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A classic example of 18th-century mock-heroic satire, 'The Rape of the Lock' tells the story of a seemingly trivial social faux pas in the high-flown language of epic poetry. Using his considerable poetic skills, Alexander Pope would not only immortalize this otherwise unremarkable event, but in the process would provide a biting social satire of a society obsessed with luxury and appearances.
Alexander Pope wrote 'The Rape of the Lock' in response to a real historical event. At a social gathering in 1711, the young scion of a prominent family, Lord Petre, furtively cut off a lock of hair belonging to Arabella Fermor, the beautiful young daughter of another prominent family. The event caused a quarrel between the two families, who previously had been good friends.
One of Pope's friends, John Caryll, suggested that he write a poem making light of the incident in an attempt to bring the two families back together again. Pope produced a poem in mock-epic form in two cantos, intending to do just that. The poem proved popular, and Pope expanded the original version in the following year, adding a whole cast of characters, including supernatural spirits that intervene (or at least try to) in the events described in the poem.1
Note that the word "rape" in the title does not refer to any kind of sexual assault. While the word did have this modern meaning at the time when Alexander Pope was writing, he was invoking an older use of the word meaning "to abduct" or "to seize". Like many other devices in the poem, this helps Pope to both dramatize the minor event and link it with classical antiquity (think about the rape of Persephone from Greek mythology, or the rape of the Sabine women from Roman history).
The word "rape" derives from the Latin verb rapere, meaning "to seize". In 'The Rape of the Lock,' a young man cuts off and "seizes" a lock of a young woman's hair without her knowledge or consent. There is no rape in the modern sense of the word in the poem.
A young woman from a rich family who is eligible for marriage, Belinda is a typical belle: her life seems to mostly consist of attending social events such as dances, masquerades, and parties. While beautiful, she is overly concerned with her appearance, particularly her hair. She represents Arabella Fermor (1689-1738), who actually did have a lock of her hair stolen at a social event.
Belinda's beloved lap dog, Shock, is referenced repeatedly in Cantos I-II, but seems to disappear for the remainder of the poem.
Ariel is a kind of friendly spirit called a sylph. He is the leader of a group of over fifty such spirits, whose job is to help Belinda with her dress and make-up, and to protect her from any dangers she may face while trying to navigate the social world of the 18th-century aristocracy.
Based on Robert, seventh Baron Petre (1690-1713), who stole a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair at a social event in 1711, the Baron is presented as a one-dimensional villain. After seeing Belinda's hair, he will stop at nothing to attain a lock of it for himself.
An ally of the Baron, Clarissa secretly lends him the pair of scissors that he will use to cut the lock of Belinda's hair. Later in the poem she stands as the voice of reason, making an unsuccessful attempt to defuse the fight between the two camps organized around Belinda and the Baron.
Umbriel is a gnome, a kind of evil spirit who delights in making people suffer. After the Baron cuts off a lock of Belinda's hair, Umbriel travels to the Cave of Spleen, whose Queen helps him make sure that Belinda will remain unreasonably upset over the incident for a prolonged period of time.
Belinda's ally in the attempt to get the lock of hair back, Sir Plume is a stock figure of an ineffective dandy, a man also overly concerned with his appearance and with social functions. He was likely also based on a real person, Sir George Browne.
Pope begins by introducing the subject, informing the reader that the poem will address the "mighty contests that arise" from "trivial things"2 (Canto I, line 2). More specifically, it will tell how "A well-bred lord" assaulted a "gentle belle," and the gentle belle, in turn "reject[s] the lord"2 (Canto I, lines 8-10). Pope purposefully leaves the nature of the "assault" unclear, maintaining a tone that, so far, is hard to distinguish from epic seriousness.
Pope proceeds to set the scene, which is the bedroom of a young woman (or "belle"), Belinda. As the sun shines through her bedroom curtains, waking her "lap dog" as the clock strikes noon, Belinda's "guardian SYLPH" allows her to continue dreaming of "a youth more gleaming than a birth-night beaux," that is, a handsome young man dressed up for the occasion of a royal birthday2 (Canto I, lines 22-3).
A sylph, Pope tells us in the letter that introduces the poem, is "a spirit [...] whose habitation is in the air." They are "gentle spirits" who are friendly towards humans.2
Pope goes on to explain the origin of sylphs: they are the spirits of deceased women who, while still alive, loved the fashionable world of the beau monde and all it entailed, such as fancy carriage rides, card games, and other social events. After death, they dedicate themselves to protecting young women as they navigate the "courtly balls, and midnight masquerades" that comprised the dating world of 18th-century high society (Canto 1, line 72).
The speaker of the last several lines of the poem is then revealed to have been "Ariel," one such "watchful sprite" who is guarding Belinda2 (Canto I, lines 106-7). Ariel has a vague premonition of some "dread event"2 (Canto I, lines 109-10). Belinda's dog, Shock, then wakes her up, and she begins to dress herself at her "toilet" (at this time, a word for a dressing and make-up table). Belinda's guardian sylphs busily assist her in dressing, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for the day.
(Two Women Getting Dressed, Pixabay)
Belinda now leaves her house, walking through the streets of London to board a boat on what Pope describes as the "silver Thames"2 (Canto II, line 4). Surrounded by other young people, she is the best looking of them all. Pope singles out her hair as being especially beautiful, hanging behind her "in equal curls, and well conspired to deck / With shining ringlets, her smooth ivory neck"2 (Canto II, lines 21-2).
Pope now introduces the Baron, who notices Belinda's hair and decides that he must have a lock of it:
Th' adventurous Baron the bright locks admired;
He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired.
Resolved to win, he meditates the way.
By force to ravish, or by fraud betray.2
(Canto II, lines 29-32)
Pope foreshadows the "dread event" that Ariel foresaw in Canto I in a more definite form. The Baron, it seems, is intent on either tricking Belinda or physically forcing her to give him a lock of her hair.
Still unaware of what danger will confront Belinda, Ariel is on high alert. He rallies the other sylphs who are duty-bound to protect Belinda, reminding them that, although their job may seem unimportant when compared to spirits who control the orbits of the planets, the weather, or the fate of nations, theirs is still a "pleasing" duty (Canto II, lines 91-2).
He assigns specific duties to specific sylphs: Zephyretta will protect Belinda's fan, Brillante her earrings, Momentilla her watch, Crispissa her hair, fifty separate sylphs will guard her petticoat, and Ariel himself will look after Shock, her dog. Ariel concludes Canto II by threatening the sylphs with nasty punishments should they fail in their duties.
The setting for Canto III is the royal palace of Hampton, where "the heroes and the nymphs," or the young men and women, have gathered "To taste a while the pleasures of the court"2 (Canto III, lines 9-10). This chiefly involves gossiping, eating, and a card game called ombre. Belinda finds herself here, and challenges "two adventurous knights," one of whom is later revealed to be the Baron, to a game of ombre (Canto III, line 26).
Pope dramatizes the game of cards as though it were an epic battle, the symbols on the cards being warriors and heroes and the players the generals. At first, Belinda has the upper hand, but the Baron also has a strong hand and she is threatened with the possibility of losing the game. In the decisive last round of the game, Belinda is victorious.
(A Deck of Playing Cards, Pixabay)
After the game, coffee is brought out to the card table. Still flushed with excitement from the game, the players drink and talk. The Baron, however, begins scheming about how to obtain a lock of Belinda's hair. The stimulating effect of the coffee "Sent up in vapours to the Baron's brain / New stratagems, the radiant lock to gain"2 (Canto III, lines 119-20).
Enlisting the help of a woman named Clarissa, the Baron borrows a pair of scissors, described as "a two-edged weapon"2 gifted from a lady to a knight (Canto III, lines 127-28). While Belinda is leaning over the table drinking her coffee, the Baron makes several attempts to secretly snip off a lock of her hair. Ariel and the other sylphs do their best to intervene.
On working his way into "the close recesses" of Belinda's mind, Ariel discovers her to be thinking about "an earthly lover," so he is unable to attract her attention and "with a sigh retired"2 (Canto III, lines 140-6). Another sylph tries to get in the way of the scissors at the fateful moment, but is "cut...in twain" along with the lock of hair2 (Canto III, lines 150-2).
Realizing what has happened, Belinda is in total shock:
Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th' affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,
When husbands, or when lap-dogs, breathe their last...2
(Canto III, lines 155-58)
While Belinda is screaming more loudly than a grieving wife or pet owner, the Baron gloats over his success in procuring the lock of hair, crying "'the glorious prize is mine!'" and comparing his accomplishment to the immortal deeds of ancient Trojan heroes (Canto III, line 162).
While Belinda is still mourning the loss of her lock of hair, a gnome called Umbriel appears. Gnomes, as Pope explains in the introductory letter to the poem, are "daemons of earth" who "delight in mischief."2 Umbriel comes to earth in order to enter a place called the Cave of Spleen, and ultimately to prolong Belinda's indignant reaction to the Baron's unsolicited haircut.
In the theory of humors that was still widely accepted in Pope's time, human psychology was dominated by four fluids, or humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Physical and psychological health meant having the right balance of these four fluids. Black bile, produced in the spleen, was thought to be the cause of melancholy or depression.
Descending into the Cave of Spleen with "a branch of healing spleenwort" in his hand for protection, Umbriel passes by Ill-nature, Affectation, and a whole host of freaks and monsters2 (Canto IV, lines 25-56). Approaching the Queen of the Cave of Spleen, Umbriel requests that she "touch Belinda with chagrin," in other words, to make her unreasonably depressed and angry2 (Canto IV, line 77).
The Queen, while seeming to ignore Umbriel, proceeds to fill a bag with "Sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues" and a vial with "fainting fears, / Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears," which she gives to Umbriel2 (Canto IV, lines 83-6).
Returning to earth, Umbriel finds Belinda in the company of Thelestris, the Queen of the Amazons, and one Sir Plume. Umbriel claps the bag over Belinda's head, causing her to fly into a rage. She demands that Sir Plume get the Baron to return her stolen lock of hair, but just as Sir Plume seems to agree to help, Umbriel breaks the vial under her nose, causing her to fall into a fit of depression and attempt to tear her remaining hair out.
Canto V begins with Belinda, Sir Plume, Thelestris, the Baron, and Clarissa all confronting each other, surrounded by a crowd. Clarissa gives an impassioned speech on the pointlessness of the whole affair, noting that their constant dancing and card games will not "cure smallpox" or chase "old age away"2 (Canto V, lines 19-20).
Besides, their appearances will all decline with age, their hair turning grey and their faces growing wrinkled. Clarissa hopes that "good-humour can prevail" and they can all focus on developing their characters rather than their appearances, as "Charm strikes the sight, but merit wins the soul"2 (Canto V, lines 31-3).
Clarissa's sensible advice is completely ignored, and the two sides fly into a raging melee in which "Fans clap, silks rustle, and tough whalebones crack; / Heroes' and heroines' shouts confusedly rise, / And bass and treble voices strike the skies"2 (Canto V, lines 40-3). Several young men, such as Dapperwit and Sir Fopling, tragically perish in the fight as the sprites watch on from the sidelines.
Eventually, Belinda confronts the Baron, and the two engage in an epic struggle. Just as Belinda seems to be pinned down, she draws a sewing needle (a "bodkin") and threatens to stab the Baron. In a cry that echoes through the heavens, Belinda then demands that he "Restore the lock!"2 but it is nowhere to be found (Canto V, 103-4). Some claim (though none can confirm) to have seen the lock ascend into the sky like a comet, where it took its place among the stars to shine down on earth forever.
(A Comet, Pixabay)
Alexander Pope's original intention was to make light of a seemingly trivial event that was keeping two important families apart. His strategy was to write what Pope called in his own words a "Heroi-comical" poem, drawing out the essential unimportance of the lost lock of hair by presenting it in the form of an epic poem.
Pope does this by writing in the high style of Homer's epics (or at least, their English translations) and Milton's Paradise Lost. The poem is peppered with references to the Trojan War, especially in its long and detailed description of warriors and generals in what is, in fact, a card game. The final battle between Belinda and the Baron also bears many resemblances to the fight between Ulysses and Penelope's suitors at the end of the Odyssey.2
The supernatural intervention of sylphs and gnomes, and the Hades-like underworld of the Cave of Spleen, are also inspired by Greek mythology, in which the Gods intervene in important human events. That a party, a dance, or a card game is worthy of supernatural intervention is, Pope thinks, ridiculous.
Pope was a master of the heroic couplet, a form used in many earlier English poems and translations of Greek epics (hence the adjective "heroic").
Heroic couplets are pairs of lines with the same end rhyme, almost always written in iambic pentameter. That means that each line has ten total syllables with stress on every other syllable.
'The Rape of the Lock' is written entirely in heroic couplets. Take Pope's description of coffee being brought to the card table as an example. Each syllable is separated by a horizontal bar, and stressed syllables are highlighted in red.
For | lo! | The | board | with | cups | and | spoons | is | crowned,
The | be | rries | cra | ckle, | and | the | mills | turn | round;2
(Canto III, lines 105-6)
Note the amazing regularity of the syllable count and stress pattern, as well as the rhyme scheme. Pope kept this up for over 700 lines, an enormously laborious and demanding task. The sheer craft and artistry of the poem also contrasts with the seeming unimportance of the events it describes. It is no coincidence that Pope's poem is still being read over 300 years after it was written, but that no one otherwise knows who Arabella Fermor or Lord Petre were.
While references to classical epics predominate, Pope's style also resembles Milton's in Paradise Lost, which tells the story of Satan's war against God, and is generally considered to be the greatest epic ever produced in the English language. Compare, for example, the openings of both poems. Here's Milton:
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
('Paradise Lost,' Book 1 lines 6-8)
And here's Pope:
I sing—this verse to Caryll, Muse! is due:
This e'en Belinda may vouchsafe to view.
('The Rape of the Lock,' Canto I lines 3-4)
The implication that Pope is invoking a theme of epic and Biblical significance (in which the destiny of all humankind is affected) is supposed to show just how unimportant the incident of the stolen lock really is.
While Alexander Pope supposedly wrote the 'The Rape of the Lock' as a way to heal a pointless rift between two families, Pope gets somewhat carried away in his mockery of young men and, especially, women, who are obsessed with dating, courtship, and the social scene. The world depicted by Pope in 'The Rape of the Lock' is one entirely preoccupied with luxury, appearances, gossip, and gambling. Clarissa's failed attempt to stop the fight between the Baron and Belinda expresses this view well:
How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains:
That men may say, when we the front-box grace,
Behold the first in virtue as in face!2
(Canto V, lines 15-18)
Clarissa indicts a society that only cares about physical beauty ("face") and not "virtue." That this speech is completely marginal and ineffective in the poem, and is essentially ignored by all the other characters who proceed to bludgeon and stab each other over a lock of hair, shows us just how shallow this society is.
Pope, in other words, is writing a satire targeting not just Arabella and Lord Petre, but at the whole society that allows the beau monde world of dances, card games, masquerades, and excessive luxury to exist so prominently.
Satire is an attempt to point out social, political, or personal immorality through the use of humor, ridicule, and irony.
1. S. Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, 2012.
2. P. Rogers. Alexander Pope: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2008.
'The Rape of the Lock' is about a real incident in which a young man cut off a lock of a young woman's hair without her knowledge or consent.
'The Rape of the Lock' was written by Alexander Pope.
The tone of 'The Rape of the Lock' is ironic and satirical.
The title, 'The Rape of the Lock', refers to a lock of hair being stolen without consent. The meaning behind the poem, 'The Rape of the Lock,' is that both this event itself and the society that takes it seriously are in need of moral and spiritual change.
'The Rape of the Lock' is mock-epic because it describes a seemingly unimportant event (a lock of hair being stolen) in the form and language typically used in epic poetry, such as that by Homer or Milton. The entire poem is written in heroic couplets, spirits intervene in trivial events, and card games are described as though they are epic battles, for example.
Who is the author of 'The Rape of the Lock'?
What does the word 'rape' mean in 'The Rape of the Lock'
Seize or grab
What type of poem is 'The Rape of the Lock'?
What is the best definition of a heroic couplet?
Two lines in iambic pentameter with the same end-rhyme
What type of spirit is Ariel?
Why did Pope write 'The Rape of the Lock'?
To satirize a society obsessed with appearances and triviality.
What happens to Belinda's lock of hair at the end of the poem?
It disappears and possibly turns into a star
What is the name of Belinda's pet dog?
What did the word 'spleen' mean to Pope?
Depression and bad temper.
Who is Uriel?
A gnome who travels to the Cave of Spleen.
Which authors does Pope imitate the most in 'The Rape of the Lock'?
Homer and Milton
What is portrayed as an epic battle in Canto III?
A game of cards
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