me to sequester’d Scenes

The Bow’ry Mazes and surronding Greens;

To Thames’s Banks which fragrant Breezes fill,

Or where ye Muses sport on Cooper’s Hill. (Pope 2008: 56; ll. 259–264)

The “fragrant Breezes” from this early poem become replaced in The Dunciad with the smelly sewer of Fleet Ditch, which “Rolls the wide tribute of dead dogs to Thames” and which metonymically stands for the anti-pastoral presentation of the ragged and polluted London of the first decades of the eighteenth century.

Bedlam is the place where the hero has his prophetic vision in Book III of the poem:

Hence, from the straw where Bedlam’s Prophet nods,

He hears loud Oracles, and talks with Gods.

Hence the Fool’s paradise, the Statesman’s scheme

The air-built Castle, and the golden Dream,

The Maid’s romantic wish, the Chemist’s flame

And Poet’s vision of eternal Fame. (220–221; III: 7–12)

As an insane asylum, Bedlam stands for madness and failed ambition but also the havoc of the city and the irrationality of incessant commercial activity. The scenes parody the prophetic visions in classical epic poetry and in the Old Testament, signaling the demise of humanism, the replacement of traditional values with the incessant pursuit of profit and fame, and the replacement of divine inspiration with the superficiality of commercial activity, science, and mechanized labor.

The major target of satire in The Dunciad is the crowd of poor but aspiring “hack” writers residing in and around the Grub Street. William Makepeace Thackeray credits Pope’s grotesque realism in The Dunciad with the destruction of the myth of literary author: “It was Pope, I fear, who contributed, more than any man who ever lived, to depreciate the literary calling,” he writes, observing that in Pope’s times, “there were great prizes in the profession which had made Addison a Minister, and Prior an Ambassador, and Steele a Commissioner, and Swift all but a bishop.” However, “[t]he profession of letters was ruined by that libel of the ‘Dunciad’. If authors were wretched and poor before, if some of them lived in haylofts, of which their landladies kept their ladders, at least nobody came to disturb them in their straw; if three of them had but one coat between them, the two remained invisible in the garret, the third, at any rate, appeared decently at the coffee-house and paid his twopence like a gentleman. It was Pope that dragged into light all this poverty and meanness” (Thackeray 1942: 178–179). Pope’s reference to “the cave of Poverty and Poetry” in Book I finds its analogy in the very first words of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), the memorable “If Poverty be a title to Poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine” (Gay 1986: 41). Both remarks reflect the contempt on the part of Scriblerian authors toward the masses of aspiring Grub Street writers. Since the new cast of the “professional” poets, journalists, and editors are driven by “hunger” and “thirst,” they must, in Pope’s view, prefer “solid pudding” to “empty praise” (105; I: 55). It is primarily the reifying forces of the market that destroy the literary calling, transforming its uniqueness into yet another branch of mechanized industry driven by profit: “Poetic Justice, with her lifted scale,/Where, in nice balance, truth with gold she weighs” (105; I: 53–54: Pope 105). The greed of the dunces and the logic of the market destroy the distinctions of taste and the hierarchy of true talent and learning.

London in The Dunciad is thus presented as a metropolis where commercial activity and the influx of the poor contribute to its havoc and confusion, where the spread of print and bookselling contributes to the demise of polite learning, where politics brings corruption and popular street culture replaces refinement and respectability. London is occasionally linked even with Miltonic Hell through allusions to and imitations of Paradise Lost. London is also linked to pretense and false appearances, to theatricality, and to theater (and pantomime) as popular low entertainments corrupting the taste of Londoners. The ending of the poem evokes the notion of anarchy when it lets the curtain fall, as if thus ending an absurd, anti-utopian performance of madness and disorder:

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And universal Darkness buries All. (Book IV, ll. 651–656: Pope 360.


Pope’s satire is based on wit and irony, it is carnivalesque in its reversal of epic motifs (unlike the Aeneid with respect to Rome, it debases London, positing it as an ending point of civilization, a site of its ruin). Despite its playfully sardonic tone and boldly grotesque imagery, however, the poem is usually read as largely conservative, indicative of Pope’s elitist views on culture and poetry. It sees modernity and London as threats because both contradict his neoclassical insistence on order, harmony, and hierarchy. While some satiric portrayals are both acute and largely accurate in exposing vice, pretense, and hypocrisy, Pope’s severe castigation of Lewis Theobald, for instance, can be largely dismissed as propelled by personal revenge.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WarsawWarsawPoland