In what ways is Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" a mock epic?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" (1712; 1714) is based on an actual incident in which Lord Petre took some scissors and snipped a bit of hair from Miss Arabella Fermor, an action which caused a considerable about of outrage among the aristocratic society in London, particularly the Roman Catholic aristocrats.  A friend of Pope's, John Caryll, suggested that he calm the waters by creating a poem.  Pope answered the challenge with the greatest mock-epic in English literature.

The mock epic essentially treats a trivial matter, in this case, the snipping of a lock of hair, and the inconsequential participants (two minor aristocrats) in the heroic style of a classical epic.  Pope was particularly suited for this because he had translated both The Odyssey and The Aeniad, and was completely familiar with all the elements of classical epics.

The title of the poem itself gives away the mock epic: the snipping of a lock of hair is transmuted into a "rape" of the lock.  The diction Pope uses is meant to elevate the ridiculous to epic proportions.  In another nod to classical epic, Pope divides the poem into Cantos, sections usually reserved for significant and culturally important poetic efforts.  In this case, of course, the Cantos only serve to remind the reader how inconsequential the subject of this "epic" really is.

Pope surrounds the heroine, Belinda, with supernatural creatures called "sylphs," whose duties are to take care of Belinda and keep her safe.  Most true epics also include these classical supernatural beings, and their job is to watch over the hero or heroine and, if the time comes, to sacrifice themselves for the hero or heroine.  In Canto II, for example, the leading sylph, Ariel, warns the others that something seems amiss, and orders them to be watchful.

After the hair is snipped off, in Canto IV, one of the characters incites Belinda into a rage, and there is very satiric scene based on a epic battle, a very foppish character, Sir Plume, demands that Lord Petre return the lock--this scene is a clever parody of a typical epic battle, but in this case, the weapons are words, and the stakes are a lock of hair, not the fate of empires.

In Canto V, we have another parody--this time, the battle of the sexes--and Belinda demands the return of the lock with a hair pin, but true to the epic, the hair has been taken by the sylphs to become part of the heavens as if the lock were important enough to become yet another constellation.


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