Criticizing Pope: Challenging a Master of Satire

Pope seems to be the subject of much criticism, literary and otherwise. His “bullies” often seem to attack his ego, illustrating him as a small, sexually impotent man, a hack writer, or, as in the case of this terrifying creature of mockery, a human rat.


Dunciad is a mock epic emulating the writing style of literary legends such as Homer, and within its dense and lengthy contents one finds a biting criticism of the English political system. This style of writing has likely led critics to produce images such as the one above in order to label Pope as a pretentious finger-pointer, labeling him as (as the picture suggests) nothing more than a rat thinking its political jargon is philosophy. The caption at the top of the image, reading “Know thyself” in Latin, is solid (if somewhat heavy-handed) evidence that his critics believed Pope to be a mere pretentious hack writer. It is lines such as these that make Pope a very large target for critics:

Not those alone who passive own her laws, [85]
But who, weak rebels, more advance her cause.
Whate’er of dunce in College or in Town
Sneers at another, in toupee or gown;
Whate’er of mungril no one class admits,
A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits

These biting criticisms of England and her people, did not fare all too well with a great deal of Englishman; surprisingly, it seems that most members of old English politicians and townsfolk did not appreciate being referred to as “dunces”.

The humor in Pope’s critic’s retaliation to his mock epic is somewhat subtle, but not entirely lost: rather than responding to Pope’s criticism and literary insults with elegance, class, and equally intelligent retort, the citizens of England chose instead to draw swift as a rat, and make jokes about the size of his manhood.

For how brutal and unforgiving Pope’s commentary on his countrymen were, he does seem to have the upper hand in the societal mud-slinging when it comes to style and tact.

-Shawn Pintor-Day

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