Alexander Pope's The Dunciad: Book One


The City and the Town

In a contemporary context, the terms "city" and "town" define population size and only hint at the social differences between their populations.  If you are from the city, calling something “small town” still has a pejorative ring.  In 18th Century London, the terms held complex social definitions within the city itself.  The Town referred to the fashionable and polite parts of London, whereas the City referred to the rougher parts of London associated with low classes and impolite society (Rumbold 122).  Klein recounts the history of these two terms, stemming from the original place divisions of Court, Country and City:

The idea of a polite London in the early eighteenth century depended on a reconciliation of gentility and urbanness, which is precisely what the tripartite scheme of Court, Country, and City had militated against. ...However, as early as the 1620s, a new category, the Town, arose to supplement the categories of Court, Country and City.  The Town appeared in response to the growing presence of gentlemen in London as a way of imagining the urban activities of the gentlemen and formulating that side of urban life related to genteel leisure and its social and cultural possibilities. (29-30)

Pope focuses on the two categories of Town and City in The Dunciad.  
The differences between them illustrated in Pope’s poem where he associates Dulness and the dunces with the City and comments on their forays interactions with Town society.  Pope’s first mentions the Town when he scoffs at Bays's success in the theatre:

But chief in Bays’s monster-breeding breast;
Bays, form’d by nature Stage and Town to bless,
And act, and be, a Coxcomb with success. (108-110)

As we comprehend after reading the note, Pope did not feel that Cibber (Bays) was fit to be part of the Town.  Pope preferred to associate hack writers with the City.  In Scriblerus’s note to line 233, Pope mentions “Edward Ward, a very voluminous Poet… [who] kept a public house in the City, (but in a genteel way)…”  Pope’s snide comment about Ward’s public house being genteel further emphasises that it is part of the City and thus beneath good society.

The use of City and Town continues the convention of painting urban London as inferior to the genteel court, country and now Town.  The City holds all that is corrupt and sinful, while the Town becomes an island of civility surrounded by the muck of London.  Of course, we (and probably Pope) understand that this dichotomy is not this simple, but it serves Pope well in his quest to mock the dunces.  Pope mixes Town and City spaces (and the people who populate them) when he addresses Bays’s appeal to those of all classes:

This brazen Brightness, to the ‘Squire so dear,
This polish’d Hardness, that reflects the Peer;
This arch Absurd, that wit and fools delights;
This Mess, toss’d up of Hockley-hole and White’s;
Where Dukes and Butchers join to wreathe my crown,
At once the Bear and Fiddle of the town. (219-224)

Hockley-in-the-Hole was a site noted for enjoyments such as bear and bull-baiting and swordfights, pastimes associated with a courser clientele.  The site was located on the fringe of North London near Clerkenwell far from the posh West side (Thornbury).  Conversely, White’s was an exclusive gambling club on St. James’s Street at the West end of London frequented by upper classes (Sheppard).  The note to line 219 suggests, “this promiscuous mingling of ‘Dukes and Butchers’ (line 223) is presented as a breach of social order” (Rumbold 128). Though Bays manages to break social boundaries and appeal to everyone, I believe that Pope juxtaposes these places to show the equalising power of vice.  Both the low and high classes are drawn to dens of sin. 

In the 18th century poems that we have looked at, the authors set up strong dichotomies, most often comparing high and low class places, or urban and rural spaces.  This rigid system could be set up to emphasise the differences between classes and locations, but I think the authors merely set them up to break them down.  In the end, they show virtue and vice pervading London regardless of location or class.

City and Town spaces

Image of the high and low class establishments mentioned in The Dunciad on the Horwood Map. Navy labels indicate Town spaces. Burgandy labels indicate City spaces.

Hockley in the Hole

Image of approximate location of Hockley-in-the-Hole

Works Cited

Klein, Lawrence E. "The Polite Town: Shifting Possibilities of Urbanness, 1660-1715." The Streets of London. Eds. Tim Hitchcock and Heather Shore. London: Rivers Oram, 2003. 27-39.

Rumbold, Valerie, Ed. Alexander Pope: The Dunciad in Four Books. Pearson, 1999.

Sheppard, F. H. W. "St. James's Street, West Side, Past Buildings." Survey of London: volumes 29 and 30: St James Westminster, Part 1 (1960). British History Online. Web. pp. 459-471. <> Date accessed: 12 March 2009. 

Thornbury, Walter. "Hockley-in-the-Hole." Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878). British History Online. Web. pp. 306-309.  <> Date accessed: 12 March 2009.