A Paper on Pope


The following paper constitutes the term paper for my Intro to Literary Studies class taken in the Fall of 2015. The class used Alexander Pope’s Dunciad as a test case for disparate kinds of scholarly work. The poem ostensibly is a mock-epic that depicts the spread of Dulness (a goddess) and her victory of English culture. This paper deals with a number of interesting issues, but it also remains unpolished in several areas. I’ll admit that I struggled to acquire the required number of secondary sources, and some of my citations are superficial at best. Nonetheless:

The Limits of Allusion: Pope’s use of Milton in The Dunciad Book IV

It is difficult to delineate the limits of Pope’s allusions to Milton in The Dunciad, particularly in Book IV where Pope uses Milton as a principal ingredient to concoct the universal darkness with which his poem closes. Pope alludes to Milton at critical points in Book IV that shape the tone and character of the restoration Dulness, and he carefully constructs these allusions in ways that balance satirical comedy with satirical seriousness. There are, in general, two different categories of his allusions to Milton, though they admit of some overlap. Pope uses these different types of allusions both to establish and to limit the extent to which Milton’s work influences The Dunciad’s depiction of Dulness and her dunces. Pope exerts a meticulous control, building his own limitations into these allusions so that they achieve precisely the effect needed at any given time to shape Dulness and her dunces in both their diabolical danger and comic blundering.

These two types of allusions I call atmospheric allusions and thematic allusions. The most significant distinction between these two types rests in the use to which Pope puts his Miltonic sources. The atmospheric allusions, in general, work to recapitulate the atmosphere of the poem: they are generally comic, undercutting the dunces by comparison to Miltonic characters. These work to create the setting of The Dunciad in which the dunces are constantly undermined by the epic precedents. They are also somewhat superficial in their reach back into the original Miltonic context. To some extent, of course, the degree to which any particular reader will be able or inclined to read back into the original context of these Miltonic allusions will vary, but Pope, in this type of allusion, does not draw deeply on his Miltonic source and in fact intentionally limits them. These allusions rely on the familiar mock-epic mode that Pope demonstrated most clearly in The Rape of the Lock. Allusions of the second type, the thematic allusions, are meticulously crafted to do more than invite that mock-epic comparison. They selectively imbue Pope’s poem with the thematic cosmos of Milton’s works—Paradise Lost primarily, but other minor works as well. Pope uses this second type to help shape the tone of Book IV, particularly in regard to the menace Dulness represents and the book’s apocalyptic conclusion. It is the Miltonic background of Chaos and Night that provides the foundation on which Pope builds the overwhelming darkness of Dulness and so dramatically closes his poem.

The main difference that arises between these two categories is primarily of extent not kind. That is, the effect these Miltonic allusions have is carefully controlled by how much of Milton Pope lets into his own poem. In the first category—the atmospheric allusions—Pope selectively restricts his language to allow only allusively the discrepancy, for instance, between dunce and devil. The effect is typically to belittle a dunce by the comic divide between him and the Miltonic original. In the thematic allusions—the second category—Pope draws more deeply out of Milton’s context (usually from Paradise Lost) to shape the menacing, ominous tone of poem’s concluding book. Pope, in these allusions, does not so much borrow from Milton as he does manipulate both the Miltonic original and his reader’s impression of his Miltonic original to manufacture the apocalyptic tone of Book IV.

This distinction helps navigate two contrary tendencies among some of the scholarship that addresses the question of Pope’s Miltonic allusions. On one side is the method of interpretation best exemplified by Aubrey Williams’s classic analysis presented in Pope’s Dunciad: A Study of its Meaning. He focused his critical attention on Dulness as a distinctly Satanic and diabolical force, a being bent on “the uncreating of creation, the disordering of order” (137) as he says; the world of Dulness is, he argues, “a negation of the world as known in Christian doctrine” (155). The Miltonic allusions, in his view, relate Dulness to Milton’s Chaos and Night, and consistently identify her with Milton’s Satan; all this makes Dulness an explicitly anti-Christian force. If the tone of his argument occasionally has more in common with Warburton than with Pope, it remains that he makes a compelling case that has proven influential for over half a century. Williams’s method, however, in its tendency toward systemization, flattens the differences between allusions and downplays the comic element that pervades nearly all of them. On the other side of the critical playing field, contra Williams, are critics such as Dustin Griffin who, in his Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century, argues that the Miltonic allusions “on the whole . . . are designed to be largely comic, to belittle the dunces, or to recall the old view (present in Paradise Lost) that even the devil . . . is an ass” (174). He astutely recognizes the instability of Pope’s Miltonic referents: Pope’s willingness to associate—sometimes in the same passage—a given dunce with multiple Miltonic characters works against the kind of neat systemization that Williams propounds. In his view, this effect is overwhelmingly to mock the dunces: “Pope primarily wants us to see the dunces as comic bumblers” (177). Both Williams and Griffin recognize elements at work in some of Pope’s Miltonic allusions, but they both err towards extremes by making one type of allusion or the other too dominant. Explication of several examples of both these different types of allusions will illuminate the intermixed, cooperative comic and diabolical elements that permeate this apocalyptic final book.

The Atmospheric Allusions

Pope’s atmospheric allusions to Milton frequently function in Book IV by establishing a typical mock-epic relationship between the characters and actions of his dunces and the characters and actions of Milton’s poems. Representative examples are manifest throughout the fourth book of The Dunciad, though it is worth noting that this type is prevalent throughout the first three books as well. A definitive characteristic of these allusions is the way that Pope restricts how much of the Miltonic context appears in his own poem. He is careful to shape the perception of these allusions and evoke his intended response. A pertinent example comes from the central portion of Book IV when Busby, the schoolmaster, proceeds before Dulness. The poet says,

. . . a Spectre rose, whose index-hand

Held forth the Virtue of the dreadful wand;

His beaver’d brow a birchen garland wears,

Dropping with Infant’s blood, and Mother’s tears. (4.139-42)

This draws its rather grim force from the first book of Paradise Lost where Milton depicts the demon and false-god Moloch, described as a

horrid King besmear’d with blood

Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,

Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud

Their childrens’ cries unheard, that past through fire

To his grim Idol. (1.392-6)

Pope does a couple of interesting and characteristic things in adapting this Miltonic demon for his purposes. First, Pope takes from this Miltonic passage only two words directly—“blood” and “tears”—and varies it from Milton’s “blood / Of human sacrifice” to “Infant’s blood”; from “parents’ tears” to “Mother’s tears”. In so doing, he pointedly controls the degree to which Milton’s Moloch interposes itself onto his own characterization of Busby. The mock-epic contrast is rooted first and foremost in the disproportion between Moloch and Busby: for all Busby’s reputation for discipline, he was not an infanticide. That disproportion signals clearly that he is drawing on another source. This allusion continues a larger trend of associating dunces with Miltonic demons; it gives an initial impression of menace to this particular dunce that mars the way we view his character even when he speaks of more mundane verbal, educational pedantry; but, significantly, it dramatically undercuts the dunce by begging a comparison to a demon and false god who literally had infants burnt on his altars. This dual effect—making Busby more menacing than he really was by this connection, and simultaneously undermining it by the disproportion between the dunce and the demon—is characteristic of Pope’s Miltonic allusions throughout the whole poem and particularly the fourth book. This mock-epic tension gives the allusion its force and creates that primary comic effect. Rather than, as Williams argued, showing that “dunce and devil, in grotesque confederacy, pursue the same ‘intent’” (137), this mock-epic parallel finally places the dunce in a laughably trite light.

Several brief examples of these mock-epic atmospheric allusions will bear out these points. Two dunces from the central part of Book IV are characterized with reference to Miltonic characters: the butterfly chaser (lines 420-436) is tied to Eve, and the deistic clerk (lines 459-492) ties his actions to Satan leaping into the Garden. In this first example, the butterfly chaser describes his actions: “It fled, I follow’d; now in hope, now pain; / It stopt, I stopt; it mov’d, I mov’d again” (4.427-28). His language invites a comparison between his actions and those of Eve, shortly after her creation, when she encounters her reflection in the water, ignorant of what she sees. She says,

As I bent down to look, just opposite,

A Shape within the watery gleam appeared

Bending to look on me, I started back,

It started back, but pleas’d I soon returned,

Pleas’d it returned as soon with answering looks

Of sympathy and love . . . . (Milton 4.460-65)

Both the dunce and Eve share an immoderate attraction toward something beautiful, and in Milton’s poem Eve is swiftly corrected by an angel to attend to Adam, not herself. The disproportion, however, between Eve’s human, feminine beauty in its perfect state before the Fall is such a higher type of beauty that this dunce’s obsession with the butterfly appears absurd. More, he is not corrected in his mistake—Dulness lauds him for his actions, in fact (4.437-38)—and he destroys other beauty (a flower) in his pursuit of this butterfly.

The deistic clerk follows this dunce and at length describes his efforts to undermine belief in the Christian God. In this process of replacing God with “some Mechanic Cause” (4.475) he and those like him “at one bound o’er-leaping all his laws, / Make God Man’s Image, Man the final Cause” (4.477-78). This alludes to Satan’s entrance into the Garden of Eden:

Due entrance he disdained, and in contempt,

At one slight bound high over leap’d all bound

Of Hill or highest Wall, and sheer within

Lights on his feet. (Milton 4.180-83)

The disproportion between Satan and this deistic dunce is less pronounced here: both are working against God in some fashion. It is not entirely alleviated, however, for Satan in this passage is making his way into the Garden to effect the Fall of the entire human race and separate mankind from God; the dunce is propounding bad metaphysics. While this allusion highlights a real menace on the part of the dunce, it continues the mock-epic tendency of undermining the seriousness of the dunce in question by apparent elevation—association with Satan at one of his most insidious moments.

Both of these atmospheric allusions rely on that mock-epic mode to shape the poem’s portrayal of the dunces in light of the Miltonic precedent and perpetuate the general attitude of the poem towards the dunces. Neither, however, makes the dunces seem any more menacing because of the connection to Miltonic character than they otherwise would have. That restricted influence is exemplary of Pope’s careful control, as a more pointed example will further illustrate.

This example of an atmospheric allusion—one not of this mock-epic type—will further demonstrate the careful control Pope exerts over Milton in these allusions. The most salient example of this appears early in Book IV: to the opening lines, Pope’s Bentley comments on the poet’s prayer “half to shew, half veil the deep Intent” (4.4) by saying that this deep intent he “durst not fully reveal, and doubtless in divers verses (according to Milton) ‘more is meant than meets the ear’ (4.4n). This passage is overt and explicit in bringing Milton into The Dunciad, it borrows from Milton’s passage a tone of mystery and suspense, and it is far removed in tone and meaning from Milton’s original context. The passage comes from Milton’s poem “Il Penseroso”, a poem on poetic melancholy personified. Here in this passage, Milton refers to other writers, primarily Spenser, who wrote “Of Turneys and of Trophies hung; / Of Forests, and inchantments drear, / Where more is meant then meets the ear”; this is first and foremost a comment on Edmund Spenser’s use of allegory (118-20). While Milton’s poem closes with a prayer for, he says, “something like prophetic strain” (174), there is nothing particularly cosmic or ominous in Milton’s original. This passage addresses poetic technique and has no sinister or ominous significance at its root. Pope’s Bentley—who is of course the butcher of Paradise Lost in Pope’s view—notably uses Milton badly. His pointed eisegesis of this passage allows Pope to imbue his own poem with a sense of religious mystery that accompanies Dulness’s appearance at the beginning of this book. That “more is meant then meets the ear” in Pope’s context rings of secrets lying in wait for the reader.

From these representatives of the atmospheric allusions, it is clear that the Miltonic allusions often have surprisingly little to do with the most duncical aspects of the dunces, and the dunces have little in common with the Miltonic referents. In this last example, for instance, it is Busby’s pedantry that he offers to Dulness and which is most offensive to Pope, not his harsh corporal punishment which is highlighted by the Miltonic allusion. This same trait is exemplified by Aristarchus’s description which contains several allusions to Paradise Lost: his face is “plow’d” by his Remarks, like Beelzebub’s and Satan’s; more importantly, he “kingly, did but nod” (4.207) to Dulness while her other dunces bow, as Adam bows to the angel Raphael who, in reply, “Kingly from his state / Inclin’d not” (Milton 11.249-50). This certainly reflects Aristarchus’s duncish pride, but that, again, is not the primary concern that Pope has with him. It is Aristarchus’s pedantic obsession with digammas and other such trivial things that concerns Pope. Likewise, the Pseudo-Bentley’s footnote early in the book shows how willing Pope is to use Milton even when their respective works have little in common, little that would readily bear comparison. It is a testament to his abilities as an artist and craftsman that Pope is able to make Milton relevant to his own purposes and imbue Milton’s words with his own poem’s atmosphere. Valerie Rumbold, in her thorough article “Milton’s Epic and Pope’s Satyr Play”, rightly notes how difficult it is “to impose on actual instances of echo and allusion” like these the “solemnity” that Williams sees as primary (151). It is precisely the (often comic) disparity between Pope and Milton, between dunce and demon, which makes these allusions as rhetorically effective as they are.

The Thematic Allusions

Allusions of the second kind begin and end Book IV: they are more substantial and much more closely related to the cosmic and menacing tone with which Pope paints Dulness in this final book. The term thematic allusion is appropriate to emphasize that these allusions use Milton’s thematic context—primarily from Paradise Lost—to shape the thematic tone of Pope’s poem, particularly in Book IV. Without letting Miltonic contexts overwhelm his own, Pope draws on them to evoke a particular response from his readers and shape our perception of Dulness and her minions. It is through these allusions that Pope establishes the apocalyptic tone that is coextensive with the conclusion to his poem. In “On Looking into Pope’s Milton”, Barbara K. Lewalski pointedly notes how the addition of book four to The Dunciad provided Pope with a “new focus” that “brings Miltonic materials pertaining to Chaos, Ancient Night, God, the Son, and Satan into prominence” (41-2). Pope’s poem becomes more cosmic, more mythic: “this is no longer mock-epic” Lewalski argues, “it is at least in part an anti-epic of demonic epic, a Paradise Lost with the dark powers wholly triumphant” (42). She overstates her case in saying the four-book Dunciad has none of the mock-epic left in it, but its allusions clearly go far beyond that. It is worth reiterating that these thematic allusions are not wholly different in kind than the atmospheric allusions discussed above: what sets this second category apart is the extensive use that Pope gets out of them and the degree to which he lets the Miltonic context interact with his poem.

Book IV opens with a passage steeped in Miltonic characters and ideas: there are at least four Miltonic references within the first twenty lines and its notes[1]. The opening lines of Book IV are at a sensitive position where they profoundly influence the thematic tone of the rest of the book. Taking advantage of this, Pope draws from Milton extensively here: he layers allusions within allusions in a manner that explicitly connects his poem to Milton’s without leaving the bounds that he sets. In lieu of the traditional invocation to the Muse, the poet opens with a call to the parents of Dulness. He says,

Yet, yet a moment, one dim Ray of Light

Indulge, dread Chaos, and eternal Night!

Of darkness visible so much be lent, 

As half to shew, half veil the deep Intent.

Ye Pow’rs! Whose mysteries restor’d I sing,

To whom Time bears me on his rapid wing[2],

Suspend a while your Force inertly strong,

Then take at once the Poet and the Song. (4.1-8)

Note first that he calls on Milton’s Chaos and Night. This evokes, quite purposefully, the whole ethos of Milton’s world outside of God and God’s creation. Chaos, for Milton, exists in this primordial abyss, in some sense external and prior to God’s creative activity. It is a return to this pre-creative state that Satan promises in return for passage through Chaos to earth. From the realm of Chaos come what Milton calls the “dark materials” (2.916) out of which God creates all things. Satan, as he looks into this abyss, sees “The secrets of the hoarie deep” (2.891), and these secrets inform the “mysteries restor’d” of which Pope sings. Before he actually journeys into the abyss, Satan describes Night who, should anyone dare enter her realm, “receives him next / Wide gaping, and with utter loss of being / Threatens him, Plung’d in that abortive gulf” (2.439-42). Pope has echoed this language throughout The Dunciad in speaking of Dulness and the dunces’ anti-creative labors: consider Cibber, in a “vast profound,” around whom “much Embryo, much Abortion lay” (1.118-121). Pope pointedly does not put forward his own counterparts to Chaos and Night that would allow for the comic disparity seen in the atmospheric allusions: Chaos and Night here remain purely Miltonic. All of this material at work behind this invocation charges Pope’s context with implications of Milton’s realm of Chaos.

Pope goes a step further, for he calls on Chaos and Night to “one dim Ray of Light / Indulge” (4.1-2), parodying Milton’s invocation to Light at the opening of Book III of Paradise Lost. There, Milton says,

Hail holy light, offspring of Heav’n first-born,

Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam

May I express thee unblam’d? since God is light,

And never but in unapproached light

Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in thee,

Bright effluence of bright essence increate. (Milton PL 3.1-6)

At first glance, the contrast—that mock-epic disjunction—between the two invocations gives Pope’s passage some of its force. Pope invokes the parents of Dulness rather than Dulness herself just as Milton invokes Light rather than God. Milton of course recognizes the divide between himself and God, and his physical blindness further informs the discrepancy between himself and Light. Pope, too, recognizes his weakness and inability to act before Chaos, Night, and Dulness, for they will “take at once the Poet and the Song” (4.8). More, the light that he invokes turns out to be the same “darkness visible” that paradoxically illuminates Milton’s Hell (1.63). But Pope’s passage goes beyond this mock-epic tension: the elaborate, multi-layered allusions signal something much more significant is at work here. By so variously connecting Dulness and his own poetic inspiration to Milton’s Chaos, Night, and Hell, Pope thoroughly charges the opening of this book with the thematic cosmos of Paradise Lost. The key difference between this allusion and the earlier atmospheric allusions is that the extended identification of the duncical with the Miltonic prevents any discrepancy between the two from wholly undercutting Pope’s material. There is not the clear disproportion between them seen in the example of Busby, for instance. While the mock-epic relationship is superficially established, it is not allowed to come to fruition and control the relationship between Pope’s original and his Miltonic referent. Instead, the Miltonic here carefully informs Pope’s world, identifying his Dulness with all the grim terror of Milton’s Chaos and Night.[3] Dulness, as she expands and begins to overwhelm philosophy, religion, and culture, is not undercut in any clear way by Chaos, Night, and Hell as happens to Busby by Moloch. Dulness is a near equal to her parents.

An allusion at the cusp of the triumph of Dulness towards the close of Book IV corroborates the points above and will help develop them further. Again, at a sensitive location in the action of the poem, this other elaborate Miltonic allusion helps Pope control his reader’s perspective on Dulness as she begins to bring all culture under her sway. After Dulness yawns and Britain begins to fall to sleep, Pope calls on the Muse to help him recount those who drift off. He says,

O Muse! relate (for you can tell alone,

Wits have short Memories, and Dunces none)

Relate, who first, who last resign’d to rest;

Whose Heads she partly, whose completely blest . . . . (4.619-23)

First, this is particularly funny in the way it exemplifies its own claim: Pope repeats himself, as if, by the end of his parenthetical statement, he’s forgotten that he already called on the Muse to relate. But something of a more serious undertone draws its force from Paradise Lost where Milton portrays the fallen angels, recently cast out of Heaven into Hell, as they begin to wake. Milton says,

Say, Muse, their Names then known, who first, who last,

Rous’d from the slumber, on that fiery Couch

At their great Emperor’s call. . . . (1.376-78)

At work here is a distinct inversion (but not primarily a comic parody) of the Miltonic source material. Milton shows us the fallen angels after days of lying senseless on the floor of Hell as they begin to rouse and recover from that terrible blow of God’s wrath. It is notably Satan’s call that causes them to stir. Pope’s Dulness plays the role of God, not punishing but blessing; her dunces are faithful to her, not rebellious, and they fall to slumber where the demons after falling into Hell rise again. But the allusions to Dulness-as-Satan are not completely forgotten, and she here inverts Satan’s call to wake the demons: she yawns and puts them to sleep. While this allusion is less elaborate than that which opens the fourth book, it draws a close parallel between the actions of these two poems and their principal characters. There is certainly a first-blush comic element borne out of the image of Dulness putting to sleep, but where this in a different context might remain merely a mock-epic parody, the somber reality that this is the death of culture prevents that comic aspect from being fully realized. This, again at particularly sensitive point in The Dunciad, draws on the likewise particularly sensitive first introduction to Satan and the other devils in Paradise Lost. Addison, Pope’s contemporary, had noted in his papers for the Spectator that this passage in Milton is pivotal in shaping the whole view of Satan (170). Pope then inverts the whole structure of Paradise Lost in The Dunciad by concluding with the parallel image of Dulness at the very close of his

It is this type of allusion that forms the bedrock of Aubrey Williams’s assessment of the poem, and they rebut Griffin’s attempt to find in Pope’s Miltonic allusions solely depictions of the dunces as laughingstocks. It is not merely or firstly comedy that is at work in these thematic allusions. In his Preface to Pope, I.R.F. Gordon aptly describes the conclusion of Book IV as particularly diabolical: “Dullness’s victory has a profoundly evil, even Satanic force. She is the ‘great Anarch’ just as Satan in Paradise Lost, which was never very far from Pope’s mind, is the ‘great Adversary’” (157). He rightly notes the palpable sense of evil in the last lines of the poem. Dulness’s call to sleep closely ties her to Satan’s actions and likewise inverts God’s call into being from Genesis. Gordon unhappily misidentifies Pope’s epithet in the last couplet of the poem, for the Anarch there is certainly Milton’s Chaos, not Satan, but rather than softening the diabolical seriousness of Dulness, this identification further solidifies Pope’s intentional association between Dulness’s victory and Milton’s realm of Chaos. It also undercuts Wiliams’s tendency to identify Dulness and Satan on a consistent one-to-one basis, but Dulness’s opposition to the creative order of Milton’s God is even stronger than Gordon and Williams believe.

 The Limits of Allusion

Some via media is needed between critics who follow Williams’s interpretive methodology and those, on the other hand, like Griffin, who too narrowly focus on the comic. In the latter camp, Leopold Damrosch, Jr., for example, argues that even at its most cosmic The Dunciad’s anti-creative strain—a strain so thoroughly informed by Milton—functions “satirically rather than metaphysically” (266). At odds with Gordon cited above, Damrosch unwaveringly insists that “a genuinely Satanic vision of evil [is] absent from the Dunciad” (266). Such a view, however, cannot save the appearances of Pope’s elaborate integration of his Dulness with Milton’s Chaos and Night. As Frederick Keener has observed in his insightful comments on The Dunciad in An Essay on Pope, even at this grim end Pope may still call upon one muse, Satyr, who has not wholly fallen prey to Dulness, and she is still “somehow capable of beneficent action” (99). It is a satire, however, of an impending metaphysical doom, and Pope alternately brings to bear Miltonic seriousness and his own comedy in crafting this conclusive book. By paying close attention to the nuances among Pope’s allusions to Milton and parsing the differences between these two categories of allusions, perhaps the first few steps toward a middle way can be found.

From only the few examples discussed above (though they are largely representative of Pope’s use of Milton) what seems most striking is the careful control Pope exerts on each Miltonic allusion to attain precisely the effect most useful to his poem and his themes at any given moment. Pope sharply delineates what of Milton’s original material is allowed into The Dunciad: in the atmospheric allusions, the Miltonic is sharply curbed and often far removed from its original context: recall how little Pope actually borrows from Milton in his description of Busby. In the thematic allusions, Pope draws much more deeply but still carefully shapes the Miltonic themes even as he adopts and utilizes them. Pope is, if nothing else, a careful craftsman. Williams’s view rests on the basic assumption that Milton’s themes enter into The Dunciad whenever Pope alludes to Milton, but such is simply not the case: Pope always limits and controls his uses of Milton.

Another example of an atmospheric allusion from early in Book IV demonstrates this. Coming before her dunces, the poet tells us that Dulness “mounts the Throne: her head a Cloud conceal’d, / In broad Effulgence all below reveal’d” (4.17-18). This reiterates an image Pope has used throughout the poem of Dulness clouded, but this passage in particular recalls Satan upon his return to Hell after successfully tempting Adam and Eve: He “invisible / Ascended his high Throne” and then “At last as from a Cloud his fulgent head / And shape Star-bright appear’d” (Milton 10.444-45, 449-50). The obvious parallels invite contrast: Satan here returns thinking himself victorious, expecting the resounding cheers of his compatriot devils. What greets him, however, is a hiss as they all are transformed to serpents. In The Dunciad, the poet has explicitly told us that he sings now of Dulness’s triumph and she likewise, thinking herself victorious, is enthroned. This is exemplary of Pope’s portrayal of Dulness as a diabolical force: he sticks closely to the Satanic precedent in Dulness’s appearance and action. While this particular allusion does not rely on the typical mock-epic disproportion, much of the seriousness is sharply undercut by the ribaldry inherent in the clouds concealment of her face only while, it is implied, her nether regions are exposed. This inversion—for of course it is Satan’s head that is revealed in the Miltonic original—sharply limits how much of Satan’s character enters into Dulness’s portrayal by the inclusion of this ridiculous element. In its context within The Dunciad, this occurs at a serious moment when otherwise the emphasis is on the impending apocalypse that attends to Dulness’s empire restored. Pope is able to use a Satanic allusion—which at first blush should recapitulate that apocalyptic seriousness—to soften Dulness’s diabolical victory with a comic effect.

The same careful control is apparent in the first eight lines of Book IV discussed above. This thematic allusion—or rather this cluster of allusions—importantly establishes much of the cosmic tone of Book IV through its Miltonic referents, as discussed above. In the midst of that passage, however, Pope leaves the epic precedent of Paradise Lost:

Ye Pow’rs! Whose mysteries restor’d I sing,

To whom Time bears me on his rapid wing,

Suspend a while your Force inertly strong,

Then take at once the Poet and the Song. (4.5-8)

The sixth line leaves the context of Paradise Lost and echoes Sonnet VII by Milton in which he bemoans “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, / Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year!” (1-2). Despite little to show for increasing age, Milton defends himself by saying that he is led “To that same lot, however mean or high, / Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven” (11-12). Pope’s echo is subtle, borrowing obliquely the notion of a winged Time leading toward something significant. As Pope makes use of this sonnet, it serves a variety of functions, not the least of which is simply to interrupt the otherwise menacing allusions to Paradise Lost with a much more mundane allusion to Milton’s birthday. At least part of Milton’s concern in his sonnet regards poetic achievement or lack thereof; his response at the end of the sonnet is that such things are in the hands of Heaven. Pope adopts this subject of poetic achievement, and this Miltonic allusion helps to shift from Chaos and Night to Pope himself. He draws attention to his act of singing and to his impending defeat: Chaos and Night shall “take at once the Poet and the Song”. The effect of this allusion is first to jar rather violently, for it stands in stark contrast to the preceding allusions to Paradise Lost. That jarring distracts from the cosmic implications of Chaos and Night that Pope raises in the first two couplets.

Something akin to the mock-epic disproportion is at work here, though Pope does not blatantly mock himself nor is Milton’s sonnet at all an epic precedent. Pope is being swept toward these powers of Chaos, Night, and Dulness, and his poetic achievement is this selfsame Dunciad; Milton is swept toward some fate predestined by Heaven, and his poetic achievement, in retrospect, is Paradise Lost. That tension between Pope and Milton is only the secondary effect, though, and the first is, as stated, to knock the reader’s focus away from the thematic implications of his allusions to Chaos and Night. Those cosmic themes are not smothered by this secondary allusion, but they seem blunted by the counterpoint, as it were, that moves the poem in an unexpected direction. One of Pope’s goals is certainly to draw attention to his own act of writing The Dunciad in the face of Dulness, but it is also a powerful tool with which Pope can control and soften the effect of the earlier allusion without undercutting or contradicting it. This allows him to maintain the apocalyptic implications of the restoration of Milton’s Chaos and Night with all the accompanying danger in their undoing the creative work of Milton’s God, while he simultaneously limits the effect of that Miltonic stuff on the reader as if by a feint in a different direction. This analysis perhaps makes too much of a brief allusion to a minor poem, but it is precisely because it is such a curiously placed allusion to a minor poem that it demands attention.

The critical question regarding the limits of Pope’s Miltonic allusions does not so much concern how far back into the Miltonic original we ought to read based on these allusions in The Dunciad; instead, the question becomes where Pope places the limits that shape our reading of them. At his best, Pope successfully crafts these allusions to be self-limiting. In the example just discussed, he uses the interplay between the larger thematic allusion and this smaller, briefer atmospheric allusion to govern our response. When discovered, the limits he puts in place provide the right balance between the diabolical seriousness implied by the thematic Miltonic allusions and the comic mockery created by the majority of the mock-epic atmospheric allusions. To overshoot these carefully established limits leads to the critical issues discussed above. For the critics like Williams and Gordon, to miss Pope’s restrictions on his own thematic allusions lets in too much of the Miltonic background, and so they resultantly read the anti-creative, anti-Christian elements at work in Chaos and Night to be overwhelming in The Dunciad. To limit Pope’s allusions too soon is to entirely miss that real seriousness at work and, like Griffin and Damrosch, to overemphasize the comic mock-epic effect and treat it as absolute.

Book IV of The Dunciad provides a structure for Pope to take advantage of these Miltonic precedents without letting them run rampant. Though this survey has been by necessity limited, the others of Pope’s Miltonic allusions throughout the poem do likewise fall into these two categories and so can be helpfully understood in that light. While I believe there remains further work to be done to better understand these different types of allusions and the uses Pope makes of them, the central distinction seems valuable in understanding Pope’s use of Milton. To rightly interpret these allusions, one must be attentive to the limitations Pope has established. It is through these limited allusions that Pope shapes his characters, Dulness and her dunces. For all that he says he will be swept away by their empire restored, Pope, with apparent ease, manages to control Milton, Chaos, Night, and Dulness. A recognition and appreciation of that control can begin to unlock some of what Pope does with these many Miltonic allusions.








Works cited

Addison, Joseph. “Notes Upon the Twelve Books of Paradise Lost”. Milton: The Critical

Heritage. Ed. John T. Shawcross. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970. Print.

Damrosch Jr., Leopold. The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope. Berkeley: University of

California, 1987. Print.

Gordon, I.R.F. A Preface to Pope. New York: Longman, 1976. Print.

Griffin, Dustin. Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge:

Cambridge UP, 1986. Print.

Keener, Frederick M. An Essay on Pope. New York: Columbia, 1974.

Kinsley, William. “Physico-Demonology in Pope’s ‘Dunciad’.” Modern Language Review 70.1

(1975): 20-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.

Lewalski, Barbara. “On Looking into Pope’s Milton.” Milton Studies 11 (1978): 29–50. Print.

Milton, John. “Sonnet VII: How Soon Hath Time”. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Upper

Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1957. Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.

Pope, Alexander. The Dunciad in Four Books. Ed. Valerie Rumbold. New York: Pearson, 2009.


Rumbold, Valerie. “Milton’s Epic and Pope’s Satyr Play: “Paradise Lost” in “The Dunciad in Four

Books.” Milton Quarterly 38.3 (2004): 138-162. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22

Oct. 2015.

Shawcross, John T. Milton: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan

Paul, 1970. Print.

Williams, Aubrey. Pope’s Dunciad: A Study of its Meaning. London: Methuen, 1955. Print.


[1] I am indebted to Valerie Rumbold for the careful cataloguing of Pope’s allusions to Milton that she provides in her article “Milton’s Epic and Pope’s Satyr Play”.

[2] This sixth line is an allusion to a sonnet by Milton and demonstrates the earlier comment about how readily in this book Pope leaves the more epic context of Paradise Lost. This allusion will be further discussed below.

[3] The discrepancy between these passages does provide something of a comic element: rather than a clear disproportion between Pope’s themes and characters and Milton’s themes and characters, there is something similar to the mock-epic tension between Pope himself as speaker in The Dunciad and Milton as poet in Paradise Lost. However, it is notably not Pope that is denigrated by the allusion. It is rather comical to note this: Milton invokes light with this prayer because he is neither so proud nor so holy as to be able to express Light and God rightly; Pope, however, has to beg darkness off of Chaos because, presumably, he’s neither dim nor dull enough to express Dulness without aid. This attention to the comic attends even the most serious of these thematic allusions.

, , ,

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: