In 1743 the distinguished English poet Alexander Pope published a satiric poem entitled “The Dunciad.” Pope, like Jonathan Swift (the author of Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal), was a satirist—his works ridiculed vice and folly, usually lambasting human faults and foolishness in general, but sometimes naming names. It’s been said that society licenses satirists to draw blood in service of the health of the body politic. Sometimes they use a scalpel, sometimes a butcher knife.
As a writer, Pope particularly went after those writers, critics, and readers whom he thought were dull, tasteless, stupid, or corrupt. He went after plagiarists, who were many in an age before copyright. He went after third-rate authors and poets as well as their publishers, patrons, and public. And he did it with great skill and artfulness. In its style, “The Dunciad” parodies Homer, not to ridicule that classical poet, but in part to suggest how far beneath Homer’s epic heroes the dunces are whom he satirizes.
“The Dunciad” portrays an upside-down world in which quality and excellence are denounced, and the dunces, dullards, and dopes are honored and adored. Indeed the dunces rule, presiding over the demise of all that Pope values—quality, taste, honesty, intelligence. The goddess Dulness chooses as king of Dunces Colley Cibber, a minor-league but highly honored writer of Pope’s day. In Cibber’s honor she hosts heroic games, a parody of the Olympic Games of ancient Greece. To be clear, Pope is not ridiculing heroic games; he’s using them as a vehicle to ridicule the vice and folly he sees all around him.
Needless to say, Pope changes the games in his mock epic, making some of them scatological. In one game, critics compete to see who can make the most meaningless noise and impress the king of monkeys.
In another, the works of two authors are read aloud to determine which is the dullest—and therefore the best. But everyone keeps falling asleep.
In those days to “tickle with a feather” or quill pen meant to flatter someone, and so there’s a “tickling contest” to see which author can get money from patrons by flattering them the most. Each writer is more obsequious than the previous one. The winner? A man with absolutely no talent who sends his sister to visit the judge; enough said.
And my favorite event: a sewer diving contest among political hack writers—with prizes for the one who flings the most filth and the one who dives the deepest. I find that contest, crude as it is, particularly appropriate as I think about political hack writers today.
And so, just as the Olympic games of ancient Greece continue today, the satirists’ work also continues—ridiculing vice and folly, which still persist in abundance.
This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.