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When the first complete and correct edition of the Dunciad was published in quarto, 1729, it consisted of three books; and had for its hero Tibbald, a cold, plodding, and tasteless writer and critic, who, with great propriety, was chosen, on the death of Settle, by the Goddess of Dulness, to be the chief instrument of that great work which was the subject of the poem; namely, “ the introduction (as our author expresses it) of the lowest diversions of the rabble of Smithfield, to be the entertainment of the court and town; the action of the Dunciad being the removal of the imperial seat of Dulness from the city to the polite world; as that of the Æneid is the removal of the empire of Troy to Latium.” This was the primary subject of the pièce. Our author adds, “ As Homer, singing only the wrath of Achilles, yet includes in his poem the whole history of the Trojan war, in like manner our poet hath drawn into this single action the whole history of Dulness and her children. To this end, she is represented, at the very opening of the poem, taking a view of her forces, which are distinguished into these three kinds, partywriters, dull poets, and wild critics. A person must be fixed upon to support this action, who (to agree with the design) must be such a one as is capable of being all three. This phantom in the poet's mind must have a name. He seeks for one who hath been concerned in the journals, written bad plays or poems, and published low criticisms. He finds his name to be Tibbald, and he becomes of course the hero of the poem.”
This design is carried on, in the first book, by a description of the Goddess fixing her eye on Tibbald ; who, on the evening of a Lord Mayor's day, is represented as sitting pensively in his study, and apprehending the period of her empire, from the old age of the present monarch Settle; and also by an account of a sacrifice he makes of his unsuccessful works; of the Goddess's revealing herself to him, announcing the death of Settle that night, anointing and proclaiming him successor. It is carried on in the second book, by a description of the various games instituted in honour of the new king, in which booksellers, poets, and critics, contend. This design is, lastly, completed in the third book, by the Goddess's transporting the new king to her temple, laying him in a deep slumber on her lap, and conveying him in a vision to the banks of Lethe, where he meets with the ghost of his predecessor Settle; who, in a speech that begins at line 35, to almost the end of the book, shews him the past triumphs of the
empire of Dulness, then the present, and lastly the future: enumerating particularly by what aids, and by what persons, Great Britain shall be forthwith brought to her empire, and prophesying how first the nation shall be overrun with farces, operas, shows; and the throne of Dulness advanced over both the theatres: then, how her sons shall preside in the seats of arts and sciences; till in conclusion, all shall return to their original chaos. On hearing which,
Enough! enough! the raptur'd Monarch cries;
And through the Iv'ry Gate the Vision flies. With which words, the design above recited being perfected, the poem concludes. Thus far all was clear, consistent, and of a piece: and was delivered in such nervous and spirited versification, that the delighted reader had only to lament that so many poetical beauties were thrown away on such dirty and despicable subjects, as were the scribblers here proscribed ; who appear like monsters preserved in the most costly spirits. But in the year 1742, our poet was persuaded by Dr. Warburton, unhappily enough, to add a fourth book to his finished piece, of such a very different cast and colour, as to render it at last one of the most motley compositions, that perhaps is any where to be found in the works of so exact a writer as Pope. For one great purpose of this fourth book (where, by the way, the hero does nothing at all) was to satirize and proscribe infidels and freethinkers, to leave the ludicrous for the serious, Grub-street for theology, the mock-heroic for metaphysics : which occasioned a marvellous mixture and jumble of images and sentiments, pantomine and philosophy, journals and moral evidence, Fleet-ditch and the High Priori road, Curl and Clarke.—To ridicule our petulant libertines, and affected minute philosophers, was doubtless a most laudable intention ; but speaking of the Dunciad as a work of art, in a critical not a religious light, I must venture to affirm, that the subject of this fourth book was foreign and heterogeneous, and the addition of it as injudicious, ill-placed, and incongruous, as any of those dissimilar images we meet with in Pulci or Ariosto. It is like introducing a crucifix into one of Teniers's burlesque conversation-pieces. Some of his most splendid and striking lines are indeed here to be found; but I must beg leave to insist, that they want propriety and decorum, and must wish they had adorned some separate work against irreligion, which would have been worthy the pen of our bitter and immortal satirist.
But neither was this the only alteration the Dunciad was
destined to undergo. For in the year 1743, our Author, enraged with Cibber (whom he had usually treated with contempt ever since the affair of Three Hours after Marriage) for publishing a ridiculous pamphlet against him, dethroned Tibbald, and made the laureat the hero of his poem. Cibber, with a great stock of levity, vanity, and affectation, had sense, and wit, and humour: and the author of the Careless Husband, was by no means a proper king of the dunces. “ His treatise on the stage (says Mr. Walpole) is inimitable : where an author writes on his own profession, feels it profoundly, and is sensible his readers do not, he is not only excusable, but meritorious, for illuminating the subject by new metaphors, on bolder figures than ordinary. He is the coxcomb that sneers, not he that instructs by appropriated diction.” The consequence of this alteration
many lines, which exactly suited the heavy character of Tibbald, lost all their grace and propriety when applied to Cibber. Such as,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound ! Such also is the description of his Gothic library, for Cibber troubled not himself with Caxton, Wynkyn, and De Lyra. Tibbald, who was an antiquarian, had collected these curious old writers: and to slumber in the Goddess's lap was adapted to his stupidity, not to the vivacity of his successor.
On the whole, the chief fault of the Dunciad, is the violence and vehemence of its satire, and the excessive height to which it is carried; and which therefore I may compare to that marvellous column of boiling water, near Mount Hecla in Iceland, thrown upwards, above ninety feet, by the force of a subterraneous fire. What are the impressions left upon the mind after the perusal of this poem? Contempt, aversion, vexation, and anger. No sentiments that enlarge, ennoble, move, or mend, the heart! Insomuch that I know a person, whos name would be an ornament to these papers, if I was suffered to insert it, who, after reading a book of the Dunciad, always soothes himself, as he calls it, by turning to a canto in the Fairy Queen. This is not the case in that very delightful and beautiful poem, Mac Fleckno, from which Pope has borrowed so many hints, and images, and ideas. But Dryden's poem was the offspring of contempt, and Pope's of indignation; one is full of mirth, and the other of malignity. A vein of pleasantry is uniformly preserved through the whole of Mac Fleckno, and the piece begins and ends in the same key. It is natural and obvious to borrow a metaphor from music, when we are speaking of a poem whose versification is particularly and
exquisitely sweet and harmonious. The numbers of the Dunciad, by being much laboured, and encumbered with epithets, have something in them of stiffness and harshness. Since the total decay of learning and genius was foretold in the Dunciad, how many very excellent pieces of Criticism, Poetry, History, Philosophy, and Divinity, have appeared in this country, and to what a degree of perfection has almost every art, either useful or elegant, been carried !