Introduction to The Dunciad - Moorfields


Grub Street’s unflattering representation in literature, especially in Pope’s The Dunciad, was built upon the street’s various unfavourable aspects.  Rumbold succinctly describes Grub Street as “a powerful image of shabbiness of way of life, morals and literary standards” (4).  The street owes part of its reputation to its physical location in London.  Rogers addresses the influence of neighbouring areas on the infamous street:

Grub Street acquired its notoriety for a combination of reasons. These included the fact that it lay at the heart of a district long in ill repute on account of its poverty and unhealthy character. In addition, there were specific places in its immediate vicinity, such as Moorfields and Bedlam, with which Grub Street could easily be connected: a circumstance which played straight into the hands of those consummate allegorisers, Pope and Swift. (20)

The reputation of Bedlam precedes itself, but taking a closer look at Moorfields, we see that it is also a notorious area of London.  Named for a moor on which it was built, the land was originally a swamp drained in 1527 and “laid out in pleasant walks in the reign of James I” (Thornbury).  Considering this description, one might be reminded of other pleasant walks in London, such as The Mall or St. James’s Park.  Though it might have been a location of recreation in the past, at the time of The Dunciad, Moorfields had a different reputation.  Moorfields did not have the advantage of being in a more affluent part of town like The Mall located in Westminster; it was surrounded by Cripplesgate, Bishopsgate, Cheapside and other lower class areas of London.  In addition to having underprivileged neighbours, Moorfields was built on contaminated land from the beginning.  As Rogers states, “the proximity of so much by way of 'noise- some waters' inevitably had its effect.s Cripplegate parish became notorious for the ague in winter and fever or the black death in the summer” (23).

The area itself soon became defined by what surrounded it.  Thornbury quotes a first-hand account of Moorfields:

When I remember Moorfields first," says "Aleph" (i.e., Mr. William Harvey), "it was a large open quadrangular space, shut in by the Pavement to the west, the hospital and its outbuildings to the south, and lines of shops without fronts, occupied chiefly by dealers in old furniture, to the east and north. Most of these shops were covered in by screens of canvas or rough boards, so as to form an apology for a piazza; and, if you were bold enough, in wet weather you might take refuge under them, but it was at the imminent risk of your purse or your handkerchief.

Since the areas around the space were undesirable, Moorfields’s possible uses are limited.  If we are to think of this open space as an attempt to recreate the pastoral in the city, Moorfields is not a perverted pastoral like St. James’s Park as much as a failed pastoral.  The surrounding areas overtake the open space, forcing the space to take on a different role.

Horwood Moorfield

Moorfields on the Horwood 1792-1799 map.

Works Cited

Rogers, Pat. Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift, and Grub Street.  New York: Methuen, 1972.

Rumbold, Valerie. The Dunciad in Four Books. Longman, 1999.

Thornbury, Walter. “Moorfields and Finsbury.”  Old and New London: Volume 2. (1878) pp. 196-208.
URL:  Date accessed: 05 March 2009.