The Rape of the Lock, generally considered the most popular of Alexander Pope’s writings and the finest satirical poem in the English language, was written at the suggestion of John Caryll, Pope’s friend, ostensibly to heal a family quarrel that resulted when an acquaintance of Pope, Lord Petre, playfully clipped a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor. Pope’s larger purpose in writing the poem, however, was to ridicule the social vanity of his day and the importance attached to trifles.
When Robert Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair one fateful day early in the eighteenth century, he did not know that the deed would gain fame, attracting attention over several centuries. What began as a trivial event in history turned, under the masterly guidance of Pope’s literary hand, into one of the most famous poems in the English language and perhaps the most perfect example of burlesque in English. The Rape of the Lock was begun at Caryll’s behest (“This verse, to Caryll, Muse! is due”) in 1711; Pope spent about two weeks on it and produced a much shorter version than the one he wrote two years later; more additions were made in 1717, when Pope developed the final draft of the poem as it now stands.
The poem uses the essentially trivial story of the stolen lock of hair as a vehicle for making some thoroughly mature and sophisticated comments on society and on women and men. Pope drew on his own classical background—he had translated Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; first English translation, 1611; Pope’s translation, 1715-1720) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; first English translation, 1614; Pope’s translation, 1725-1726)—to combine epic literary conventions with his own keen, ironic sense of the values and societal structures shaping his age. The entire poem, divided into five cantos, is written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter lines). Pope makes the most of this popular eighteenth century verse form, filling each line with balance, antithesis, bathos, allusions to serious epic poetry, and puns.
The literary genre of burlesque typically takes trivial subjects and elevates them to seemingly great importance; the effect is comic, and Pope manages an unbroken sense of amusement as he relates “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,/ What mighty contests rise from trivial things.”
From the opening lines of the poem, suggestions of the epic tradition are clear. Pope knew well not only the Iliad and the Odyssey but also John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). The narrator of The Rape of the Lock speaks like Homer, raising the epic question early in the poem: “Say what strange motive, goddess! could compel/ A well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?” Pope’s elaborate description of Belinda’s grooming rituals in canto 1 furthers comparison with the epic; it parodies the traditional epic passage describing a warrior’s shield. Belinda’s makeup routine is compared to the putting on of armor: “From each she nicely culls with curious toil,/ And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil.”
The effect of Pope’s use of epic conventions is humorous, but it also helps establish a...
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