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London has never been civil We need a modern-day Alexander Pope: a writer who dreams of order, not chaos

What London was like: The Rake's Progress, Hogarth (1697-1764). Credit: DeAgostini/Getty

What London was like: The Rake's Progress, Hogarth (1697-1764). Credit: DeAgostini/Getty


November 13, 2020   6 mins

London ravaged by disease. Social and sexual mores collapsing. Shifting political alliances and a wobbling constitution. A Babel of competing voices vying to dominate new media channels, driving public discourse to fever pitch. It’s not the first time we’ve been here.

Today our artists embrace (and sometimes accelerate) the vibe. Sculptors are more interested in subverting statuary than glorifying anything; painters warn of an oncoming apocalypse in two-storey murals and most music is about getting laid. But back at the dawn of the modern world, when politics, culture, mores and faith were as much in flux as they are today, the 18th century’s artists took a more aspirational approach.

The cultural sphere they depicted was every bit as harmonious as the world that produced it was volatile. But while today we still listen to the measured strains of Handel, and marvel at the elegant proportions of a building by Inigo Jones, the poets of the same era are ignored. Of these, the most criminally underrated is also, perhaps, the one whose work offers the most intriguing clues for the modern world: Alexander Pope.

Pope was born the same year as modern Britain: 1688, when a group of English statesmen deposed James II as King of England, in favour of his son-in-law William of Orange. The reasons for James’ deposition were complicated, but included his Roman Catholicism as well as his insistence on the king’s divine right to abolish Parliament and govern centrally via decree.

Unenthusiastic about absolute monarchy, and nervous of future kings trying it on again, Parliament slapped new constraints on royal power — and the upshot was the constitutional monarchy we’ve lived with ever since.

As the old order liquefied at the end of the 17th century, and the fight began in earnest for power at the beginning of the 18th, aristocrats and a new class of emerging industrialists poured in to fill the vacuum left behind by an absolute ruler. These politicos increasingly split between “Tory” defenders of James II, and “Whig” proponents of Protestantism, in a political configuration that gradually took the form that would become our modern adversarial Parliament.

This binary antagonism, every bit as values-driven and visceral as the Leavers and Remainers of today, drove a febrile “us and them” political discourse. And in a forerunner of today’s clickbait-for-profit content machine, the flames were fanned by advances in printing technology, that made the written word suddenly cheap and plentiful. Presses sprang up like mushrooms, and publishers grew rich selling the scandals, libels and “fake news” of the day.

Modern politicos blame social media for a decline in public civility. But compared to the grotesque caricatures, insulting posters, inflammatory street speakers and assassination plots against senior Tories that characterised politics in the early 18th century, what gets painted today as declining standards of politeness appears more like a return to form.

New governing elites, having displaced an absolute monarch less than a generation before, were sharply aware of how fragile public consent was for their newfangled constitutional monarchy — and how much potential hostile presses had to shatter that consent. In a move that foreshadows modern drives worldwide to regulate social media, new laws pushed to suppress dissent: the 1706 Star Chamber Case De Libellis Famosis ruled that accusations against the monarch or government could constitute seditious libel even if they were true.

Pope was in many ways an outsider, a condition that today we associate with a subversive mindset. Like the deposed James II, he was Catholic, and also a Tory in a hegemonically Whig era. But he was as preoccupied with order and stability as the Star Chamber, and — albeit in a different way — every bit as critical as they were of the newly democratic world of letters.

Rather than the law, though, Pope’s battleground was literature, where he emerged as a fierce defender of high culture and classical tradition against the pandemonium of “Grub Street”. First published 1728, The Dunciad pillories the hacks of “Grub Street”, in ironically high style, as a throng of “Dunces” under the Queen of Dullness herself.

It’s perhaps the most barbed and sparkling feature-length piece of literary shade ever thrown, by turns cultivated and scabrous. Where Twitter today might just call someone a shit writer, Pope depicts one rival as powered by the spatterings of Jove’s own chamberpot:

Renew’d by ordure’s sympathetic force,
As oil’d with magic juices for the course,
Vig’rous he rises; from th’effluvia strong;
Imbibes new life, and scours and stinks along; (Dunciad II, 103-6)

Without a working knowledge of Pope’s political and literary world, getting The Dunciad’s jokes is bit like someone from the year 2320 to try and follow the jokes on Have I Got News For You. But it’s hard not to see an echo in it of our access-to-all digital “publishing” environment, and the impact it’s had on the contemporary discourse:

‘Twas chatt’ring, grinning, mouthing, jabb’ring all,
And Noise, and Norton, Brangling, and Breval,
Dennis and Dissonance; and captious Art,
And Snip-snap short, and Interruption smart. (Dunciad II, 231-34)

Pope’s blend of wit, erudition and waspishness made him a sharp satirist of contemporary chaos, but his happier visions were of tradition and harmony. London, in Windsor-Forest (1713) was envisioned as a gilded, ordered, place and the rightful heir of antiquity. Faced with its glory, the Muses would quit singing about the glories of ancient Rome, and praise England’s capital instead:

Behold! Augusta’s glitt’ring Spires increase,
And Temples rise, the beauteous Works of Peace. (Windsor-Forest, 377-8)

“Augusta”, a Roman name for London, gives Pope and his contemporaries the name by which we know them today: the Augustans. And yet London in Pope’s day was not a vision of order and beauty at all, but famous for slums, licentiousness, corruption and STDs.

The print boom extended to a flourishing trade in porn, with smutty publications bought not just for private consumption but to read aloud in pubs and coffee houses. And prefiguring Frank Ski by some centuries, there really were whores in all kinds of houses: Covent Garden was a byword for the sex trade, from the low-class “flash-mollishers” and theatre-visiting “spells” to brothel-operating “bawds” and “Covent Garden Nuns”. Prominent prostitutes, such as Sally Salisbury (1692-1724) became celebrities: Salisbury’s noted clients including Viscount Bolingbroke, and even (according to rumour) the future George II.

On top of this gossipy, salacious and politicised backdrop, urban living conditions in the city were filthy and disease-ridden: more people died in London in the 1700s than were baptised every year. The century was characterised by near-continuous military engagement. So on the face of it, nothing makes sense about Pope’s depiction in the 1733 Essay on Man, of all the cosmos as “the chain of Love/Combining all below and all above”, in which “Whatever IS, is RIGHT”.

This seems especially strange today, in the light of our modern preference for art that’s “representative” of demographics or otherwise reflective of “the real world”. But Pope’s fixation on order, hierarchy and beauty make sense, because he feared that the alternative to an idealised order would be infinitely worse:

Let Earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly,
Planets and Suns run lawless thro’ the sky,
Let ruling Angels from their spheres be hurl’d,
Being on being wreck’d, and world on world,
Heav’n’s whole foundations to their centre, nod,
And Nature tremble to the throne of God:
All this dread ORDER break – for whom? For thee?
Vile worm! Oh Madness, Pride, Impiety! (Essay on Man, Ep. I, 251-7)

Modern tastes run more to deconstructing than glorifying canonical art or the social hierarchies it idealises. Today we’re all about writing doctorates on marginalia, humanising a stammering monarch, or revealing the sexual licence beneath the aristocratic facade. But from Pope’s perspective, it was order that needed defending, as the only real defence against tyranny:

What could be free, when lawless Beasts obey’d
And ev’n the Elements a Tyrant sway’d? (WF, 51-2)

Read against the corruption, volatility and rampant, clap-infested shagging of Georgian high society, the restrained vituperation, classical learning and formal orderliness of Pope’s writing could be seen as a paradox. Or, perhaps, a state of denial. But what if it was more a set of aspirations that succeeded — just not straight away?

The ensuing century, dominated by Victoria and Albert, is perhaps Peak Order for modern Britain. If Boswell’s diaries, in the latter half of the 18th century, record 19 separate instances of gonorrhea, Victoria’s ascent to the British throne in 1837 was characterised by a society-wide backlash against the excesses of the preceding era.

Whether methodically colouring the globe in red, or imposing strict codes of sexual conduct, public-spiritedness and emotional reserve at home, the Victorians reacted against the perceived licentiousness of the Georgian era — by delivering the kind of order that Alexander Pope both depicted in his writing and also, in his own political era, never saw realised.

In the time since Peak Order we’ve all become somewhat more free-and-easy again. But we should be wary of viewing this either as evidence of moral progress, or (depending on your outlook) of a decline that’s likely to continue indefinitely. Our age has its digital Grub Street, its own pandemic, its unstable political settlement, and its patronage politics. So perhaps it may yet produce its own Alexander Pope, and with it a new poetics of order — for a future none of us will live long enough to see.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago

An intriguing article, Pope truly was ahead of his times. Though a few quibbles. James II was deposed mainly because of his Catholicism, his other measures would largely have been accepted had he been an Anglican. As Corp and Miller have noted. Also, the Tories by and large were for the Church of England and for the Stuarts, the Whigs were for the dissenters and for Hanover. The seditious libel case was in 1606, with the Star Chamber having been abolished in 1640.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

Also, the execution of Charles II happened in 1649 more than half a century before the date given in the article for the seditious libel case, hardly less than a generation.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I’m sure it was a slip of the key but it was Charles I who was executed in 1649. Charles II, his son was restored to the throne in 1660.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Wasn’t it Charles I who was beheaded? Charles II, off course, should have been hanged, drawn, castrated and quartered (not necessarily in that order) for signing the Secret Treaty of Dover, and selling out to Louis XIV.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Charles I was executed in 1649, his son was restored to the throne in 1660. The seditious libel case happened in 1606.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

At my prep school in the 70’s I learnt off by heart the dates for all the monarchs from 1066 onwards, and my Charles II mistake was just a typo. Having said which, I didn’t know about the seditious libel case until reading about it a couple of days ago as a result of this article.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Ah cool 🙂

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Thank you Mary. I’m afraid Alexander Pope was just a name to me, so I was glad to make his acquaintance today and learn what a strong- willed and gifted man he was. From what I know of the early 18th. Century he was probably a rare voice in reminding his society of its moral roots. The Bishops who should be expected to speak truth to power and to the people were largely silent. Apart from Samuel Butler and George Berkeley they were all nonentities with little prospect of influencing their society. Thank God for John Wesley who was a light in the darkness.
We see something similar today. For Alexander Pope write Peter Hitchens,Melanie Phillips and Jordan Peterson and very few others. As far as our contemporary Bishops are concerned they tend to be gently disposed toward culturally acceptable left of centre politics and generally try to avoid saying anything which may offend wokedom. In the meantime people suffer greatly as a result of the moral breakdown in society, not least the children suffering from broken families, and the ethical chaos and confusion caused by identity issues. But I do not agree that a moral reformation will come about by “a new poetics of order”. There are I believe two alternatives. Either we go the route of a great spiritual awakening/revival based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ which impacts countless people through the power of the Holy Spirit. Or it comes by the introduction of sharia law rigourously applied when/if Islam becomes the dominant religion in this country through the demographics sometime after 2050.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago

We are certainly back to those days but cannot see it. We think we have progressed instead of sinking. The revival in Britain was mainly due to the Wesley brothers leading to us ruling the waves and more. How the mighty have fallen.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Did Mary choose the title for this piece? The last paragraphs seemed to contradict it. The 18th century licentiousness gave way to a primmer, more proper Victorian London, i She seems to be saying that looser and tighter morals run in cycles in London society, rather than having always been loose, which makes sense to me. As R.H. Bruce Lockhart wrote: “The most dangerous of all historical aphorisms is the catch-phrase; ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la mÃÂȘme chose'”. Be skeptical whenever you hear it.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

I’m not sure about the popular myth of prim and proper Victorians, it seems to me to be more a product of the 20th century imagination than having much basis in reality.
Admittedly Victoria’s persona after Albert’s death was prim and disapproving of licentiousness, which had an influence on the aspirational middle classes, but London was as dissolute and seemy as it ever was underneath, perhaps more so; prostitution, opium dens, body snatching, mugging including garotting, laudanum addiction commonplace, adultery, murder.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

Four years ago, I wrote and had published a Bristolian homage to the Dunciad, a 620 line poem in heroic couplets. Google “The Montpeliad by Richard Craven”.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

well that was a wasted two minutes I’ll never get back.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

How interesting. I gather it is fairly uncomplimentary about Bristol which was very prescient given the recent trouble there over BLM and the Coulston statue.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Thank you! Yes, disparaging Bristol in iambic pentameter is very much my stock in trade. Incidentally, about an hour ago I blocked our mutual antagonist N.Yerbizness.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Iambic pentameter reminds me of the redoubtable William Dunbar and his amusing reference to VD.

Many thanks for seeing off Nun, he wasn’t really up to it, poor chap.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

And I must thank you for introducing me to William Dunbar. I’d heard of him but knew nothing about him except for “Timor mortis conturbat me”. Now I’ve looked him up and discovered what a wealth of material he left bequeathed us.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Yes, he was a very interesting chap. Fortunately the ‘fear of death’ doesn’t afflict me (yet).

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
3 years ago

“…most music is about getting laid.”

Same as it ever was, “Carmina Burana” 11th century.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
3 years ago

“…king’s divine right to abolish Parliament and govern centrally via decree.”

The Conservative Party’s wet dream only replace the monarch with OZ The Great and Powerful.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

In Scottish gaelic, dun means hillfort or place of refuge, haven.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/
https://www.teanglann.ie/en

In Scottish gaelic, ciad means first or an obsolete meaning of ciad is opinion or impression.
https://en.m.wiktionary.org

Maybe dunciad means first haven or impressions from a place of refuge.

This got me thinking about the yugas, with the first effectively being the perfect age of heaven on Earth. From here, humans progressively move through three other yugas which are increasingly sinful and then back to the perfect age.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

If this is meant for reassurance, it’s grossly ingenuous. Walpole + “The Butcher of Culloden” + open sewers appear prelapsarian by comparison.

Sean L
Sean L
3 years ago

All antagonisms are binary, resolving themselves into two sides. Even where there multiple mutually antagonistic protagonists as there invariably are, the fiercest rivalries always being among those closest, people eventually have to choose sides. Proximity guarantees rivalry: put any number of children in a room with the same number of identical toys, as soon as one child reaches for a toy another will contend for it. ‘Toy’ could symbolise *any* rivalry. The antagonism is mimetic and has nothing to do with the value of the ‘toy’ itself. As Rene Girard puts it, we become “doubles”: the ostensible cause of the conflict dropping out of consideration as we become fascinated with our rival.