Annotating a Career: From Pope's Homer to the Dunciad: From Madame Dacier to Madame Dacier by Way of Swift

By Weinbrot, Howard D. | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Annotating a Career: From Pope's Homer to the Dunciad: From Madame Dacier to Madame Dacier by Way of Swift


Weinbrot, Howard D., Philological Quarterly


Pope's career has both a literary and political shape. It moves from Windsor Forest's (1713) Stuart, Bolingbrokean, Virgilian georgic optimism to the final Dunciad's (1743) Hanoverian, Walpolean, inverted epic pessimism. The benevolent, civilizing, imperial and commercial expansion after the Treaty of Utrecht requires echoes from Isaiah, the georgics, and many English poems celebrating the end of a long, divisive, bloody war triumphantly concluded by a Tory administration. The Dunciad in Four Books concludes with universal darkness burying the shards of a crumbling culture as the Britain of George II and Sir Robert Walpole returns to primeval darkness and chaos. Stuart Tory resurrection yields to Hanoverian Whig crucifixion.

This outline nonetheless can be supplemented by an equally rich and compelling epitome--namely, the movement from Pope's editorial machinery in his translation of the Iliad (1715-20) to the editorial machinery in his own epic, Dunciad (1728-43). The texts in this progress clearly overlap in part and in chronology: Pope began to circulate Proposals for a Translation of Homer's Iliad in 1713; the last edition of that translation in Pope's lifetime appeared in 1743 and like The Dunciad placed its notes at the foot of the page. For much of 1742, in fact, William Warburton helps Pope both to revise the preface and life of Homer and to conceptualize Book 4 of The Dunciad and write notes for it. Given such confluence, Pope scarcely could fail to think of his Iliad and final Dunciad as different if related paths to the epic way, each later guided by his "learned Friend." (1)

In the first case, Pope's annotations for the Iliad anchor and reflect a brilliant and learned young poet's maturing career; they also both exemplify and embody a large, vibrant, and civil world of European arts and letters. Pope submerges and cleanses various surly debates within the larger cause of a thriving poetic and intellectual tradition. This cause is further vivified by modern Pope's synthesizing voice and creative perceptions of how ancient Homer made his great epic. In 1742 George Turnbull warmly praised the notes as "true criticism" and the model of how to discuss the classics. Samuel Johnson later adds that Pope's notes "attract the reader by the pleasure of perusal" and "vary entertainment." (2)

When Pope argues it generally is muted and often is with Madame Anne Le Fevre Dacier, the learned, deservedly prominent French translator, annotator and polemicist whom, contrary to some recent remarks, he respectfully and collegially engages. (3) Avuncular Pope debates matriarchal Dacier and finds that they are related and share common traits. This was not an insight he could have made for his Dunciad and its disruption and disfunction rather than continuity and friendly fire.

1. AN ANNOTATOR'S MODE OF PROCEEDING

Pope confidently guides the readers of his Iliad in appropriate directions. As he says regarding an interpretation, "I believe an impartial reader who considers the two places will be of the same opinion" as Pope and certain "ancient criticks." (4) He earns the right to expect such assent in several ways. For example, Pope's chief poetic citations are from Virgil and Milton; his chief supporting scholarly citations are from the twelfth-century Greek Bishop Eustathius and the eighteenth-century French Madame Dacier as virtual collaborators in Pope's difficult and extensive task. He also includes a vast body of other ancient and modern poets, commentators, editors, and parallel passages.

Pope's legion of references and authorities both illumines Homer and creates a narrator whose learning and fairness we come to trust and whose character we come to admire. Pope's catalogue of some 200 authorities from several nations ranges from Accius to Zenophanes, includes twenty three books of the Bible and representatives as different as Moses and Hobbes, Lucretius and St. Jerome, Aristotle and Tasso, Ovid and Milton, Euripides and Shakespeare. …

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