The Head of the Dunce in Pope’s Dunciad in Four Books
Alexander Pope’s 1743 Dunciad in Four Books and its preceding iterations were a reaction to rapidly shifting eighteenth-century culture. With the rise of Grub Street hack writers and undeserving Poet Laureates like Lewis Theobald and Colley Cibber, Pope saw the fall of British civilization. The mock-epic Dunciad portrays this degradation with the progress of the goddess Dulness through London and her eventual and inevitable return of Britain to darkness and chaos. Many of Pope’s contemporaries are depicted as acolytes of Dulness, with a complex footnote system explicating their inclusion on the basis of their works, political alignments, education, patronage, or even disagreements with Pope. These representations of eighteenth-century print culture are not only comedic on an individual level; rather, they participate in and reinforce Pope’s overarching satire. Within this context, the following study closely examines Pope’s satirical construction of the “dunce-head” with a particular focus on the physical aspects of the skulls of the dunces. The facial features of the dunces, whether dull, twisting, or asinine, are the most obvious visual indicators of Dulness. However, the satire is extended by Pope’s conception of the skull as a physical container, in which the brain fluids of the dunces are no better than lead or brass. The mud, owls, poets’ bays, and other materials perched on the dunces’ crowns also contribute to the parody. Finally, Pope’s establishment of the dunce-head as a passive object, with the few notable exceptions such as its propensity for noise-making, concludes the study. These crucial visual signifiers and their combination with Pope’s complex abstract conception of Dulness shifts the dunce-head from mere caricature and mocked object to a satirical symbol. The Dunciad, a brilliant lampoon of eighteenth century print culture, has an archetypal skull at the center of its satire: the dull, braying, filth-covered dunce-head.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
Copyright DateAugust 2013