Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” engages the reader by telling the tale of a beauteous young woman who has been terribly wronged when an amorous suitor purloins a lock of hair. He begins his tale with an introduction, an apology of sorts, to one Arabella Fermor. Pope makes light of the fairer sex, and indeed poets themselves, as he states ” . . . for the ancient poets are in one respect like many modern ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance” (492).
In his web page titled “The Mock Epic as Genre,” David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College states, “. . . the Mock-Epic is a literary form that burlesques the Classical epic by bringing the formulas characteristic of the epic . . . to bear upon a trivial subject. ” First published anonymously in Lintot’s Miscellany in May 1712, Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”is a mock-epic which depicts vanity, pride, and the never ending battle between the sexes. Pope engages the classic formulas of an epic to depict a tale of a great injustice, the unforgivable theft of a single lock of hair.
The Rape of the Lock” burlesques elements of the epic in a variety of manners. The first elements encountered by the reader are the dream and the presence of supernatural beings. ” . . . but Zeus could not sleep. For he was pondering how he could destroy crowds of men on the battlefield and cover Achilles with glory,” Homer writes, “It seemed to be the best plan to send a bad dream to King Agamemnon” (trans. in W. H. D Rouse 23). Just as Homer chose to invoke thepower of the gods, Alexander Pope chose to illuminate his tale with the presence of the Rosicrucians, the Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs, and Salamanders.
To each he has given the ability to call forth dreams, or more forthcoming, mischief. When first met, “Belinda still her downy pillow pressed,” writes Pope, “Her guardian Sylph prolonged the balmy rest: Twas he had summoned to her silent bed, The morning dream that hovered o’er her head” (I. 19-22). “Now then men, dismiss for your meal, and let us make ready for battle,” says Homer, “Sharpen your spears each man, look to your shields . . . let war be the word” (trans. in W. H. D. Rouse 30). The arming of the hero, or in Pope’s case the heroine, has always been a key element in the classic epic.
Alexander Pope catalogs Belinda’s weapons as she prepares for an evening of frivolity. “Now awful beauty puts on all its arms” writes Pope, as she prepares herself for an evening of frivolity (I. 139). The Achaians’ spears are deadly, but sadly, Belinda’s weapons of beauty present a far greater danger. They are designed to create havoc in the hearts of men. The battle between the sexes has ever been a duel of vanities. Pope loudly proclaims Belinda’s vain nature as he writes, “Fair nymphs and well-dressed youths around her shone, But every eye was fixed on her alone” (II. 5-6).
The eighteenth century was fraught with self-centered aristocrats. It seems that their only goal in life was to see to their own pleasure. It is with thoughts of selfish pleasure that the baron in “The Rape of the Lock” admires Belinda and her glorious hair. Pope expresses the baron’s conceit as he states, “Resolved to win, he meditates the way, by force to ravish, or fraud betray” (II. 31-32). The baron’s belief in his own appeal is comical. It is a reminder of a time-honored tradition, in the minds of men at any rate, that they can easily attain a woman through the superior workings of their minds.
An epic, naturally, would not be complete without a great battle. And so Belinda, “Burns to encounter two adventurous knights,” Pope writes, “At ombre singly to decide their doom. ” (III. 26-27). Pope catalogs the cards in play, “Caps on their heads, and halberts in their hand; And parti-colored troops, a shining train, Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain,” in such a manner as Homer used to catalog the Achaian army. As each card is laid upon the table, Belinda feels the capitulation of her foes.
The ravages of war leave only an illusion of victory. Pope writes, “O thoughtless mortals! er blind to fate, Too soon dejected, and too soon elate,” as Belinda plays the final trump to see this battle won. Belinda, just as Agamemnon, falls victim to her pride. She is blind to the mischief, the tragedy that is about to befall her. The baron, discontent with the outcome, searches for another means to gain his prize, a lock of Belinda’s glorious hair. Just when he believes all is lost, “. . . Clarissa drew with tempting grace,” states Pope, “A two-edged weapon from her shining case” (III. 127-128). Is Belinda truly the winner here, for she has now lost a lock of her glorious hair?
It has been my experience that Alexander Pope writes nothing without a purpose. His every word rings heavily with underlying meaning. His satirical style has often been the voice of reason when viewing the follies of society. “The Rape of the Lock” is no exception. A two-canto version first appeared in 1712 at the request of John Caryll. It seems that “The Rape of the Lock” had its origins in an actual incident in polite society. Arabella Fermor, to whom Pope addresses his letter of introduction, had suffered the loss of a lock of hair.
The perpetrator of this violation was Robert, Lord Petre, one of Arabella’s suitors. Apparently Arabella took offence and a quarrel resulted between the two families. John Caryll, a relative of Lord Petre, requested Pope to write a humorous poem about the episode in the hopes that the two families would reconcile. “The Raping of the Lock” appeared to have served its purpose. However, in 1714 Alexander Pope submitted an expanded and revised version of “The Rape of the Lock” which once again upset the Fermor family. Pope’s extended version was more than a comic rendition of the incident.
It was a commentary on the foolishness and trivial natures of polite society. Clarissa’s speech in canto five brings the voice of reason into this farce. Pope writes, “Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day, Charmed the small pox away, Who would not scorn what housewife’s cares produce, Or who would learn one earthly thing of use? ” (IV. 19-21). Alexander Pope makes us painfully aware that we are all trivial in comparison to the true tragedies of life. He satirizes, criticizes, and makes it abundantly clear that, when held up for scrutiny, we are all idle young lords and ladies.