The Rape of the Lock Alexander Pope
The following entry presents criticism of Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock (written in two cantos in 1712, later expanded to five cantos in 1714, and slightly revised in 1717). See also, Alexander Pope Criticism and An Essay on Man Criticism.
Modern critics consider The Rape of the Lock to be the supreme example of mock-heroic verse in the English language. Written in heroic couplets, the poem was most likely composed during the late summer of 1711 and first published in the May edition of Lintot's Miscellany in 1712. The original version of the poem contained 334 lines in two cantos. A more elaborate version appeared two years later, extending the poem to 794 lines in five cantos; a slight final revision was completed for the poem's inclusion in Pope's Works (1717). Inspired by an actual event, The Rape of the Lock recounts the circumstances surrounding the theft of a lock of a young woman's hair by an impassioned male admirer, which caused a rift between the families involved. The poem was intended to restore harmonious relations between the estranged families. Subtitled “an heroi-comical poem,” The Rape of the Lock treats the petty matter in full-blown epic style, which results in a great deal of humor. It uses the elevated heroic language that John Dryden, Pope's literary forebear, had perfected in his translation of Virgil and incorporates amusing parodies of passages from John Milton's Paradise Lost, Vergil's Aeneid, and Homer's Iliad, which Pope was translating at the time. Celebrated as a masterstroke of English originality, The Rape of the Lock established Pope as a master of metrics and a sophisticated satirist.
Plot and Major Characters
Although the precise time and place of the incident that occasioned The Rape of the Lock have been lost to history, the depilatory theft and ensuing feud between two prominent Catholic families certainly happened, the standard account of which is documented in the Twickenham edition of Pope's complete works. Briefly stated, the poem elaborates upon the events of a day, most likely during the summer of 1711, when Robert, Lord Petre, brazenly snipped off a curl of Arabella Fermor's hair, an act which estranged their families. Pope's friend John Caryll, to whom the poem is addressed, suggested that Pope write it in order to “laugh them together again.” The poem's epigraph (translated by Aubrey Williams as “I was unwilling, Belinda, to ravish your locks; but I rejoice to have conceded this to your prayers”) is a slightly altered passage from Martial's Epigrams, in which Pope substitutes Belinda for Martial's heroine, Polytimus, with the implication that the original poem was published with Arabella's consent. Pope set the central action of his poem at Hampton Court—the traditional home of royalty—which, though a possible site, is a highly unlikely one, since both families were mere gentry as well as members of an ostracized religion. In the original two-canto poem the “gentle belle,” Belinda, awakens one morning and joins friends on a river trip up the Thames to play cards and drink coffee at Hampton. As the afternoon wanes, the Baron snips one of Belinda's favorite locks of hair with scissors provided by Clarissa. Great dismay ensues among the guests, devastating Belinda and scandalizing the company. Her angry demands for the return of her purloined lock are futile, since the destined lock of hair floats away as a new star to adorn the night skies.
As in his later satires, Pope substitutes fictional or type names for the specific personalities he has in mind, so that the character of Belinda is based on Arabella, that of the Baron on Lord Petre, and that of Sir Plume, a blithering guest at Hampton, on Sir George Browne, a relative of Arabella's mother. Pope significantly expanded the straightforward story in subsequent editions by simply adding conventional features of epic verse, then called the “machinery,” or supernatural dimension, of the poem. Adapted from the light erotic work Le Comte de Gabalis and Rosicrucian lore, the “machinery” of the five-canto version of the poem introduces such supernatural creatures as the earthy gnome Umbriel—a reincarnation of a prude—and the ethereal sylphs—the spirits of dead coquettes. In addition, Pope inserted a detailed account of Belinda's daily routine at her dressing table, a description of the social rituals involved with a lively game of ombre, and an otherworldly visit to the Cave of Spleen. Clarissa's speech on “good Humor,” or common sense, first appeared in the last revision of the poem, which Pope added “to open more clearly the MORAL of the Poem.” In the 1712 and 1714 versions of the poem, Clarissa makes a brief appearance as the one who hands the scissors to the Baron.
Fusing high humor and moralization, The Rape of the Lock offers an ironic perspective on contemporary manners combined with a deep appreciation for the vitality of the eighteenth-century beau monde. With sensitivity, exquisite taste, high-spirited wit, and gentle satire, the poem forces a continuous comparison between insignificant and significant things, between the mundane and the exotic. In his mock epic, Pope exploits the difference between the grandeur of “heroic” moments depicted in traditional epics and the consciously trivial events in his poem. By treating the latter incidents as matters of great import, their inconsequence is made obvious. The poem features the devices of traditional epic poetry in abundant allusions to and parodies of incidents, characters, and themes from a range of classical and modern epics, but these themes are proportionately scaled down. In The Rape of the Lock, ladies and gentlemen are the heroines and heroes, exchanging repartee with the opposite sex in salons instead of waging war against noble enemies on fields of combat. Rather than gods and goddesses intruding in human affairs, sylphs and gnomes intervene, with tasks appropriate to their natures. The epic game is ombre played on the “velvet plain” of a card table, the victors feast on gossip between sips of coffee instead of ambrosia and wine, and the epic struggle is determined by clever quips and innuendo, by winks, nods, and frowns, not weapons. The traditional epic journey to the underworld is evoked by a visit to the Cave of Spleen, an emblem of the petty temperaments of privileged women. These actions unfold against an elegantly appointed backdrop of beautiful objects: rich brocades, glowing diamonds, tortoise shell and ivory combs, cosmetics and hair dressings, varnished furniture, silver coffeepots, and dainty china. Yet for all the evident beauty, charm, and allure this active, shimmering world exhibits, lighthearted raillery pulses throughout its civilized veneer, a reminder of its trite values and the vanities of its inhabitants.
The original version of The Rape of the Lock accomplished its task—since the Fermors and Petres were reconciled—and it immediately received an enthusiastic response from the public and the critics alike. Joseph Addison, who considered the poem perfect as it was first written, advised Pope against revision, but with the addition of the “machinery” and other material, the poem soon was deemed Pope's most brilliant performance as well as one of his most popular and lucrative, going through seven printings by 1723. Throughout the eighteenth century the poem remained a perennial favorite. Samuel Johnson pronounced it “the most attractive of ludicrous compositions,” in which “New things are made familiar and familiar things are made new.” Although appreciation of Pope's poetry generally declined throughout the nineteenth century, Victorian readers and critics continued to delight in the ethereal qualities of The Rape of the Lock. James Russell Lowell declared, “For wit, fancy, invention, and keeping, it has never been surpassed,” and Leslie Stephen observed that Pope's poem “is allowed, even by his bitterest critics, to be a masterpiece of delicate fancy.”
Twentieth-century critics have interpreted the poem in a diverse range of contexts, from character analyses and examinations of the poem's extensive allusions to both literary and folklore traditions, to investigations into Pope's political motivations and his understanding of the commercial aspects of the burgeoning publishing industry. A common thread in much twentieth-century criticism of The Rape of the Lock has acknowledged the way in which a deep appreciation for English high society meshes with Pope's critique of its weaknesses. Since the 1980s a number of critics have delved into other areas of Pope's career in relation to the poem, including the nature of Pope's habit of revision and its effect on the poem's meaning as well as the connections between mercantile discourse and Popean aesthetics. In addition, feminist critics have approached the poem in terms of ideological and cultural assumptions about women and their status in Pope's society, uncovering a significant response to the poem by women readers since its publication. Inarguably, Pope's most popularly cherished poem, The Rape of the Lock, also is his most conceptually imaginative work.