Many critics have characterized Alexander Pope’s mock epic poem The Dunciad as the quintessential embodiment of Augustan poetry wit and satire. The poem, which was published in two forms, is a scathing indictment of what Pope saw as the encroaching intellectual paralysis that was overtaking eighteenth century British life. In the poem, a goddess-like figure known as Dulness imposes her stultifying spell over literary and intellectual culture . Many of the top literary and intellectual figures of the day were skewered mercilessly in the poem, with each edition focusing the primary force of its satire at one individual who Pope viewed as presenting the biggest threat to the vivacity of literary culture.
In the first edition, that figure was Lewis Theobald, with whom Pope was in contention over Pope’s rendering of Shakespeare’s works. However, in the second edition of the poem, the chief dunce was Colley Cibber, a writer of plays of questionable value. Pope viewed Cibber’s popular success as evidence of the intellectual demise of eighteenth-century London, and he mercilessly belittled Cibber’s accomplishments in the revised Dunciad.
Although in its form, the Dunciad is a model of Augustan wit and satire, the poem is exceedingly double-voiced in that its caustic tone reveals the considerable depths of Pope’s earnest concern about issues of taste, art, and aesthetic value. Although Pope expressed these concerns through acerbic, biting satire, his fear that the great tradition of British intellectualism and literature was imperiled by the direction of eighteenth century life was genuine. In addition, many of the attacks that Pope included in the poem were against those who had slandered him. As a result of his physical deformity, lifelong illness, and his Roman Catholicism, Pope suffered many cruel insults throughout his career, many of which were directed more at his person than at his body of writings. The well from which the bitter satire in the Dunciad springs was largely Pope’s own emotional pain. In this way, the poem includes elements of both the neoclassical and the increased emotionalism that characterized the literature of sensibility. The very dryness and absence of expressed emotion that defines the Dunciad is indicative of Pope’s imposition of a matrix of neoclassical order and discipline upon his own personal, deeply-felt emotions.