Read INTRODUCTION of A Letter from Mr. Cibber to Mr. Pope, free online book, by Colley Cibber, on

In the twentieth century, Colley Cibber’s name has become synonymous with “fool.” Pope’s Dunciad, the culmination of their long quarrel, has done its work well, and Cibber, now too often regarded merely as a pretentious dunce, has been relegated to an undeserved obscurity.

The history of this feud is replete with inconsistencies. The image Cibber presents of himself as a charming, good-natured, thick-skinned featherbrain is as true as Pope’s of himself as a patient, humorous, objective moralist. Each picture is somewhat manipulated by its creator. The reasons behind the manipulation are less matters of outright untruth than of complex personalities disclosing only what they regard as pertinent. Cibber, the actor, always tries to charm his audience; Pope, the satirist, proffers those aspects best suited to his moral purpose.

Although the fact of their differences is evident in Pope’s writings after 1730, explanations of the cause, continuation and climax tend to be muddled. The cause generally cited is Cibber’s story in the Letter concerning Three Hours after Marriage and The Rehearsal. This is not only a one-sided version, it is not even strongly substantiated. As Norman Ault pointed out, it was not reported in any of the periodicals at a time when such incidents were seized upon by journalists hungry for gossip. The only confirmation aside from Cibber is Montagu Bacon’s letter to his cousin James Montagu, which gives a slightly less vivacious account:

’I don’t know whether you heard, before you went out of town, that The Rehearsal was revived ... and Cibber interlarded it with several things in ridicule of the last play, upon which Pope went up to him and told him he was a rascal, and if he were able he would cane him; that his friend Gay was a proper fellow, and if he went on in his sauciness he might expect such a reception from him. The next night Gay came accordingly, and, treating him as Pope had done the night before, Cibber very fairly gave him a fillip on the nose, which made them both roar. The Guards came and parted them, and carried away Gay, and so ended this poetical scuffle.’

A more likely cause is the second story in the Letter, the visit to the bawdy house. If, as Ault goes on to suggest, there is even a shadow of truth in it, Pope’s attitude, as well as his reluctance to reveal its cause, is understandable. The question then becomes: why did he continually provoke Cibber, knowing the latter had such a story at hand? This, however, might not be so illogical as it appears. Pope’s work in the thirties abounds in sneers at the actor, but none of them is equal in scale to the full attack launched against Theobald. In comparison with the 1735 portraits of Atticus and Sporus, the comments on Cibber are minor barbs that could be ignored by a man whose reputation was secure in its own right. Cibber evidently believed he was in such a position, for he offered no defense before 1740, and took no offensive action before 1742.

The “wicked wasp of Twickenham” is supposed to have meditated long and fiendishly before bursting forth against his enemies, yet the Dunciad of 1728 reveals no evidence of long fermentation. The choice of Theobald as king of the Dunces obviously derives from Shakespeare Restored; or a Specimen of the many errors as well committed as unamended by Mr. Pope, in his late edition of that Poet (1726). Theobald’s remarks on Pope’s slipshod editing of Shakespeare are not couched in diplomatic terms, and would be especially galling if Warburton’s note is true:

During two whole years while Mr. Pope was preparing his Edition of Shakespear, he publish’d Advertisements, requesting assistance, and promising satisfaction to any who could contribute to its greater perfection. But this Restorer, who was at that time solliciting favours of him by letters, did wholly conceal his design, till after its publication: (which he was since not asham’d to own, in a Daily Journal, of No, 1728.)

Pedantic, unimaginative and presumptuous, Theobald was the logical choice for a Dunce King in 1728. Dennis, Ducket, Burnet, Gildon et cie., had assailed him for years, and the prompt responses by Scriblerus merely increased their fury. Pope bore as many undeserved blows as Cibber, and he was no model of patience; the intense hostilities waged against him in the twenties were ample cause for an epic answer.

Pope claimed he attacked only those who had attacked him. It seems strange that, among the inimical host who had indulged in verbal violence, he should have revised his satire against the one man who had not contributed to the paper war, and who had, in his Apology, made humble acknowledgment of Pope’s gifts: “How terrible a Weapon is Satyr in the hands of a great Genius?” Cibber asks, remarking on Pope’s acid portrait of Addison, and adds:

But the Pain which the Acrimony of those Verses gave me is, in some measure, allay’d in finding that this inimitable Writer, as he advances in Years, has since had Candour enough to celebrate the same Person for his visible Merit. Happy Genius! whose Verse, like the Eye of Beauty, can heal the deepest Wounds with the least Glance of Favour.

Even stranger is that with such eminent and vocal enemies as Lord Hervey and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, he should have been concerned with a seventy-year-old semi-retired player who was too ineffectual, it would appear, to be a proper target for his great satire, and whose words in print could never have been a real threat.

The words “in print” are important, especially with reference to Cibber. As far as direct attack in the form of broadsides, pamphlets and the like, Cibber is clearly innocent; however, like many actors, he was an expert improvisator of stage dialogue, and this in itself is a reason to believe that his side of the feud was kept up from the theater platform. A more potent and public method of ridicule would be difficult to devise.

Stage warfare was as prevalent as paper warfare, as Cibber’s mockery of Three Hours after Marriage suggests, and as the prologues and epilogues amply demonstrate. The Non-Juror (1719) with its anti-Catholic remarks and its Jesuit villain played by Cibber himself, has several barbs directed at Pope.

If Pope’s wounds had been festering since 1715, he had a perfect opportunity to avenge them in the Dunciad Variorum of 1729. When Gay’s Polly was suppressed that year, Cibber was accused of being responsible (though it was never proved), since he had first refused The Beggar’s Opera, and then failed miserably to imitate its success with his own Love in a Riddle. He was at this time more widely known than Theobald, and had been a favorite target for anti-Hanoverians since The Non-Juror. It is very odd that Pope should have ignored this chance, particularly when so many of his dunces are playwrights, only to take it up fourteen years later under much less favorable circumstances when he himself was mortally ill and Cibber out of the public eye unless something else had provoked him.

One view is that the laureateship triggered the alteration, but while it is true that Cibber was one of the worst versifiers ever to wear the bays, that honor had been conferred in 1730, thirteen years before the last Dunciad. The flood of burlesque Odes that followed each of Cibber’s Birth-Day and New-Year efforts had ebbed by the mid-thirties, and in 1743 the laureate was a stale joke.

The Apology’s praise of Pope did not benefit Cibber; years before the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot had stated:

A Fool quite angry is quite innocent;
Alas! ’tis ten times worse when they repent (108-109).

and the minor slap on the wrist was misquoted by Pope, as the Letter points out. The exchange is interesting, for it is an indication that the man behind the actor’s mask might have been less thick-skinned than he liked to seem, that he was genuinely hurt by Pope’s shafts.

Cibber did not mind being portrayed as a fool. That, after all was the character he had created as Sir Novelty Fashion in Love’s Last Shift (1696), and which he continued to play in public throughout his life. But a charge of immorality did bother him, for he was anxious to be considered a moral man. Apparently he was his enemies charged him with gambling, highhandedness and plagiarism, but his life seems to have been surprisingly free of the kind of scandal that plagued most theatrical personalities. His plays embody the materialistic middle-class values which he champions in his later prose writings, and of all Pope’s arrows, “And has not Colley still his lord and whore?" seems to have struck deepest. It may be significant that the bawdy house story follows close upon Cibber’s plaintive remonstrance against this line.

As long as Cibber was in his own territory, he could answer Pope orally, but when he at last decided to reply in print, he was at a distinct disadvantage. The actor has a notorious disregard for the written word; his own experience on stage tells him that what is being said has less impact than the manner in which it is delivered. Cibber’s lack of concern for language had been well publicized. His comment that Anne Oldfield “Out-did her usual Out-doing" was never allowed to rest, and Fielding rarely missed an opportunity to use Cibber’s “paraphonalia” against him; that the most merciless parody of his Odes could scarcely sink to the depths of the originals, did not deter the efforts of the parodists.

He was not entirely insensible of his weaknesses. The second edition of The Provoked Husband was silently changed to “Out-did her usual Excellence,” and the spelling of paraphernalia corrected. Dr. Johnson’s testimony supports this view of Cibber’s seriousness:

His friends gave out that he intended his birth-day Odes should be bad: but that was not the case, Sir; for he kept them many months by him, and a few years before he died he shewed me one of them, with great solicitude to render it as perfect as might be, and I made some corrections, to which he was not very willing to submit.

His unwillingness to take Johnson’s advice might be more than mere egotism, if the Ode was the same one mentioned elsewhere in the Life, “I remember when he brought me one of his Odes to have my opinion of it, I could not bear such nonsense, and would not let him read it to the end; so little respect had I for that great man! (laughing.)."

The laureateship marked only one of several changes in Cibber’s life. In 1730, the triumvirate of actor-managers and their leading lady, a quartet which had supported Drury Lane through its most prosperous years, was broken by the death of Anne Oldfield; Wilks followed in 1732, and Booth, too ill to perform for two years, in 1733. Cibber’s royal appointment meant a sure annual income of L100 (plus a butt of sack worth L26), his children were grown, and he could afford some freedom from the demands of the theater at last. He continued to act, but with lessening frequency, until 1746, when as Cardinal Pandulph in his own Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John, he played the last rôle of a career spanning more than half a century.

By 1740, he was far enough removed from the theater to have a slightly different perspective on language. The Apology betrays a concern for his reputation beyond the immediate audience, and the need to leave a written record other than his plays. Cibber had written prefaces and dedications, but from this point on, he was to pursue his nondramatic writing with The egoist; or, Colley upon Cibber Being His Own Picture retouch’d, to so plain a Likeness, that no One, now, would have the Face to own it, but Himself (1743); The lady’s lecture, a theatrical dialogue, between Sir Charles Easy and his marriageable daughter. Being an attempt to engage obedience by filial liberty, and to given the maiden conduct of virtue, chearfulness (1748); and The Character and Conduct of Cicero (1749), which Davies defends:

A player daring to write upon a known subject without a college permission, was a shocking offense; and yet Dr. Middleton, to whom the conduct of Cicero was addressed, spoke of it with respect; and Mr. Hooke, the writer of the best Roman History in our language, has quoted Cibber’s arguments in this [his?] pamphlet against the murderers of Julius Cæsar, and speaks of them, not only with honour, but insists upon them as cogent and unanswerable.

Cibber seems to have become more and more aware of the written word as a powerful legacy, and Pope’s attacks began to hold a menace they had not had during the years of lighthearted stage warfare. On 20 March 1742, the New Dunciad struck him with enough force to cause him to reply with this open Letter of 7 July, which attracted a great deal of attention. Four engravings and at least six pamphlets, all focusing on the bawdy house story, were shortly in circulation. Whether or not the story is true, or whether it was even believed, is immaterial. Its importance lies in that it allowed Pope’s enemies to have at him in the most devastating way. The Letter may well have been as painful as Jonathan Richardson, Jr. claimed when he told Dr. Johnson that

he attended his father, the painter, on a visit to Twickenham when one of Cibber’s pamphlets had just come into Pope’s hands. ’These things are my diversion,’ said Pope. They sat by him while he read it, and saw his features writhing with anguish. After the visitors had taken their leave, young Richardson said to his father that he ’hoped to be preserved from such diversion as had been that day the lot of Pope.’

If so, the other attacks must have been shattering, since they lacked even the surface good humor of Cibber’s Letter. Pope, at any rate, was concerned enough to tell Spence:

The story published by Cibber, as to the main point, is an absolute lie. I do remember that I was invited by Lord Warwick to pass an evening with him. He carried me and Cibber in his coach to a bawdy-house. There was a woman there, but I had nothing to do with her of the kind that Cibber mentions, to the best of my memory and I had so few things of that kind ever on my hands that I could scarce have forgot it, especially so circumstanced as he pretends.

An answer to the Letter was demanded, and it was not long in coming. In August/September, Pope wrote his friend Hugh Bethel concerning a copy of the New Dunciad he had sent him:

That poem has not done me, or my Quiet, the least harm; only it provokd Cibber to write a very foolish & impudent Letter, which I have no cause to be sorry for, & perhaps next Winter I shall be thought to be glad of: But I lay in my Claim to you, to Testify for me, that if he should chance to die before a New & Improved Edition of the Dunciad comes out, I have already, actually written (before, & not after his death) all I shall ever say about him.

A Cibber-baiting campaign was undertaken by the poet’s friends, and the actor responded with The egoist, in which he defended himself, as in his Apology, by freely admitting his flaws with infuriating complacency. Then a false leaf of the last Dunciad came into his hands (though certainly not directly from Pope), and he published a second, very brief, letter which indicated some stress. Pope knew, and at least tacitly approved, of these tactics, for in February of 1743, he wrote Lord Marchmont:

I won’t publish the fourth Dunciad as ’tis newset till Michaelmas, that we may have time to play Cibber all the while.... He will be stuck, like the man in the almanac, not deep, but all over. He won’t know which way to turn himself to. Exhausted at the first stroke, and reduced to passion and calling names, so that he won’t be able to write more, and won’t be able to bear living without writing.

Copyright difficulties not mentioned by Pope prevented the Michaelmas publication date, but on 29 October 1743, the final Dunciad appeared with its new hero, for all the world to see.

Cibber kept his promise to “have the last word.” Another Letter from Mr. Cibber to Mr. Pope followed the publication of this Dunciad, stating his grievances with somewhat less humor, a number of scatological references, and an accusation against Warburton for instigating the change. Included was a twenty-page aside on the offending Bishop, revealing a startlingly thorough knowledge of his writings. This was the end. Cibber’s friends were eager for him to keep up his side of the battle, but he, having had his say, resumed his good-humor and refused to speak out again.

It has been suggested that Pope may have planned the change in hero earlier, and aimed the New Dunciad with the express purpose of goading Cibber into just such a reply as the Letter. This is, of course, possible, but it cannot be more than speculation; the final Dunciad does show evidence of hasty revision. Pope was severely ill when his last variation on the dunce theme appeared, and the seven months of life remaining to him were clearly not enough to permit him to polish it to the level of perfection customary in his work. But, as Warburton once noted, quality and posterity have awarded Pope the final say:

Quoth Cibber to Pope, Tho’ in Verse you foreclose,
I’ll have the last Word; for by G , I’ll write prose.
Poor Colly, thy Reas’ning is none of the strongest,
For know, the last Word is the Word that lasts longest.

Cibber’s words have not been reprinted since the eighteenth century, and his reputation has become so distorted it is sometimes difficult to find the man who, for so many years, amused and delighted London audiences. Yet, if one looks closely, under the froth and foppery, some of the charm and perception of the man still shines through. And, of more importance to the world of literature, it seems fairly clear that, whatever the original offense, the Dunciad as we know it today was a direct result of this Letter.

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