Could you explain the epic conventions of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock?
A typical epic is a long, narrative poem, usually broken into "books" or "cantos." First, the narrator invokes a muse for inspiration. The plot will then focus on a hero or heroine, following his or her amazing exploits. The hero character is also somebody of elevated status. He or she is not a "common man." Finally, a typical epic will include supernatural figures, some kind of voyage (often at sea), and a descent into the underworld.
Pope's The Rape of the Lock includes all of the above elements. It is a lengthy poem of nearly 600 lines that is divided into 5 cantos. The language is elevated in style with many figures of speech spread throughout. The coffee service in Canto 3 is a good example.
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown'd,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China's Earth receives the smoking Tyde.
At once they gratify their Scent and Taste,
While frequent Cups prolong the rich Repast.
Strait hover round the Fair her Airy Band;
Some, as she sip'd, the fuming Liquor fann'd,
Some o'er her Lap their careful Plumes display'd,
Trembling, and conscious of the rich Brocade.
The heroine of the poem is Belinda, and the narrator invokes his muse moments before introducing her. Readers know that she is a hero type and is preparing herself for battle because we read about her "arming" herself with "puffs," "powders," and "patches." Her heroic battle might not be a life and death battle with swords, but the description of her card game against the Baron is no less epic in its description.
Now move to War her Sable Matadores,
In Show like Leaders of the swarthy Moors.
Spadillio first, unconquerable Lord!
Led off two captive Trumps, and swept the Board.
As many more Manillio forc'd to yield,
And march'd a Victor from the verdant Field.
As for Belinda's sea voyage, she travels on the Thames river. Finally, Pope's mock epic does indeed include a supernatural presence and a descent into the underworld. Sylphs are present throughout and Umbriel descends to the Cave of Spleen.
For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew,
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully'd the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.
Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock is a brilliant example of the mock epic, a style of writing that uses conventions of epic literature in a satirical setting, often to expose the foibles and absurdity of contemporary society. The poem chronicles a gentleman's theft of a lady's lock of hair, and it is based on a similar event that caused a quarrel between two prominent families of Pope's day. The poem references major epic works, such as The Iliad and Paradise Lost, and it includes many classic characteristics of epic literature, such as supernatural beings, war, heroes and heroines, and even a trip to the Underworld. However, Pope translates these tropes to high society, and so epic warfare becomes a card game, heroes become vain gentlemen, and the exciting climax becomes the theft of a lock of hair. By using epic conventions in such a setting, Pope pokes fun at the high society of his day, exposing its ridiculousness by juxtaposing it with epic literature.