Dunciad Minor – Book IV


‘Goddess, whose trust and sacred arms I bear,
Rejoice! the day is won; the coast is clear;
The wall is breached; the towers of Heaven down
And Arthur has his patent to the crown.
In every realm the great nil obstat runs;
Rich wines of Nonsense, sleeping in their tuns
Long ages, now shall flow in every street
And maudlin revel show his Fame complete.
Lo, I alone, inspired by your command,
From the vast deep have brought this fish to land;
By false submission and triumphant fraud
Seduced the sons of light to pledge their word;
My voice, your faithful slave, by devious wit,
Unworthy though I am, has compassed it;
Long exercised in wiles, on my return
Before your throne with conscious pride I burn.
But now, since for the nonce our cause is strong,
And Genius may be tricked, but not for long,
Be swift, lest on reflection they refuse;
Great Goddess, act! There is no time to lose;
For on my setting out the Fatal Four
Issued their edict and proclaimed their law:
It is their pleasure that our royal dunce
Assume his fathers’ throne and rule at once.’
Thus far the Herald, as adust he stood
Before his mistress in vainglorious mood.
A venal trollop, tumbled in the hay,
Could not be more perfidiously gay.
But, wrapped in mists that choke the Stygian stye,
The awful shade at first makes no reply.
Then on her slave, as on an errant spouse,
She looks and glooms and bends her ireful brows:
‘What, sirrah, counsel you in things divine
And dare to interpose in my design?
Infected by the air of Heaven, I see
You venture to give orders, then, to Me;
Me, sir, a goddess, to my very face
Told to bestir myself and mend my pace?
You have fulfilled your errand; this I own,
But curb your insolence before my throne!
Let Heaven issue edicts as it please:
Its writ runs not below nor its decrees;
Their cause is lost; the times are in my hand;
‘Tis mine and mine alone now to command.
Arthur shall rise, but in my own good time,
And, ere he soars to that inane sublime,
As fits a hero of the ancient breed,
His Funeral Games on earth I have decreed.’

‘Pardon, great Queen, my error I admit.
Pardon, if still in judgment or in wit
I should appear in deed or thought or word
To deviate from the true, the pure Absurd.’
Replies the unhappy brute and shakes his head:
‘But funerals are surely for the dead!
My mind miscarries and my heart misgives:
How can this be while noble Arthur lives?’
The Goddess smiles and heaves her ample breast
To mirth, for Dullness dearly loves a jest.
The vast bulk rumbles as her head she nods:
‘Hear, witling, hear the laughter of the gods
And learn at last whate’er I do is right:
Nonsense it is! In Nonsense I delight.
I grant that Arthur lives, but even so,
What if he does, child? Who on earth would know?
Remember Partridge who foretold the date
Of royal demise and high events of state,
Whom Bickerstaff (for Bickerstaff, read Swift)
Foretold would die and promised a short shrift;
The day came on; though Partridge might protest,
The Devil had his soul, the wits their jest.
It was not in his choice to live or die.
If Swift could compass this, so, sir, may I.
Nor is it yours, friend, to dispute the case:
A cat may have less lives than Arthur has.

Besides, these Funeral Games I have designed
Are not for him, but for the human mind,
The death of wit, the last eclipse of taste
And gales of nonsense howling through the waste.
As those at young Patroclus’ pyre decreed,
Though to placate his restless shade indeed,
Were less to celebrate the hapless boy
Than Hector’s death that spelled the doom of Troy,
So, in my darker purpose, I propose
More things than you, sir, or than Arthur knows:
He, though he errs, in that old world believes
Where genius by right its due receives,
Where worth in its tradition trusts and rests
And Criticism to its place attests;
Nor is he always brash or led astray:
At times some Austral writers own his sway;
And if he fell, in honest faith he erred;
Now a new age brings in the real Absurd,
Where critics in their pride themselves replace
Their cause and consequence, the scribbling race.
Their cause is now themselves, the consequence
The topsy-turveydom of wit and sense.
These are my darling sons; until they rule
Let Arthur squat upon his royal stool.
The Merovingians doddering to their fall
Ruled through the palace mayors, if at all;
But when the time was ripe, they fell from view.
Some mighty Charles of Dullness now is due,
And him my provident design proclaims
By the dire pretext of these Funeral Games.

But dream not of such games as heroes played
When on the pyre Achilles’ love was laid;
Nor those a pious son ordained before
His father’s tomb on the Sicilian shore;
Not even such wanton frolics in the mud
As graced the dunces at the gates of Lud;
Nor such as Arthur’s chosen Seat has made
The sites where Austral football still is played
Where in the wintry season, full of beer
Poet and peasant, churl and sage appear
Shriek with unreason, stultify the soul,
To see a pig-skin booted through the goal.
Games, I would have you know sir, nowadays
Renounce that joyous strife to win the bays
Which in more spacious times, a doubtful dream,
Still fired the crowd and fortified the team.
The Science of Prediction now moves in
To fore-ordain and blight their will to win,
And Mathematics claims, by dubious art,
To prophesy the end before they start.
As critics now annex the poet’s crown,
Theory of Games is up and Sport is down.
Now every player makes his move in fear
With statisticians muttering in his ear;
Computers oust onlookers from the field
Advising when to strike and when to yield;
Hockey or Prisoners’ Base, Tip-cat or Chess
Run to foregone conclusions more or less;
And even War, the game of games, must halt
When umpires with their slide-rules utter: Fault!
Though stubborn hearts, contending in the dust,
On native wit and inborn vigour trust,
And little max-mins still the gods defy
Armed with the mystic decimals of Pi,
They strive in vain: such Funeral Games, indeed
Befit my critics of the latest breed.
My grand design thus far revealed, although
Things still suppressed in night seek not to know,
Now, Herald, I have further tasks for you;
So stir your stumps, for there is much to do.
Before dawn reddens in the sullen sky
To every fane of learning you must fly;
By each bad critic’s pillow stand and don
The shape his dream of fame most dotes upon:
A variorum text; a printer’s fee;
A grant, a knighthood or a rare Litt.D.
Some genius smirched and scanted of his fame,
Or drowned in sources, which is much the same;
Or, what the academic soul prefers,
Some theory, so befuddled and perverse,
As makes all criticism seem a farce
And wins a chair to dignify his arse.
Soon as he wakes and spies the tempting bait,
My contest put before him and the date;
Bid each devise some mad machine, designed
To warp the judgment and pervert the mind,
Some engine foul in smell that blurts and spits
To muddle verse and addle readers’ wits
And ride it belching through the etherial blue,
Uttering the criticaster’s View-Halloo!
Last in each ear the flattering message hiss:
The prize is in his grasp: he cannot miss.
Within an hour, for sure, we shall descry
Their inky legions tumbling from the sky.’
The Herald bowed and vanished with a bang,
A sulphurous stench and unmelodious twang.
While Dullness settling hugely for her nap,
Drowses in confidence to spring her trap;
And not in vain: the trap is duly sprung.
She wakes to hear her sooty hounds give tongue
And, from the darkening air, with hideous sound,
A pride of critics plummet and rebound.
Smug in their hopes and livid with their spleen,
They cut their engines and salute their queen,
Who takes their graceless plaudits as her due
And grins complacent on the grisly crew.
The grisly crew, as smug, return her grin
To hear the Queen of Nonsense thus begin:

‘Welcome, dear sons, of all my sons the best!
And proud must be the heart within this breast,
Goggled and helmeted to see you stand
Like locusts swarming to devour the land.
Your loyal service first of all I praise,
The Lyre unstrung, the sere and wilted Bays,
Pedantry loosed on its unbridled course,
The Sacred Spring polluted at its source,
Critical smog infecting every breeze
While strangling theories choke the noblest trees.
These are your works! Your triumphs I confess
And with maternal fondness praise and bless.
But more than these conclusive victories
I praise your stratagem to hold the peace,
Secure me henceforth empire of the pen
And drive out wit if it should come again.
Your constant vigilance a means supplies
To stultify young poets as they rise;
By education damp and render tame
Fresh genius; dim and quench the sacred flame;
Taught not to venture past the common reach
By those who cannot do and therefore teach,
And, once emasculated by your rules,
To warble in Creative Writing Schools.
Let Malcolm Cowley thunder as he will:
Who now reads Cowley? I am Dullness still!
Sheer bulk and weight of comment now ensure
By slow degrees the death of literature;
A book, no sooner born, is buried straight
By fifty more of critical debate
And, rising year by year, the monstrous flood
Deposits new layers of explicatory mud.
Choked in the sludge, all authors, good or bad
Soon lose what meaning they might once have had.
Few readers now remember that the right
True end of verse was wisdom and delight,
But taught by you, my sons, conceive it is
The endless nausea of analysis.
The Wingèd Horse, once trampling in his pride,
See now securely to his manger tied;
Struggle he may: be sure the die is cast:
His own by-products bury him at last,
Till in the dung of this Augean stall
Most readers cannot find a horse at all.
And to this end—my sovereign plot confessed—
The sons of Light contribute with the rest.
In this vast scribbledom by fate immersed
The best of critics wallow like the worst:
Provided they will write and write and write,
They serve the cause of Chaos and of Night.
Think not by this I mean to scant your worth
Yours is the prize. You brought this plague to birth;
For you and you alone, these Funeral Games,
Sons of my womb, a mother’s care proclaims.
Each, as perverted genius prompts, has been
Inventor of some critical machine
Designed to make true genius seem perverse
And sow confusion in the Art of Verse.
These engines now before my eyes display:
Who proves the most absurd shall win the day.
Come, prime and crank the monsters for the start!
And lest you should lack victims for your art,
With prescient and preventive care, I have
Summoned a batch of authors from the grave,
Picked for their fame, the noblest and the best
Of all whom in my heart I most detest.
Although but simulacra formed from air
These let your rabid malice maul and tear.
Behold this tomb where mighty Arthur lies;
There let them bleed, a welcome sacrifice!’
She ceased. While pandemoniums of applause
Roaring exhausts, wild shrieks and gnashing jaws
Shattered the air, by Endor’s arts she drew
Before their eyes a pale and ghastly crew,
Chained, starved and bullied, ragged to a man;
Chaucer in tatters leads the trembling van;
Milton by slashing Bentley maimed and scarred;
Shakespeare in Bacon’s feathers, pitched and tarred;
Pope spattered from the filthy Grub-street stye;
Marlowe, a critic’s dagger through his eye;
Clare starving from his dunghill led like Job,
And Smart from Bedlam pelted by the mob;
Chatterton mocked on his untimely bed;
Dryden with Blackmore’s piss-pot on his head;
Keats, a forlorn Sebastian, skewered through
With shafts of Blackwood’s venomous review;
All these and many more the goddess there
Exposed, exclaiming: ‘Smite and do not spare!
The vengeance by the Critic Race of old
Exacted, here, my sons, you may behold.
Lay on! Let their example boost your fires
And prove you butchers worthy of your sires!’
The pack runs howling on its destined prey;
The hapless victims shrink and cower away;
But, as they slaver, grim in tooth and claw,
The genial ghost of Shakespeare steps before,
Smiling, serene, he checks them unafraid;
Then turns to utter words of cheer and aid:

‘Be of good heart, my friends! We know the worst
These dogs can do, for they are not the first.
The wolf’s black jaw and the dull ass’s hoof
We need not dread; Time gives us ample proof.
Dullness is its own remedy and curse,
Digs its own grave and decks its own poor hearse.
These are but shades of fear and men of straw;
A few short years they may impose their law,
But the next age shall raise us from the dead,
Keep green our fame and leave their screeds unread
And where their Babel moulders, smile to see
Burgeon the fruitful vine and blossoming tree.’

Scarce had he spoken: rumbling in her wrath,
The outraged Queen bestrides the poet’s path;
With fury first her talons wrench and tear;
Next see the wretched bard snatched high in air;
His rib-bones crack, as in a bear-like hug,
She strains him to her bosom’s fog and fug;
Last, hurled to earth, she views him crushed and dead
And bids her critics tear him shred from shred.
The critics hesitate: ‘Alas, great Queen,
How tear him more than he’s already been?
Dissolved in sources, emendated, glossed,
Ripped leaf from leaf and like a salad tossed,
By turns, now mutilated, now restored,
Volumes of commentary on each word,
By actors mangled, travestied and cut,
By Bishop Wordsworth bowdlerized from smut,
Riddled and soused in Theory’s witches’ brew,
With, Shakespeare, Lady, what is left to do?’
But while they waver, sadly at a stay,
By unseen hands the corpse is rapt away
And, the next instant, to abate their fears,
Smiling the poet stands among his peers.
The Goddess swells and roars with helpless rage
And bids the combatants at once engage.

End of Book IV

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