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...
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