Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

A Mock-Biblical Controversy: Sir Richard Blackmore in the 'Dunciad.'

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

A Mock-Biblical Controversy: Sir Richard Blackmore in the 'Dunciad.'

Article excerpt

Why does Sir Richard Blackmore play such a prominent role in all the versions of Alexander Pope's Dunciad? Isn't Pope's legendary malice most likely at work here, pillorying a figure who, even in his own lifetime, had begun the slide into becoming the curiosity piece and even laughing stock that he has probably been now for the entirety of his poetic reputation? Indeed, the 1728 Dunciad is barely three months old when the anonymous author of Characters of the Times is puzzled at Pope's beating of a dead horse: "Sir Richard," he writes, "has not for many Years been so much as nam'd, or even thought of among Writers, as such; and whom no one except P-pe, would have had Ill-nature enough to revive."(1) Pope betrays his own sensitivity to the imputation of malice in his treatment of Blackmore by a most revealing manipulation of this comment when he first introduces it, in the pseudo-documentation of the 1729 version, at the conclusion of the Noise Contest, which the braying Blackmore decisively wins. Because Pope wholly eliminates the last clause of the comment - "and whom no one except P-pe would have had Ill-nature enough to revive" - he transforms the censure of his malice into an apparently concurring judgment about Blackmore's lack of literary worth and reputation. Pope as spin doctor.(2)

Yet, the publication of the 1728 Dunciad only begins a fifteen-year interval that witnesses the expansion of this initially brief, unannotated three-book version into an astonishingly lengthened, apparatus-crammed, pseudo-scholarly four-book version. During fourteen of these fifteen years, Sir Richard Blackmore is dead - a dead horse, indeed. The succinct resume of the publication history of this poem provided by Douglas Brooks-Davies underscores the puzzle, for "from 1728 to 1743," he reminds us,

Pope worked on and modified The Dunciad intermittently. . . . During those years lines were altered, passages rewritten, elaborate footnotes appended, and, eventually, a new book, twice as long as any of the others, was published separately in 1742 and then added to the existing three-book poem in 1743.(3)

Throughout all these changes, however, Sir Richard Blackmore not only retains his place, but from 1729 on plays a markedly expanded role as one of the most prominent characters in the poem. Blackmore's death in October 1729 does not prompt Pope to reconsider that role despite the numerous changes he subsequently introduces. In the 1735 version, in his Works, for example, Pope alters the lineup of the Dunces in their various activities, reshuffles his footnotes accordingly, and, for good measure, adds William Arnall because of his attack on Pope three years before.(4) Surely, if Pope had wanted to substitute for Blackmore any dunce with a two-syllable name, the London Yellow Pages would have provided countless possibilities. Why, then, does Richard Blackmore retain this preeminence among the Dunces even into the final 1743 version of the poem? As Pope himself asks in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"

At least two contemporary critics have engaged this issue. John Sitter's 1971 study The Poetry of Pope's Dunciad is quite aware of this charge. But Sitter nonetheless argues for the artistic and critical cogency of Blackmore's remaining presence. Pope and Blackmore, he points out, had long been engaged in a dispute about the nature of epic poetry. If the last Dunciad is the most accomplished mock-epic, even epic, version of that poem, then from Sitter's perspective that final Dunciad extensively and ludicrously embodies Blackmore's vision of epic poetry.(5) Brooks-Davies' 1985 study of what he calls Pope's "emotional Jacobitism" explains Blackmore's presence and prominence in the 1729 Dunciad as a satiric response to Blackmore's service to the Whiggish William Ill and the "grossest hypocrisy" of his epic on the Stuart Queen Anne."(6)

In this essay, however, I am suggesting a reason for Blackmore's prominence that might have engaged more of an eighteenth-century audience and been of more immediate concern to them than a dispute over the nature of epic poetry (although Sitter's claim strikes me as very cogent). …

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