English Literature
The Rape of the Lock

The Rape of the Lock

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A Satirical Masterpiece: Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock'

Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' is a satirical poem that cleverly blends epic poetry with biting commentary on 18th-century society's obsession with wealth and appearances. Inspired by a real-life event, Pope uses supernatural elements to tell the story of a trivial incident that causes a feud between two prestigious families.

The Inspiration

In 1711, a social gathering turned into a scandal when Lord Petre secretly cut off a lock of hair belonging to Arabella Fermor, the daughter of another influential family. This caused a rift between the families, and Pope's friend, John Caryll, suggested writing a poem to mock the incident and hopefully reconcile them. The initial two-canto version of the poem gained popularity, leading Pope to expand it the following year into its mock-epic form by adding supernatural elements.

It's essential to understand that the poem's title, 'The Rape of the Lock', does not refer to sexual assault but rather an older meaning of "to seize" or "to abduct." This adds to the dramatic effect and connects the poem to ancient mythology, such as the story of Persephone's abduction or the Roman legend of the Sabine women. The word "rape" comes from the Latin word "rapere", meaning "to seize." In Pope's poem, a young man sneakily "seizes" a lock of a woman's hair without her knowledge or consent, depicting a different meaning of the word than the modern sense.

The Characters

Belinda, the main character, is a young woman from a wealthy family, representing the typical belle of 18th-century society. She attends social events and is overly concerned with her appearance, especially her hair, similar to the real-life Arabella Fermor.

Belinda's beloved dog, Shock, is mentioned briefly but then disappears in the rest of the poem. Ariel, a friendly spirit and the leader of a group of sylphs, is responsible for protecting Belinda and helping her maintain her appearance in the high society world.

The villain, the Baron, is based on a real person, Robert, seventh Baron Petre, who cut off Arabella Fermor's hair. He becomes infatuated with Belinda's hair and goes to great lengths to obtain a lock of it for himself. Clarissa, his accomplice, tries to ease the tension between Belinda and the Baron but fails.

Umbriel, an evil gnome, adds a comical twist to the poem as he takes pleasure in causing people grief. He teams up with the Queen from the Cave of Spleen to ensure Belinda stays upset over the incident.

Another character, Sir Plume, is a stereotypical dandy and Belinda's ally in trying to retrieve her lock of hair. He is likely based on a real person, Sir George Browne.

The Epic Tale

The poem's first canto sets the stage for the "mighty contest" revolving around "trivial things" between the well-bred lord and the gentle belle. The ambiguous nature of Belinda's "assault" adds a serious tone to the epic poem. The scene is set in Belinda's bedroom, where she is awakened by the sun shining through her curtains. Her dog and sylph guardian accompany her as she dreams of a handsome young man fit for a royal birthday.

Pope's letter preceding the poem explains that sylphs are gentle spirits protecting young women in 18th-century high society. The poem's final lines reveal the speaker as Ariel, one of these "watchful sprites" guarding Belinda.

A Mysterious Event Unfolds In "The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope

In "The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope, the story begins with Ariel sensing a looming danger, but unsure of what it may be. As the day begins, Belinda's faithful dog, Shock, wakes her up and she starts her daily routine with the help of her sylphs at her dressing table.

In Canto II, Belinda sets off on a boat ride along the "silver Thames," catching the attention of all those around her (Canto II, lines 4, 21-2). The focus then shifts to the Baron, who becomes obsessed with Belinda's exquisite hair, scheming to either deceive her or take a lock of it by force (Canto II, lines 29-32). This foreshadows the impending danger that Ariel had sensed earlier.

In Canto III, the game of ombre begins at the palace of Hampton, with Belinda challenging two knights to a game, one of whom is the Baron (Canto III, lines 9-10, 26). Through Pope's vivid descriptions, the game is dramatized as an epic battle between warriors and generals. Initially, Belinda seems to have the upper hand, but the Baron also holds a strong hand, and the possibility of her defeat hangs in the air. However, in the end, Belinda prevails as the winner.

After the game, the players engage in conversation over coffee. The Baron, however, is preoccupied with devising a plan to obtain a lock of Belinda's hair. This sets the stage for the climax of the poem, as the Baron's obsession with Belinda's hair leads to the infamous "rape" of the lock.

The Baron's Devious Plans Thwarted by Coffee

In Canto III, as the Baron cunningly tries to sneak a lock of Belinda's hair with the help of Clarissa and a pair of scissors, the sylphs, led by Ariel, do their best to stop him. In his pursuit, Ariel enters Belinda's mind and discovers her thoughts of an "earthly lover," causing him to lose her attention (Canto III, lines 140-6). Belinda's sylphs try to hinder the scissors, but unfortunately, one sylph is "cut...in twain" along with the lock of hair (Canto III, lines 150-2).

In a state of shock, Belinda screams in agony, resembling the cries of grieving wives and pet owners. Meanwhile, the Baron proudly boasts of his successful acquisition, comparing himself to the heroic Trojan warriors (Canto III, line 162).

Umbriel's Unwanted Arrival Spells Trouble

In Canto IV, as Belinda grieves over the loss of her hair, a gnome named Umbriel enters the scene. In his introduction to the poem, Pope explains that gnomes are "daemons of earth" who take pleasure in causing mischief. Umbriel's purpose is to enter the Cave of Spleen and prolong Belinda's anger towards the Baron's actions.

In the theory of humors prevalent during Pope's time, the four humors - black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm - were believed to influence human psychology. The production of black bile in the spleen was thought to cause melancholy and depression.

As Umbriel approaches the Queen of the Cave of Spleen, he carries a branch of spleenwort for protection and encounters Ill-nature, Affectation, and other peculiar creatures along the way (Canto IV, lines 25-56). He asks the Queen to make Belinda feel "chagrin," causing her to become unreasonably despondent and enraged (Canto IV, line 77).

The Queen, seemingly ignoring Umbriel, fills a bag with "Sighs, sobs, and passions" and a vial with "fainting fears" and other emotions, which she gives to Umbriel (Canto IV, lines 83-6). Upon returning to earth, Umbriel finds Belinda in the company of Thelestris, the Queen of the Amazons, and Sir Plume. He covers Belinda's head with the bag, causing her to fly into a fit of rage. In her fury, she demands that Sir Plume retrieve her stolen lock of hair from the Baron. However, before he can agree, Umbriel breaks the vial under her nose, causing her to fall into a state of despair and depression.

The Turmoil Escalates in Canto V

Canto V begins with Belinda, Sir Plume, Thelestris, the Baron, and Clarissa engaged in a heated confrontation, surrounded by a crowd. Clarissa tries to persuade them, reminding them of the inevitable decline of their beauty and the greying of their hair and wrinkling of their faces (Canto V, lines 19-20). But despite her wise words, the situation descends into chaos, with the clapping of fans, rustling of silks, and cracking of whalebones.

A Satirical Critique of 18th Century Society in Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock'

In the midst of a gathering of sprites, the lives of several young men, including Dapperwit and Sir Fopling, come to a tragic end. However, the true climax of the evening's events is a fierce and absurd battle between Belinda and the Baron, as they fight for possession of a stolen lock of hair.

Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' is a well-known mock-heroic poem that uses humor and irony to expose the triviality of social affairs and the shallow values of the upper class. Originally written to reconcile a feud between two prominent families, Pope cleverly transforms the incident into a "Heroi-comical" poem, satirizing the obsession with appearances and material possessions.

Pope cleverly imitates the language and structure of famous epics, such as Homer's works and Milton's Paradise Lost, to ridicule the events that unfold. Throughout the poem, he weaves in references to the Trojan War and Greek mythology, highlighting the absurdity of divine intervention in a trivial dispute over a lock of hair. This use of classical allusions adds to the poem's humor and satire.

One of Pope's most notable accomplishments in 'The Rape of the Lock' is his expert use of the heroic couplet. This form consists of two lines with the same end rhyme and a strict syllable and stress pattern, adding a sense of artistry and skill to the poem. Despite the seemingly insignificant subject matter, Pope's use of heroic couplets adds to the grandeur and timelessness of the work.

Furthermore, Pope's style in the poem is reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost, with both poems beginning with an invocation to a higher power. However, while Milton's poem is truly epic in nature, Pope's is laced with humor and irony. This contrast further emphasizes the unimportance of the stolen lock in comparison to epic events.

Beyond its epic influences, 'The Rape of the Lock' also serves as a biting social satire. Pope mocks the shallow and materialistic society of his time, where people are more concerned with status, gossip, and gambling than anything of true substance. Even Clarissa's failed attempt to stop the fight between Belinda and the Baron reflects the superficiality of society, where physical beauty is valued above virtue.

In conclusion, Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' remains a timeless and powerful piece of literature due to its clever use of heroic couplets, classical influences, and scathing social commentary. Despite being written over 300 years ago, it still resonates with readers, reminding us that sometimes even the most trivial of events can reveal the deeper flaws of society through the power of satire and poetry.

The Significance of "The Rape of the Lock": A Reflection on Society and Morality

The title of Alexander Pope's poem, "The Rape of the Lock," holds a deeper meaning beyond the literal event it describes. It serves as a commentary on the need for moral and spiritual transformation within society.

Frequently Asked Questions about "The Rape of the Lock"

  • What is the tone of the poem? The poem's tone is one of irony and satire.
  • Who is the author of "The Rape of the Lock"? The poem was written by Alexander Pope.
  • Why is the poem considered a mock-epic? "The Rape of the Lock" parodies epic poetry by applying its elements to a seemingly trivial event.
  • What is the underlying message of the poem? The poem serves as a critique of both the specific stolen lock of hair and the superficial society that places importance on such trivial matters.

As readers of "The Rape of the Lock," we are prompted to contemplate our own society and its values. Pope's satire serves as a reminder to not lose sight of what truly matters and to strive for a deeper understanding and purpose in life.

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