A mock epic written by Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock is a long, humorous narrative poem based on an actual incident:

One day a wealthy baron of the name Lord Petre decided to cut a lock of hair from the strikingly beautiful Arabella Fermor. A large quarrel ensued between the families of the baron and Arabella.

Finding the entire situation quite laughable, Pope's good friend John Caryll suggested that Pope write a poem mocking the entire episode, pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Pope didn't just mock the situation: he made it into a circus fiasco.
The Rape of the Lock is divided into five cantos, with the first opening with a formal statement of theme and an actual invocation to the muse of poetry for inspiration. Then Belinda (based on Arabella) heard from the sylph Ariel that a dreadful event will happen in the near future. Canto II tells of an adventurous baron (modeled after Lord Petre) who admires Belinda's luscious hair and is determined to cut two bright locks and keep them as a prize.
Pope's poem was so outrageous that he stood to lose a few friends, including Arabella Fermor. To her he dedicated the poem, and won her good mood.

Pope's The Rape of the Lock is a prime example of the capacity for satire inherent to the mock-epic genre. Given that an epic is an elegant and distinguished piece of literature, directed towards a lofty theme, the use of epic conventions towards a trivial subject magnifies that triviality in the face of the opulence used to describe it. Such is the situation in The Rape of the Lock, where card games become fantastic battles, and the theft of a lock of hair shakes the very world. The reverse effect of granting over-importance to insignificant themes is also achieved within this work. In giving the sylphs meaningless jobs and diminutive statures, Pope effectively criticizes the absence of spirituality in the lives of these individuals. The combination of these two devices is evident in the zeugmas that appear throughout, each combining an important idea with a trivial one. The politics of warfare are granted equal status with the courting of girls; patriotism is compared to interior decorating.

The epic nature of the work is central in the creation of humour. The Rape of the Lock demonstrates a multitude of epic conventions. Allusion is used to show the universal nature of the theme; Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible are all cited. The language itself is epic, combining masterful use of the heroic couplet with beauty and elegence. Epic battles occur, and theme is stated, all presented in Medias Res. The epic question is presented: "What mighty contests arise from trivial things?" A force of supernatural characters, the "aerial guard", forward the ideas of the work. Undeserving of these epic conventions, the events and persons in The Rape of the Lock are effectively satirized.

Quick to come under fire from Pope are the political and legal institutions of Britain. Statesmen share their attention between politics and womanizing while "wretches hang that juryman may dine". Pope demonstrates how these great political figures are little more than common in their more base desires, yet still occupy a vastly superior class than most of society. The inequality between classes even manifests itself in religion, as demonstrated by the Sylphs who are "wondrous fond of place". The pursuit of social glory, or "thirst of fame", is what initially drives Belinda into the ombre "battle". Here, warfare is diminished to a mere game, played between members of the wealthy elite. In portraying war in this manner, reflections on the nature of war are generated. Ultimately, these reflections lead to the conclusions presented by Pope: that warfare is simply another tool of the wealthy. The use of such an elevated tone in the description of the game draws ridicule towards both warfare and the social machinations of the wealthy.

Furthermore, the lack of dignity in society, as perceived by Pope, is shown in the ingracious way that Belinda responds to her eventual victory. This outburst is contrasted directly with her later exclamation at the severing of her lock. Equally, this commotion is used as a criticism of the lack of morality among members of the aristocracy. Things that traditionally elicit respect, or at least importance, such as death and the loss of innocence, with particular regard to sexual innocence, are given no thought. Also indicative of moral corruption and political maneuvering is the traitorous nature of Clarissa's friendship towards Belinda. While Clarissa is supposedly Belinda's friend, she provides the implement by which Belinda's fated lock is severed. These false alliances and secret betrayals between women are highlighted in Pope's hyperbolized description of gossip: "At every word a reputation dies". Just as the men play at politics and war, women fight their own battles in a uniquely feminine way. The idea of Belinda as a social climber is thus further reinforced as she tries to combat the men upon their own "velvet plain".

The conflict between men and women, as acutely portrayed in the ombre game, is central to the theme of The Rape of the Lock. The roles of women and men are examined, as well as the conflict between them, through the activities of court. Generally, these portrayals are unflattering. The men are demonstrated to be foppish fools, Dapperwit and Sir Fopling included, whose wits are weighed against the ladies' hair and "at length the wits mount up, the hairs subside". The women are shown to be deceitful, finding "fit instruments of ill" when they "bend their wills to mischief". Just as the wily woman, Belinda, proves the victor of the ombre battle, it is the women who win the final battle between the sexes after the severing of the hair. With lethal frowns and eyes that "scatter death around" the women dispatch the helpless men.

The final resolution of the conflict, and the immortalization of the lock, represents an interesting parallel to reality. Regardless that those involved in the actual incident that precipitated this poem have died, the conflict is retained in the form of the poem. Thus "amidst the stars is inscribed Belinda's name". In speaking about the Muse granting immortality to the lock, Pope is talking about himself and the manner in which he has passed on the story of this dispute. Here, a central idea of Horatian satire is exposed: the capacity of humans to learn from past mistakes.

As a classic example of a Horatian satire, The Rape of the Lock tries to correct to follies of humans who are, despite their foibles, basically good. In this regard, the tone of the piece is appropriate: critical but not as aggressively so as the Juvenalian satire of Swift. Those for whom the story was commissioned, and who form its pool of characters, are offered a view of themselves which can be used to change their behavior for the better. This piece constitutes exceptionally effective satire, in that beyond simply pointing out problems it offers the hope of their eventual resolution.
There is plenty of literature on the history and essence of The Rape of the Lock already on E2, so this contains no narrative. It is a critical analysis of the extraordinary range of thought and feeling that Alexander Pope creates.

Pope maintains a fluctuating dichotomy between satire of Belinda (in her vanity, heedlessness, blinkered narcissism and aggressive sexuality) and something of a tenderness towards the troubles of womanhood. When Belinda opens those eyes that ‘must eclipse the day’ in Canto 1, Pope is using a standard romantic cliché that suggests a light raillery. Her heart is dubbed a ‘moving Toyshop’, a striking epithet which, in comparing her centre of affection to a place where trinkets are bought, implies instability and frivolity. However, when she begins her preparations for the card game, the tone becomes ambiguous, establishing a tremulous balance between satire and adoration. Her vanity at the toilet is described in the language of religious ceremony. It is ‘trembling’ at an ‘altar’ that Betty, the ‘inferior priestess’, begins the ‘sacred rites of pride’. Her beauty is awesome, and the possibility of Pope’s love for her is intimated by the phrase ‘the wonders of her face’. It seems that the poet has swung from mockery to something reverential and solemn.

The second canto sees Belinda in full glory, immersed in sunlight and floating down the Thames on a solar barge, alluding to Cleopatra’s journey down the river Cydnus to meet Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s dramatisation. There is a brief reversion to Pope’s early pastoral style, and Belinda is again compared favourably to the sun, dubbed the ‘rival of his beams’. Such is the power of her beauty that ‘Jews…and Infidels’ might forget their faith to kiss her ‘sparkling Cross’. However, the delicate balance between admiration and ridicule is maintained by joking that her mind is as ‘unfix’d’ as ‘her eyes’ and the revelation that she extends smiles to ‘all’ but ‘Favours to none’. The lines ‘Look on her face and you’ll forget ‘em all’ and ‘Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay’ suggest a semi-divine power, or at least an incredible charisma, which, despite ‘feminine errors’, is difficult to resist. Pope sometimes appears in awe or even in love with Belinda; his better judgement can be dazzled. This serves to illustrate the diverse range of thought and feeling that colours the poem. The recurrent word ‘trembling’ heightens the sense that the poem’s meanings are doing just that – hovering, quavering and shifting. As a midget blighted by illness and unable to enjoy romantic liaisons with women, Pope developed an extraordinary sensitivity to the complexities of womanhood. A formative experience was his encounter with the Blount sisters in Windsor forest; these girls constituted an epitome of feminine charm which the poet, though physically ungainly, would intimate with the utmost delicacy in his writing.

The plethora of epic allusions in the poem is a dimension that creates a curious tension between seemingly trivial subject matter and the glorified tone with which it is delivered. The dubbing of the card table as a ‘velvet plain’, echoing the battlefields of the Trojan war, makes it explicit that this is a battle of the sexes. It is rather disturbing when Belinda, at the height of her confidence, is compared to God the creator in line forty-six: the line ‘Let Spades be trumps! she said, and trumps they were’ is a deliberate echo of god saying ‘Let there be light!’ in Genesis 1.3. This temporarily Biblical feel provokes the reader to imagine her as Eve, and realise that she will fall dramatically. After being in her element, ‘burn(ing)’ with passion in the card game and stunning everyone with her looks, she will discover feminine ailments in the Cave of Spleen, just as Eve was condemned to the agony of childbirth.

The epic language that colours the description of the card game, with the choice of words like ‘Majesty’, ‘mighty’, ‘embroider’d’ , and allusions to Sarpedon, Hannibal and the Underworld, seems to mock the navel-gazing of Belinda’s beau-monde. She gleans tremendous thrills from an inconsequential activity, ‘trembl(ing)’ with the dangerous excitement of being in a precarious position. When she ‘exulting’ yelps with pleasure at her luck, in a moment of victory, hubris and pride, we sense the inevitability of her fall. She is branded a ‘thoughtless mortal’, and the repeated spondeetoo soon’ emphasise her folly. When the Baron robs her of a lock of hair with ‘a fatal engine’ (a tiny pair of scissors), she is absolutely furious, emitting ‘living lightning’ from her eyes and ‘screams of horror’. The words ‘for ever and ever!’ at the end of line one hundred and fifty-four have a decidedly feminine rhyme, which almost enunciates Belinda’s wailing. The juxtaposition that equates husbands with lap-dogs undercuts the mock-epic tone and makes it ambiguous whether Belinda is over-reacting in the manner of a spoilt child or if one is supposed to feel sympathetic. The aggressive, phallic repetition of ‘Steel’ in the canto’s closing lines continues this dichotomy: is it mockery of Belinda, or an invitation for a pitying of the metaphorical violation of her maidenhood?

Clarissa’s speech at the end of Canto V is modelled on Sarpedon’s call to arms. Although there is a heroi-comical contrast between courage in the face of death and good-humour in the face of decay, some of the grandeur of the original is caught in the tone of these lines. This speech was not added until the third version of the poem’s publication in 1717, and Pope said that the purpose of this revision was ‘to open more clearly the moral of the poem. It contains aphorisms which are far from trivial. Emphasising that ‘frail beauty must decay’, Clarissa advises her audience to ‘keep good humour still whate’er we lose’. The assertion that ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’ (a direct echo of the ninth line of Sarpedon’s address to Glaucus-‘Unless great acts superior Merit prove’) casts light on the superficiality of Belinda’s elaborate narcissism. It is crucial to the rich ambiguity of the poem, however that Pope never pretends he is immune to Belinda’s charms. This establishes a complex morality that is anything but trivial.

The Cave of Spleen is an incredible concentration of all that is bitter or sour in Man’s temperament. Within stands ‘Ill-nature’, the polar opposite of ‘good humour’, like ‘an ancient maid’. The range of negative emotions, particularly feminine, contrasts with the joyous, sunlit pastoral of the opening of Canto II. It is the nadir of the poem, with strong connections to the ‘Underworld’ of the Odyssey’s eleventh book. Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a ‘dusky, melancholy sprite’ who, in a parody of Aeneas’ golden bough, carries a ‘branch of healing spleenwort’. Belinda experiences the horrible flip-side of her feminine charms: pre-menstrual tension, ‘Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head’. A bag full of ‘Sighs, sobs’ and ‘passions’ will be undone over Belinda’s head, adding to the turmoil of her thoughts. This dramatic contrast with her former pride illustrates the vast range of feeling in the poem. The spectrum of emotion Belinda undergoes, and Pope’ oscillating, ambiguous attitude to her, make for a poem that ‘trembles’ indefinably. The cutting of a lock of hair may seem trivial, but the vast, rich sea of sentiment it reveals and the lessons born of that are profound.

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