The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is one of the most famous examples of a mock-epic poem in the English language. It was first published in 1712, and was later revised to include the “machinery”, the retinue of supernaturals who influence both the actions and the morals of the story. It is Pope’s poetic career that defines the Augustan Age of English literature with neoclassical poetry that was learned and allusive, setting less value on originality that the Romantic poets would in the next century. A main feature of literature at this time, one that affects Pope’s writing, is that it was morally and politically engaged, privileging satire as its most central form.
The poem was inspired by an actual incident that took place between acquaintances of Pope’s. The main character in the poem, Belinda, is in fact based on Arabella Fermor, and the man who cut off a lock of her hair is Lord Petre. John Caryll, to whom the poem is addressed, asked Pope to write a poem, putting the entire event forth in a light-hearted way to end the strife between the two families. Pope’s aim was to encourage his friends to laugh at their own foolishness by writing a humorous commentary on the arrogance and idleness of the 18th century elite.
The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem. The epic is a form of poetry usually applied to grand, lofty subjects such as love and war. By applying this form to the trivial argument between Belinda and the Baron, Pope pokes fun at his society and its failure to rise to epic standards. His election to shape his poem in the elaborate style of the classic epic involved observation of certain required traditions: the invocation to the muse, the playing of a game that becomes a symbol of battle, the description of the heroes’ armor, and a descent into the underworld. Using this style essentially makes a mockery of the event, which is said to have actually occurred and inspired Pope’s poem. As a result, Pope emphasizes the ridiculousness of a society that contains members who have so much free time they elevate frivolous events and treat these events with the gravity that should be applied to more serious issues. Values have lost all proportion.
Literary devices are intricately laced throughout the poem. The verse form of this poem is the heroic couplet, one in which two ideas may be easily balanced and counter-weighed. It is perfectly suited to the evaluative, moralizing nature of the poem. The heroic couplet is made of rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter lines, with sentences distributed across lines and half-lines, so that the judicious aspect of Pope’s ideas is emphasized.
Pope tells us a great deal about his poem during the impact of its first few seconds. The opening of Canto 1 makes clear the mock-heroic style. Here, Pope invokes the Muse, states the dedication to John Caryll, and introduces the conventional epic subjects of love and war. (Tillotson, 1938)
‘This verse to Caryll, Muse! Is due;
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view.
Yet already we can see that these subjects are not being treated seriously. We are promised a narrative of towering anger and conflict, ‘dire Offence’ and ‘mighty Contests’, but already, the amorous causes, however mighty the contests they produce, have been dubbed ‘trivial Things’. In addition to the social context, there is a literary one. Pope’s opening lines are an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is here that we establish that this is to be a mocking poem. Copying Milton, Pope surprises us by writing not of the wrath of Achilles, or Virgil’s arms and the man, but simply the cutting off of a girl’s hair. The humor is Pope’s poem is “high-built indoor laughter”. Its mockery is far from simple. The laughter is often simultaneously hitting two objects: the great epic form and life itself, the characters, the well-bred lord, the gentle belle, Sir Plume. And yet, not all will be laughter. There is the title and the fierceness of the verb ‘assault’ to remind the reader that there is some seriousness yet.
In Canto 1, with Belinda’s dream, Pope introduces the “machinery” of the poem. He begins to sketch the character of coquette” in this initial canto. He draws the portrait indirectly, through characteristics of the Sylphs rather than of Belinda herself. The Sylphs become an allegory for the mannered conventions that govern female social behavior. Pope makes it clear that these women are not conducting themselves on the basis of abstract moral principles, but are governed by an elaborate social mechanism – of which the Sylphs cut a fitting caricature. (SparkNotes Editors, 2002)
Pope was a weak human as well as a moralist. In his poem, he flatters Belinda, saying that she must be forgiven for her mistakes. He dubbed the cutting of the lock a ‘trivial Thing,’ but if Belinda has all the typical female foibles, Pope wants us to recognize that it is partly because she has been educated and trained to act this way.
Pope’s portrayal of Belinda at her dressing table introduces mock-heroic motifs that run through the poem. The scene of her toilette is rendered first as a religious sacrament, in which Belinda herself in the priestess and her image in the looking glass is the Goddess she serves, This parody of the religious rites before a battle gives way, then to another kind of mock-epic scene, that of the ritualized arming of the hero. Combs, pins, and cosmetics take the place of weapons as “awful Beauty puts on all its arms”.
In Canto 2, Belinda sets out by boat to Hampton Court Palace. She is accompanied by a party of ladies and gentlemen, but is the most striking member of the group. Her two ringlets are described as love’s labyrinths, designed to entangle men’s hearts. The Baron decides to steal these locks. He builds an altar to pray for success. In true mock-heroic fashion, the gods listened to his prayer but decided to grant only half of it. Ariel remembers that ‘some dire disaster’ threatens Belinda, and assigns her an extensive troop of bodyguards.
In the first canto, the religious imagery surrounding Belinda’s grooming rituals gave way to militaristic conceit. The same happens in this canto. (SparkNotes Editors, 2002) Her curls are a trap to ensnare an enemy. Her petticoat is described as a defensive armament comparable to the Shield of Achilles. Here, the sexual allegory of the poem comes into view. The title of the poem associates the cutting of Belinda’s hair with a more explicit sexual conquest and here Pope cultivates that suggestion. The sexually metaphorical language increases with words like ‘ravish’ and ‘betray’. Also, the breaking of china is an allusion to the loss of virginity. Belinda’s petticoat is the battlefield that requires the most extensive fortifications. This fact furthers the idea that the rape of the lock stands in for literal rape.
In Canto 3, the boat reaches its destination and Belinda sits down with two men to play a game of cards. They play ombre, somewhat like bridge. And it is described in terms of a heroic battle: the cards are troops. Belinda begins favorably, but soon the Baron is winning. Belinda recovers in the last trick so as to just barely win back the amount she bid. Then they all get ready to drink coffee. The Baron is reminded of his intention to cut Belinda’s lock. Clarissa gives him scissors and on his third attempt he manages to achieve his goal. The Sylphs try to protect her, but Ariel finds that she has ‘an earthly lover lurking at her heart’, and gives up protecting her then. The implication is that she secretly wants to be violated. The deed is done. Belinda throws a fit of anger.
Hampton Court Palace is described as a place where Queen Anne ‘dost sometimes consel take – and sometimes tea’. This is a zeugma, the effect of which is show the royal residence as a place that houses both serious matters of state and frivolous social occasions. Against the gossip and chatter of the young lords and ladies, Pope opens a window onto more serious matters that are occurring meanwhile, like criminal trials & executions. The card game is a parody of the battle scenes of great epic poems. Pope is suggesting that the energy and passion once applied to brave and serious purposes is now expended on such insignificant trials as games and gambling, which often become a mere front for flirtation. Belinda’s distress after her lock has been cut is to some degree an affectation. The melodrama of her screams is complimented by the ironic comparison of the Baron’s feat to the conquest of nations.
In Canto 4, after the loss of Belinda’s lock, an earthly gnome named Umbriel flies down to the “Cave of Spleen”. He passes through Belinda’s room, where she’s attended by Ill-Nature and Affectation, her two handmaidens. Umbriel addresses the ‘Goddess of Spleen’ and returns with a bag of ‘sighs, sobs and passions’, and a vial of sorrow, tears and grief, which he unleashes on Belinda, fueling her anger and depression. Her friend Thalestris urges Belinda to avenge herself, insisting that her honor has been insulted. Thalestris urges her husband, Sir Plume, to demand that the Baron return the lock. Sir Plume’s speech is silly and ineffectual, highlighting how far from courtly behavior this generation of gentlemen has fallen. His speech has no logical, moral or oratorical power.
Thalestris’s insistence that Belinda has suffered the worst kind of offense shows us that the real question is a superficial one – public reputation – rather than the moral imperative to chastity. At the end of the canto, Belinda says:
‘Oh, hadst thou, cruel! Been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!’
This is suggestive of pubic hair, and Pope is pointing out the degree to which outward appearance is valued over all else.
The Baron ignores the ladies’ appeals, and Clarissa delivers a long speech, stating the moral of the poem. She questions why society places so much emphasis on a woman’s beauty, but almost none on ‘good sense’ and ‘good humour’. The moral of the poem is seriously meant. Critics of that time considered the old poets had planted a firm moral in their epics and this element Pope imitated without mockery. He allotted Clarissa a long speech, setting it out so clearly that no one could have any excuse for missing it.
‘And trust me, Dear! Good Humour can prevail,
When Airs, Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail…
She is ignored by Belinda and Thalestris, and an all-out attack is launched on the Baron. Umbriel congratulates himself on causing this discord. The description of the battle has a markedly erotic quality, as all the characters wallow in their mock-agonies. Belinda and the Baron meet in combat and she emerges victorious by peppering him with snuff and drawing her bodkin. Pope tells us that the Baron is not frightened because he “sought no more than on his foe to die”, meaning his goal all along was sexual consummation. The ringlet has been lost in the chaos. Pope avers that it has risen to heaven to become a star, so that it may be admired for all eternity. In this way, it will attract more envy that it ever could on earth.
Canto 5’s battle scene is an allusion to heroic military actions. The stoic Baron is compared to Aeneas ‘the Trojan’ and Roman gods are invoked by name. The bodkin here represents a decorative hair pin, but there is a suggestion of the weapon of the ancient days as Belinda holds it over the Baron. The poem ends in a decidedly mock-heroic way. The ending is designed to compliment Arabella Fermor (Belinda), and also to praise the poet as the instrument of her immortality. We find that no real moral development has taken place. Belinda is asked to come to terms with her loss through a kind of bribe, or distraction that reinforces her basically frivolous outlook.
The fundamental theme of The Rape of the Lock is the ruckus that high society makes over insignificant matters, such as breaches of decorum. Other themes that Pope develops in the poem include human vanity and the importance of being able to laugh at life’s little reversals. The latter motif is a kind of “moral to the story.” (Cummings, 2011) Epic conventions that Pope parodies include: invocation of the muse, division of the poem into cantos, descriptions of soldiers preparing for battle and heroic deeds, account of a great sea voyage, participation of deities or spirits in the action, and presentation of scenes in the underworld.
The main figure of speech in The Rape of the Lock is hyperbole. Pope uses it throughout the poem to exaggerate the ordinary and the commonplace, making them extraordinary and spectacular. In so doing, paradoxically, he makes them seem as they really are, small and petty. (Cummings, 2011) One example is:
‘Sol through white Curtains shot a tim’rous Ray,
And ope’d those Eyes that must eclipse the Day.’
Other literary devices are also used, such as personification in the phrase ‘Love in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains’ and anaphora in the line ‘He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d’ and alliteration in several heroic couplets, such as:
‘Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,
Beaux banish Beaux, and Coaches Coaches drive.’
Pope’s message is very effectively put across. Not only does he show how the conflict between the two parties is trivial, but through this poem he also addresses wider societal concerns. His satire is directed to upper-class society as a whole. Mocking Belinda’s vanity and pretensions, her compares her to the sun. His images of silver and gold suggest that we need to consider the real value underlying glittery and outwardly attractive surfaces.
I found this poem very well written and enjoyable. Pope’s careful diction and use of the heroic couplet not only enhances the satire of the poem, but paints a striking picture of how Pope views the society that he lives in. Throughout the poem, it seems that he is half-admonishing, half-poking fun at Belinda and the Baron. In a good-natured way, he’s trying to point out flaws.