As have other of works by Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1712) has inspired many full-length books of critical consideration, so important was its effect upon Pope, his readership, the genre of poetry, and Pope’s legacy. The new historicist critical approach demands that works be placed within their author’s political, social, and biographical contexts in order not only to offer readers a better understanding of their words and allusions, but also to suggest what might have motivated a writer to produce a specific work. With Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the motivation remains clear, explained by Pope himself.
The mock-epic developed in reaction to a real social event that estranged two previously cordial families and a friend’s request that Pope take a part in defusing the anger that led to that estrangement. While attending a party, a certain young Lord Petre had as a joke clipped a ringlet from the head of Arabella Fermor. Miss Fermor saw no humor in the act, and her negative reaction caused a break in relations between the Petres and the Fermors. As prominent families in a small Catholic community, of which Pope himself was a part, they threatened to disrupt relationships beyond their own through their quarrel. Lord Petre’s teacher contacted Pope and asked that he write a poem in jest about the event. As Pope wrote to a friend, the tutor John Caryll hoped Pope’s work might for the two families “laugh them together again.”
Fortunately, The Rape of the Lock had the desired effect upon its publication in original version as part of Miscellanies in 1712. Feeling his work was incomplete, Pope continued revision and published a version expanded to five cantos in 1714 to which he added the sylphs and gnomes that exaggerated the classical effect, as well as engravings. A further 1717 revision included a “moral” spoken by the character Clarissa, and it became one of the most popular published in England’s history.
As for its form Pope specifically selected the mockepic and heroic couplets in order, as Wall explains, to “emphasize paradox, inversion, and ironic slippage between appearance and reality, and a tension between containment and escape.” Pope incorporates absurdity through the figurative language of comparison and contrast specifically to emphasize the “friction” between his humorous version and the true heroic epic. His not-so-subtle message to readers, especially those involved in the incident that inspired the poem, is to take themselves less seriously. Pope successfully transmitted this message because his readers were familiar with the patterns and conventions of heroic epic through their knowledge of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid by Vigil, and Paradise Lost by John Milton. Appearing in a mock version, such patterns and conventions highlight the poem’s thematic absurdity.
In summary The Rape of the Lock opens as its heroine, Belinda, awakens from a most pleasantly sensuous dream. In the late morning she is attended at her boudoir by her pet dog and the sylphs who arm her against temptation, bolstering her mental and physical chastity. They recall the magical attendants of classical figures as they prepared to enter the battlefield. Belinda’s battle will be fought on the social scene, as she attends a party at a royal palace where she will be called upon to defend her honor carefully. Belinda wins a game of cards and brags a bit too much, and the baron she has beaten decides to take revenge. Another member of the party, Clarissa, “arms” him with a pair of scissors as his “weapon,” and he engages in symbolic “rape” by snipping off Belinda’s curl as she leans down to drink her coffee. Her lead sylph, Ariel, deserts her in impotency, having discovered she may be falling in love. Belinda’s reaction is swift disgust and outrage, and she descends into a psychological Hades, mirroring the descent to gain wisdom prevalent in the classical heroic quest. She inhabits for a time the Cave of Spleen, while other young people “fight” over the event. The lock of hair rises as a star visible only to “quick, poetic eyes.”
A rich and rewarding presentation, “the form and imagery” of the poem act, as scholar Cynthia Wall writes, as to “reveal and re-enact the sexual, social, political, and poetic energies, and the efforts to control and contain them, in early-eighteenth-century England.” Pope successfully manages to reflect in his mock epic a miniature of his own world in which war threatened trade, making conquest all-important; authority remained in question, as royal power fell to the Hanoverians; two political parties sought to define themselves further in relation to the throne and one another; Catholicism remained at odds with Anglicanism; and a feeling of separation and displacement haunted England.
Identified on the title page as “An Heroic-Comical Poem” in the 1714 five-canto edition, “The Rape of the Lock” opened with a letter from Pope to Arabella Fermor, to whom he dedicated the poem. His motivation for writing the poem becomes immediately evident, as he writes that “it was intended only to divert a few young Ladies, who have good Sense and Good Humour enough, to laugh not only at their Sex’s little unguarded Follies, but at their own.” Although meant to be a private venture, as Pope notes the poem had “been offer’d to a Bookseller.” The reader gains some insight into Fermor’s character as Pope adds, “You had the good Nature for my Sake to consent to the Publication of one more correct.” He then discusses the introduction in this latest version of the “machinery” that includes the mythological characters of the sylphs and demons. Pope concludes with conventional flattery, writing that if his poem “has as many Graces as there are in Your Person, or in Your Mind,” he still could not have hoped “it should pass thro’ the World half so Uncensured as You have done.”
Pope opens in mock-heroic tone, his speaker calling upon the Muses to guide his pen. In this case rather than mentioning one of the nine traditional muses, he notes “Caryll,” meaning John Caryll, as his inspiration. He sets the scene as “a tim’rous Ray” of sun “op’d those Eyes that must eclipse the Day,” beginning his characterization of Belinda. She is still in her bed, her “Guardian Sylph” lingering over her head, as is the memory of a dream that features “A Youth . . . / (That ev’n in Slumber caus’d her Cheek to glow).” In the first canto Pope must make clear that Belinda remains a sexually mature, yet virginal young woman, who dreams of love and sex but knows those subjects need to remain in the realm of fantasy for now. As part of the classical tradition Pope had to make clear the purpose of the sylphs, writing,
Know farther yet; Whoever fair and chaste
Rejects Mankind, is by some Sylph embrac’d:
For Spirits, freed from mortal Laws, with ease
Assume what Sexes and what Shapes they please. (67–70)
Only with assistance can Belinda be heroic, retaining her purity “In Courtly Balls, and Midnight Masquerades” (72).
Discussion follows of different types of Nymphs, some possessed of a “vacant Brain” who give in to the spectacle of “Peers and Dukes, and all their sweeping Train” (83–84). Clearly Belinda will not be one of those. The sylphs, who include one specifi cally identifi ed as Betty, attend Belinda at her toilette, which Pope imbues with mock importance. Taking gentle advantage of the acknowledged vanity of young women, he creates a catalog of everything involved in the preparation, from “Files of Pins” to “Puffs, Powders, Patches, bibles, Billet-doux” (138–39). An increase in Belinda’s charm and a calling forth of “all the Wonders of her Face are the results.”
Canto 2 opens with a description of Belinda’s effect on others, making clear that behind her beauty, charm, and inoffensive manner is a quick mind. The description of her hair foreshadows impending disaster, as one sylph has dutifully tended “two Locks” (20) so that “With shining Ringlets” that “smooth” Belinda’s “Ivry Neck,” love “in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains, / And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains” (22– 24). Pope continues using hyperbole to capture the heroic tone designed to convince readers of the humor in such social situations. Exaggeration abounds in blown-out description and a skillful address by Ariel to “Sylphs and Sylphids . . . / Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Daemons” regarding their duties on the battlefield that the social gathering represents (73–74). The call to arms results in a swarming of mystical beings, all intent on preserving Belinda’s honor:
Some, Orb in Orb, around the Nymph extend,
Some thrid the mazy ringlets of her Hair,
Some hang upon the Pendants of her Ear;
With beating Hearts the dire Event they wait,
Anxious, and trembling for the Birth of Fate. (138–143).
Pope sets the scene for the third canto, in which Belinda will enter the battle that determines her fate. He describes the playing cards as if they are powerful fi gures gathered for her support, including “four Kings in Majesty rever’d,” four fair queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,” “four Knaves in Garbs succinct,” and “Paricolour’d Troops, a shining Train,” all of which “Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain” (37–44). The next lines establish Belinda’s foe in the ensuing battle as a Baron, to whom “Fate inclines the Field,” following two triumphs by Belinda. The cards become soldiers who struggle for victory: “Th’ Imperial consort of the Crown of Spades. / The Club’s black Tyrant first her Victim dy’d” (68–69), while later “The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace” (75). When Belinda wins the hand, the speaker cries:
Oh thoughtless Mortals! ever blind to Fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate! Sudden these
Honours shall be snatch’d away,
And curs’d for ever this Victorious Day. (101–104)
Clarissa aids the Baron in wreaking vengeance by supplying him with scissors. Pope describes them and Clarissa’s act: “A two-eg’d Weapon from her shining Case; / So Ladies in Romance assist their Knight” (129– 130). The Sprights gather by the thousands in a vain attempt to protect Belinda’s curl, managing to twitch her diamond earrings and cause her to turn her head three times. However, Ariel suddenly “watch’d th’ Ideas rising in her Mind” and saw, “in spite of all her Art, / An Earthly Lover lurking at her Heart.” Defeated, he and the other magical elements abandon the field as “The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever / From the fair head, for ever and for ever” (154–155). Belinda screams as the Baron exults over his prize, having executed “The conqu’ring force of unresisted Steel” (177–178).
In the fourth canto Belinda dissolves into depression and ends up in the Cave of Spleen. Pope has more fun in describing a Region that knows “No cheerful Breeze,” where Belinda “sighs for ever on her pensive Bed, / Pain at her side, and Megrim at her Head” (23–24), where the term Megrim indicates a migraine headache, believed to be a product of the spleen. One fantastical being, a gnome called Umbriel, approaches a goddess, petitioning her for a solution to Belinda’s problem. He notes that she can “rule the Sex to Fifty from Fifteen” and “give th’ Hysteric or Poetic Fit,” inspiring some to become doctors and others playwrights (59–62). Pope turns to satiric regarding the muses, who inspire mortals to various achievements.
This goddess will furnish the gnome with “Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues” (83), which he pours over Belinda’s head, as if anointing her. Pope introduces the fop character of Sir Plume, based on the real-life Sir George Brown, whom Belinda bids wage war on her part. His attempts fail, and she suffers the hysterical effects of Umbriel’s vial from which sorrows flow. She curses her day of infamy and wonders aloud why she ever attended the party. Instead she should have “kept my Charms conceal’d from mortal Eye, / Like Roses that in Desarts bloom and die” (157–158). Pope adopts the common carpe diem imagery of cavalier poets, who argued with virgins they should not hide their roselike beauty, as it would simply die unappreciated. She wails in comic form over the loss of one of her two sable “Beauties,” its “Sister-Lock” left to sit alone on her neck, perhaps to tempt another rape. The canto concludes with her cry to the perpetrator of the crime, “Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!” Pope makes clear the dubious nature of the slight in revealing Belinda’s concern as sheer vanity in the loss of her prominent and well-groomed curls, rather than a lock of less visible hair.
Canto 5 consists of a 150-line statement by Clarissa, partner to the crime, in which she acts as a chorus to summarize the action and expound on the cruel fate that resulted from human passion. Discussion ensues over the fate of the lock itself, and she reveals that some believe it took its place in heaven, where “Partridge soon shall view” it as a portent of “the fall of Rome” when he “looks thro’ Galileo’s eyes.” Pope references a known prognosticator named John Partridge. Partridge annually predicted the pope’s downfall, as well as the fall of the king of France, by reading the heavens through his telescope; he was a publicly acknowledged foolish figure. The poet himself steps into the poem at its conclusion, bidding Belinda no longer to mourn her “ravish’d Hair / Which adds new Glory to the shining Sphere!” (141–142).
By selecting such a low subject as the clipping of a curl to elevate through epic poetry, Pope makes the point that humans often take themselves too seriously. He also made clear the power of poetry to teach, as well as delight. His work translating Homer’s Iliad, a six-year project begun in 1713, would inform the mock version of the heroic story that would eventually gain him financial independence. The Rape of the Lock remains a crucial part of Pope’s early career, its perfectly controlled execution and jubilant tone reflecting the cautiously happy security he would not long enjoy. It continues to inspire much critical examination. When feminist criticism gained importance in the 20th century, this new critical approach considered the poem’s misogyny in its depiction of women.
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