We shall next declare the occasion and the cause which moved our poet to this particular work. He lived in those days, when (after Providence had permitted the invention of Printing as a scourge for the sins of the learned) Paper also became so cheap, and Printers so numerous, that a deluge of Authors covered the land: whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause, yea of his money, by such as would neither earn the one, nor deserve the other. At the same time, the licence of the press was such, that it grew dangerous to refuse them either: for they would forthwith publish slanders unpunished, the authors being anonymous, and skulking under the wings of Publishers, a set of men who never scrupled to vend either calumny or blasphemy, as long as the Town would call for it.Why was the publication of a satirical mock-epic "the only way that was left" to punish bad authors? On the face of it, the idea seems questionable. The Dunciad provides less of a mirror for poets than a bludgeon for specific people Pope happens to dislike, which is no doubt what gives it its special zing. While entertaining, the description of the court of Dulness is largely an indictment of literary society, not bad poetry as such. What bothers Pope most of all is the market-structure and social arrangement of the literary world, which not only perpetuates poetastery but also serves itself above all else, parasitically expanding to cover the entirety of English culture.
Now our author, living in those times, did conceive it an endeavor well worthy an honest satyrist, to dissuade the dull, and punish the wicked, the only way that was left. In that public-spirited view he laid the plan of this poem, as the greatest service he was capable (without much hurt, or being slain) to render his dear country. First taking things from their original, he considereth the causes creative of such Authors, namely Dulness and Poverty, the one born with them, the other contracted by neglect of their proper talents, through self-conceit of greater abilities. This truth he wrappeth in an Allegory (as the construction of Epic poesy requireth), and feigns that one of these Goddesses had taken up her abode with the other, and that they jointly inspired all such writers and such works. He proceedeth to shew the qualities they bestow on these authors, and the effects they produce; then the materials, or stock, with which they furnish them; and (above all) that self-opinion, which causeth it to seem to themselves vastly greater than it is, and it the prime motive of their setting up in this sad and sorry merchandise. The great power of these Goddesses acting in alliance (whereof as the one is the mother of Industry, so is the other of Plodding) was to be exemplified in some one, great and remarkable action. And none could be more so than that which our poet hath chosen, viz. the restoration of the reign of Chaos and Night, by the ministry of Dulness their daughter, in the removal of her imperial seat from the City to the polite World; as the action of the Aeneid is the restoration of the empire of Troy, by the removal of the race from thence to Latium. But as Homer singing only the wrath of Achilles, yet includes in his poem the whole history of the Trojan War; in like manner our author hath drawn into this single action the whole history of Dulness and her children.- Pope, Dunciad
By the end of Book III, it is clear that the corrupt world of Dulness and the literary world itself are completely coextensive--Pope and Swift are consigned to obscurity, apparently because bad poems drive out good. In fact, the printing-and-publishing apparatus is more implicated in this corruption than anything else. (This radically opposes traditional eighteenth-century representations of the relationship between print and corruption--here, print can no longer effectively exercise its power of surveillance.) There's no space outside the system from which an attack on Dulness can be launched directly; this means that not even decent poetry can counteract it.
Enter satire. For Pope, satire functions as a kind of immanent critique: since he takes pains to make only glancing reference to the actual values he defends, the focus is entirely on the internal rottenness of Dulness's works. Satire is "the only way that was left" because the other alternatives--gentle advice and pressure from outside the literary world--had become impossible. It is the only thing that can effectively avoid the problem of using a medium to critique itself. Satire's bite, after all, comes not from its intent, but from its maximally "realistic" depiction of the corrupt world--the more impartial the satirist, the more effective the satire. (This should probably be distinguished from parody, which relies on wilful distortion; although formally the Dunciad is parodic, it is nonetheless a satire at heart.)
But Pope is not bullish about satire's practical prospects. As depicted in the poem, Dulness's reign marches triumphantly onward until its climactic yawn--and the poet more or less renounces his own agency:
But sober History restrain'd her rage,The purpose of Satire here is to give succor to the dying muse of comedy, but it is History that is expected to overthrow Dulness in the end. The satirist's principal accomplishment, it seems, is keeping the spirit of good criticism alive until everything finally disappears in the vortex of Dulness.
And promised vengeance on a barbarous age.
There sunk Thalia, nerveless, cold, and dead,
Had not her sister Satire held her head...
The Dunciad, then, if we take it in utmost seriousness, is a tactics of survival rather than one of thorough critique or reform. Once the literary world has reached Dunciadic levels of corruption, it can no longer be stopped--only held at arm's length by the satirist. For the poet with integrity, writing any other kind of poem appears inadvisable.