What is the background behind Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," Canto 1?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" was published in 1712 in two cantos and enlarged to five cantos in 1714.  This, the greatest mock-epic poem in English,  takes as its model Boileau's Lutrin (1674-83).  Boileau set the standard for taking a trivial event, with characters who represent relatively unimportant people, and elevating the event and characters to the level of the epic poem.

The poem's subject is a quarrel between two wealthy families over a lock of hair.  In 1711, a young nobleman named Robert, Lord Petre, who was 21 at the time of the incident, cut a lock of hair from one of the most celebrated young women in London society, Arabella Fermor.  It's possible that Lord Petre was seriously thinking of marrying Miss Fermor, but we have no concrete evidence for that, just rumors.  In any case, rather than laughing off the incident, the Fermor family decided that Lord Petre had given them an unforgivable affront, and the relationship between the two families, which had been good, deteriorated.  The quarrel, because the Fermor family took the matter so seriously, began to be an embarrassment for both families, but neither family was willing to back down.

Because the two families were prominent Catholic families, in a country of Protestants, several leading Catholics, including Pope's friend, John Caryll (a distant relative of Lord Petre), asked Pope, who was also a Catholic, to try to defuse the situation in such as way as to get the families to realize how ridiculous it was to destroy their relations over such an incident, and The Rape of the Lock, which created a mock-heroic framework for the event, elevated the quarrel to a level that even the families involved had to admit was ridiculous.  

Copies of the poem in manuscript went to both families, and the families, once they saw the incredibly clever satire of the "rape of the lock," came to their senses, and the bad feeling dissolved into laughter.  Although the poem was originally meant to circulate in manuscript,  Pope eventually could not refrain from publishing it--using as the excuse that the poem would ultimately be printed and that it would be better for him to control the printing in order to make sure the poem was printed correctly.

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