In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve commit the first sin, and from this point on, all other sins are mere copies of this. Alexander Pope uses this to his benefit when he depicts the crime in The Rape of the Lock. By alluding to Milton’s work, Pope is able to comically refer to the cutting of a lock of hair as a tragic and epic event. In doing this, he paradoxically assumes that the crime is not one of personal fault, but one fated to happen by God, just as in Paradise Lost.
“What dire offence from amorous causes springs, / What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” (Pope, ll. 2). These first lines of The Rape of the Lock immediately try to make light of the entire situation. The reader has yet to learn what the “dire offence” is, but already likens it to the Adam and Eve’s “trivial” mistake, eating from the tree of knowledge, which forced them out of Paradise. It will take a further reading of the poem to learn that the crime is simply the cutting of a lock of hair, and not a monumental fall from God’s graces. Pope goes on to pose the questions, “Say what strange motive, Goddess!
Could compel/a well-bred Lord to assault a gentle Belle? / O say what stanger cause, yet unexplored, /could make a gentle Belle reject a Lord? ” (Pope, ll. 7-10). This is an allusion to Adam’s rejection of Eve in Paradise Lost when he laments, “ ‘Out of my sight, thou serpent! ’ ” and to Eve’s crime against God (Milton, Bk. X, l. 867). The motives of Sir Plume’s actions are now seen as similar to that of Adam and Eve’s and it sets up the crime against Clarissa as one that could not be avoided.
While Clarissa seems to be visited in her sleep by her guardian angel, it is an obvious reference to Eve’s visit from Satan in Paradise Lost, Book V. The angel, whom we can assume is evil, tells Clarissa she is the “Fairest of mortals…” while Satan addresses Eve as “Nature’s desire” (Pope, l. 27; Milton, l. 45). Both women are instructed in their pride, and can not help but feel better than others. Clarissa must “Hear and believe! thy own importance know,” (Pope, l. 35).
Satan tells Eve that eating of the fruit will make her “not to the earth confined, / but sometimes in the air, as we;” (Milton, Bk. V, ll. 78-79). In the same manner, the angel tells Clarissa, “The light coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair, / and sport and flutter in the fields of air” (Pope, ll. 65-66). Clarissa must believe that she should flirt and flaunt her beauty, just as Eve believes she must eat the fruit, and it is only normal that Sir Plume, like Adam, would envy must envy her likeness to heaven.
While a face-value reading of The Rape of the Lock would make it seem just a humorous tale, Pope goes above and beyond this. The allusions to John Milton’s Paradise Lost prove it to be a very cunning piece. The reader can not place blame on Sir Plume, for like Adam, he was a victim of beauty and love. At the same time, we can not look towards Clarissa because she was only acting the way her beauty would force her to. This was a crime not meant to tear two families apart, but paradoxically, a crime of fate.
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