Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” I: The Poem

41qeza3nmil._sx322_bo12c2042c2032c200_Vladimir Nabokov’s ingenious Pale Fire, one of the world’s great postmodernist novels, consists of two parts: an autobiographical poem of 999 lines in heroic couplets — the same format Alexander Pope uses — ostensibly by one John Francis Shade prior to his death, and the commentary ostensibly supplied by his ostensible friend, neighbor, and literary executor, a Dr. Charles Kinbote.

The bulk of the novel is the latter half, the commentary, and at the end of his Foreword he advises not reading the poem without having read the commentary apparatus first. Unfortunately, his reliability as a narrator is a little less than stellar, and by taking this advice we would be forced to read the poem entirely through his lens. Let us therefore ignore this advice wholesale and read the poem Pale Fire by itself, without Kinbote’s commentary apparatus, both to appreciate it on its own merits and to get as unvarnished a view into Shade’s character as Nabokov makes possible.

The first thing we notice about Pale Fire is that it is most certainly not a Modernist poem: its format, the heroic couplet, rests on iambic pentameter, a mode of poetry William Carlos Williams had declared obsolete just a decade prior, and heroic couplets themselves had long since fallen out of favor in most “serious” poetic efforts. By having Shade favor this kind of versification, Nabokov makes him very much a throwback.

Nabokov is also quite skilled at executing the format — though nowhere near as skilled as its old masters (e.g. Alexander Pope and John Dryden) were. Individual efforts positively sparkle, such as

Who’d seen the Pope, people in books, and God (85),


I never bounced a ball or swung a bat (130).

That said, while Pale Fire does occasionally achieve that sparkle so strongly associated with its format, it is hardly perfect. One can argue how much of this is Nabokov’s own defects as a poet, and how much character development given these verses’ putative author, but one of the subtler features of heroic couplets are their completeness of phrasing. Thoughts don’t generally end mid-line (which also contributes to it having an extraordinarily high count of end-stopped lines). Pale Fire is unable to do so, however, with sentences — and paragraphs — frequently ending mid-line, e.g.

Bicycle tires.
Bicycle tires. A thread of subtle pain (138-9).

Pale Fire’s 999 lines are arranged into four stanzas. Kinbote believes the last line repeats the first, a conjecture supported by the rhyme scheme (lane / slain). Something of an extended ode, or perhaps epic in the manner of highly autobiographical poetry in the American tradition (cf. Whitman’s Song of Myself or Ginsberg’s Howl), the poem itself is built around a lifetime of experiences, mostly crystallized into a theme of life, death, and loss.

Canto I begins with

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,

rather recalling (prefiguring?) Maya Angelou’s famous “I know why the caged bird sings”, and from the early imagery of birds, Shade proceeds into his heat: the death of Aunt Maud, the first real family figure in his life. Death thus forms Pale Fire’s first, and most prominent, thematic strain.

In Canto II, Shade meets and falls in love with his wife in the memorable quatrain

Sybil, throughout our high-school days I knew
Your loveliness, but I fell in love with you
During an outing of the entire senior class
To New Wye Falls. We luncheoned on damp grass. 

The entire section is Shade at his best, including the subtle internal assonance of cataract and romantic in the following quatrain.

They meet, marry, and have a child together. Their daughter, though, has a hard life — not particularly attractive, she never succeeds at love, and after a particularly disastrous blind date

. . . . . . she, instead
Of riding home, got off at Lochanhead (401-2),

setting up a tension between the question of her fate and the scene of touching domesticity between himself and Sybil Shade maintains for nearly a hundred lines, only ending in the dénouement beginning with

And a patrol car on our bumpy road … (486),

where we find out that no, the young missus will not be coming home anymore.

If death thematically dominates Pale Fire’s first half, then responses to it dominate the second — most prominently, rebirth, a theme heavily developed in Canto III, one which opens with an account of a semester spent giving a seminar at one “Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter” (IPH), a place of which Shade expresses the sentiment

. . . . . . I really could not tell
The difference between this place and Hell (621-2).

The IPH experience tantalizes a ghost in ll. 645-664, but one that anticlimatically resolves in the ebb stretching to l. 682, where the Canto’s second half begins — with an account of a near-death experience, one apparently paralleled by another’s, and a futile follow-up visit with the discovery that the apparent parallel is founded on little more than a typo.

Despite Kinbote’s claims otherwise, Canto IV is obviously unfinished. The theme of death and dealing with the ultimate finality, which has sustained the rest of the poem, is nowhere present here. Its heaviness is gone. Instead, we get a silly, almost Groundhog Day-esque snapshot of the poet’s daily life and creative process. The contrast is jarring — the mood of the poem does a complete 180. It is as if we’re looking at a canto from an entirely separate poem affixed to the end of three cantos of sustained melancholy.

Yes, strains of rebirth pervade Canto III, and poetic creation is a kind of birth, but the transition is woefully incomplete. There’s a certain sense here of where Shade was intending to go, but Canto IV is a good draft or two away from realizing the fullness of its late creator’s vision.* (This must be deliberate on Nabokov’s part.)

Pale Fire shows the depth of Nabokov’s genius — both in prose and in poetry** — and, by applying the heroic couplet to the life of a putative poet of his generation, demonstrates (contre Williams) its continuing vitality as a format — should we let it be — in this day and age.

However, the poem is only half of the novel. The other half is the commentary on it, and here we will embark on a more in-depth examination of its most important character, the very Dr. Charles Kinbote who we so assiduously ignored this whole post, and from whom we can already detect a certain strain of narcissism — for hasn’t perusal of the thing he wished us ignore already been fruitful?

* An interesting counterargument here is that this snap between Cantos III and IV is reflective of a depressed Shade’s decision to commit suicide (by proxy?), in which case Pale Fire’s plot is thrown into even more uncertainty than it already is.

** Reminding us of Nabokov’s translation sins. As Borges reminds us in This Craft of Verse, Nabokov’s approach would have been considered “a crime” prior to the 19th century.


Seats of Civilizations Never to Be

Cradles of Unmade Civilizations?

It has long bothered me that the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers never became centers of agriculture the way the Tigris, Ganges, Indus, and Nile did. It implies a question: well, why not? After all, both the Colorado and Rio Grande basins are, like their Middle Eastern cousins, dependable streams in harsh environments. And arguments that they are unsuitable for crop production for this or that reason don’t really sway me: these are river systems powered by snowmelt from the Rockies, after all, implying they should have regular seasonal flooding cycles … just as the Tigris is powered by snowmelt from the Zagros, and the Indus by snowmelt from the knot of mountains where the Himalayas, Tian Shan, and Hindu Kush all meet just above Kashmir.

From a geographic perspective, the Colorado and Rio Grande basins certainly seem optimal for the development of complex civilization. Indeed, we find the beginnings of this in the remains of various pueblo societies: perhaps the most developed was the Hohokam canal network in the Gila River valley (the Gila being a tributary of the Colorado), but it is also true that the Patayan culture practiced early floodplain agriculture in the lower Colorado valley and delta, various Pueblo peoples stretched all the way from the Grand Canyon area in the west (a Pueblo ruin is in fact partly submerged by Lake Mead) to the uppermost reaches of the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Pecos — the Pecos itself being named after a pueblo — and the Mogollon culture broadly occupied an area west of the Rio Grande north of its tributary the Conchos, west to the uppermost basins of the Sonora and Yaquí rivers in Mexico. Various Uto-Aztecan peoples in contact with the region had also adopted an early agriculture to supplement their diet, remains which can be found into the Sierra Nevada.

All of this suggests that the state of play of Oasisamerica at contact provides a valuable insight into how the Fertile Crescent became the Fertile Crescent. We know, for example, from archaeology that the oldest ruins are not found in the lowlands of the Tigris, Euphrates, or the Nile, but rather in the Anatolian highlands — the most famous of such sites being Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe and including settlements such as Jericho (famously the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city).

It also suggests that time is an underappreciated ingredient in the development of complex societies. While one may note that (surprisingly enough) the earliest known remains of wheat and maize are roughly contemporary, maize did not show up in Oasisamerica until ca. 3500 BCE. Where the earliest known sites in the Fertile Crescent began to develop contemporaneously with the domestication of wheat some 12,000 years ago, maize had only been in the Desert Southwest for ~5000 years at contact: quite a massive gap! To put that into perspective, Sumer had already been around for a thousand years when Oasisamerican peoples began to adopt maize cultivation, while the Harappan civilization and Egyptian Empire were both just beginning!

From, that is, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent to the rise of Sumer took some 5500 years — and, since Egypt postdates the formation of Sumer by about 1500 years, from the dawn of agriculture in the Nile to the foundations of Egypt proper about 7000 years. From this perspective, thus, we can see that the Desert Southwest societies that have left us pueblos and ruins, being about 5000 years old, are comparable with the Samarra and Ubaid cultures immediately predating Sumer in Mesopotamia, or the Amratian Culture in Egypt. (Indeed, like the Hohokam in Oasisamerica, the Samarra in Mesopotamia seem to have been the first to use irrigation on a larger scale.)

From this, we can infer that while major civilizations — civilizations much more significant than those that gave us Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Grande, ones as sophisticated as the Aztec, Maya, and P’urépecha civilizations to the south — had yet to arise in Oasisamerica, they were about to, and had another millennium elapsed before the Europeans discovered the New World, they would have found several other civilizations of equivalent splendor as those they discovered in Mesoamerica.

Applying the Insight

It should be fairly self-evident that this line of thinking has given us a couple of considerations when developing an alternate history scenario. Scenarios designed to push contact back, for example, would likely need to work a blossoming of Oasisamerican civilization into their worlds . . . just as much as they would need to craft a believable narrative of the Mississippian culture’s trajectory after the mid-1400s CE. Such scenarios, however — unfortunately — do not change the underlying issues that led to the post-contact depopulation of the Americas, as Thomas Mann outlined in his 1491; rather, they enlarge the Mesoamerican sphere of influence (recall that Oasisamerica is at the outer edge of the Mesoamerican cultural horizon), stretching it to a position where it abuts California in the west and the Eastern Woodlands in the east.

There are problems with stalling European exploration, though. Not that it’s particularly difficult: the Age of Sail is contingent not just on technological innovations in Iberian shipbuilding that occurred during the High Middle Ages, which opened the Atlantic up as an explorable basin, but also on subtle ways the Black Death permanently changed the European labor market, ending what had been a long-term trend towards ossification of feudal society’s classes into something more akin to the caste system, and on major world events such as the fall of Constantinople in 1453. At a certain level, you can’t just bottle it up without having something else to hold the pressure in.

If that’s the case, then perhaps an alternate path to explore would be acceleration of the long-term trends observable in the Mesoamerican, Oasisamerican, and Eastern Woodlander state of play . . . it is worth recalling that luck did play a not-insignificant role in Córtez’s conquest of the Aztec Empire . . .

Burgess’ “Byrne”

5191z6fns7l._sx308_bo1204203200_Byrne is Anthony Burgess’ last novel, completed right before his death in 1993. While his best-known work is A Clockwork Orange (in part, perhaps, because of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation), Burgess himself wrote more than fifty major novels through his long career — one of the great British storytellers of the latter half of the 20th century.

I would observed that one of Burgess’ favorite themes is the concatenation of the strange and the familiar. One of A Clockwork Orange’s most iconic features is the patois he developed for his novel, an exercise in literary conlanging that informs, for example, Belter patois from The Expanse (which you should totally watch).

But a slang that fits a dystopian cyberpunk vision is not the only way Burgess melded the quotidian and the unusual. In Byrne he does so by resorting to something that our prosodists have avoided for a century or more: verse. Yes, Byrne is largely written in ottava rima, that strict Italianate rhyme scheme that is among the most difficult to sustain for any length of time. The net effect is a novel that feels disorienting at first, before yielding up its charming ring to the reader.

Ottava rima was the rhyme scheme for most Italian epic poetry, including that of Ariosto and Tasso, and Byrne’s first chapter captures something of the feel, with an almost parodic mock-epic paean to its eponymous antihero, one Michael Byrne, inveterate ladies’ man and an artist and composer whose inveterate tenacity is the exact obverse of his skill — his compositions dissonant to the point of cacophony (a parody of serial music?), and artistic works which derive their sole aesthetic value from their ability to shock.

After bouncing between boudoir and boudoir for his first thirty years, and then attempting to integrate into the middle-class mien with a wife and acknowledged kids, Byrne follows a German siren oozing raw sexuality into the heart of the Nazi regime, where he becomes their pet composer (talent not necessary), leading to British condemnation upon the start of hostilities. As Germany collapsed in 1945, Byrne (now known as Börn) hightailed it to Switzerland, where he married again and took up painting, before being discovered by his first wife and forced to flee again, randomly popping up in every corner of the world with his unique brand of spawn and “art” before going to ground again.

Most of the rest of the novel details a slice-of-life saga between Byrne’s four British children: the twins Timothy and Thomas, their brother Brian, and their half-sister Dorothy, as they all live out questionable legacies. Tim has become a priest, and he and his brother Tom — ridden with genital cancer — are both pan-Europeanists, while Brian has found a lot of success writing musicals (à la Andrew Lloyd Weber), and Dorothy’s become a spinstress puttering around her old family home. Dorothy also has a Japanese maid, Yukari, who may or may not be a half-sister …

From here, the novel only gets weirder — weirder in a way, perhaps, that evokes Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin before surpassing it and venturing into the realm of the fantastical. The domestic reality so carefully put together in Chapter 2 is, thread by thread, unraveled as the reader is left wondering what on earth is going on and Burgess tackles themes of family, aging, and death (the latter two surely a concern dominating his mind in his last days).

Byrne is a strange creature, a creature very much of its period. In its parodic and satirical bent it suggests Pope’s great mock-epics, the Rape of the Lock and Dunciad, but it also has a bawdiness and sexual forthrightness not to be found in Pope (who was notoriously sexually frustrated). Yet the themes it tackles — what it means to be a family in the 20th century, the omnipresent terror of cancer among Burgess’ generation, and even terrorism and the growing influence of the Muslim world in European politics — are very much serious themes, themes that a writer like Pope (or even Pushkin) would have never conceived of as being worthy of as bawdy and sexually-charged a package as Byrne is.

I freely admit Anthony Burgess is a literary blind spot of mine. I never read A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps this is a thread all his works have in common. If so, perhaps I should be reading him more.

Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

essay_manThe second of Pope’s two major verse essays — the first being the Essay on Criticism — and perhaps his most widely read work in the eighteenth century, the Essay on Man is Pope at his most philosophical, where he attempts to reason out a system of ethics.

From a philosophical standpoint, Pope is unimportant, especially compared with giants of the period like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and other important thinkers like Hutcheson and Adam Smith. I was a gadfly in a philosophy department most of my college years, and I can assure you, I had never heard of Pope’s Essay on Man all my time there (though, to be fair, my philosophical interest tends to incline more towards metaphysics than ethics).

That is not to say Pope was not influential in his own time, though: he certainly influenced Voltaire, Kant, and Rousseau, as well as (as one would expect) the British philosophers of the period. Indeed, Voltaire claimed — somewhat narcissistically — that the Essay on Man was a rehash of content he had contributed, and thinkers of the period tended to align Pope with Leibniz (he of the “best of all possible worlds” fame).

In his essay, Pope claims that what “whatever is, is right,” which is … well … a restatement of “This is the best of all possible worlds”, but with a subtle and sly moral judgement thrown in. Of course, one can argue this concurs with Nature, in that the wrong is physically impossible. And of course the line is easily misread as “whatever is, is right,” an overly facile “might makes right” claim not at all in keeping with the character of the text. No: Pope’s “whatever is, is right” is a statement of the rectitude of existence — that is, that for a thing to exist in Nature is to have some purpose in the moral universe. This is wholly in keeping with Pope’s ideas about God, as well.

Pope next argues that “reason [and] passion answer one great aim”, setting up a duality between instinct and intellect, where they offer different avenues, each better suited to different temperaments, to achieving the same overarching goals, both in terms of personal conduct and in terms of paths to Virtue. It is this latter claim that would have been more controversial in Pope’s day; certainly it is the one he spends more time on, noting how instinctual passion can be guided and sublimated into virtuous acts.

His next argument is that “self-love” and “social love” are one and the same … a claim I am skeptical of. This is perhaps because in my reading of the Essay on Man I am coming to think that “social love” is actually a sublimated instinct — a passion — fueling Pope, while the term “self-love” is significantly more complicated, holding in it shades of narcissism as well as a philosophical ideal, enlightened knowledge of oneself. For me, though, self-love is about as far from social love as is possible … self-love is reflective; social love a pain in the ass.

(That said, it’s pretty plain to see, especially from a social dropout’s perspective, how excessively much socialization seems to matter in this world.)

Finally, Pope ends with an exhortation about Man’s place in the Universe: that we are the middle creature between beasts below and angels above, and that it is not our place to know beyond our station, a rather bland and frankly naïve-sounding claim in an industrial society built on aggressive and almost obsessive discovery of knowledge, for knowledge is power.

I find I agree with Pope surprisingly little in his ethical system. The best of all possible worlds argument never made sense to me, and the argument itself became a laughingstock in Europe after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (which Pope was not around to see), and evolution has pretty much destroyed the whole concept of an ordered hierarchy that Pope leans on for his final claim. I have already logged my critique of what I deem his false self-love/social-love equivalence … Perhaps the only salvageable part of Pope’s system in this day and age is his instinct/intellect duality, which seems relevant in e.g. nature/nurture debates as well.

As is usual with Pope, the poetry is gorgeous, with a sparkle that no other poet has ever achieved in the English language. I am starting to think that part of the sparkle is due to subtle mora effects — Pope treats mankind as an iamb, for example, which follows its vowel length and not its natural prosodic timing, which would trend towards a spondee (as a compound word) or maybe a trochee (since there’s a long-term trend towards trochaic normalization in English). Another example is in words like quotation, where Pope would place the stress on the theme — quo-tá-tion — which follows the vowel length but goes against the word’s natural prosodic timing, which would place primary stress on the stem (i.e. quote) and secondary stress on the nominalizing suffix (i.e. -tion): quó-ta-tión. Contrasting mora and prosodic stress — to say nothing of intonation! — creates a subtle tension in Pope’s versification, one that makes each of his syllables stand out. At its most extreme, Pope may on occasion achieve a prosodic trochaic pentameter and mora iambic pentameter in the same line.

Finally, Tom Jones’ notes to An Essay on Man leads me to consider the role of translation in the 18th century. It’s worth pointing out that most scholarly work was done in Latin into the latter half of the 17th century; it was in the early 18th century when vernacular scholarship displaced Latin scholarship in England and France, and this is also the period when the Insular and Continental philosophical traditions began to diverge. A Belgian professor, Crousaz, published a critique of Pope’s Essay on Man which seems to be one more of flaws in the du Resnel French translation, for example; this seems to be a period when English and French philosophy began to diverge simply because the discipline of scholarly translation hadn’t caught up yet. By the time it did catch up, when German became the third major scholarly vernacular by the middle part of the century — thanks in no small part to Immanuel Kant — the rifts between French and English readings, perhaps more than a few caused by mistranslations — had grown too far apart to be easily reconciled, while German readings were much more easily reconciled into both the French and English continua (in different ways).

In a sense, then, Pope’s Essay on Man casts an oblique light on an understudied issue of the day, namely that of translation in philosophy. It’s not particularly strong ethics from a modern standpoint, but more interesting (as Adam Smith was the first to note) as a work of poetry from one of the great standout poets of the English language; it was much more influential in its milieu than is normally given credit for; and, due in no small part to Pope’s lightning-rod penchant for controversies, an exemplar of how translation and mistranslation affected the growing rift between French and English philosophy.

Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”

alexander-popeAlexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism has long been hailed as a standout work by a child prodigy, one of his first major publications, and that, at that, when he was barely into his 20s.

The Essay belongs to a genre Pope was perhaps the last great master of: the verse monograph. In the ancient world, treatises would often be presented as works of poetry — a practice perhaps more common in the Roman world, where the sting of Plato’s anti-poetic barbs was less felt — which would still be attempted from time to time, through the Renaissance. The major works underlying Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, for example, were both poetic treatises; Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose, too, contains several (such as Reason’s and Nature’s major monologues, and the Friend’s exceptionally modern insight into the dynamics of broken families).

There are, of course, limitations to this genre, and Pope arguably hit them in his later Essay on Man, but the Essay on Criticism is an example of both the rigor and memorability the genre was capable of. Three classic English idioms — “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, and “To err is human; to forgive, divine” — are, for example, direct quotations from this Essay (ll. 215, 625, 525, respectively).

In his Essay, Pope takes aim squarely at critics, and especially, in his opinion, critics who elevate bad poetry while disparaging the good. The early 1700s, the era Pope was writing in, was one dominated by a highly technical mindset — at least as dominant a mindset as the free-verse mindset (and its implicit rejection of technical poetry) is in poetry today — when precision in meter (and by meter we mean “iambic pentameter, usually in the form of heroic couplets, e.g., well, Pope) apparently mattered more than skill in word choice and originality of story.

The thesis Pope advances — somewhat ironic considering his later efforts to edit and “correct” Shakespeare — is that an overly technical focus comes at the detriment of the whole poem; that a poem is more than just the sum of its feet — that it’s a holistic work as well.

He advances his cause first by defining “wit”, “nature”, and “sense”, all expanded from their commonplace meanings and made more fraught. Pope’s “wit” means something more like “craftsmanship, inventiveness, and inspiration”; his “nature” refers to the physics and metaphysics of our world, much like a physicist’s Nature; and his “sense” the whole aegis of aesthetics.

What Pope is arguing here, in terms of these definitions alone, is that a poet is a craftsman of the aesthetic — an artist, that is — and that if a poet is an artist, then a poem is necessarily a work of art, and then that if a poem is a work of art, then it must be assessed by its whole rather than merely its parts. Which is rather self-evident in our own day — but perhaps not so much in Pope’s.

(Of course, another problem is that “artists” like Gehry and his ilk use the same argument to justify their metal monstrosities. And of course, craftsmanship is a basic plank of the argument; kick it out, and you’ve opened yourself up to Plato’s invective against art once again.)

Pope proceeds to develop his argument in a pretty standard Renaissance manner. He sticks Homer on a pedestal and makes Virgil the ultimate critic, while also praising Aristotle and Quintilian to high heavens. Pope also greatly admired a Renaissance Latin writer, M. Hieronymous Vida (whose inclusion he even footnoted).

Having established the (dubious) supremacy of the ancients, he turns to the current state of affairs, where he descries five major problems: the Dunning-Kruger effect (the famous “a little learning is a dangerous thing”); excessive ornamentation in art, where he skewers John Donne and the Metaphysical school, whose reputation wouldn’t be rehabilitated until that other intellectual poet, T.S. Eliot, rediscovered them; those who focus on execution while ignoring other parts of the poem (where our modern problem is the opposite), which Pope then parodies with a stream of clichés; and finally, some proverbial advice about avoiding extremes and finding instead a golden mean.

Pope then moves to the work’s final part, beginning at ln. 560, where, after having anatomized the problems with poetic theory and practice in his day, he sets out his polemic — unsurprisingly, by doing the opposite of what he’d complained about for the prior 250ish lines. At last, he ends his poem with a brief history of criticism — starting with Aristotle’s Poetics and moving on to a full suite of Latin critics from the Romans on down until he reaches those he perceives as standout critics in English and French (particularly Boileau).

While the Essay on Criticism is primarily directed at — surprise, surprise — critics, because critics naturally operate based off of some aesthetic framework or another, Pope must supply his own. The Essay therefore functions not just as invective against what is (in Pope’s opinion) defective criticism, but also as a statement of Pope’s own aesthetic sense and goals — his artistic manifesto, if you will — in order to have the apparatus necessary to engage in critical dialogue, and is itself the realization of Pope’s aesthetic theory, a masterpiece of technical skill from one of the two greatest masters of the heroic couplet from the architecture of the whole to the million little feet* it stands upon.

Imagine if T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound or e.e. cummings had written verse manifestos! That’s more-or-less what Pope achieved with his Essay on Criticism.

* 3,721 feet, technically.

Pope’s “Dunciad”

frontispiece-to-the-dunciad-variorum.-with-the-prolegomena-of-scriblerus-london-1729While his The Rape of the Lock is perhaps Alexander Pope’s most enduring major work, followed by the Essays on Criticism and Man, none of these achieve the heights of acerbic wit the way his Dunciad does. For, you see, where the Rape derives its power from parodying genre, and in the Essays Pope uses satire to sharpen a more serious point, in The Dunciad he turns his hand to one of the themes satire is most strongly suited for: petty vengeance.

Like The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad is a mock-epic of sorts; unlike it, it achieves its power not from being a taut and self-contained parody of genre so much as being an enthusiastically rambling and somewhat nonsensically-plotted takedown of Pope’s (many) critics.

The poem follows the apotheosis of the goddess Dulness as she seeks to select her human champion from the ranks of the — as Pope judged them — mediocre poets and corrupt politicians, but (as already alluded to) this “plot” forms little more than an elaborate superstructure for Pope to attack his critics.

Perhaps because the plot is so minimal, the books have an intensely episodic feel about them. Book II brilliantly parodies the (funerary) games found throughout classical epic (e.g. Iliad XXIII, Aeneid V, and Thebaid VI) with a series of contests where Dulness has her would-be champions compete for her favor in various shitty (in some cases quite literally) parts of town.

The whole episode is awash in a toilet humor subtly veneered by genre parody and allusions to classical literature — it easily counts among Pope’s best, as good an episode as any to be found in The Rape of the Lock.

Almost as good is Book III, which parodies the hero’s descent into the underworld (cf. here Odyssey XI, Aeneid VI, Paradise Lost I, the Divine Comedy wholesale, and the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld). Most of this book is an extended monologue, much in the manner of Anchises’ in Aeneid VI, and a sort of reversal of Pope’s roll-call of critics in his Essay on Criticism in that it celebrates his “dunces”. Just as in Virgil, Pope’s vision ends with a passage through the ivory gates.

Unlike the middle two Books, the Dunciad’s first and last two don’t have that episodic sparkle, the sense of a harsher, more acerbic commentary than that of the Rape that they attain. The first book is perhaps the most plot-heavy: it introduces us to Dulness, the main character of the piece, and to Pope’s crowned king of dunces — a position he once gave to Lewis Theobald for daring to point out his obvious deficiencies as an editor of Shakespeare, but then instead granted to one Colley Cibber — though Pope’s beef with him, at least in my edition, was left frustratingly unclear.

The Dunciad originally came out in three books; Book IV is a later appendage forming an extensive epilogue, one where Pope continues the poem’s program — addressing his critics — with the spate of criticisms that naturally came out after the Dunciad’s original publication (the most famous of these being Crousaz’s criticism of An Essay on Man). Because of this, despite its length, it is by far the weakest of the Dunciad’s four books — little more than a display of Pope’s mastery of the heroic-couplet format as he rebuts critic after critic after critic.

I must admit, the edition of the Dunciad I read shore off Pope’s extensive commentary apparatus (the editor pointed out the notes would need notes of their own to explain). This was a mistake. Pope was one of the first major writers to realize the possibilities footnotes offered, and availed himself of them in e.g. his Epistles to Burlington, Bathurst, Arbuthnot, and to a Lady (also to be found in this collection).*

The Dunciad is not just a mock epic the way The Rape of the Lock is a mock epic. It is also a satire on the scholarly works of his time, and the poem itself is (arguably) more a textual frame for its real punch — its comments. The poem really must be read with both Pope’s poetry and his commentary, and of course commentary on all of that for it to make any sort of sense. Pope, after all, can be evasive at times, and The Dunciad is him at his most evasive — without the help of comments.

But with them? It’d be hard to deny that the Dunicad is the first great piece of postmodern literature, both narrative and metanarrative, poem and commentary, and the complex interlinkages formed between them. It’s little wonder Nabokov references Pope in his Pale Fire — which I’ll be doing in two parts later this month — indeed, his whole novel seems structured in a way evocative of the Dunciad. And, I would argue, it’s this modern attunement, this sensibility two hundred years early, that’s really the Dunciad’s most enduring feature.

* That said, Tom Jones’ edition of Pope’s An Essay on Man has the opposite problem: Pope’s own footnotes got lost in Jones’ commentary apparatus, which would have been much better served as endnotes instead.

Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”

rape-lock-snipHis most famous masterpiece, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock takes an incident that had actually happened — a suitor surreptitiously snipping some hairs from his belle’s head — and tongue-in-cheekly elevates it to the diction of high epic.

While the mock-epic genre is ancient — both in parodies such as The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice and in more “serious” epyllons such as Homeric Hymn IV (“To Hermes”) — it had remained relatively underdeveloped in English literature until Pope’s Rape. One rather suspects that the Rape of the Lock itself had something to do with the encroaching decline of verse narrative which has marked the last two or three centuries of English (in particular) literature.

Despite this, the Rape is a triumph! Not only is the poem surprisingly short — at just 794 lines, only marginally longer than Pope’s own Essay on Criticism and about as long as a typical book of Paradise Lost — but in the course of its five cantos, it parodies nearly every major stock trope and set piece in the epic-writer’s playbook.

Here we find, in the sylphs and the gnomes, parodies of set-piece epic machinery, and in Canto I, of the fraught prophetic dream and (in Belinda’s toilet) a hero’s arming; in Canto II, a boat ride across the filthy lower Thames parodies the epic voyage (cf. e.g. Odyssey 1-4, 9-12; Aeneid 1, 3; Paradise Lost 3; and the Lusiads and Argonautica wholesale); Canto III sees a card game parody epic battle, culminating in the rape itself — a couple of hairs snipped off Belinda’s head — being as fraught with meaning as Achilles’ duel with Hector (Iliad 23) or Aeneas’ with Turnus (Aeneid 12); Canto IV has a descent into the underworld (Odyssey 11, Aeneid 6, and the Divine Comedy, e.g.) followed by Belinda’s epic monologue; and Canto V, Cassandra-esque Clarissa’s, followed by a general fracas between the men and women, and eventually Belinda’s lost lock ascending to the skies and becoming a star in a riff on the story behind the constellation Coma Berenices (“Berenice’s Hair”).

Pope’s sharp wit and equally sharp and crisp heroic couplets — a format he was one of the great masters of — are on full display throughout. Best of all is perhaps the card game that highlights the mock epic’s middle part, a section beginning with a hilariously blasphemous riff on God’s pronouncements in Genesis 1:

“Let spades be trumps!” she said, and trumps they were.

The card game that follows, describing tricks won and lost, tricked out in the mode of epic warfare, feels almost like a description of a game of Risk or Stratego … An entire genre could be built from this scene, one that has relevance in today’s game-obsessed world.

The description of the ochre game’s verdant field is also redolent of a billiards table, rather suggesting a pool game as an epic clash between heroes, Iliad-style.

In the foreword to his collection of Alexander Pope’s poetry, editor Frank Kermode points out that poetry today is molded and shaped by Romantic aesthetics, and Pope is, in many ways, the antithesis of these aesthetics — that Pope has remained relevant these past three hundred years more despite the changes in poetic taste that’ve occurred during them than because of them, and that, despite the efforts of generations of hostile critics — more than Milton, for example, has ever faced — Pope has refused to go away.

The Rape of the Lock is a perfect example of why this is the case. Its plot is as much a parody of novels of manners and of telenovels and soap operas as it is of the epic genre. Is it such a stretch to imagine Belinda’s arc in the Rape as a sitcom-episode plot? Somehow, despite all the experimentation with cadence of the last hundred years, Pope’s mock epic feels more modern — more applicable to the world we live in today, to the way we parodize today — than Wallace Stevens (who is one of my favorite poets), for example, ever has.

It’s not just that Canto III’s card game represents the archetype of an unmade genre; Canto V’s quite literal battle of the sexes represents another. It’s a sense that sharpens here, yes, but it permeates his oeuvre. From plays on pastorals and poems-of-place to acerbic epistles — letters — and essays and satires, such as our mock-epic Rape, and through to his subtle and brilliant insights into human nature, Alexander Pope is a gold mine of ideas waiting to be exploited.

It is just that, as his most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock sharpens this sense; it puts, as it were, a point to it. And that makes it a worthwhile read in its own right — perhaps moreso than anything else I have read since I rebooted this blog last fall.