Pope and the Critics in The Dunciad

The Dunciad
The Dunciad

In Book IV of Pope’s The Dunciad, Pope addresses the critics who fixate upon minor issues in poetry and literature, and who use those issues as a means of approaching knowledge of the whole work. Following on the Master Class in editions in which we participated several weeks ago, this seems particularly poignant. After all, an edition is necessarily focused upon issues of the smallest scale: the spelling of shirt or skirt, for example, can change not only the sense (or non-sense) of a sentence, but can paint an entirely different picture of the mood of the setting (i.e. whether Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lifted her shirt or her skirt to the Turkish ladies, there is a difference in what is implied by each).

Pope’s censure of the work of the critics is based upon the smallness of focus, and hence, extrapolating from that, a smallness of vision:

‘T is 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.
The critic eye, that microscope of wit,
Sees hairs and pores, examines bit by bit.
How parts relate to parts, or they to whole,
The Body’s harmony, the beaming Soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burman, Wasse shall see;
When man’s whole frame is obvious to a flea. (ll. 219-222, 233-237)

Pope’s argument here is that the whole work–or, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the whole work–is more significant than the sum of its various parts. Pope’s own critical approach seems to support this: his edition of Shakespeare was not very good, and came in for a great deal of criticism from literary peers like Lewis Theobald (who was, instead of Cibber, lampooned as the dunce-king in the first editions of The Dunciad). Pope certainly defended his work; he thought his retouching of Shakespeare’s lines was justified, though he may have found the bad readings and textual errors somewhat more difficult to explain away.

Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope

This is not to suggest that the above passage is motivated wholly by Pope’s seemingly boundless capacity for vidictiveness, but rather to show that Pope’s own approach to poetry–broad-brush, and based upon an impression of’the spirit of the wor’–is one entirely at odds with the small-scale exactness to detail which the German critics Kuster, Burman, and Wasse might have demanded. For Pope, the fixation upon detail risked a flea-like view of the world: an inability to see what one was actually dealing with. In The Dunciad, the implication is that the German critics will never see “The Body’s harmony” or “the beaming soul”, because a flea cannot see the wholeness of man. Rather, the insect navigates the trees and forests of hair upon flesh, never realising that it dwells upon a creature of sublime and seemingly unparalleled invention.

Pope’s flea metaphor is an apt one, and the use of the humorously barbed ‘microscrope of wit’ serves a similar sharp function. The exactness or the correctness of the critics is never at issue; Pope does not deny that they are “right” about what they argue. But what he does affirm is that the argument itself is wrong: it is the wrong argument about literature in general. Far better that we should argue about the meaning of the whole, rather than about the meaning of a word. For in arguing about the minor issues, we lose sight of what is actually at stake: soul and harmony.

But in so arguing, Pope himself has lost sight of an important reality: that all great works are works of individual constructions, and that those constructions are comprised themselves of words, punctuation, and syntax. So it is quite possible that a single word could very much affect the meaning of the whole, as in the case of the example above taken from the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. After all, if individual words were not significant, then any arrangement of words could suffice, and Shakespeare would be no different than a collection of nouns and verbs chosen, at random, from a dictionary. And, of course, it seems impossible that Pope would disagree–and perhaps he would not. But the extremity of The Dunciad is precisely what obscures any sort of moderation that he might argue for. If his dunces are wholly and impossibly obtuse, the implied lessons taken from them seem equaly extreme in the absence of their vocalisation.

Of course, this critique of Pope may be rich sauce coming from one of his accused, who approach the works of the great poets and think,

Turn what they will to verse, their toil is vain,
Critics like me shall make it prose again. (ll. 213-214)