Lord Caryll, a prominent Catholic friend of Alexander Pope’s, asked Pope to write a light poem about an actual incident that occurred within their circle of friends. The incident involved Lord Petre cutting off a lock of Arabella Femor’s hair. As a result of this “tragedy,” Lord Petre’s and Femor’s families began to dislike one another. In an attempt to reconcile the two families, Lord Caryll asked Pope to point out how ridiculous it was to feud over such a petty incident. Pope agreed to write the poem and the mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” was born.
In my opinion, the battle satirized in the poem is not a physical battle, but rather a battle of the sexes between Belinda and Baron. The weapons used by Belinda are the vanity and beauty of an 18th Century socialite and the weapons used by Baron are the pride and cockiness of a young man wanting to make a conquest. The actual act of rape in the poem is not a sexual assault—it is the cutting of Belinda’s hair—but to Belinda, it signifies a great loss. But is she the loser in this battle?
In Canto I, look how Pope describes the way women start early in life knowing how to flirt with men:
’Tis these that early taint the Female Soul,
Instruct the Eyes of young Coquettes to roll,
Teach Infants Cheeks a bidden Blush to know,
And little Hearts to flutter at a Beau.
Belinda prepares with her encounter with Baron by spending endless time primping. Pope describes this false beauty as “awful” that puts on arms. She is getting ready for the duel:
Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
The Fair each moment rises in her Charms,
Repairs her Smiles, awakens ev’ry Grace,
And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face;
In Canto II, Pope further alludes to how Belinda is dressed. He draws a comparison between Belinda’s petticoat and shield—one that is strong and “silver bound” covering her entire body. This is in reference to Belinda going into her “battle” with Baron, still a virgin and wanting to protect her innocence.
We trust th’ important Charge, the Petticoat.
Oft have we known that sev’nfold Fence to fail;
Tho’ stiff with Hoops, and arm’d with Ribs of Whale.
Form a strong Line about the Silver Bound,
And guard the wide Circumference around.
While Baron waits for Belinda, he is also prepping. He has earlier declared that he will have a lock of her hair, regardless of whether or not she gives it to him willingly. The game of cat and mouse begins. He rises early to perform an elaborate set of prayers and sacrifices to promote success in stealing the lock. Soon after Belinda arrives to the party, a card game ensures. The game, Ombre, is one of tactics and trickery, a symbol itself to the war that is about to commence. On his third try, Baron is successful at cutting of a lock of Belinda’s hair. She is furious as she and her friends scuffle to retrieve Baron’s conquest. She cries (in Canto IV):
Restore the Lock! she cries; and all around
Restore the Lock! the vaulted Roofs rebound.
Not fierce Othello in so loud a Strain
Roar’d for the Handkerchief that caus’d his Pain.
But see how oft Ambitious Aims are cross’d,
And Chiefs contend ’till all the Prize is lost!
It appears as if she has lost the fortunes of battle. Her prize is lost. But has Baron won? In the end, Pope alludes to the hair being lost to the heavens, not necessarily by Belinda. Pope concludes the poem by asking the reader to question who the winner is.