The Dunciad

“Since Man from beast by Words is known,
Words are Man’s province, Words we teach alone.”
 

Alexander Pope

The Dunciad is, essentially, postmodernism written before postmodernism was a thing (around 1730, in case you are interested). Ostensibly, it’s a poem, a mock epic about the goddess Dullness, written as a satire on criticism and Bad Writers in general, and highly topical. It also comes with notes written by Pope himself (as his alter ego Scriblerus. What? Poets are weird) as well as his writer friends who are oh-so-witty in their own mockery of critics and biographers who write endless, endless notes on poems like Paradise Lost, so that it’s actually almost impossible to read the text without getting distracted by the critical apparatus…

I feel like Pope knew what it was to be an English student.

So this is all very well, but, much like Gulliver’s Travels, which I had problems with last year, the tissue of allusion is so dense and so very topical that it requires copious notes from a modern editor (on top of the mock-notes by Pope and his gang), to the extent that it is essentially incomprehensible without them. And while I understand that this is probably part of the point, it does not make for an engaging or particularly memorable reading experience. The Dunciad makes its point basically on the first page. After that, reading any more seems redundant. The poem itself is…uninteresting; not bad, but not particularly inspiring. Essentially, it feels like an exercise in LOOK HOW MUCH MORE I KNOW THAN YOU AREN’T I CLEVER.

No. What you are is annoying.

All in all, The Dunciad is one of those books whose concept sounds fascinating, but whose reality is less so. Do yourself a favour and read House of Leaves or Pale Fire instead.

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