Dunciad Minor – Book I


The long-lost Heir of Dullness found, the king
Of pedants at long last restored, I sing:
Relate Thalia, aided by divine
Calliope, how ignorant of his line
And doubly exiled in the Southern Seas
(For the Muse, too, has her Antipodes)
Among the upside-down-men and their arts
He lived; his lineage tell; the pregnant parts
By which he rose—how yet a fool to fame
He learned at last his pedigree and name;
Next, how, by native cunning (and divine
Impulsion), he evolved his Grand Design;
Last by what impudence he rose to his
Much meditated apotheosis,
Made his great fore-bear’s ridicule his own
And took his seat upon the Sable Throne.

O thou, whatever title please thee best,
Poet or Moralist or Prince of Jest,
Homer’s Translator, St John’s better part
The Lash of Pedants or the Shield of Art,
Or English Horace, or great Dryden’s heir,
Immortal Pope, receive from us, whose care
In these last years of the romantic storm
It is to keep the classic muses warm,
Upon thine altar, roasted whole and fat,
Prime in his folly, and self-slain at that,
Of all the victims dear to ridicule
Thy favourite—a critic and a fool:
Take him; and, as thy habit was, we pray,
Share him with Swift and Arbuthnot and Gay!

Immortal souls that walk on asphodel
Have the same privilege lovers know in hell:
To immortality they may commend
One whom they loved, a mistress or a friend.
And so in death Swift’s mighty ghost, they say
Chose Arbuthnot—providing Pope chose Gay;
For neither could, by right of genius, come
Though almost winning to Elysium.
There the four friends, as often in their lives,
Uncumbered or by mistresses or wives,
Meet still to dine and talk and rhyme and sit
Long over wines that sparkle like their wit.
In old madeira or in mellower port
The Battle with the Dunces is refought;

There the great heroes of the human mind
Are entertained and ancient genius dined;
There Homer will relax, and with a third
Great bumper some lost epic may be heard;
And there, while Horace laughing fills his glass,
Dyspeptic Virgil lets the bottle pass.

In 1950, at the first full moon
After All Fools’ Day in the afternoon
The four immortals, having met and dined,
Were laughing at some sample verse consigned,
As each ten years the custom is, to show
The state of letters in the world below:
Verse without number, statement void of sense
Flat verbiage and verbal flatulence,
Called Four Quartets, it kept no time or tune.
Pope thought it a political lampoon
Writ by some parson much bemused in beer;
Arbuthnot thought a Bedlam sonneteer;
Swift looked and frowned, and looked and laughed again;
‘God help us all!’ he said, ‘The thing is plain:
Yahoos at last have learned to hold a pen—
This is a Yahoo Eclogue, gentlemen.
Go, Gay, and see! There’s someone at the gate.’
For at that moment, drowning all debate
And stupefying heaven with its roar,
Dull, yet tremendous at the postern-door
Or Tradesmen’s Entrance to Elysium,
Thrice Fame’s Posterior Trumpet struck them dumb.
Off went obliging Gay and in a trice
Was back with serious face and twinkling eyes:
‘A Herald, sent from the Umbrageous Queen,
The Goddess Dullness, gorgeously obscene,
Impudent, pompous now at heaven’s back-door
Demands a parley by the rules of war:
It seems, some madman rushing on his fate
Abusing wit two hundred years too late,
And claiming Namby-Pamby for his dad
Wants Pope to put him in the Dunciad.
The goddess intercedes on his behalf.’

‘I vote,’ said Swift, ‘we hear him—for the laugh!
And on no other terms can we admit
Her oafish angel to the heaven of wit.
Homer may be allowed his nod, ‘tis true,
And Milton’s seventh book a yawn or two:
They being so great, could stretch, though none may break,
That single law which Art and Nature make

By which all dullness once it pass this door
Dissolves in laughter and is seen no more.
But ridicule which kills a fool, can serve
His fatuous stare in amber to preserve,
And satire keep the ancient shapes of Vice
Like shaggy monsters in Siberian ice—
Embalmed in laughter, like a jellied eel,
Go, bid Sir Nonsense, then his cause reveal!’

Gay trotted off and presently came back
Leading an old, tired academic hack:
For thirty years he had gone round and round
The same dull plot of literary ground,
Lectured on every author by the clock
And minced each poet fine upon his block,
Had served alike Grub-street and Helicon
Till judgment and discernment both were gone,
The Muses’ Mountain and the Dunces’ Camp
Trod down at last into one pathless swamp—
Not without parts and promise in his time,
But each year sinking deeper in the slime;
Like one that gathers duck-weed—dreadful trade!—
Drowned in the general slush himself has made.

Now bumptious in the service of his queen
See him a herald and a go-between!
Half-proud, half-shamefast, in a livery
Of all the sad waste-paper, cap-a-pie
With which the poor unnecessary zed
Contrived on earth to live and earn his bread:
The flat, sour thesis and the rancid note
Formed the chief stuff of this fantastic coat;
Bilgewater Treatise, books of hints and rules
Or plays castrated for the use of schools,
New Light on Tupper, Key to Henry James,
Exposure of Bill Wordsworth’s little games,
Chit-chat on authors, Idlings with the Muse,
White-washing essays, blackguardly reviews,
Anthologies, concordances to Crabbe—
Thrown off to make his gruel thick and slab;
Such was his costume, such he seemed to view!
Yet he spoke native English and he knew
Himself now fallen; at the worst he had
Some power to distinguish good from bad,
To know authentic genius when it comes
If only by the pricking of his thumbs.

The air of heaven, for a little space
Revived these dim intuitings of grace;
The four immortals with some pity see
Him blushing, tongue-tied, trembling at the knee.
‘Pray take a chair!’ says Pope. ‘You seem to puff;
The roads of Dullness are both long and rough;
Before we hear you, drink a glass of wine!’

‘Alas, I dare not, for like Prosperpine
If aught I taste here—so the edict runs
By which the Milky Mothers rule their sons—
These clothes, the only things I have to wear
Will all drop off and vanish back to air.
Then naked I must speak my naked mind,
And, seeing, no more in blindness lead the blind,
Or, worse, say only what is mine to say
Which takes my occupation clean away.’

‘Well, sir,’ growls Swift then, pulling out his watch,
‘You know best; come! Your business, and dispatch!’
And pausing to collect his wits a span
The Mighty Mother’s envoy thus began:

‘Dullness Divine, who still extends her sway,
Whom earth, and on occasion, heaven, obey
Since Theobald was deposed, and Cibber, dead
Like King Pandion, has been lapped in lead,
Mourns that for two full centuries at least
No King of critics who was quite a beast
Has ruled the Dunces, and the Sable Throne
No Bums of the old Royal Line has known.
Now, in the arsy-versy hemisphere,
Their great-great-great-great-grandsons reappear;
Among them one whose solid ivory skull
Proclaims him royal and confirms him dull,
Whose breadth of fundament and name declare
Him mighty Namby-Pamby’s lineal heir;
And him the goddess finds in all things meet
To drowse and drool on regal Colley’s seat.
But—here’s the catch—to make his title good
‘Tis not enough to show his royal blood:
His patent must be proved; in fact, the lad
Must get a mention in the Dunciad.
And to this end he made, not two months back
A ribald, foolish, unprovoked attack
On Pope, his wit, his morals and his muse
Before the whole great nation of Yahoos;
Denied your genius, sir; your diction found
Inadequate and grammar most unsound;
And like Tremendous Dennis, proved that he
Saw nothing but what any fool could see;
That exquisite and pure melodic line
Of verse entirely missed, or by design
Ignored; denied its wit and tact and grace;
And gave a lesser poet pride of place;
Yet showed, as fools turned critics often do,
The sense of what he praised escaped him too.
Such is his claim! The goddess has agreed
To back it: In perverted taste, indeed,
Such were his ancestors in former days:
Smug when they snarled and pointless in their praise.
So Circe’s swine preferred their beastly mast,
So dogs to their own vomit turn at last,
So carrion-feeders plump for putrid meat
And human jackals care not what they eat,
Their stomachs spoiled by what they shovel in,
Their palates ruined with synthetic gin,
Call the food tasteless when asked out to dine,
And, smoking foul mundungus, blame the wine.’

This said he paused and waited their reply.
The four looked grave, then doubtful, and then sly:
‘Is it permitted, then,’ said Swift, ‘to know
What name the hero has with men below?’

‘Three names of power,’ the answer came, ‘he bears:
Phillips, in simple majesty declares
Him scion of the Namby-Pamby strain:
Arthur, in token he should come again;
These two by mortal kith and kin were given,
But Angel was the irony of Heaven!’
He ceased; and mock amazement held them fast.
‘The case is difficult,’ said Pope at last,
‘The man’s a dunce—we make no bones of that—
Yet when the Curst Queen pleads, I smell a rat;
When the old Harpy offers gifts at all
Some Wooden Ass she pushes towards the wall;
And put him in the Dunciad! My good sir,
I must and shall know more: unless I err,
This plan to make Mad Jack ridiculous
Conceals another, to make fools of us.
Yet, if no treachery you contemplate,
Know that an epic hero must be great:
To be a fool, and be by fools begot,
And talk much nonsense is man’s common lot;
He who to epic folly would attain
Must show himself an ass in Ercles’ vein;
And he who would with ancient dullness vie
Achieve some stroke of high absurdity,
“A part to tear a cat in, make all split”—
No other can my Dunciad admit.

On either count, then, the whole truth declare!
In every detail, Herald, have a care!
If the least fib you utter, sir, reflect
It lies not in our power to protect:
You perish! For the least omission made,
Or the half-truth so frequent in your trade,
No more the tender goslings round your feet
Shall gobble up your notes like mildewed wheat;
Farewell the lecture-hall’s congenial roar!

Black-board and chalk shall know your scrawl no more:
Satire, which now protects you, while we please,
Explodes you like a bubble or a sneeze!’

‘O sirs!’ replied the Herald, ‘Have no fear!
Of lie or stratagem this breast is clear;
Great Arthur’s story, when it shall be told,
Proves him a numskull of heroic mould,
A tyger’s heart wrapt in an asses skin,
Dauntless and dumb—But since I may begin
Hear now the saga of his Grand Design:

Far in the South, beyond the burning line,
Where Gulliver that much-wrecked mariner
Described their customs, such as then they were,
And found them, like their manners, somewhat coarse,
The Yahoos live in slavery to the horse.
And since, though little altered from that time,
Great Britain gave them trade and beer and crime
And politics and healthy out-door games,
Now they wear clothes, and some can writetheirnames.
A sort of costive English, too, they speak,
And sweat and drink and quarrel round the week;
And what they earn in their own time, they spend
On their four-footed masters each week-end.
As for their arts—the land to you would seem,
O Sirs, like satire’s paradisal dream!
As their first simple stockmen, we are told
Pastured their flocks upon a hill of gold,
Beneath an endless, empty, arid plain
The mind’s uncharted virgin steppes inane,
Treasures of undiscovered laughter lie
And whole Golcondas of stupidity.
Grim civil wars their hapless scribblers wage:
There native frogs with foreign mice engage
And True-born Bandicoots with squeaks protest
Th’ imported Rabbit drives them from the nest.
Yet, as of old, marsupial bards abound
And with elastic bounces thump the ground;
And wombat novelists rise, as erst they rose,
To praise their country in illiterate prose.

There the lost heirs of Dullness a whole age
Lived unaware of their great heritage;
Among them, even to his peers unknown,
Lived the uncrowned pretender to the throne,
Witless and harmless, and his living made
By plying the bumbaster’s tedious trade;
And there, perhaps, would live in ignorance yet,
But that—though how it happened I forget—
I think some idle traffic with the muse—
He chanced one day the Dunciad to peruse.

Like Homer’s world upon Achilles’ shield
The World of Dunces stood by art revealed;
With mounting ecstasy he reads, and cries:
“My Native Earth I see, my native skies!”
With stammering lips he read, with eyes that shone,
Spelled out the syllables and, stumbling on,
He found the line: —and shook with sacred rage—
She saw slow Philips creep like Tate’s poor page.”

Then all made clear, his birth, his pedigree,
“Philips!” he cried, “A. Philips! Why that’s ME!
My grandsire (though he only had one L)”
(For now the footnote had him in its spell)
“Though I but see thee dark, as in a glass
Oh, tell me now, thou great eponymous ass,
Am I a King, and Dullness’ Chosen Lamb?
I feel it in my bones; I know; I am!

Yes, such—” he paused, “I should have been, I know:
Vastly pedantic and sublimely low!
But, ah, to woe delivered trussed and bound,
Exiled and orphaned here on alien ground,
Brainless, alone and helpless, here I mourn!
How to my Kingdom ever to return?
How prove my title and regain my throne,
Perchance by others claimed ere this, or won?
Ah me, how happy, when unmarked by Fate
I taught the young Yahoos to scrawl and prate,
Nor knew myself! Now all the Austral scene,
Race-track, pub, football-ground, poker machine—
Pleasing enough to these Yahoos, perhaps,
To whom all books are made with bets, poor chaps!
Whose height of learning is, at most, the claim
To read a jockey’s or a horse’s name—
But not to me—to me, on all sides round
Cut off from learned duncedom’s darling ground,
To me, a dungeon horrible and vile.”

So, like Ulysses on Calypso’s isle,
Weeping he sat upon that southern shore

And thought to see his native land no more.’

End of Book I

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