And Universal Darkness Buries All


Yesterday I talked about irresponsible political commentators and politicians and how they reminded me of the scribblers that John Dryden was worried about in the 1680’s. In the 1740’s Alexander Pope was even more pessimistic about the threat they posed. In The Dunciad he imagines an inevitable cultural slide until “universal darkness buries all.” Harold Bloom, writing in 2003 (in The Best Poems of the English Language), thinks things are even worse now. As he writes of Pope’s apocalyptic prediction, “Every reader shudders (or should) as Pope ends with a prophecy we continue to fulfill daily, even as we approach the domestication of a universal cultural disaster.”

I’m instinctively suspicious when I encounter such visions of gloom. Aren’t people just holding on too strongly to the worlds they grew up in? Isn’t it true that, while some good things are lost as the world changes, good things also emerge? And that those people who can’t admit this are curmudgeons?

Then again, this website is a Bloomian project in that it tries to hold on to the past, attempting to sustain and build an interest in classic literature.  I believe that quality literature will survive as long as it continues to speak to the human condition.   At their core, people hunger for substance, and if we present the classics to them in the right way, they will recognize that great books have what they long for. But then, I’m an optimist.

So while Pope seems a little too cranky for my tastes, I appreciate that he’s fighting for standards. And for all his doom and gloom, the very fact that he’s writing satire suggests he holds out some hope. He is appealing to us to stand up and resist the slide into cultural darkness. The passages that I will be quoting, from Book IV of The Dunciad, can be adapted to apply to contemporary areas of concern. Try them out.

First some background. Book IV was written some 15 years after the first three books (you can read the whole thing here.)  Pope was close to death and he had become a lot grimmer since writing such effervescent works as Rape of the Lock. Some of this grimness was caused by living in constant pain caused by a tubercular spine he had had all his life. Some of it was caused by the incessant attacks upon him from the time he first started publishing his work.

I mentioned yesterday that the attacks he and Dryden encountered were “Glenn Beck bad.”  Pope’s illness had made him a hunchback, so what with his deformity (he was only four and a half feet), his Catholicism (he lived in a strongly anti-Catholic country), his Tory politics (the Whigs were in power for much of his life), and his commercial success as a writer, there was more than enough for writers of the time to go after.  John Dennis wrote early in Pope’s career, “As there is no Creature in Nature so venomous, there is nothing so stupid and so impotent as a hunch-back’d Toad.”  Another described Pope as follows:

A little, scurvey, purblind Elf,
Scarce like a toad, much less himself.
Deform’d in Shape, of Pigmy stature,
A proud, conceited, peevish Creature . . .
The striking Venom flows around
And nauseous Slaver hides the Ground.

And another:

Ladies like thee, as they do their Apes,
Not for thy wit, but Monkey-shapes.

The discourse of the time makes our own talk radio sound positively civil.  In response, Pope sets this final book in the dog days of summer (so it’s appropriate to read them now), and he imagines Chaos and Night, two of Satan’s friends in Paradise Lost, preparing to descend.

Now flamed the Dog-star’s unpropitious ray,
Smote ev’ry Brain, and wither’d ev’ry Bay;
Sick was the Sun, the Owl forsook his bower,
The moon-struck Prophet felt the madding hour:
Then rose the Seed of Chaos, and of Night,
To blot out Order, and extinguish Light,
Of dull and venal a new World to mold,
And bring Saturnian days of Lead and Gold.

Depressed yet? And it only gets worse as Pope imagines the Goddess Dullness mounting her throne. The poet on her lap is Colley Cibber, England’s poet laureate whom Pope considered (with good reason) to be a fraud:

She mounts the Throne: her head a Cloud concealed,
In broad Effulgence all below revealed,
(‘Tis thus aspiring Dullness ever shines)
Soft on her lap her Laureate son reclines.

Activities of the mind are in a fair bit of trouble in Dullness’s court. Learning (“science”) is in chains, those who would use their wit to speak truth to power face punishment, logic is gagged and bound (as is oftentimes the case in today’s political discourse), and noble rhetoric has been stripped and blunted. In rhetoric’s place we have sophistry and billingsgate (obscenity)—again, not a bad description of what we hear these days in our uncivil society:

Beneath her foot-stool, Science groans in Chains,
And Wit dreads Exile, Penalties and Pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic, gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground;
His blunted Arms by Sophistry are born,

And shameless Billingsgate her Robes adorn

I suspect people of different political persuasions will come up with different examples of science under attack, ideas censored, logic twisted, and discourse sullied by slick talk and insults.

Okay, back to the poem, which goes on to say that morality is now being strangled by lawyers and church officials (again I’m sure you can think of examples). Only math seems to escape, but that’s because it’s so abstract (mad) that people aren’t able to twist it to their ends.

Morality, by her false Guardians drawn,
Chicane in Furs, and Casuistry in Lawn,
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dulness gives her Page the word.

Mad Mathesis alone was unconfined,
Too mad for mere material chains to bind,
Now to pure Space lifts her ecstatic stare,
Now running round the Circle, finds it square.

Finally, art (the muses) itself is under attack. Tragedy, Pope imagines, is about ready to kill herself. Comedy (Thalia) too is threatened but is being sustained by satire (Pope’s and Swift’s comic satire, that is). History, meanwhile, isn’t willing to back off. She will be back to tell the sorry story of the age:

But held in ten-fold bonds the Muses lie,
Watched both by Envy’s and by Flattery’s eye:
There to her heart sad Tragedy addressed
The dagger wont to pierce the Tyrant’s breast;
But sober History restrained her rage,
And promised Vengeance on a barbarous age.

There sunk Thalia, nerveless, cold, and dead,
Had not her Sister Satyr held her head:

I suspect Bloom, as an active participant in the 1980’s culture wars, is particularly interested in the assault on the muses. Those wars seem somewhat outdated now since an awareness of a greater crisis has subsumed the smaller quarrels, the way regional quarrels between Native American tribes became small after the European colonialists began to spread. In colleges now, it’s no longer Jane Austen vs. Alice Walker. It’s whether students have read anything at all.

As the poem comes to an end, Pope imagines the goddess yawning and the yawn spreading to the entire world. (As he puts it, “More she had spoke, but yawn’d — All Nature nods: What Mortal can resist the Yawn of Gods?”). And with that, all the lights of wit and culture begin to go out, just like the 100 eyes of Argus, the mythological giant, under the spell of Hermes:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old!

Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,

The sickening stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest . . .

In this dreadful scenario, art flees and truth finds itself buried under casuistry—which today could be seen as the evasive language of lawyers and politicians.

Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.

See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o’er her head!

The next victims of dullness mentioned in the poem need some historical explanation although I think they have their modern equivalents. Philosophy, Pope says, has divorced itself from religion. (In the 20th century, a version of this would be analytical philosophy setting itself up as a science and saying it has nothing to do with how people live.) Wild theories involving the body and the soul, meanwhile, have become so intricate that they have little of common sense to them. And spiritual mystery—well people at the time tried to apply mathematical proofs for its existence.  Now they postulate a “God gene.”

While all this intellectual commotion is going on, no one is honoring religion or noticing that issues of morality are being ignored—which again is true in some universities today:

Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defense,

And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

Is a curtain of darkness descending upon us? Actually I think that, regardless of the impression we get from the news, there are more thoughtful people out there than we may think, people who are hungry for substance. Reach out in whatever ways fulfill you, whether by getting involved in book discussion groups, cultural forums, or other means, and you will fight the darkness. Those of us in the teaching profession, meanwhile, need to do our own reaching out. This website is one of my attempts to do so.

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  1. Farida
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    This made very interesting and pertinent reading for me. There is something both reassuring and also very frightening in finding that just about everything we experience today has happened centuries before and indeed even been written about.

    There is a line in William Carlos William’s poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower ( a beautiful poem I only discovered today!) in which I found resonance with some of what you have written:

    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
    of what is found there.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    I love this passage from Williams, Farida. You might be interested in a post from this past February where I wrote about it, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s passage (from Cat’s Cradle) that, without literature we would “die like mad dogs.” You can find it at


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