18th century

Don’t Mess with an 18th-Century Poet…

Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

Twitter spats between public figures are a common occurrence these days, even making it into the national news (ahem, Katie Hopkins), but public quarrels between prominent figures are nothing new, as this post will show.

I love the eighteenth century; people were so refined; polite in their manners, and elegant and graceful in their dress. Aristocrats were paternalist, benevolent beings who cared for the people under their charge; all the criminals were gentlemanly Dick Turpins; it was a period which witnessed the emergence of great literary works such as the first novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe; it was an age of Enlightenment in which men cast off the vestiges of religious superstition in favour of “scientific” reason; Georg Frederich Handel composed music and it was divine. It truly was a time of elegance and harmony…

Or so TV shows such as Poldark and movies such as The Madness of King George would have you believe…Most of the “myths” of the Enlightenment have been well-and-truly debunked by historians these days; it was a time of slavery, and of highland clearances; the criminals were actually brutes, and crowds jostled for space at Tyburn to view them being hanged because it was an entertaining event; whilst Robinson Crusoe is a decent novel, I am truly glad that I will never have to suffer reading Pamela (1740), or Clarissa (1748), by Samuel Richardson ever again.

In fact, when you look at eighteenth-century literature, a lot of it in some way or other seems to be satire. Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Tatler and Spectator periodicals satirised the follies of polite society. Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1743) was a direct piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela. The anonymous Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster was a stab at the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (as was Fielding’s Jonathan Wild). In fact, it would be fair to say that a lot of 18th-century writing was driven by personal feuds between people who were prominent in public life.

Colley Cibber (1671-1757)

Colley Cibber (1671-1757)

But let me direct your attention to a little literary spat between three poets/playwrights (similar to a Twitter spat between celebrities today) which occurred in 1717 and which continued for the rest of their lives. First, however, let me introduce the players of the drama about to be unfolded to you:

Dramatis Personae:

Colley Cibber (1671-1757) – an actor playwright, and Poet Laureate, and the manager of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. He was most noted for his comical “fop” parts. He regards himself first and foremost as an actor.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) – one of the best poets of the age; author of several poetical, satirical, and philosophical works, such as The Rape of the Lock (1714), The Dunciad (1728), and the editor of one of the first collected editions of the works of William Shakespeare; criticised by modern-day feminist commentators because he believed that woman were intellectually inferior to men.

John Gay (1685-1732)

John Gay (1685-1732)

John Gay (1685-1732) – another poet/playwright; a man who would achieve future fame in 1728 with his ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera.


Pope and Gay, along with another writer, John Arbuthnot, collaborated on a play entitled Three Hours After Marriage in 1717. It was to have Cibber as its lead role. It is fair to say that it wasn’t one of Gay, or Pope’s, greatest successes (it lasted only 7 nights); that is to say, the audience wasn’t taking too kindly to it. So Cibber, in the lead role, decided to start telling a few jokes on stage instead.

Pope and Gay happened to be in the audience, however, and they were furious. And they sat there, seething; this was their artwork and it was being degraded with tavern jokes.


Gay became so angry that, upon another visit to the theatre, he saw Cibber and got into a physical fight with him, and guards had to be called in to stop the fracas. For Gay, that appeared to be the end of the matter, and there doesn’t appear to be any significant criticisms of Cibber in his works after that.

William Hogarth's A Just View of the English Stage, satirising The Rehearsal and Cibber.

William Hogarth’s A Just View of the English Stage (1727), satirising The Rehearsal and Cibber.

Pope, on the other hand, was more of a moody, brooding type of guy. Although the phrase, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ was yet to be coined until a hundred years later, Pope must have understood its sentiments. Pope published a satirical pamphlet attacking Cibber in the immediate aftermath of the play and its dismal reception. Cibber didn’t respond to it; according to one modern commentator this was probably out of a respect for Pope’s poetic genius. Although this didn’t stop Cibber responding in kind to Pope’s criticisms; a few months later Cibber was playing the lead role in the revival of the Restoration play, The Rehearsal (originally a satire upon John Dryden written in 1672), where he ad libbed a flippant reference to Three Hours After Marriage. Once again Pope was in the audience, and was infuriated, and went backstage and poured forth a number of invectives against Cibber. For his part, Cibber kept his cool, saying:

Mr Pope, you are so particular a man, that I should be asham’d to return your language as I ought to do: but since you have attacked me in so monst’rous a manner, this you may depend on, that as long as the play continues to be acted, I will never fail to repeat the same words over and over again.


But Pope didn’t let the matter go for a number of years. In 1742 Pope revised his poem The Dunciad; originally written in 1728, the first version featured a character called Tibbald as “King of the Dunces” which was a dig at another writer named Lewis Theobald, a contemporary of Pope’s who had had the audacity to produce an edited collection of Shakespeare’s work entitled: Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published (1726). In other words, Theobald had positioned his edition of Shakespeare in direct opposition to Pope. The Dunciad was supposed to be an imitation of Virgil’s The Aeneid, in which he criticises rulers who are impressed with spectacle, and favour it over quality; and is a satire upon the decadence and degradation of 18th-century life that has caused this fascination with “dulness.”

In his 1742 edition, The New Dunciad, and The Dunciad of 1743, however, Pope took aim at Cibber, who was now the “King of Dunces”. The poem begins on Lord Mayor’s Day, in the realm of Dulness, where the Empress of Dulness is contemplating her realm:

She fixes her eyes on Bays to be the instrument of the great event.

The reference to “Bays” signifies Cibber, in his role as Poet Laureate, but the allusions didn’t stop there, for the characters and topography of the poem were altered to fit Cibber’s career as an actor, and Pope even descends into attacking Cibber’s personal appearance:

Great Cibber fat: the proud parnassian sneer,

The conscious simper and the jealous leer,

Mix on his lock: all eyes direct their rays,

On him, all crowds turn coxcomb as they gaze.

Cibber is presented in the new Dunciad as “the antichrist of Wit”.


To Cibber’s credit, he maintained a dignified silence to Pope’s satirical attacks throughout most of his life, but after the publication of The Dunciad he started to play the literary game against Pope. He responded to Pope’s Dunciad in a letter published as A Letter from Mr. Cibber to Mr. Pope, where he took Pope to task for publishing many ‘needling tales’ and also told a few embarrassing tales from Pope’s youth:

Sir, as you have for several Years past (particularly in your Poetical Works) mentioned my Name, without my desiring it; give me leave, at last, to make my due Compliments to Yours in Prose, which I should not choose to do, but that I am really driven to it (as the Puff in the Play-Bills says) At the Desire of several Persons of Quality.If I have lain so long stoically silent, or unmindful of your satyrical Favours, it was not so much for want of a proper Reply, as that I thought they never needed a Publick one: For all People of Sense would know, what Truth or Falshood there was in what you have said of me, without my wisely pointing it out to them. Nor did I choose to follow your Example of being so much a Self-Tormentor, as to be concern’d at whatever Opinion of me any publish’d Invective might infuse into People unknown to me.

The Death of Alexander Pope

The Death of Alexander Pope

Cibber evidently chose to weather these attacks, but, happily for Cibber, he got the last word. The letter was published just a few months before Pope’s death, and Pope never got to respond; the enmity with Cibber he took to his grave.

I guess this whole episode, which lasts over twenty years, pretty much goes to show that quarrels between people who are prominent in public life are nothing new.


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