In what way is "The Rape of The Lock" by Alexander Pope a satire in epic form?

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

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"The Rape of the Lock" is considered to be perhaps the best mock-heroic poem in English literature because of Pope's incredible ability to incorporate themes, language and characters from Classical Greek epics in a poem about a lock of hair.

Pope was asked by a friend to try to reconcile two groups of Catholic aristocrats who had gone to war with each other over the taking by Lord Petre of a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair--by snipping it off with scissors during a party.  Pope decided that the best way to defuse the situation was to use the "high style" of the epic, with all its conventions, to show the antagonists how ridiculous the argument was.

The poem begins, as epics should, in medias res, that is, in the middle of things (after the cause of the problem has occurred), using the epic convention of formal vocabulary and diction: "What dire Offense from am'rous Causes springs,/What mighty Contest rise from trivial Things."  This establishes the epic nature of the dispute, but also puts the tongue in cheek because the readers know the "back-story."

The protagonist of the poem, Belinda (Arabella Fermor), like all epic protagonists, is protected by supernatural beings, the Sylphs, who "Oft when the World imagine Women stray,/The Sylphs thro' Mystick Mazes guide their Way," and not only are the Sylphs there to guide Belinda through this difficult time, but when Lord Petre is about to snip the lock of Belinda's hair, one of the Sylphs interposes herself and is cut in half.  We are not playing games here--very serious business.

With the use of the epic to describe the war over a lock of hair, Pope effectively flips the epic on its side: instead of the hero being a proud warrior, wise, generous, brave, a good leader, the hero of "The Rape" is a rather shallow, self-absorbed woman who, as we later learn, does not see much difference in scale between the death of husbands or lap dogs.  And rather than the object of the war being the destruction of a major city or culture and the establishment of another, the object here is a lock of hair.  The combat, instead of taking place on a battle ground involving thousands of warriors, takes place on a card table, and the battle itself is Ombre, a game of cards.  The tools of this battle, consistent with its original cause, are snide comments, dirty looks, and a pinch of snuff Belinda blows into Lord Petre's face, causing him to sneeze.  Each of these elements is described as if we were reading The Aeniad or The Iliad, two classical epics Pope was very familiar with, having translated both The Odyssey and The Iliad.

The poem has its desired effect by dis-arming the two camps of aristocrats and ultimately enjoyed a wide audience and became the model of a mock-epic satire in English but never quite duplicated.

 

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