The Dunciad: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:01 Pope Addresses the…
  • 0:41 Historical Context & Themes
  • 2:11 Poem Summary
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: William Minor

Will Minor has taught for several years and has a master's degree in literature.

'The Dunciad' is a poem written by Alexander Pope that was published in various forms from 1728 to 1743. It satirizes Pope's enemies in the literary world and also details what Pope thinks is wrong with the art of his time.

Pope Addresses the Changing Times

Kids these days. They're on their smartphones all day long, never going outside or reading a book. You get the idea.

This complaint is as old as the hills. Almost 300 years ago, the English poet Alexander Pope was saying the same thing about the state of society. Except, instead of the smart-phone, he had his trousers in a twist over an invention that was just starting to come into its own in England: the printing press.

He addressed his frustrations in his epic poem The Dunciad, which was published in 1728. Its title is a pun on the ancient poems The Iliad by Homer, and The Aeniad by Virgil.

Historical Context and Themes

The Dunciad is written in heroic couplet, meaning every two lines rhyme (the 'couplet') and every line has ten syllables. This style is often used for narratives that have an epic scope. The poem has four books, the first three being published in 1728, and the fourth in 1743. The books are loosely connected, each taking place in a different setting, with little narrative cohesion from one to the next.

Pope used the heroic couplet because he was an absolute purist when it came to art; he wasn't interested in breaking from those who had come before him. His style was heavily indebted to the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and his writing overflows with references to these cultures.

This brings us back to the printing press, which was one of the greatest dangers he saw to this tradition - and to a well-educated gentleman like himself. The printing press ushered in a situation not unlike what we see today with the Internet. The number of people who figured they could, or should be artists, sky-rocketed. Pope was aghast at this turn of events. Art was supposed to be for the elites, not the masses.

Thanks to the printing press, the audience for art increased mightily. These new customers didn't want stuffy heroic poetry like Pope wrote; they wanted to be entertained. Even worse, there were many new writers willing to give the masses the entertainment they desired - writers who only cared about the money. They were, in effect, artistic mercenaries.

Poem Summary

The Dunciad is primarily a satire of hack artists - those who wrote anything for money and who possessed not a scrap of artistic integrity. The basic idea of the poem can be boiled down to: 'stupidity conquers all'. While there are comic moments in the poem (especially in Book II), the tone is generally very bitter.

The 'hero' of the poem is Colley Cibber, a man, who like every character in the poem, was based on a person that Pope knew. Cibber was something like the Jim Carrey of Pope's time. A wildly popular comic actor, beloved by the masses and scorned by the artistic elite.

Cibber represented everything that Pope believed was wrong with art, and so it's no surprise that in Book I of The Dunciad, he crowns Cibber the 'King of Dulness'. It's Cibber's job to bring darkness to the world. He will snuff out light, reason, and humanity and replace it with ignorance. Greek and Roman poetry out. Dumb entertainment in.

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