Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"


Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001
23 Pages, Grade: very good

Excerpt

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Pope and the genre of mock-epic

3 The Rape of the Lock – A versified mockery of folly and pride
3.1 The plot
3.2 The sylph machinery
3.3 The aim of The Rape of the Lock

4 Conclusion

Bibliography

What the weak head with strongest bias rules,

Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

What is your sex’s earliest, latest care,

Your heart’s supreme ambition? – To be fair.

(George Lyttleton, Advice to a Lady)

1 Introduction

The success of his Essay on Criticism (published in 1711) brought Pope a wider circle of friends, notably Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, who were then collaborating on the journal The Spectator. To this journal Pope contributed the most original of his pastorals, “The Messiah” (1712). He was clearly influenced by The Spectator ’s policy of correcting public morals by witty admonishment, and in this vein he wrote the first version of his mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock (two canto version, 1712; five canto version, 1714), to reconcile two Catholic families. It was John Caryll who brought the family quarrel to the attention of Pope. Lord Petre had stolen a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair, which caused an animosity between the Petres and the Fermors, who had lived in great friendship before. Caryll had been staying with Lord Petre at Ingatestone in Essex, which was the assumed setting of the ‘rape’.[1] “Caryll suggested that Pope should ‘write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again’.”[2] Pope treated the dispute between the families as though it were comparable to the mighty quarrel between Greeks and Trojans, which had been Homer’s theme. Telling the story with all the pomp and circumstance of epic made not only the participants in the quarrel but also the society they lived in seem ridiculous.

“The Rape owes its richness and resonance to its overstructure of powerful, dangerous motifs.”[3] With this opinion, Warren rejects the romantic view of the Rape as a ‘filigree artifice’ of the play with the fires of sex and religion, and he substantiates his argument with the notion that religion in Pope’s mock-epic is replaced by the Baron’s and Belinda’s “altars to Pride and Love”. Pride indeed appears to be the main theme of The Rape of the Lock, and it is closely connected to the follies of the beau monde that esteems semblances: Pope satirizes the “irrational materialism of bourgeois values that objectify human beings by giving primacy to surface over substance.”[4]

2 Pope and the genre of mock-epic

The mock-epic or mock-heroic is a form of satire that adapts the sophisticated heroic style of the classical epic poem to a trivial subject. Trivial actions are granted the dignity of big words, thus because of the created contrast the mock-heroic exhibits at the same time belittlement and aggrandizement. The genre originated in classical times with an anonymous parody of Homer’s Iliad[5], the Batrachomyomachia (Battle of the Frogs and Mice) and “was honed to a fine art in the late 17th- and early 18th- century Neoclassical period.”[6] Pope understood Neo-classicism as the “living child of living parents.”[7] For the neo-classicist, the Renaissance was still going on, and old life was giving birth to new. This did however not imply that neo-classicist thoughts were unoriginal, as Pope puts it: “They who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients, may as well say our faces are not our own, because they are like our Fathers.”[8] Sometimes the mock-epic was used by the ‘moderns’ of this period to ridicule contemporary classicists, but more often it was applied by ‘ancients’ to point out the unheroic character of the modern age by exposing contemporary events in a heroic manner. The classic example of this is Nicolas Boileau’s Le Lutrin[9] (1674-83; The Lectern), which sets out with a dispute between two ecclesiastical dignitaries about where to place a lectern in a chapel and ends with a combat in a bookstore in which champions of either side fling their favourite ‘ancient’ or ‘modern’ authors at each other. Jonathan Swift varied this theme in his mock-heroic prose work The Battle of the Books[10] (1704).

The outstanding English mock-epic, however, is considered Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, where Pope compares the theft of the lock of hair to events in the Trojan War.[11] Because Pope likens a trivial matter to a matter of great importance, his “Heroi-Comical Poem” belongs to the second group within the mock-epic genre (s.a.), as “[t]he mock-epic is not mockery of the epic but elegantly affectionate homage, offered by a writer who finds it irrelevant to his age.”[12] Thus it exhibits the unheroic character of the “modern pseudo-heroes whose moral diminution is well reflected in the sylphs and the trivial act of cutting off a woman’s lock of hair”[13] as well as it ridicules the absurdity of the quarrel between the two families that ensued from the “rape”. Pope’s major sources[14] are Boileau’s Le Lutrin (s. a.) and Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary (1699),[15] the latter concerning a dispute between the Royal College of Physicians and the apothecaries about the dispensing of free medicine for the poor; as Reeves puts it: “[...] a satire, as it were, in favour of a national health service.”[16] Pope has often been criticized for lack of originality, as The Rape of the Lock contains a myriad of burlesque echoes of Homer, Virgil, or Milton as well as contemporary popular ‘chestnuts’.[17]

One of the characteristics of a mock-epic is the invocation to the muse at the beginning. Pope, too, does appeal to his ‘muse’ John Caryll, who solicited Pope to reconcile the quarrelling Catholic families by writing verses: “I sing – this verse to CARYLL, Muse! Is due [...].”[18] As Pope’s was an era of intense anti-Catholic sentiment,[19] Caryll was well aware of the importance of harmony in the small and isolated Catholic community, so he found it essential to attain an appeasement.

Moreover, the mock-heroic uses the familiar epic devices of set speeches, supernatural interventions, descents to the underworld, and detailed descriptions of the protagonist’s activities,[20] all of which Pope employs in The Rape of the Lock. Another classical device is the closing battle, that in the case of the Rape is a battle of the sexes.

Warren, implying that the failure of post-Miltonic epic lay in the conjecture that the heroic poem could be written in an unheroic age, gives the reason why Pope must have found mock-epic more appropriate to his age:

[...] ‘thinking people’ had grown too prudent for heroism, too sophisticated for religion. [...] So we might restate the incongruity as between heroic things and refined, between an age of faith and an age of reason. The mock-epic reminds an unheroic age of its own nature: by historical reference, it defines the ‘civilized’ present.[21]

Therefore Pope’s intention is to draw a parallel between contrasting modes, as “[t]he poem is in nothing more dexterous than in its controlled juxtaposition of worlds.”[22]

The Rape of the Lock contains at least two worlds within its plot. One of those worlds is of course the world of classical epic, on which all the other ‘worlds’ and elements are based.[23] Belinda’s heroic plot is “the story of the downfall of a mighty warrior who is the darling of the gods.”[24] She becomes entangled in an adventure when she ‘invades’ the patriarchal society of the court where she encounters her foe. First, the victory appears to be hers, as she makes use of her female weapons and succeeds to make the baron amourous of her. But then fate intervenes, the divine guardians abandon her and a trickery prevents the final triumph. However, the outcome of the battle at the end of The Rape of the Lock is unusual for an epic, as the heroic society falls apart. Belinda’s lock has the function of a holy grail, the “divine sanction for knightly endeavour [...].”[25]

The second world is the Christian and Miltonic world of the fall of man and his expulsion from paradise. Pope’s mock-epic is concerned with the ‘Fall of Belinda’, which is an echo of Milton’s Paradise Lost and of the biblical story of the fall of man due to a woman’s disobedience and pride. Eve, neglecting the divine advise not to eat from the forbidden tree (the Tree of Knowledge), thinks herself wise, so she becomes guilty of superbia. Belinda, too, is proud of her reflection in the mirror, so she has committed the first – and, therefore worst – sin of all. Pope compares the fall of Belinda to the shattering of a porcelain teacup[26] and thus makes it as irreversible as the biblical fall of Adam and Eve. But on the whole, as the lock is assured an eternal existence as a comet and, thus, as a reminder of Belinda’s beauty, Pope draws on Milton’s issue of the ‘Fortunate Fall’. Although man has fallen, a greater good will ensue, that is the theme of resurrection of man after death into an eternal life in heaven.[27]

In the dénouement of the poem, the king of the gods has his appearance. Jove, who in ancient epic outweighs the fates of the mortals (as for instance in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid)[28], “suspends his golden scales in air”, and the wits (the men’s wits) mount up, whereas the hairs (Belinda’s hairs) “subside.”[29] Fairer notes that Milton’s God also uses a golden pair of scales to show Satan that it is pointless to resist the divine will. But here, the ‘loser’ rises; he is lighter because he lacks something. However, Pope added a footnote referring only to the context of ancient epic, and thereby undertakes a moral judgment: “The appearance of the scales during the battle for the lock is a reminder of the vanity of human endeavour in the face of fate.”[30]

On the whole, the cutting of a lock of hair reminds of another context, that is the context of love. Belinda is a victim of love, like Virgil’s Dido in the Aeneid. Dido stabs herself because Aeneas has left her. Juno, pitying Dido’s suffering, sends down Iris, the rainbow, to cut off a lock of hair of the deceasing lover. It is a symbolical act which implies that Juno claims Dido’s life.[31]

Thus Pope follows ancient epic as well as Miltonic tradition, mixing those contexts with his own contemporary trivial matter. By opposing ‘trivial things’ and ‘mighty contests’, the pettiness of the society is stressed and ridiculed: “[...] the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, and the battle between Satan and Mankind, end up being represented across a card-table or a coffee-table.”[32]

The language and form Pope applied reinforces the standard features of epic and also emphasizes the contrast between the worlds. So the verse form Pope chose is the heroic couplet; that is, rhyme pairs in iambic pentametre. With the heroic language as well as heroic themes, Pope recognizes the frailty and transience of the beautiful, which closes the gap between heroic and non-heroic. As a form of pun, one of Pope’s most important devices in the Rape is the Zeugma, “the joining of two unlike objects governed by a single verb [...]”,[33] like for instance in the lines: “Or stain her honour, or her new brocade”; and “When husbands, or when lap-dogs breathe their last”. The antithetic deflatory zeugma is the poetical device that gives the poem its tone.

The structural design seems to depend on its sequences and parallels to Milton’s Paradise Lost: Belinda’s morning dream recalls the dream insinuated into Eve’s mind by Milton’s Satan; the scene at Belinda’s dressing-table, where she worships her own attractive image in the looking-glass, reminds of Eve’s narcissistic admiration of herself at the sight of her reflection in the Edenic pool; and, when Ariel, powerless versus Belinda’s choice of an earthly rather than a sylphic lover, watches “th’ideas rising in her mind”, finds an “earthly lover lurking at her heart”[34], this instant is reminiscent of the scene in Paradise Lost, when Adam’s guardian angels depart from him in the face of his fall of his own free will, “mute and sad”.

[...]


[1] Cf. eg. Cunningham, J. S.: Pope: The Rape of the Lock. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1970 (1st ed. 1961), p. 9f. Hereafter cited as: Cunningham, J. S.: Pope: The Rape of the Lock.

[2] Notes to The Rape of the Lock in: Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock. In: Alexander Pope. A selection of his finest poems (Oxford Poetry Library). Ed. Pat Rogers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 185. Hereafter cited as: Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock.

[3] Warren, Austin: “The Rape of the Lock as Burlesque.” (Extract) In: Critics on Pope. Readings in Literary Criticism (series). Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 81.

[4] Ellen Pollak: “The Rape of the Lock: A Reification of the Myth of Passive Womanhood.” In: Pope. Ed. Brean Hammond. London and New York: Longman, 1996, p. 64.

[5] Homerus: The Iliad. Trans. A. T. Murray. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985 & 1988 (2 Vols.).

[6] Britannica Online. Vers. 1999-2001. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2 June 2001 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=54459&tocid=0>

[7] Rosslyn, Felicity: Alexander Pope. A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1990, p. 16.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas: Epitres. Art Poétique. Lutrin. Ed. Charles-H. Boudhors. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1967.

[10] Swift, Jonathan: The Battle of the Books. In: A Tale of a Tub and other Works. Ed. Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[11] See Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock, Canto III, p. 45, ll. 171-178.

[12] Warren, Austin: “The Rape of the Lock as Burlesque.” (Extract) In: Critics on Pope. Readings in Literary Criticism (series). Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 80.

[13] Weinbrot, Howard D., “The Rape of the Lock and the Contexts of Warfare.” In: The Enduring Legacy. Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays. Ed. G.S. Rousseau and Pat Rogers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 21.

[14] For a detailed account of Pope’s sources for The Rape of the Lock, please consult Reeves, James: The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope. London and New York: Heinemann and Barnes & Noble, 1976, pp. 145ff.

[15] See Reeves, James: The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope. London and New York: Heinemann and Barnes & Noble, 1976, pp. 145f.

[16] Ibid, p. 146.

[17] Cf. ibid., pp. 145 and 147.

[18] Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock, Canto I, p. 33, l. 3.

[19] See e.g. Rosslyn, Felicity: Alexander Pope. A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1990, p. 11.

[20] Britannica Online. Vers. 1999-2001. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2 June 2001 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=54459&tocid=0>

[21] Warren, Austin: “The Rape of the Lock as Burlesque.” (Extract) In: Critics on Pope. Readings in Literary Criticism (series). Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1973, p. 81.

[22] Ibid.

[23] David Fairer notes that to neoclassical critics in Pope’s time the plot of an epic poem was the most important element, as it was the “foundation on which all the other elements rested.” Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 55.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 56.

[26] “Or when rich china vessels, fallen from high, / in glittering dust, and painted fragments lie!” Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock, Canto III, p. 44f, ll. 159f.

[27] Cf. Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 56.

[28] Cf. Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 57.

[29] Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock, Canto V, p. 51, ll. 71-74.

[30] Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 57f.

[31] Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 58.

[32] Fairer, David: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Penguin Critical Studies (series). London: Penguin Books, 1989, p. 59.

[33] Warren, Austin: “The Rape of the Lock as Burlesque.” (Extract) In: Critics on Pope. Readings in Literary Criticism (series). Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1973, pp. 80-83.

[34] Pope, Alexander: The Rape of the Lock, Canto III, p. 44, ll. 142/144.

Excerpt out of 23 pages

Details

Title
Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"
College
University of Paderborn  (Anglistics)
Course
18th-Century English Satires: Swift and Pope
Grade
very good
Author
Year
2001
Pages
23
Catalog Number
V6571
ISBN (eBook)
9783638141116
File size
408 KB
Language
English
Tags
Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mock-Epic, 18th century satire
Quote paper
Daniela Esser (Author), 2001, Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/6571

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