Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Rape of the Lock

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). 

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...

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