The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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Please explain Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Canto I, in detail.

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Pope describes The Rape of the Lock as a "heroi-comical" poem—heroic because he uses the Homeric epic to frame the poem and comical because he is attempting to defuse a serious argument between two wealthy families, created when Lord Petre (the Baron) snipped a lock of Arabella Fermor's (Belinda) hair without permission.

One of the most important aspects of Homeric epics—such as the Iliad and the Odyssey—is the interference of the gods in the affairs of mankind. Canto I of Pope's comic epic introduces us to the world of Belinda, a world of luxury and refinement, and, most importantly, the "gods"—primarily, the Sylphs, Nymphs, and Gnomes who watch over Belinda (and all women). While Belinda is sleeping, for example, a Sylph prolongs her sleep:

19 Belinda still her downy pillow press'd,
20 Her guardian sylph prolong'd the balmy rest:
22 The morning dream that hover'd o'er her head;
Pope establishes the unseen, but protective, presence of the supernatural beings who will later fight (and temporarily die) for Belinda. Their sole purpose is to make Belinda's life more pleasant; she is caused to dream of a young man "more glittering" than a man who is dressed to attend a royal birthday celebration.
Aside from, and perhaps more important than, the Sylphs providing comfort, they have far-ranging duties that include preventing women from making poor romantic choices and protecting them from gossip:
71 What guards the purity of melting maids,
72 In courtly balls, and midnight masquerades,
73 Safe from the treach'rous friend, the daring spark, . . .
77 'Tis but their sylph, the wise celestials know,
78 Though honour is the word with men below.
Like the gods of Homer, the Sylphs interfere in the lives of women to guide their behavior, to influence their choices, and—as we see later in the poem—to fight on Belinda's behalf. Pope's reference to "the treach'rous friend, the daring spark" is most likely an allusion to Lord Petre who, because he is a family friend and an aristocrat, should have been trustworthy.
Canto I also introduces the most important of the Sylphs—Ariel—who serves as the narrator and as the being whose supernatural powers allow him to see that something terrible is in Belinda's future:
109 I saw, alas! some dread event impend,
110 Ere to the main this morning sun descend,
111 But Heav'n reveals not what, or how, or where:
Ariel's omniscience is limited, unfortunately for Belinda, but the premonition of disaster is enough to inject some suspense into what has been so far a stroll through fairyland. The poem is no longer a set piece depicting a world of idleness and luxury and now has the promise of action.
Canto I ends not in action but in a long depiction of Belinda's preparations for the party at which she will lose a lock of hair. Pope dwells on each container of ointment, perfume, oil, and powder that the Sylphs help Belinda with; the first Canto ends with Belinda's being carefully arranged by the Sylphs. Disaster is around the corner, however.
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The Rape of the Lock is based on a true story of a young man who snipped a lock of hair from a young woman he was in love with. This "rape" caused a feud between the two families. Pope wrote this poem to try to create a reconciliation of the families through humor and satire. He patterned the writing style in the poem after other famous poets and wrote the entire poem in heroic couplets (rhymed iambic pentameter). By making a mountain out of such a molehill, and by doing it so stylishly and humorously, Pope penned a masterpiece of satire.

The heroine, Belinda, is in real life Arabella Fermor. Her hair is snipped while she is attending a party in Canto III. Canto I provides an elaborate description of how beautiful Belinda is while she sleeps, surrounded by angels and fairies. The narrator of the poem is Ariel (Pope). He describes how Belinda awakens, reads love letters (billets-doux), then proceeds to her dressing table to get ready for the party where she will lose the lock of hair.

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