Here is the poetry reviewed:
In vain, in vain—the all-composing hour
Resistless falls; the Muse obeys the power.
She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old! 630
Before her Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain, 635
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes, by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night. 640
See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence, 645
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires. 650
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; 655
And universal Darkness buries all.
And here is the review:
English 341, literary analysis:
Prophet Without Honour
Alexander Pope was indubitably an heir of the great metaphysical poets, such as Donne, Herbert, Marvel and others, but his mind and writings leant far, far back to the great and ancient epic works of Homer, Horace, Vergil, Juvenal and their like. Erudite as Eliot, prescient as a Puritan and disdainful as a Duke, Pope was famed for his impatience even more than for his genius, and one of the surest—if least pleasant ways—of achieving immortality was to prick his vanity with a pin. As a result of this, and of being born in a time when character was at least as interesting as creation, his person often overshadowed his poetry, and this is something that our generation of readers and critics, with all our hindsight, hasn’t managed to shake. So we often tend to see The Dunciad as a diatribe, rather than a prophecy or social critique, and Pope merely as a savage little monster, rather than a seer or social philosopher. Which is all fine and dandy, save that it truncates our view like inverted blinders on a horse: we see the sides, but not the front; we see the scenery, but not where we’re going; we see the mockery, but not the point. We miss out on so, so much of his purpose when we view The Dunciad as a personal poem instead of what I will maintain that it truly is.
The Dunciad was not aimed at his critics and personal enemies, not even at Lewis Theobald, King of the Dunces (who entitled his Shakespeare Restored with the somewhat insensitive full title of Shakespeare restored, or, A specimen of the many errors, as well committed, as unamended, by Mr. Pope: in his late edition of this poet. Designed not only to correct the said edition, but to restore the true reading of Shakespeare in all the editions ever yet published), whose edition of Shakespeare was actually better than Pope’s. No, The Dunciad was written primarily as a eulogy for what we call the age of Renaissance literature in England, and a foretelling and critique of the movement that was growing up to replace it (although the medium was entirely suited to Pope’s endless quest to have the last word in any argument). I’ll only be dealing with the latter portion: the prophecy and critique.
But to see the general, broad sweep of his argument, we first have to dissociate it from the pointed personal aim in his argument. Otherwise we have the two aspects of Pope’s poem blended: first, to humiliate his enemies (personal), and second, to state where the new movement, the (at the time) “modern” movement would lead.
So, here’s for the personal first. Pope completed his first version of The Dunciad in 1729 when he was 41, but it was a full fourteen years before he was finished tinkering with it, and he died the year after his final publication. However, he continually changed the King of the Dunces, so the poem transcended at least this character: the character came and went, but the poem remained. Yet he was bitterly disappointed by this time of his life. Long since dead was his (alleged) affection for Lady Montagu. His love for Martha Blount is doubtlessly somewhat embellished by overzealous authors—biography, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and there is no exiguity of events that cannot be filled by sufficient suppositions of fancy—but we know that he did say she had “wit, good humour and a poet;” he did bequeath her 1,000 pounds, sixty books and more; we know that he almost certainly did love her. But even the wildest speculation has never construed her feelings as anything beyond benevolent indifference. So he was disappointed in his hopes for marriage at least twice, and was left with but two lasting impressions to leave: poetry and a grave. So he was surely looking to leave something meaningful behind, and this is another aspect of the man’s genius: in all of his terse vitriolic tirades, he never lost his view of the transcendent.
By his final publication of The Dunciad, he had lost all of his literary allies (who were also dear friends): he had buried Parnell in another life, back in 1718, John Gay in 1732, Dr. Arbuthnot in 1735, and he had watched both Atterbury and Swift go into exile (Swift’s was self-imposed). The already savagely embittered Pope found himself alone among enemies, and among the last of the rearguard still resisting the artistic innovations being birthed all around him. The Renaissance was waning, the rebirth of the epics of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Juvenal and their ilk; ink of Voltaire and Hume, Walpole and Johnson, Rousseau and Kant was either still wet on the page or the quill. The world was rapidly changing, and the great satirists were dying out (Swift would follow Pope in less than a year). It was not yet the era of the Romantic poets, who would so fully repudiate the indisputable genius of Pope as to debate whether he could even be considered a poet, but that age was dawning as Pope’s was “dying with a dying fall,” and one perceptive as Pope could not help but notice.
So what did he write in this, his final work? He bestows uncomfortable immortality upon his enemies—we generally wouldn’t even know of them outside of his tribute to their idiocy (take heed to the caliber of your competitor: here a man’s entire life consists of a Norton Anthology footnote explaining that he was an ass)—so he has truly succeeded: he got the last word. There is no denying that the machine-gun rhythm of names dotting, even peppering the page is a great part of the work, and a great reason for its composition. But this is Pope simply enjoying himself. The overarching theme is the effect of what Pope views as the “movement of the new,” and that, to Pope’s mind, is the death of not only literature, but all art, and not only art, but an entire culture: art, truth, philosophy, science, mystery, religion and morality.
For a demonstration of this, look at his conclusion on page 2565 in our Norton Anthology, lines 629, 630, 639, 640: “the sable throne behold / Of night primeval, and of Chaos old! ... Thus at her felt approach, and secret might, / Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.” He then goes on to describe the individual effects of this “modern” movement as opposed to his classical approach in lines 641-656 (which I’ll here review, but not quote, in their entirety): stark Truth is buried beneath convoluted sophistry—Plato’s Gorgias was a lesson he didn’t think this new age had learned; Boethius’ lovely, sing-song Consolations of Philosophy is obviated: instead of the assumption of God as a foundation, and the derivation of “how should we then live” from that solid platform, he sees that the ponderous weight of philosophy has dispensed with the platform and is attempting to levitate: Philosophy, which has to stand somewhere in order to get anywhere, is no longer accepting God as the “Uncaused Cause,” but is attempting to decipher the world from our senses alone (“And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!”). Hume’s decimation of the inductive principle is the result of this. Or is it? (Bad joke.)
He then turns to the attempt to explain “Mystery,” the unexplained, by a reliance on math. Looking back at an age that produced Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Godel and innumerable others, as well as the greatest geometrical breakthrough in two and a half millennia—demonstrating that Euclid’s postulate—for any line “A” and a point “B” not on that line, one and only one line parallel to “A” may be drawn through point “B”—that this postulate was actually false, leading to Lobachevskian Geometry and Reimannian Geometry—I would say that this was as close to a prophet as you can get without falling into his beard.
The final vestige of the old world that he sees falling is religion, and with it morality: both in public and in private the religious are ashamed or simply afraid. In this his genius is expressed to a breathtaking extreme: not only did he say what the result would be, but he also got the order right, and here we are, living in two couplets of his poem, of his prophecy. Religion has not so much fallen as it has begun to saunter vaguely downwards—although we do have a new generation of what must simply be called militant atheists: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al, and they are all from religious families. But the Christian / Catholic religion that Pope spoke of still stands, and with it Christian / Catholic morality, though again, they are in a rapid decline.
Of this there cannot be doubt: Pope is vindicated. 250 years ago this brilliant, mordant and vicious little beast, this little monster, told us in explicit detail what would happen, and it is now happening. The Judeo-Christian order that Pope spoke of—the one that ruled the world, that founded Christendom and overshadowed all of Europe, as well as huge chunks of Asia and Africa, for two millenia—that order has never been in such disfavour or in such decline in England, Europe and America as it is now.
The question should then arise: what happens next?
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.