|Prof. Joe’s Guide to Reading The Rape of the Lock
Pope’s “Mock Epic”
The Rape of the Lock is most commonly described as a “mock epic.” It isn’t really an epic poem, but it makes use of all the conventions and techniques of epic poetry, so it reads and sounds like an epic poem. The style is noble and lofty. Heroes are elaborately described. A great cause is undertaken. Terrible battles are fought. Supernatural forces intervene. The hero triumphs and lives forever in the memory of the people.
The joke is that despite the epic style and form, the subject matter is silly and trivial. The “hero” of the epic is a wealthy young woman whose chief concerns in life appear to be getting dressed and going to parties. The calamity at the heart of the poem occurs when someone cuts off a lock of her hair. The “terrible battles” include a game of cards and an argument among the guests at a tea party. The “supernatural forces” that seem to steer the action are not gods but little fairy spirits who flit about, alternately helping the heroes and stirring up trouble for them. The “great cause” for which everyone labors mightily is the return of the lost lock of hair.
Like all epics, the poem idealizes its subjects – in this case, the “idle rich” of 17th century England. And, like all epics, it raises questions about the very same ideals it celebrates. On the one hand, Pope lavishes his subjects with such elaborate praise and admiration that you cannot honestly call the poem a satire. He isn’t making fun of these people in order to tear them down; he clearly admires these people and their world. On the other hand, Pope is obviously aware that their lives and affairs aren’t really the stuff of great epics, and by making their story into an epic he obviously means to suggest that these people aren’t as grand and noble as they believe themselves to be. Like Beowulf and Sir Gawain, the hero of the poem embodies the virtues of a culture and a society; but like those two epics, the poem shows us the limitations and flaws of the very society it celebrates.
There is one other significant difference between The Rape of the Lock and other epics: the hero of the Rape of the Lock is a woman. In one sense, placing a woman at the center of the poem and making her into an epic hero is a way of acknowledging the central role of women in Pope’s society. Everything about the poem revolves around this woman, who is always the subject of Pope’s greatest praise and admiration. At the same time, it’s just another “mock epic” technique. Can she truly be considered a hero if the action of the poem is so silly and trivial? Just as Pope seems to both praise and mock the society he describes, so too does he seem both to praise and mock the idea of female power.
The story of the poem
Belinda, a lovely young woman of noble status, arises at noon, dresses, and embarks on a little boat from her country estate up the Thames River to the palace at Hampton Court, where she is to attend an afternoon tea party.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the Baron – a wealthy but rash young playboy, and one of her many suitors -- has concocted a scheme to snip off the two curls of hair that fall at the back of Belinda’s lovely neck.
Belinda arrives at the party, where she mingles with the assembled guests and flirts with the Baron. After playing a game of cards, they sit down to tea (actually coffee). The Baron, having procured a tiny pair of scissors from one of the ladies in attendance, succeeds in snipping off one of Belinda’s curls, causing a terrible row.
The Baron exults in his victory, while Belinda retires in anguish, along with a friend who urges her to seek revenge. Others at the party make accusatory speeches, but no one pays them any mind.
Finally, Belinda, urged on by her friend, confronts the Baron and demands the return of her hair. He relents, but the hair cannot be found! Where can it be? It has miraculously flown up to the heavens, transformed into a star, where it shall forever more remind who see it of the virtuous Belinda and her heroic victory.
Of course it’s a stupid story! That’s the whole point!
The humor of the poem is in the juxtaposition of serious, high-blown, epic style verse with trivial, silly, inconsequential affairs. It is also a pretty good satire of upper-class society.
What’s All This about Sylphs and Gnomes?
The most complicated part of the poem is the inclusion of an elaborate parallel universe inhabited by spirits, little fairy-like creatures who direct and manage and often intercede in the course of human events. The chief fairies or sprites in the poem are the Sylphs, who attend all the fair young ladies of society and guide and protect them and keep them chaste. The lovely heroine of the poem, Belinda, is attended by several hundred Sylphs led by a “head sylph” called Ariel.
There are other types of spirits mentioned in the poem, in particular, Gnomes -- dour and melancholy spirits whose job it is to spread ill will and bad humor throughout society. The gnome Umbriel is responsible for everybody getting all uppity and nasty after Belinda’s hair is cut, instead of being all lah-de-dah like they’re supposed to be, being rich farts and all.
In The Rape of the Lock, the spirits play the role that the gods of Olympus do in classical epics like the Odyssey or the Aeneid (that’s part of the joke, get it?).
The real story
The poem is based on a true story. A lovely young woman from a noble country family, Arabella Fermor, did indeed have a lock of hair snipped by a rash young man, Lord Robert Petre. The snipping caused a tremendous tiff between the couple and their families. Pope was a friend of both the Fermors and the Petres, and at the urging of yet another friend of the families, John Caryl, he wrote a little poem about it to give to the families. The poem was supposed to make light of the whole situation and sort of smooth over the ruffled feathers.
The poem served its purpose, getting everyone to laugh at themselves. Of course, the poem that Pope originally wrote was intended to be read by just the small circle of people who are portrayed in it. Unfortunately, it was published (without Pope’s permission) and became widely popular. Looking to cash in, Pope set about expanding and revising the poem for an “authorized” edition, mainly adding in the whole business with the Sylphs. This is the version we have today.
Line-by-line through the Poem
Who’s Who in the Poem
Belinda The beautiful young heroine of the poem, whose hair is snipped by the evil Baron.
The Baron One of Belinda’s many suitors, a handsome “playboy” type whose rash act of snipping a lock of her hair constitutes the main action of the poem.
Ariel The captain of the sylphs (see below); Belinda’s guardian spirit
Umbriel A gnome (see below) who descends into the Cave of Spleen and returns bringing ill-will and bad humor to feed Belinda’s anger and displeasure
Thalestris A friend of Belinda’s who encourages Belinda to seek revenge after the lock is snipped. In mythology, Thalestris was an Amazon Queen.
Clarissa A guest at the party where Belinda’s hair is snipped. It is she who lends the Baron her scissors to do the deed, and later scolds Belinda for taking it so harshly.
Sir Plume A young male friend of Thalestris, her “beau”; at Thalestris’s urging, he makes a weak attempt to confront the Baron
Shock Belinda’s little dog
Sylphs Spirits who guide and protect chaste young ladies
Gnomes Spirits of melancholy who guide and encourage all the discontented, sour, and unpleasant people of the world
Any other name you encounter in the poem is just a classical allusion, usually from Greek mythology or from the Homeric epics. If you really need to know, look it up. Otherwise, go with the context and read on.
The poem is divided into 6 sections: an opening prefatory letter to the reader and five “Cantos” or books describing the action.
The Opening To avoid embarrassing the Fermors, with whom Pope remained friendly, he was forced to add this prefacing letter to the “public” version of the poem, basically stating that Belinda isn’t really Arabella Fermor, despite what everybody believes, and that the whole thing is really just made up, honest.
Lines 1 – 12 : Like the great Homeric epics, Pope begins by evoking the Muse, stating the themes of his poem and calling on the gods to aid him in the task of telling this epic story. Since this is a “mock epic,” however, his “muse” is not a Goddess but an ordinary mortal man, his friend John Caryl.
Lines 13 – 26: The action begins. OK, sort of. The sun is up; in fact it is nearly noon, but Belinda still sleeps, watched over by her guardian Sylph, Ariel, who has sent her a dream. In the dream a handsome young man is whispering into her ear.
Lines 27 - 66: Belinda’s dream. The handsome young man tells the dreaming Belinda (and us) that there really are such things as fairy spirits, that “unnumbered” hosts of them fly about, and that beautiful fair young ladies such as herself are particularly guided over by spirits.
The young man explains that there are actually four kinds of spirits, and whenever a woman dies, her soul is transformed into one of these kinds depending on the type of woman she was when she was alive. All the fiery, emotional women become spirits called Salamanders; the flitty and vain types become Nymphs; dour old prudes become Gnomes; and the “light coquettes”(fair, chaste, pleasant, sociable types like Belinda) become Sylphs.
Lines 67–104: The dream continues. Belinda learns that the Sylphs can take on any shape or form they need to, and their function is especially to help young ladies to remain chaste. For example, because the Sylphs protect them, ladies are able to flirt and go to masquerades and balls and shows and otherwise indulge themselves socially without fear. It is the sylphs, not “honour,” that preserve a young lady’s dignity. The Sylphs also keep the young lady from becoming too vain or ambitious when she is complimented by handsome young men, and they keep the various suitors from becoming too bold in their advances.
As Belinda (and we) learn, the whole elaborate structure of high-society life, with its parties and dances and flirtations and men competing over women, is actually carefully devised and directed by the Sylphs.
Lines 105–114: Finally, the young man in the dream reveals that he too is a Sylph (remember, they can take on any form); indeed, he is Ariel, and he has come to warn her that something bad is going to happen to her this day. He cannot say what, but “Beware of Man!” he tells her.
Lines 115–120: The dream is over. Ariel withdraws; Shock, Belinda’s little dog, wakes up and starts licking her face. She opens her eyes, sees a love-letter lying by the bedside, starts to read it, and forgets all about her dream.
Lines 121–148: Belinda, with the help of her maid, begins to dress. The dressing scene is described in elaborate, drawn-out style (remember, this ritual “arming of the hero” is a standard scene in all epics). At the end, we learn that it is not the two women but in fact the Sylphs who actually arrange the folds of her gown, the makeup, the hair, the glorious vision that is Belinda.
Lines 1 – 18: Belinda sails along the Thames; all eyes are dazzled by her beauty.
Lines 19 – 28: The two locks of hair which curl gracefully along the back of her neck are described; they are compared to nets that entrap any lover who happens to catch sight of them.
Lines 29 – 46: The scene switches to the dressing table of “the Baron,” a rich young nobleman and playboy who has fallen under the spell of Belinda’s lovely locks. Captivated by the locks of Belinda’s hair, he prays to heaven that he might possess them. As a sacrifice to Heaven, he burns all the other trinkets and love tokens he has accumulated from other women, and Heaven grants his prayer
Lines 47 – 72: A worried Ariel has summoned a host of Sylphs, who hover over Belinda’s boat, doing little Sylph-like things.
Lines 73–100: Ariel speaks to the assembled Sylphs, reminding them that in addition to their “other” duties (which include directing the motion of the planets and stars, managing the weather, and guarding the British Throne), they’re also supposed to protect fair young ladies like Belinda.
Lines 101–122: Ariel continues his speech, appointing various Sylphs (Brillante, Momentilla, and Crispissa) to guard Belinda’s earrings, watch, and hair, respectively; fifty Sylphs to guard her petticoat; and so on.
Lines 123–142: In a speech straight out of Homer, Ariel warns the Sylphs not to neglect their duty, and they prepare for what dire tragedy awaits.
Lines 1 – 24: The guests arrive at Hampton Court.
Lines 25–104: Belinda plays a card game, called Ombre, with the Baron and another young man. Yes, 80 lines of playing cards. It’s quite an exciting game, though. Belinda wins, barely, over the Baron.
Lines 105–116: Coffee is served. The Sylphs, sensing danger, gather round.
Lines 117–124: Emboldened by coffee, the Baron makes ready to have his way with Belinda’s hair. (“Scylla” here is an ill-fated hair-snipper of Greek myth.)
Lines 125–146: The Baron procures a pair of scissors from Clarissa and attempts to snip the locks. The Sylphs manage to fight him off through several attempts. In the heat of battle, Ariel looks into Belinda’s heart. Seeing “an earthly lover” lurking there, Ariel concedes defeat.
Lines 147–154: The Baron succeeds in snipping the locks, even as a heroic Sylph dives between the points of the scissors trying to prevent him.
Lines 155 – 160: Belinda screams.
Lines 160 – 175: “Ha! Ha!” says the Baron.
Lines 1 – 10: The depth of Belinda’s anguish is described – such anguish as has never been felt before, naturally.
Lines 11-38: Now that the situation has turned ugly, the Gnomes take over from the Sylphs. (Gnomes are responsible for all the unpleasantness and ill-feeling that women display, remember.)
In this section, the chief Gnome, Umbriel, begins to fly to the Cave of Spleen, home of ill-will, displeasure, sadness, and other unladylike emotions. On the way, he passes Belinda, who has fled the room. She is described as lying “pensive” with Megrim (“headache”) at her head, attended by Ill-Nature and Affectation (that’s affectation, not affection!). These are all Gnome-like emotions, of course.
Lines 39 – 88: Umbriel descends through increasingly nightmarish visions of bodies hideously transformed by “Spleen.” These are all intended to parody the attitudes of the young women at the party, who are thrown into a tizzy over Belinda’s “rape.”
Finally, Umbriel arrives at the throne of the Goddess of Spleen and begs her to “touch Belinda with chagrin.” The goddess gives him a bag containing various “female airs” (sighs, tears, sobs, etc) and assorted fears, sorrows, and griefs. He takes off.
Lines 89–120: Umbriel finds Belinda attended by her friend Thalestris and pours his bag of Spleen over their heads. Immediately, Thalestris starts raging that Belinda’s honor has been lost and that she must be avenged.
Lines 121–130: Thalestris goads her beau, Sir Plume, to confront the Baron and get the locks back. Sir Plume makes a pathetic, ineffectual speech.
Lines 131–140: The Baron refuses to yield; he plans to have Belinda’s hairs bound in a locket that he will wear as a ring on his hand
Lines 141–175: Belinda appears before the assembled company, flooded with Umbriel’s tears, wailing her unhappy state
Lines 1 – 6: The Baron is unmoved by Belinda’s tears. Thalestris gives it a try, to no avail. Clarissa steps up to have her say.
Lines 8–34: In a speech straight out of the Iliad, Clarissa essentially belittles their petty little vanity. Look at the fuss we make over beauty, she says. What for? Is that all a woman is worth? It doesn’t last, and when it’s gone, what are you? A little common sense and good judgment is more valuable than beauty. Simple good humor is better than wailing and crying over lost hair. Merit, not beauty, is what really counts.
Lines 35–74: No one is moved by Clarissa’s common sense. Instead, the final “battle” begins: in terms still reminiscent of the Iliad, the guests fall to arguing. Umbriel claps his wings in triumph.
Thalestris flings insults at the Baron. Two young men, Dapperwit and Sir Fopling, come to the Baron’s aid but are “wounded” by Thalestris’s angry words and glaring eyes. Sir Plume is “killed” by a frown from another female guest, Chloe, but then she smiles at him, and he revives. Still, in the battle between “men’s wits” and “lady’s hair,” Jove seems to tilt the balance in favor of the men.
Lines 75- 86: Belinda flies toward the Baron, temporarily blinding him by flinging snuff in his face.
Lines 87 – 96: Belinda threatens to stab the Baron with a hairpin.
Lines 97–102: The Baron defends himself, arguing that he did it all for love
Lines 103–150: The women demand the return of the lock, but no one can find it. It seems to have disappeared . Some think it has gone to the moon, where all foolish things that are lost on earth are said to go. But the Muse has told the poet that the lock turned into a star, and shot into space like a comet, where it will shine down on all the forlorn and mortal lovers of Earth until the end of time.