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Objections to Pope’s obscenity and character assassination

Objections to Pope’s obscenity and character assassination

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222 POPE

his own House, rather than not enjoy the pitiful Pleasure of aspersing with

Impunity, Persons, all of them better Members of the Community than himself,

and many of them of a much higher Rank in Life than he must ever pretend to; who

can only derive a Mock Title, not from his Ancestors, but his Shoulders. In his

first Edition he had traduc’d certain Characters, for which every one has always

had the utmost Veneration, and thinks now, by leaving out the Names of some,

and falsly filling up the Blanks of others, as well as by absconding for a Time, to

escape the Stripes that ought to be the just Reward of such Writings. How

monstrous therefore has it been, to insinuate, that they have reach’d a Presence,

where Good Nature, Truth, and Humanity only can be graciously receiv’d or

encourag’d; the Reverse whereof are the Characteristicks of the Dunciad?

I am sensible that the Retailers in Scandal have always endeavour’d to pass

upon the World by the laudable Appellation of Satyrists, and would take Shelter

under the great Names of Horace, Juvenal, and Boileau. Not considering, that

these Precedents will never be to their Purpose; those generous Correctors of

Vice, never attack’d Persons, but Errors, nor ever expos’d the private Character,

but the publick Appearance of Men, at the same Time taking especial Care to pay

the strictest Regard to Truth, even while the Scourge was in their Hands; and

therefore, Boileau, in his own Vindication, speaking of Chapelain, who was a

bad Poet, says,

En blamant ses ecrits, ai je d’un Style Affreux

Distillé sur sa Vie un Venin Dangereux.1

I must likewise inform this half-learned Tribe, that the Codrus of Juvenal, which

these abusive Writers so often quote for their Justifica-tion, was no real Person,

but a Name design’d in general to signify any bad Poet.

True and just Satyr will always have its Weight; Scandal will always be

condemn’d: The one is beneficial to Society, the other is detrimental to it.

Whensoever a Man has taken upon himself the Profession of any Art of Science,

by Writing, or otherwise, he has certainly submitted his Talents therein to the

Judgment of the World. A Writer therefore, who in that Art or Science, consistent

with good Manners, exposes the Defects of his Fellow Writer, be it by Ridicule

or Argument, is guilty of nothing that is blameable, but rather does a Praiseworthy Action, by endeavouring to rectify the Judgments of Men, and prevent

Pretenders to Science from imposing on the Publick. The censuring an Author

then, only as such, is what every Man has a Right to do, from the Moment he

appears in Print, Hanc Veniam petimusq; Damusq; vicissim.2 But under this

Pretext to attack his private Reputation, as a Member of Society, must be the

Result of the same villainous Principles, as would lead a Man to be guilty of

Robbery or Murder, had he Courage enough for the Road. The Civil Magistrate

alone has a Right to enquire into Mens Personal Characters, and if they deserve

it, to expose and punish them: And it seems but just, that this Authority should


be vested solely in him, since no one else can, with any Certainty, be inform’d of

what passes in private Life.

The Predecessors of the Writer of the Dunciad, the elaborate Authors of

Grubstreet, have frequently transgress’d this equitable Rule, and finding too

general a Propensity towards enquiring into the Blemishes of (otherwise) Great

Characters, have sometimes been pretty liberal of their Personal Reflections, in

order to render their several Dunciads the more Saleable: Yet these Men had at

least so much Decency, as to do this under feign’d Names, or by pointing at

Persons only by their initial Letters, which were lyable to various Readings.

Thus, whilst the Obscurity of their Scandal screen’d them from Punishment,

their very Proceeding was a tacit Confession of the Guilt of such Invectives. But

it was doubtless reserv’d for the Modest Author of the Dunciad to invent the Ne

plus ultra of Scandal, by calling Men, every Way his Superiors, Rogues,

Blockheads, Drunkards, and Liars, in Print, with their Names at length, whilst he

suppresses his own, that he may be exempt from the Fear of a very low

Punishment, but to which his Ears seem to be legally intitled.


[Satire, ix. 209–10: ‘In censuring his writings, have I used a hideous style to exude a

dangerous poison onto his life?’]

2 [Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 11: ‘this licence we [poets] claim, and in our turn we grant the



Dennis on The Dunciad

July 1729

John Dennis, extract from Remarks upon Several Passages in the

Preliminaries to the Dunciad…(1729), Critical Works, ii. 358–62.

Dennis’s pamphlet was published on 7 July 1729. After the

publication of The Dunciad (1728) Pope believed (mistakenly) that

Dennis had a hand in the letter to Mist’s Weekly Journal, published 8

June 1728 (No. 52). His response was to attack Dennis in the

‘Testimonies of Authors’ and in the notes of The Dunciad Variorum.

Dennis’s attempt at self-defence, of which only a brief portion is

given here, was his last assault on Pope and his last piece of literary

criticism. He survived, suffering from age and poverty, until 6

January 1734.

I hope [my arguments] will convince his Patrons and his Admirers, who have

purchas’d Scurrility and Nonsense at so dear a Rate, that nothing is more easy

than to give foul Language, but that ’tis Ten times more excusable in Me than it

is in Him; first, because lœsit prior [he attacked first], I only retort the Language

he gave; secondly, because in the Remarks which I formerly made upon the

several Things he has publish’d, I have given such Reasons, why this Language

is his Due, as have convinc’d every sensible impartial Reader, that there is not in

any of those Trifles the least Degree of that Solidity, that Morality, and that good

Sense, which are the Principles and Fountain of all good Writing in Poetry: I

shall pursue the same Method in the Animadversions, which from time to time I

shall send you upon the brutal Duciad; and before I have done with this first

Preliminary, I shall take one Occasion from it, to convince the Reader, that this

bouncing Bully of Parnassus, is nothing but a false Brave, a mere bragging

pretending Empirick, and utterly ignorant of the first Rudiments of an Art which

he has more than Twenty Years professed, and in which he has nothing but

Impudence and Ignorance, and Falshood to support him.

In order to shew this, let us see the Account1 that P[ope] himself gives of his

Duciad. It is stil’d, says he, Heroick, as being doubly so, not only with respect to

its Nature, which according to the best Rules of the Antients, and strictest Ideas

of the Moderns, is critically such; but also with regard to the heroical

POPE 225

Disposition, and high Courage of the Writer, who dar’d to stir up such a

formidable, irritable, and implacable Race of Mortals.

Thus P[ope] all at once makes himself the Hero of his wonderful Rhapsody,

and stiles his Folly, his Impudence, his Insolence, and his want of Capacity to

discern and to distinguish, high Courage; for want of which Capacity, he must be

told, that a Bully is of all Mortals, the most Foolish, the most Impudent, and the

most Insolent, but at the same time Cowardly. And here, Sir, give me leave to

observe what the scandalous Chronicle reports, That as soon as the Rhapsody was

publish’d, P[ope] never dar’d to appear without a tall Irishman attending him,

who is so inseparable from him, that one would swear that he owes his Wit as

well as his Courage to him.

But there is now a Necessity for going back a little: The Duciad, says P[ope],

is stiled Heroick with respect to its Nature, which, according to the best Rules of

the Antients, and strictest Ideas of the Moderns, is critically such. Here then let us

see what the Proposition of every Epick Poem, whether Serious and Real, or

Mock and Ridiculous, ought to be; and then whether P[ope]’s Proposition is

agreeable to it.

The Proposition of an Epick Poem, says Bossu, is that first Part of the Poem,

in which the Author proposes briefly, and in general, what he designs to say in

the Body of his Work; in which there are two Things to be considered, the one is

what the Poet proposes, and the other is the Manner of his proposing it.

The Proposition, continues he, ought to contain the Matter of the Poem only;

that is to say, the Action of it, and the Persons who execute that Action, whether

those Persons are Divine or Human: We find all that in the Iliad, in the Odysses,

and in the Ỉneid.

The Action that Homer proposes to sing in the Iliad, is the Revenge that

Achilles takes for the Affront that is offered him; that of the Odysses is the

Return of Ulysses to Ithaca; and that of the Ỉneid, is the Empire of Troy

transferred by Ỉneas to Italy.

We ought not to suffer ourselves to be surprized by the Expression o/Homer in

the Beginning of his Iliad, where he says that he sings the pernicious Wrath of

Achilles, nor believe that he proposes that Wrath as the Subject of his Poem: At

that rate he could not relate an Action to his Reader, but a Passion; We ought not

to stop there, since he himself has not stopp’d there. He tells us, that he sings the

Wrath which caus’d the Greeks to suffer such mighty Losses, and was the Death

of so many Heroes. He proposes then an Action, and not a simple Passion for the

Matter of his Poem; and that Action is, as we said before, the Revenge that

Achilles takes for the Affront that is offered him.

Thus in the other two Poems, they propose at first a Man; but the Propositions

stop not there; they add, that Ulysses suffered very much in his Endeavour to

return into his Country, or that the Design of Ỉea’s Voyage was to establish


[The ‘Account’ is part of the preface to the ‘imperfect’ editions of the 1728 Dunciad]


himself in Italy. Both the one and the other, then, of the two Poets proposes to

sing an Action.1

But so much for serious and real Epick or Heroick Poems. Let us now come to

the Mock and the Comick ones, and we shall find, that this Poem, by changing

its Nature, does not change its Manner. Boileau, who was one of the greatest of

the French Poets, and one of the most judicious of their Criticks, calls his Lutrin,

Poeme Heroique, an Heroical or Epick Poem; and yet in the Proposition to this

Poem, which was designed purely for Pleasantry, he proposes to sing an Action,

as appears by the Proposition itself.

Je Chante les combats, et ce Prelat terrible,

Qui par ses longs Travaux et sa Force invincible,

Dans un illustre Eglise exercant son grand cœur

Fit placer a la fin un Lutrin dans le Chœur.

C’est en vain que le Chantre appuié d’un vain Titre,

Deux fois l’en fit oter par les mains du Chapitre;

De Prelat sur le Banc de son Rival altier

Deux fois le rapportant l’en couvrit tout entier.2

Which in English Prose is thus,

I sing the Combats, and that terrible Prelate, who, by his long Labours, and

his invincible Courage, causing his great Soul to be seen by his Actions, in an

illustrious Church, caused at length a stately Pulpit to be erected in the Choir. In

vain did the Chanter, supported by an empty Title, twice cause it to be taken down

by the Hands of the Chapter; and twice did the Prelate, causing it to be carried

back again, fix it before the Seat of his proud Rival, and covering him, and

hiding him from the Congregation, mortify him severely.

Thus Boileau, in the Proposition to a mock Epick, or Heroick Poem, proposes

to sing an Action; and accordingly entertains the Reader with it…1

Now let us take a short View of P[ope]’s Proposition to his Dunciad; and

after that you will easily judge how far ‘tis Heroick with respect to its Nature,

and how far it is critically such, according to the best Rules of the Antients, and

strictest Ideas of the Moderns.

Books, and the Man, I sing, the first who brings

The Smithfield Muses to the Ears of Kings.

Let us divest it of its Jingle, since Rhyme is of no use to the Nonsense of such

Prose as this, but to render it more ridiculous, and more unintelligible.



[Traité du pöeme epique, III. iii (Paris, 1693), pp. 190–91]

[Le Lutrin, ll. 1–8]

POPE 227

I sing Books, and I sing the Man, the first Man, who carries the Muses

Smithfield to the Ear of Kings.

Thus P[ope] sings Books, and not an Action; and the Author who pretends in

an Epick Poem to sing Books instead of singing an Action, is only qualified to

sing Ballads. And as Nature has begun to qualify him for that melodious

Vocation, by giving him that Face, that Shape, and that Stature; so if Fortune

would but finish what Nature has begun, he would be a Nonpareillo in that

Employment. As he has for several Months last past, been bringing down a

wooden Tempest upon his Carcass, if one Eye and one Leg should suffer

severely by the Storm, which may very well happen, do not you think, Sir, that

his rare Figure would proclaim him the Prince of Ballad Singers, as, by justly

deposing you, he has made himself the King of Dunces?

P[ope] is so far from singing an Action, that there is no such Thing as Action

in his whimsical Rhapsody, unless what proceeds from Dulness, that is, from

Privation; a very pretty Principle of Action, and very worthy of P[ope]’s

Invention! The Thing is divided into Three Books. In the First, instead of Action

there is Description and Declamation. In the Third, instead of Action we have

nothing but a feverish Dream. The Second is made up of Nastiness, Obscenity,

and Absurdity; and is so far from being Part of an Action, that it runs counter to

the Design of the whole Thing, if there could be any Design in it; for Vigour of

Action can never proceed from Dulness, though it may from Madness. The Hero

of the Piece does nothing at all, and never speaks but once, unless it be half a

Line in the Third Book. In the First Book, indeed, he offers to burn his Works,

but is hinder’d by the Goddess: Now those Works are either Good or Bad; if they

are Good, they render him incapable of being King of the Dunces; if they are

Bad, the Offer to burn them shews his Judgment, and Judgment must be always

contrary to Dulness, otherwise P[ope] would be the brightest Creature that ever

God made.

Whether an Epick Poem, is grave or mock Epick, the Action must have

Probability in all its Parts: Both antient and modern Criticks agree in this.

Ficta voluptatis causâ sint proxima veris,1

says Horace; Let every Thing that is invented to give the Reader Pleasure, be

attended with Probability: Nay, Boileau makes Probability more necessary than

Truth itself, as several of the Antients and Moderns have likewise done.

Jamais au spectateur n’offrez rien d’incroyable,

Le vrai peut quelque fois n’etre pas vraisemblable.

Une merveille absurde est pour moy sans appas,

L’esprit n’est point emu de ce qu’il ne croit pas.2


[Dennis has a paragraph here to show that Butler’s Hudibras also ‘kings’ an ‘action’]


Never offer any thing that is incredible either to the Reader or the

Spectator. Truth sometimes may not have Probability. That which is

absurd, at the same Time that ‘tis wonderful, has no Charms for me. The

Soul is never mov’d with that which it does not believe.

And the Reason that he gives for this is very solid, viz. Truth may sometimes

have the Appearance of a Lye, but Probability has always the Appearance of

Truth. And this mock Probability, Butler in his Hudibras, and Boileau in his

Lutrin, have preserved inviolably. But what Probability is there in P[ope]’s

Rhapsody? What Probability in the Games which take up a third Part of the

Piece? Is it not monstrous to imagine any Thing like that in the Master Street of a

populous City; a Street eternally crowded with Carriages, Carts, Coaches,

Chairs, and Men passing in the greatest Hurry about Private and Publick Affairs?

What Probability in that noble Invention of Fleet Ditch, which, besides its

Extravagancy, and its Stupidity, shews the nasty Soul of the Author?

Immodest Words admit of no Defence,

For want of Decency, is want of Sense.

For all that is said there, must be excessively shocking to all Men of common

Sense, as shewing want of Respect to the Reader, as much as to the Authors

mentioned there. Every Man of good Breeding, as well as good Sense, must be

mov’d with Indignation,

At bawling Infamy, with Language base.1




[Horace, Ars Poetica, 1. 338: ‘Fictions meant to please should be close to the real.’]

[Boileau, Art poétique, iii. 47–50]


The Dunciad beneath Pope’s dignity

August 1729

Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, extract from a letter to his

son-in-law, William Morice, 3–14 August, The Epistolary

Correspondence…of…Francis Atterbury, D.D., ed. J.Nichol (1783–

7), iv. 136–8.

I find many are of my sentiment with regard to the Dunciad, and think the writer

has engaged himself in a very improper and troublesome scuffle, not worthy of

his pen at all, which was designed for greater purposes. Nor can all the good

poetry in those three cantos make amends for the trouble and teasing they will

occasion to him. Tell him so, directly, in my name; and tell him, that what I say

proceeds from tender regard I have for every thing that concerns him. I find by Mist,

2 that Pope will be pursued with all the little spite of which that set of poor creatures

is capable;—and that they will endeavour to hurt him chiefly upon the head of

good-nature and probity; allowing him all kind of advantages in poetry.



[Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, Essay on Translated Verse (1684), ll. 113–14]

[That is, the attacks on Pope in Mist’ s Weekly Journal. For an example see No. 52]


Jacob supports Dennis

December 1729

Giles Jacob, extract from a letter to John Dennis, 18 December 1729,

printed in The Mirrour: or, Letters Satyrical, Panegyrical, Serious,

and Humorous, on the Present Times…(1733), pp. 7–9. For Jacob’s

earlier praise of Pope, see No. 6a.

…SINCE the famous Mr. Pope’s malevolent Treatment of other Persons arises

from his Vanity, I’ll endeavour to lay open and discover to him and his Readers

what it is he has to be vain of. As to his Person, there can be nothing seen there

in the most flattering Mirror to highten his Self-Opinion, but, on the contrary, to

humble and mortify him: So that it is from his Mind alone, whence this Source

of Vanity essentially springs; and as his Body is so very unpromising a Figure,

his Mind should be rare and excellent indeed to lift him to that Pitch of Pride

which he hath lately so eminently display’d.

Now I am come to the Mind of this Poet, or rather his Productions which shew

it. Is there in his Windsor Forest, Temple of Fame, Rape of the Lock, Essay on

Criticism, or any of his other Poems, on a strict Examination, the least

Appearance of that—

Mens Divinior atque Os—Magna Sonaturum1

described by Horace, and which Spenser, Milton, Cowley, Dryden, Prior, and

some others of our famous Countrymen, have, in great Measure, come up to? Or

is there any Thing appears in the Poetry of Mr. Pope, but either the most trifling

Imitation of celebrated Poets; or smooth flowing Words and jingling Rhime,

adapted to the Ear only? Or, in short, is there in his Poems any Thing but

sinnewless Versification, and sonorous Nonsense? If this be the Truth of the

Case, that he hath not the Sublimity of a great Writer; pray what hath he to boast

of? I fear little else but his Impudence!


[Sat., I. iv. 43–4: ‘soul divine and tongue of noble utterance’]


AND I know of no Instance of his Mens Divinior, &c. unless he has luckily hit

upon it in the following Lines in Book the Second of his Dunciad:

As oil’d with magick Juices for the Course,

Renew d by Ordure’s sympathetick Force,

Vigorous he rises, from th’ Effluvia strong

Imbibes new Life, and scours and stinks along.

[The Dunciad (A):ii. 95–8]1

These inimitable Verses on one of his Booksellers in the filthy Race after John Gay

and divers other Authors, are a sufficient Example and Testimony of the

Sublimity of this Poet’s Genius, his Fire, and his Judgment.

IF Mr. Pope has nothing that is excellent in his Qualifications, but hath an

evident Deficiency of good Sense and Judgment, he must inevitably submit to

the glorious Character which he so liberally confers on others. For that Poet, be his

Numbers ever so flowing, who shews an Impotency of Sense in every Thing he

does, can certainly, at best, be no other than a bright Son of his Goddess of

Dulness: And in his Defence of himself, and his Notes to his Dunciad, he is so

intollerably dull that he is writing to Children, or his Readers must infallibly take

him for a Child.

ALL this and more you have prov’d upon Pope in your excellent Remarks

[upon…the Dunciad],2 in which you have likewise, with the utmost Justice,

defended your Reputation against the extraordinary Efforts of his impotent

Malice. As for my self, notwithstanding the Abuse of me by this Poet, I doubt

not but it will be confess’d that my Writings in their Way are more useful and

beneficial to the World, and of consequence more likely to last longer, than the

idle nonsensical Poems and maim’d Translations of Mr. Alexander Pope: And if

so, I shall stand justified in the Opinion of all Men of Sense.



[Jacob has transposed the first two lines]

[See No. 56 above]


Walter Harte defends Pope’s satire


Walter Harte, extracts from An Essay on Satire, Particularly on the

Dunciad (1730), pp. 5–23, 37. Reprinted Augustan Reprint Society,

no. 132 (Los Angeles, 1968), ed. T.B.Gilmore. The poem was

actually published 7–14 January 1731.

Harte (1709–74), who was only twenty-one, had already published

his Poems on Several Occasions (1727), which Pope himself had

corrected (Corresp., ii. 430n.). He was a friend of the Rev. Joseph

Spence, who had praised Pope’s Odyssey (Nos 49–50). Harte’s Essay

is an important statement of a neoclassical theory of satire

sympathetic to Pope’s practice (see Introduction, p. 6). It begins with

an account of the history and development of satire, and culminates

in a defence of The Dunciad. For a further piece by Harte, see No.


T’Exalt the Soul, or make the Heart sincere,

To arm our Lives with honesty severe,

To shake the wretch beyond the reach of Law,

Deter the young, and touch the bold with awe,

To raise the fal’n, to hear the sufferer’s cries,

And sanctify the virtues of the wise,

Old Satire rose from Probity of mind,

The noblest Ethicks to reform mankind.

As Cynthia’s Orb excels the gems of night:

So Epic Satire shines distinctly bright.

Here Genius lives, and strength in every part,

And lights and shades, and fancy fix’d by art.

A second beauty in its nature lies,

It gives not Things, but Beings to our eyes,

Life, Substance, Spirit animate the whole;

Fiction and Fable are the Sense and Soul.

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