Many modern readers of Swift, Pope and Gay have assumed that their attitudes, political positions and even social engagement are important. Commentators on Pope, to choose just one of the three writers, provide ready examples. Erskine-Hill claims of him that ‘Few poets have been more deeply involved in the society of their age’,1 and Mack validates the position of the Dunciad by identifying a kind of allegiance: ‘somewhat like the Iliad, one might say (comparing great things with small), where also a civilization is at stake. Or like the Aeneid, where a civilization falls because it deserves to fall from its own pride, folly, gullibility, and decadence.’2 Mack’s sentences seek to underscore the importance of the Dunciad by comparing it with great earlier texts, and by placing it in opposition to the vices of citizens which threaten the existence of a civilization. According to such a reading, the poem’s importance lies not just in its beauty but also in its political values. Assumptions about the
importance of Pope’s social attitudes or vision are often at work even when they are less emphatically pronounced than this. Anne Hall Bailey suggests in the conclusion to her essay on the Dunciad that the poem ‘warns its readers of the inherent corruption that exists in the formation of a capitalist market dependent upon the saleability of thought’.3 Three years later in the same journal, Mark E. Wildermuth, argues that An Essay on Man ‘anticipates a signiﬁcant aspect of modern chaos theory’, and that the poem’s ‘metaphysic, in turn, validates the poem’s ethics’.4 Despite Wildermuth having a very different focus from Bailey’s, he appears to be operating from the same assumption that it is important that some kind of truth, indeed some kind of ethical truth, can be shown to reside in the poem. That assumption is often embedded in the language critics adopt. Words such as ‘awareness’, ‘contemplate’, and ‘show’ betray the critic’s belief that the poem’s subject and its truthfulness about its subject are signiﬁcant.