The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

Start Free Trial

Explain in detail canto 1 of The Rape of the Lock.

In canto 1 of The Rape of the Lock, the poet calls upon the muse to help him tell his tale, then describes Belinda as a warrior arming herself, or being armed, for battle. These elements establish the mock-epic genre of the poem, with its technique of describing trivial incidents in lofty language.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Canto 1 opens with the lines,

What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things.
These lines, especially the words "trivial things" signal that this will be a mock epic, using the heroic form to satirize an unimportant event. The lines carry echoes for contemporary readers of the "am'rous" and "trivial" cause of the Trojan War, the subject of Homer's Iliad, in which an ego-driven quarrel between three goddesses over who was the most beautiful led to a bloody, decade-long conflict.

The narrator invokes his muses and the camera, so to speak, moves to the lovely, sleeping Belinda, beginning to arouse at noon to begin her day. In her half-awake state, the chief Sylph Ariel begins to speak to her in her "dreams" as he explains the important role such invisible creatures as Nymphs and Sylphs play in the life of a young lady such as Belinda. Like the more imposing and significant role of the gods in the Iliad, these tiny and trivial spirits guide the fortunes of the humans under their care.

Ariel, having explained the spirit world's role, then prophesies that some "dread event" is about to occur, ending his monologue with the words

Beware of all, but most beware of man!

At this point, the story moves back to the voice of the narrator, who reports in detail on the many aspects of Belinda's getting dressed and made up as she readies for the day ahead. This is likened to putting on armor for battle, though Belinda's armor is dainty and delicate: pins rather than swords, powder and plaits rather than armor and helmets. Once Belinda is readied for her day, the canto ends.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Alexander Pope begins his mock epic The Rape of the Lock by setting the stage and hinting at some imminent horrible event in the poem's first canto.

The speaker begins by appealing to his Muse, as is normal for an epic, only here, he declares, with tongue firmly in cheek, that "mighty contests rise from trivial things." He continues by asking the Muse some questions, including why a "well-bred lord" would "assault a gentle belle" and why that gentle belle would reject such a lord. We don't yet know what the so-called "assault" will be, although the poem's title gives us a clue.

The scene now opens with Belinda still in her bed at noon. The people of her social class are just waking, but she is still in dreamland thanks to her "guardian sylph," and she is dreaming about a young man. This young man whispers to Belinda, telling her all about the multitude of spirits that fly around her unseen. They were once living women, he explains, but some are now Salamanders, others Nymphs, others Gnomes, and others Sylphs. Belinda is usually surrounded by Sylphs, the spirits of coquettish women, who guard her and serve her, protecting her honor in a world of dangers (i.e., the attentions of beaus).

Then Belinda's chief Sylph, Ariel, is introduced...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and warns Belinda of danger. Some "dread event" is close at hand, and she must "beware of man." But at that moment, Belinda's dog wakes her up, and the warning flies right out of Belinda's mind the moment she lays eyes on the love letter that is waiting for her. Aided by her maid and by an army of Sylphs, Belinda proceeds with her morning beauty routine, which is tantamount to a religious ritual for her. She must be perfectly beautiful and ready to face the activities of the day.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Canto 1 of The Rape of the Lock opens with an invocation to the muse, immediately signaling that this is a form of epic poetry, with the "trivial things" at the end of line two modifying this category to mock-epic. The poet asks the muse to help him tell his tale and explain the causes of the quarrel, then transfers his attention to the sleeping Belinda, who is woken by one of the many guardian sylphs who attend upon her.

The reader is prepared for the pettiness of the incident and the grandeur with which it will be described by the way in which Belinda is depicted getting out of bed and applying her cosmetics, with the extensive assistance of the sylphs. The paraphernalia on her dressing table, for instance, are described in majestic language:

This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
The tortoise here and elephant unite,
Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.
Jewels and perfumes are given the names of broad geographical regions, while the tortoiseshell and the ivory of Belinda's combs are related to the creatures from which they came. The overall description is a parody of the epic set-piece in which a great hero, Achilles or Aeneas, arms himself for battle. Belinda's hairpins are arrayed "in shining rows" like weapons as "awful beauty puts on all its arms" ("awful" here means "inspiring awe," as in "awesome"). She is therefore depicted not as an innocent victim of the outrage to come, but as a warrior setting forth to battle.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Canto 1 of "Rape of the Lock" opens with Pope calling on the muse to inspire him and help him tell his story, just as epic poets such as Homer did. Since this is a mock-epic, Pope follows all the conventions of the form. The story begins with Belinda waking up, quite late in the morning/early afternoon. Her guardian Sylph, a spirit of the air, encourages her to wake and get ready for the day, another day where she will idly play card games and be admired by young men. He describes the different spirits and their elements in epic style - as if they were far more important than they really are.

The sylphs help Belinda get dressed. According to Pope, it is really the sylphs that do all the work, and Belinda could not manage without them. They also have to job of guarding her virtue from the advances of men.  Belinda's dog, Shock, wakes her by licking her, and she gets up and reads a letter from an admirer and then puts on her makeup and fixes her hair and "beauty puts on all its charms." Her maid helps her, but the sylphs are the real reason she looks so good. Canto 1 closes with Belinda ready to face the day and a good game of ombre, not knowing that she is about to be "violated."  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team