Explain the first canto of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock."

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teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Canto 1 of "The Rape of the Lock" sets up the background for the crucial event in the poem: the raping, or cutting, of a long lock of Belinda's hair. The poem is based on a real episode, in which two prominent families broke into a bitter feud over a like event. Pope's point is to show through the poem how silly the feud is. By writing the poem as a mock epic, he is hoping the marked contrast of this petty occurrence with the heroic deeds in a real epic, such as the Iliad, will inspire the families in question to resolve their quarrel and, moreover, point out how decadent as a whole the British aristocracy has become. 

The first Canto establishes all of the above: Belinda has a dream that warns her to beware of men, which summons Ariel and a host of sylphs to guard her after she awakens—notably at noon (no warrior she). The canto also includes a long description of Belinda's dressing and preparation for her outing later in the day. This mimics Hector getting into his battle array, but while that scene in the Iliad shows the poignancy of Hector's separation from his infant son and beloved wife, as he may never come back alive, this scene underscores Belinda's vanity and sense of her own importance. Both these character traits prepare us, and add some psychological reality, to the exaggerated outrage and horror Belinda experiences at the loss of her lock. But overall, in the first canto the reader feels how ridiculous all this overblown rhetorical fuss is when applied to a young woman going out to play a game of cards. What happens to Belinda is not going to be tragedy but farce.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The "Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope is what is known as a "mock heroic" epic, in that it follows many of the conventions of epic poetry while simultaneously satirizing epic as a genre. The term "rape" is used by Pope in a manner reflecting its Latin meaning. The verb "rapere" in Latin means "to seize" and in Pope's period did not have the primarily sexual connotations it does in twenty-first century English. Thus the title refers to seizing a lock of hair.

The poem is written in heroic couplets, i.e., pairs of lines in iambic pentameter rhyming AA BB CC, and so on. The lines are generally end-stopped and metrically regular.

The narrative is based on a story that Pope heard from his friend John Caryll about Lord Petre, a suitor of Arabella Fermor, a notably beautiful woman. Petre cut off a lock of Arabella's hair without her permission, something that so offended Arabella that she dissolved their engagement.

In the first canto, Belinda dreams about Ariel and sylphs warning her about the dangers that lurk before her. Ariel states that he and the sylphs will attempt to guard her from the perils that will befall her. As Ariel is continuing to expand on this topic, Belinda's dog, Shock, wakes her up. She then goes to her dressing table and, with the help of her maid, begins the elaborate process of arranging her hair and adorning herself.

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kc4u | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Pope's occasional poem in 2 cantos was enlarged into a full-fledged mock-heroic, The Rape of the Lock, in 5 cantos.

Canto 1 begins on a mock-solemn tone parodying the Enunciation and Invocation typical of an epic. The subject is some 'dire offence' which is nothing but the cutting off of the lock of hair of young Belinda by Lord Peter. The poet invokes his friend John Caryl as the 'Muse' which is a comic deflation of Homer's invocation to the Classical Muse or Milton's invocation to the 'Heavenly Muse'.

The narrative commences with the 'timorous' rays of the sun entering through the white curtains of Belinda's bed-chamber at the midday-noon. As fair Belinda wakes and so does her lap-dog, Shock, Belinda is again induced to sleep by her guardian sylph, Ariel, who appears in her dream gorgeously dressed as 'a birth-night beau'.

Ariel discloses to Belinda how the sylphs, a band of aerial sprits hovering as 'a light militia of the lower sky', are dedicated to the task of protecting the fashionable maidens like Belinda. They are unlike the other categories of the Roscicrucian spirits such as the gnomes, nymphs & salamanders, and extremely committed to the girls like Belinda.

Ariel has received some alarming premonition that a disastrous event would happen to Belinda before the sunset on that day, and so he has come to warn her as well as assure her total protection by the sylphs.

As Belinda's 'morning dream' dissolves, she gets up to find a love-letter which she reads and forgets all about the dream. She immediately sits before her dressing -table for her toillette, her 'sacred rites of pride'. The episode of Belinda's elaborate make-up is a wonderful mockery of the self-arming of Hector in Homer's epic. Assisted by the 'inferior priestess', i.e. her maid Betty, Belinda--robed in white--engages herself in a beauty-worship, and her image increasingly gains in superior beauty on the mirror of her dressing-table. Select items of make-up culled from the vases arranged in 'mystic order', combs of tortoise-shells & ivory, hair-pins, perfumes etc. contribute to the making of the goddess called Belinda as worshipped by the superior priestess of the same identity.

Canto 1 ends with Belinda's make-up and self-adoration as she gets prepared for a journey by boat across the river Thames on her way to the Hampton Court.