The Rape of the Lock, generally considered the most popular of Alexander Pope’s writings and the finest satirical poem in the English language, was written at the suggestion of John Caryll, Pope’s friend, ostensibly to heal a family quarrel that resulted when an acquaintance of Pope, Lord Petre, playfully clipped a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor. Pope’s larger purpose in writing the poem, however, was to ridicule the social vanity of his day and the importance attached to trifles.
When Robert Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair one fateful day early in the eighteenth century, he did not know that the deed would gain fame, attracting attention over several centuries. What began as a trivial event in history turned, under the masterly guidance of Pope’s literary hand, into one of the most famous poems in the English language and perhaps the most perfect example of burlesque in English. The Rape of the Lock was begun at Caryll’s behest (“This verse, to Caryll, Muse! is due”) in 1711; Pope spent about two weeks on it and produced a much shorter version than the one he wrote two years later; more additions were made in 1717, when Pope developed the final draft of the poem as it now stands.
The poem uses the essentially trivial story of the stolen lock of hair as a vehicle for making some thoroughly mature and sophisticated comments on society and on women and men. Pope drew on his own classical background—he had translated Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; first English translation, 1611; Pope’s translation, 1715-1720) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; first English translation, 1614; Pope’s translation, 1725-1726)—to combine epic literary conventions with his own keen, ironic sense of the values and societal structures shaping his age. The entire poem, divided into five cantos, is written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter lines). Pope makes the most of this popular eighteenth century verse form, filling each line with balance, antithesis, bathos, allusions to serious epic poetry, and puns.
The literary genre of burlesque typically takes trivial subjects and elevates them to seemingly great importance; the effect is comic, and Pope manages an unbroken sense of amusement as he relates “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,/ What mighty contests rise from trivial things.”
From the opening lines of the poem, suggestions of the epic tradition are clear. Pope knew well not only the Iliad and the Odyssey but also John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). The narrator of The Rape of the Lock speaks like Homer, raising the epic question early in the poem: “Say what strange motive, goddess! could compel/ A well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?” Pope’s elaborate description of Belinda’s grooming rituals in canto 1 furthers comparison with the epic; it parodies the traditional epic passage describing a warrior’s shield. Belinda’s makeup routine is compared to the putting on of armor: “From each she nicely culls with curious toil,/ And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil.”
The effect of Pope’s use of epic conventions is humorous, but it also helps establish a double set of values in the poem, making the world of Belinda and Sir Plume at the same time trivial and significant. The poem rewards a reading that focuses on the seriousness of Belinda’s activities and experience. The truth is, for a woman of her place and time, the unwanted cutting of a lock of hair was a serious matter. Epic conventions contribute to this double sense in each canto. The first canto is the epic dedication and invocation. The second is the conference of protective gods. The third details the games and the banquet. The fourth tells of the descent into the underworld. The fifth tells of heroic encounters and apotheosis. The overall result is that, although readers are presented with a basically silly situation, the poem has characters, such as Clarissa, who utter the always sensible virtues of the eighteenth century:
Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day,Charmed the smallpox, or chased old age away;Who would not scorn what housewife’s cares produce,Or who would learn one earthly thing of use? . . .But since, alas, frail beauty must decay. . . .And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;What then remains but well our power to use,And keep good humor still what’er we lose?
Clarissa, in these lines from canto 5, expresses the norm of Pope’s satire: the intelligent use of reason to control one’s temperamental passions.
The heroic couplet merges perfectly with the epic devices in the poem, for as a verse form the heroic couplet naturally seems to express larger-than-life situations. It is, therefore, profoundly to Pope’s credit that he successfully applies such a verse form to a subject that is anything but larger than life. Perhaps more than anyone else writing poetry in the eighteenth century, Pope demonstrates the flexibility of the heroic couplet. Shaped by his pen, it contains pithy aphorisms, social commentary, challenging puns, and delightful bathos (that is, the juxtaposition of the serious with the small, as in the line “wrapped in a gown for sickness and for show”). The key, if there is a key, to the classic popularity of The Rape of the Lock is the use of the heroic couplet to include—sometimes in great cataloged lists—those little, precise, and most revealing details about the age and the characters that peopled it. The opening lines of canto 3 illustrate Pope’s expert use of detail. The passage describes court life at Hampton Court, outside London, and is a shrewd comment on the superficiality of the people there:
Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort,To taste awhile the pleasures of a court;In various talks th’ instructive hours they passed,Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;One speaks the glory of the British queen,And one describes a charming Indian screen;A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;At every word a reputation dies.Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.
The poet’s criticism of such life is clear by the swift juxtaposition of Hampton Court life with a less pretty reality in the following lines:
Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day,The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray;The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.
Pope had a keen interest in the life of London’s aristocracy, though he was always a critic of that life. A Catholic by birth, he was not always in favor with the Crown, but before the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he enjoyed meeting with a group of influential Tories. Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, England’s first newspaper editors, courted him on behalf of the Whig Party, but he refused to become its advocate.
Forbidden by law from living within several miles of London, Pope lived much of his adult life at Twickenham, a village on the Thames not too far from London but far enough. He transformed his dwelling there into an eighteenth century symbol with gardening and landscaping; he included vineyards, and the house had a temple and an obelisk to his mother’s memory. During the 1720’s he built his grotto, an underpass connecting the parts of his property under a dividing road. The grotto was a conversation piece; according to one contemporary, it had bits of mirror on the walls that reflected “all objects of the river, hills, woods, and boats, forming a moving picture in their visible radiations.” For Pope, four feet, six inches tall and sick all his life, it was a symbol of the philosophical life and mind. Although he never married, his biographers have written that he felt a warm, if not always happy, affection for Martha and Teresa Blount, neighbors during his youth. Pope enjoyed great literary fame during his lifetime, and near the end of his life, when he entered a room, whispers of “Mr. Pope, Mr. Pope” would buzz among the occupants.