Pope's friend John Carlyle asked him to defuse a war of words between the families of Arabella Fermor, Belinda in the poem, and Lord Petre, the Baron in the poem, after Lord Petre snipped off a lock of Miss Fermor's hair. Both families, as well as Pope, were part of...
Pope's friend John Carlyle asked him to defuse a war of words between the families of Arabella Fermor, Belinda in the poem, and Lord Petre, the Baron in the poem, after Lord Petre snipped off a lock of Miss Fermor's hair. Both families, as well as Pope, were part of the Catholic minority in upper-class British society, and one of Pope's goals was likely to stop this fight over such a ludicrous event because the families were embarrassing the larger Catholic minority. Pope himself described the origin of the mock-epic to his friend Joseph Spence:
The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor's hair was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they have long lived in great friendship before. . . . [I wrote the poem] to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. . . .which was well received and had its effect in the two families.
According to Spence, "Arabella 'took it so well as to give about copies of it.'"
This great mock-epic was originally meant to circulate privately among a small group of friends and family in manuscript form only, and it was only when an unauthorised version was about to be published that Pope authorised the publication. Both main participants--Fermor and Lord Petre--received advance publication copies before the actual publication.
No doubt Fermor and Lord Petre were somewhat embarrassed by the publication of the poem, which, after all, showed them engaged in a ridiculous controversy. The conventions of the mock-epic required that Pope exaggerate the characters and actions to the point of slapstick comedy, and Fermor and Lord Petre no doubt would have preferred the poem to remain unpublished.
Because Pope did not intend for the poem to become public--and was merely trying to help defuse a ludicrous fight that cast these Catholic families in a bad light--it is likely that the poem is not so much a criticism of Fermor and Lord Petre as on the foolishness of the families' reactions.