Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 Mar 2016

Pope and Dryden – don’t mess with the Mafia


Then Charles the Second swung down from the trees
And it was sexual medley time
And the only verses they wanted
Were epigrams an Chloe's breasts
But I only got published on the back of her left knee-cap.
Next came Pope and Dryden
So I went underground.
Don't mess with the Mafia.

(from Adrian Mitchell’s The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry Penguin Modern Poets 22 1973)


In 1973 I was just entering my second year as an English Literature undergraduate at Bangor University and I was busy thanking God that we had finally seen off Edmund Spencer, Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney. What I didn’t know was that I was just about to run headlong into the Augustans. I had a fleeting familiarity with Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock but I hadn’t even begun to get to grips with the idea of the mock-heroic and I most certainly wasn’t prepared for being dipped into a school of writers who were clearly all busy wishing themselves back to the Classical world. Just how many translations of Homer do we really need?

This could have gone badly for me. Epic poems written in rhyming couplets that went on for page after page just looked like a snore-fest to a stupid 19 year old who had never encountered this stuff before. But, miracle of miracles, I was saved: saved by an academic who could really communicate. Running in parallel with the course on Augustan Poetry was a complementary set of lectures clumsily called ‘The Literature of Ideas’. This was, in fact, an introduction to what might best be described as the Augustan world-view. A mix of social and cultural history, this was a riveting display of learning that set my imagination alight and gave me an access to the Augustan mind that I simply couldn’t have got anywhere else at that time. The lecturer was Dr Pat Rogers and I didn’t know it at the time but we were in the hands of someone who would go on to be a world authority on the subject of Augustan literature and culture.

Unexpectedly, not just the poetry but the politics of the poetry unfolded in front of me. This was literature as weapon of choice and there were no holds barred when it came to destroying your enemy’s reputation. This was an age that was suspicious of innovation, that was appalled by the idea of spontaneity and saw inspiration as something that needed to be treated as if it were an unexploded bomb. What the Augustans wanted was refinement – for them all the great ideas had already been written and it was your job to refine and improve on the classical canon. True learning and true understanding  should the goal of any writer and their spleen was reserved in special measure for authors who aped those with real ability and affected wisdom when they were in fact stupid.

In such a world satire found fertile ground to flourish and very few could match the deft pen of Alexander Pope and, before him, John Dryden. I grew to love the waspish poison they could bring down on the heads of their enemies – the poor saps they hated just didn’t stand a chance. Here’s a particularly good example from Dryden after he fell out with his fellow poet Thomas Shadwell :


All human things are subject to decay,

And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:

This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young

Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:

In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute

Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute……


Mature in dullness from his tender years.

Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he

Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.

The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,

But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,

Strike through and make a lucid interval;

But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,

His rising fogs prevail upon the day:

( John Dryden MacFlecknoe 1678)



Ouch! And there’s plenty more of that too. But Dryden was a novice at this compared to Pope. I think it’s fair to say that Pope was not a happy man – small and with a physical disability that gave him both bodily, psychic and social discomfort – there were times when he steered very close to misanthropy rather than satire. But he was, in my view, responsible for one of the towering pieces of Augustan literature and a masterpiece of satire which he called The Dunciad. John Mullen writing in The Guardian back in 2008 called it the best unread poem in the English language – and I think he may be right on both counts. This is an extended venting of rage aimed at his enemies in the literary and cultural circles of the time but, much more importantly, it’s a diatribe against the crass stupidity of popular culture and what he refers to as the spirit of ‘dullness’. What he means by dullness is the shallow, dumbed-down cult of celebrity that was as intrusive and commonplace in 18th century England as it is now. In much the same way as Dryden had attacked Shadwell a generation before, Pope goes for his contemporaries too – and it’s great fun if you’re prepared to put in the background work of identifying the second-raters and dimwits Pope has his eye on.

I’m not suggesting that this is an easy read because it isn’t. It is, though, a neglected read and one which has an awful lot to say to us today. If you have the time and curiosity to spare I can recommend finding out more about the Augustans generally and I can do you no better favour than to recommend Dr Pat Roger’s accessible and stimulating book The Augustan Vision - copies of which are available second hand on Abebooks.


Terry Potter

March 2016