The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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

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Canto 1 begins with a traditional invoking of the muses as well as setting up the subject matter of the poem, "The Rape of the Lock." This does not concern a sexual rape but rather, in the parlance of the time, refers to a lock of hair being unwillingly cut and taken. The poem is a mock heroic that concerns a lock of Belinda's hair being taken. The poem is meant to juxtapose such an inconsequential occurrence with an epic tone to highlight the pettiness of feuding over such an occurrence.

In the first canto, Belinda awakens from a dream in which she has been told that the Sylphs watch over her. Ariel, who seems to be the leader of the Sylphs, warns Belinda that a terrible event will come to pass that day and to beware of all men. Belinda awakens and, upon reading a love letter, forgets her dream. She then begins to dress in an elaborate fashion, the Sylphs assisting her unseen.

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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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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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