- The “Garbage Heap” of Memory: At Play in Pope’s Archives of Dulness
In the last decade, scholarship concerned with the cultural and literary significance of Alexander Pope’s life and work has increasingly portrayed him as a reluctant modern. 1 Temperamentally conservative, his face set rigidly against many of the cultural changes overtaking his society, Pope nonetheless reveals not only his fascination with what he ostensibly disdained, but his participation, however reluctant and sometimes unwitting, in a host of modern practices that he publicly reviled. Brean Hammond’s recent book on the growth of writing as a profession argues that for all of his complaints against the corruption wrought by modern notions of progress, “in some respects, Pope embodied the direction being taken by progress,” a work like The Dunciad—the subject of this essay—ideologically “rooted in the value systems that it ostensibly opposes, and much of its energy...borrowed from the lowbrow and demotic forms that it affects to despise.” 2
Nowhere has the emphasis on Pope’s divided loyalties been more persuasive and revealing than on the issue of his involvement in the early-eighteenth-century print trade, a complex relationship in which a consummate professional writer invests tremendous energy and resources to deny his professional identity and traduce [End Page 1] the emergence of a literary professionalism that brought him fame and wealth. Contemporary academic scholarship presents Alexander Pope not simply as the foremost poetic genius of his age, but as an innovative businessman of formidable cunning, energy, and vision who publicly derided the skills and energies that brought him success. 3
For all of his business acumen and economic prosperity, however, the unprecedented transformations in the print trade that Pope had to negotiate, as well as the profound ironies that undermined his stance as a simple, unambitious amateur, generated profound anxieties in the poet. However secure he may have been in his poetic abilities, and however much he may have dominated his commercial rivals, Pope reveals a genuine concern for how literary history would be written in the new age of the book, and memorials constructed that might succeed in representing a poet to posterity. In November of 1708, while anticipating the appearance of his first publication—the Pastorals, which appeared in May 1709 in the sixth volume of Tonson’s Miscellaneous Poems—the virgin poet explains to Henry Cromwell, “That Poet were a happy Man who cou’d but obtain a Grant to preserve His [Fame] for Ninety nine Years; for those Names very rarely last so many Days, which are planted either in Jacob Tonson’s, or the Ordinary of Newgate’s, Miscellanies.” 4 For all of his posturing before an older friend, Pope nonetheless reveals, in his association between collections of contemporary poets and sensational biographies of condemned criminals—publishing ventures both made profitable by the expanding book trade—a shrewd and cynical understanding of the relationship among modern poetry, financial profit, and enduring fame. The almost four decades that Pope spent planting and working that particular field only darkened his suspicions about modernity and literary history. As he expressed it to Warburton near the end of his career, “I hope Your Friendship to me will be then as well known, as my being an Author, & go down together to Posterity; I mean to as much of posterity as poor Moderns can reach to” (Correspondence, 4:362).
Committed from his earliest years to a very classical conception of fame and the poetic vocation, Pope nonetheless recognized both that a new age had rendered these inherited models problematic and that his identity as a “poor Modern” compromised his ability to achieve them. In this essay I will examine how Pope specifically fashioned The Dunciad as a response to his anxieties concerning modernity and the unprecedented challenges it presented to a poet ambitious for “the second Life, he receives, from his Memory” (Correspondence, 3:174). To do so, I will draw on current scholarship concerned with the way in which the printed book, according to Jacques Le Goff, “transformed the content and mechanisms of collective memory.” A number of these “mechanisms,” particularly those that Paul Connerton has described as...