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The direct origin of this longest and most labored of Pope's poems has been already detailed in the Memoir of his life. The initials appended to the Treatise on the Art of Sinking in Poetry' had excited universal resentment: the writers, whose works had been held up to public contempt, retorted in a body; and, if their revenge was not classic, it was at least keen. Libels, personalities, and threats filled the public ear; and Pope declares that ‘for half a
and more, the common newspapers were filled with the most abusive falsehoods and scurrilities that they could possibly devise.' "A liberty,' he farther observes, 'no way to be wondered at in those people and in those papers, that, for many years, during the uncontrolled license of the press, had aspersed almost all the great characters of the age, and this with impunity, their own persons and names being utterly secret and obscure.'
For those reasons, which ought to have taught him the hopelessness of attack, if not the dignity of silence; he resolved by one decisive blow to extinguish the whole fraternity of the scribblers.' The habitual failure of his temperament was irritability, and in this instance it betrayed him into warfare with a generation, whose obscurity he confesses to have placed them beyond the reach of assault, if their callousness did not render them insensible to his weapons. His knowlege of the world ought also to have warned him, that the eminent are always losers in a voluntary contest with the contemptible; and his knowlege of the race with whom he had to deal, that the libeller may make up in virulence what he wants in vigor ; that the public, with all their favoritism for the man of genius, can laugh at seeing him entangled with the mean; and, that when abuse is to decide the battle, the mean are the natural masters of the field.
The value of those maxims is proved, by the fact that, from the commencement of the quarrel, Pope's life seems to have been one of perpetual vexation : every newspaper that reached his hands teemed with fresh insult, he was pursued by ballads, stung by epigrams, burlesqued by caricatures, and even menaced with those personal attacks, which to his feebleness of frame, and consequent powerlessness of selfprotection, must have been matters of serious anxiety. The multitude of biting pamphlets and furious paragraphs written against him perhaps outnumber those which either party stimulants or popular rage called forth against the most obnoxious public men of England. In this unenviable tribute sir Robert Walpole himself may give way to the author of the Treatise of the Bathos.'
At the head of the dunces he had placed Theobald, a plodding but a diligent critic, whose real crime,' Johnson says, was that of having revised Shakspeare more happily than himself.' Pope, with a scorn, of which the intention is more easily seen than the point discoverable, calling him Tibbald, opens the poem by a description of the goddess of Dulness fixing her fondest glance on the critic, on the evening of a lord mayor's day, when he is sitting gloomily among his abortive works, and pondering on the downfall of her empire, from the advanced age of Settle. The goddess suddenly reveals herself to the desponding hero, announces the death of Settle, and proclaims him legitimate successor of the ancient sovereign of the dunces.
In the second book the new king celebrates his accession by games, in which all the subordinate dunces contend. In the third, the goddess descends, and laying Tibbald in slumber on her lap, transports him to the river of oblivion, where the shade of Settle declaims on the future triumphs of the monarchy of Dulness, its rapid extension over all the sciences and arts of England, and its final absorption of all into an intellectual chaos.
The variety, keenness, and poetic picturesque, the classic allusion, and polished venom, to which this plan afforded space, or tempted satire, might have sufficed a less comprehensive indignation than that which roused Pope against the general dulness of the world. But with him the appetite grew by what it fed on; and to indulge his wrath, he even incurred the hazard of blunting its edge: In 1742, thirteen years after the first quarto, he wrote a fourth book on the pursuits of Dulness; distinguished by equal skill with the former, but losing their poignancy, by generalising their satire. In the following year he fell into a still more unlucky snare, by substituting Cibber for Theobald, in revenge for a contemptuous pamphlet. Cibber was a coxcomb; but clever, witty, and fashionable ; among the best actors of a day memorable for theatrical skill; an author whose comedies still survive; and a dexterous, alert, and sarcastic man of the world. Walpole pronounces his Treatise on the Stage,' inimitable. To place the graceful frivolity of Cibber in the seat which had been fabricated for the stagnant pedantry of Theobald, was a palpable error in taste : but the heavier error in judgment, was the substitution in any shape; for, by showing that he could thus shift his satire, he extinguished its strength: its particularity was the sting of its power.
Pope's care of this great poem has remarkably supplied it with notes; and as those from his own pen, or Warburton's,