The Rape of the Lock

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The Rape of the Lock”

Alexander Pope

This article provides a plot summary of Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock,” followed by a brief survey of its main formal and contextual aspects. Some points raised in the synopsis, as well as other significant elements of religion, history, politics, society, and science and technology, are then discussed, the survey ending in a short biography of the author. Possible discussion and essay topics are suggested at the end of this paper.
Pope, Alexander

The Rape of the Lock

heroi-comical poem

mock-heroic epic

heroic couplets




Fermor, Arabella

Robert, Lord Petre



Augustan Age
Content Synopsis
“The Rape of the Lock,” Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic epic (or “heroi-comical poem,” as he himself called it, see Butt 217; all references to Pope’s writings are to this edition) was inspired by and derived its theme from a seemingly petty conflict between the representatives of two prominent Roman Catholic families in early-18th-century England. The discord arose when Robert, Lord Petre cut off a curl from his fiancée Arabella Fermor’s hair as a practical joke. Pope, in an attempt to reconcile the two families, commemorated the incident in the first, 1711/2 version of “The Rape of the Lock,” which he soon extended by adding his supernatural “machinery” and composing a neatly balanced Neo-Classical work that consists of 5 cantos (1714). Since this is the version most widely used today, it will form the basis of this content synopsis as well.
The work begins with a prose dedication to Arabella Fermor, in which—as though it were a modern-time “disclaimer”—Pope explains his motives and how the whole “epic” should not be taken too seriously and personally. The stylized invocation placed at the beginning of Canto I (lines 1–6) addresses Pope’s friend John Caryll, who had urged Pope to write the poem, as well as “Belinda,” who is not difficult to identify as Arabella Fermor, although Pope humorously tries to obscure the link in the dedication: “the Character of Belinda, as it is now manag’d, resembles You in nothing but in Beauty” (Butt 218).
The invocation is followed by a series of rhetorical questions anticipating the plot (I.7–12) but, strangely enough, Pope does not proceed directly to the action; instead, the narrative continues with Belinda’s oversleeping caused by her “Guardian Sylph” (20), who soon appears to her in a dream. From his speech that follows (27–114), we learn that he is called Ariel (105); he explains how the airy sylphs help govern all the world, contending with salamanders of fire (60), nymphs of water (62), and mischievous gnomes of earth (63). Of all these, sylphs are responsible for the preservation of chastity (71–8) and act accordingly—even when unnoticed. Ariel ends his speech with an ominous prophecy:
Late, as I rang’d the Crystal Wilds of Air,

In the clear Mirror of thy ruling Star

I saw, alas! some dread Event impend,

Ere to the Main this Morning Sun descend.

But Heav’n reveals not what, or how, or where;

Warn’d by thy Sylph, oh Pious Maid beware!

This to disclose is all thy Guardian can.

Beware of all, but most beware of Man! (I.107–114)

Belinda is now awakened by her lapdog, Shock, licking her face (I.115–6). The vision disappears and it is time to prepare for the social meeting planned for the afternoon. Belinda proceeds to the toilet table, which is described as if it were an altar; indeed, Belinda “adores . . . the Cosmetic Pow’rs” (123–4) and the “sacred Rites of Pride” (128) are rewarded, too, for “The Fair each moment rises in her Charms” (140). Bombastic, or even frivolous, as this description might appear at first, Pope cunningly draws on the inherent etymological connection between the words cosmetic and cosmic, both deriving from the idea of “order”: the cosmos is, according to the world view of Greek antiquity, synonymous with the “ordered world,” while cosmetics is concerned with the “orderly” arrangement (including ornamentation) of the body for increased physical appeal. The same concern is reflected in Belinda’s “awful [i.e. awesome] Beauty” (139), which formulation suggests the unlikely combination in one person of sublimity and exquisite beauty. Once the “rite” has been completed, Belinda praises her maid or “inferior Priestess” (127), for “Labours not her own” (148): Belinda’s make-up should be attributed to the sylphs. Though this might seem perplexing at first sight, on deeper scrutiny it proves just logical: chastity is closely related to decency, which, in turn, depends to a great extent on tidiness and attractive, yet not ostentatious make-up.
Canto II begins with the detailed description of Belinda’s beauty, set in imitation of “Aeneas’s voyage up the Tiber” (Butt 223n). In spite of the flattering, even hyperbolic appraisal of Belinda’s splendor, the end of the passage is rather ambiguous, and one does not even know whether to take it as a compliment or a reproach directed against false appearances: “If to her share some Female Errors fall, / Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all” (II.17–8). A separate verse paragraph is dedicated to the obsessively minute description of the “lock” that will soon lead to the dramatic clash between Belinda and the Baron—Lord Petre’s fictitious counterpart. Since the latter is subsequently introduced admiring the “bright Locks” (29), there is good reason to suspect that the comparison of Belinda’s hair to “Labyrinths” (23) and “slender Chains” (24) and the remarks that such “hairy Sprindges . . . the Birds betray” (25), “surprize the Finny Prey” (26), and “Man’s Imperial Race insnare” (27) all show a shared point of view between the narrator and the Baron.
Indeed, the narrative focus smoothly shifts to the Baron, whose resolution to capture Belinda’s lock is presented (31–4) and then related to his early morning ritual offering (35–46), which nicely counterpoints Belinda’s own “rite of Pride.” This is only one of Pope’s many clever symmetrical or parallel compositions; in addition to a shared reference to Belinda’s and the Baron’s respective “Altar,” the narrator also mentions the love letters received by each protagonist—the “Billets-doux,” whose French name, imported by Charles II’s courtiers after his return to the throne, lends additional flair to something inherently sentimental. But whereas Belinda beholds the Billet-doux with great excitement and ardor, the Baron simply uses it to light “the Pyre” (41), as his love letters are merely “the Trophies of his former Loves” (40). This act is most gentlemanly; the way, however, in which it differs from Belinda’s attitude throws some light on the social distinctions between men and women—for the first time in the poem.
After this “flashback” episode, the plot now continues with Belinda’s merry voyage on the river. This cheerfulness is contrasted with Ariel’s worries: “Th’impending Woe sate heavy on his Breast” (II.54). What follows is a version of epic enumeration: Ariel surveys his “army” of sylphs (55–72) and then delivers a speech of mission (73–136). He starts by listing those grand sylphs who govern planets and stars, who cause and dispel tempests, and—last but not least—“guard with Arms Divine the British Throne” (90). Next follows the general mission of Ariel and his host of sylphs: to take care of the fair lady’s appealing appearance (91–100). But since the sunny day is overcast by the shadows of impending disaster, they also have a specific mission: to prevent it from happening. For this purpose every sylph must assume their assigned post (111–22). For those spirits who fail their mission, some horrible punishments are in prospect; the worst “In Fumes of burning Chocolate shall glow, / And tremble at the Sea that froaths below!” (135–6). The canto ends in an anticipation of doom, with the sylphs dutifully taking up their posts.
Canto III commences with what might be considered the most sustained reference to the England of the Augustan Age (more of which below, in the section on Historical Context). In the description of Hampton Court (1–18), flattery once again mingles with tongue-in-cheek irony:
Here Britain’s Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom

Of Foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home;

Here Thou, Great Anna! whom three Realms obey,

Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea. (III.5–8)

Imperial decisions are contrasted with domestic affairs, while the reference to “three Realms” alludes to the idea—still maintained at the time—that in addition to Great Britain and Ireland, France ought also to obey the English monarch (Butt 277n). These perpetual shifts in proportion and viewpoint foreshadow the card game that will constitute the main epic action of the canto—and, in a sense, the whole poem.
But before that, Pope, for a fleeting moment, unleashes his devastating criticism of some judicial practices of the time. At lunchtime,
The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,

And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine. . . (III.21–2)

but—after a brilliant “turn of the camera”—focus is back again on Belinda, who is prepared to beat “two adventrous Knights / At Ombre” (26–7), a card game whose epic potential Pope exploits to the fullest.
To begin with, the cards themselves depict prominent characters—Kings, Queens, Knaves—and “Particolour’d Troops” forming the “army” proper. Their description is a powerful enumeration which Pope then crowns with a mock-battle scene in which the tricks are presented as though they were real combat scenes, to the extent that the last, decisive trick Belinda takes with the King of Hearts, who “springs to Vengeance with an eager pace” (97) and takes revenge for “his captive Queen” (96).
Secondly, ombre, this popular card game of Spanish origin which was brought to Restoration England by Charles II and his entourage, who had learnt it in France, happened to be played by three participants, with nine cards to each hand (and thirteen to the talon). This, of course, lends itself readily to the interpretation of magical numbers, an epic element Pope makes ample use of: “Strait the three Bands prepare in Arms to join, / Each Band the number of the Sacred Nine” (29–30). Moreover, the sylphs also participate in the game, and their position, based on their rank, even allows Pope to make a teasing remark about the habits of women: “For Sylphs, yet mindful of their ancient Race, / Are, as when Women, wondrous fond of Place” (35–6).
And thirdly, playing ombre was so popular in the Restoration period and after, both with women and men, that Pope’s references to it must have been easily comprehensible but also highly evocative to the average reader (see also Influences section below). In fact, the game can be reconstructed; while Pope brilliantly uses the symbolism of the cards, he also pays attention not to infringe on the rules of the game; such a mistake would have been spotted by contemporary readers immediately.
After a most exciting game in which, though Belinda wins the first four tricks, the Baron equalizes with a streak of another four, and it is only the last trick which decides in Belinda’s favor, “The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky, / The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply” (III.99–100). The next four lines, however, leading us to the coffee table, dispel this merry mood, once again foretelling imminent disaster.
The coffee table is yet another altar, this time Japanese (III.107); the effect of the offering, however, is less than desirable. “Coffee,” we are told, “Sent up in Vapours to the Baron’s Brain / New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain” (117–20). The climax is near and in order to intensify the suspense, Pope combines two plots: while Clarissa gives a “two-edg’d Weapon” (i.e. a pair of scissors, 128) to the Baron, the sylphs are doing all they can to hinder the hideous crime, but all they can achieve is a delay of the deed: “Thrice she look’d back, and thrice the Foe drew near” (138). Ariel even espies Belinda’s thoughts (140), only to find, although she is trying desperately to conceal it, “An Earthly Lover lurking at her Heart” (144). Betrayed by his protégé, Ariel collapses powerless and the Baron can have his way. The sylph that attempts to save Belinda’s lock is cut into two, but, fortunately, “Airy Substance soon unites again” (152).
The Baron’s attack makes Belinda furious; after her victorious cries a few moments ago, her “Screams of Horror” now resound in the building (156). The Baron, on the other hand, takes pride in his new trophy (161–170). The canto ends in a doubtful rhetorical question, regretting the loss of Belinda’s lock and the catastrophe caused thereby.
Why that catastrophe is inevitable is explained by Canto IV, which begins with the evil gnome Umbriel’s journey to the “Cave of Spleen.” Pope first describes the effect, Belinda’s incomparable rage (IV.1–10), and then the epic cause, Umbriel’s visit to the underworld and back (11–88). In the vividly repulsive depiction of the Cave of Spleen, cacophony dominates the sound, while allegory and prosopopoeia the content: the court of Spleen is inhabited by foul creatures and personified ideas such as Pain, Megrim, Ill-nature, and Affectation, each of them carefully placed according to the abstract idea it represents, bearing the common characteristics of the given quality (21–38). A list of typical hallucinations ensues, including a barely concealed sexual reference—one of Pope’s most explicit in this poem: “And Maids turn’d Bottels, call aloud for Corks” (54).
After the gnome enters the cave, he delivers his speech in which he asks Spleen’s help to spoil the mirth of Belinda and her company (55–78). The goddess, true to her nature, “Seems to reject him, tho’ she grants his Pray’r” (80) and gives him a bag full of the foulest furies and afflictions and a vial of sorrows. Umbriel duly pours the contents of the bag on Belinda, whose companion, Thalestris (named after the militant queen of the Amazons, Butt 235n) further incites her rage (97–120). Her main argument is that it is the greatest conceivable dishonor to allow the Baron to show off his “inestimable Prize” (113). She then asks Sir Plume to get back the lock of hair (121–2).
What follows is one of the most comic exchanges of “The Rape of the Lock,” since Sir Plume exclaims in the broadest vernacular idiom conceivable in an epic poem:
He first the Snuff-box open’d, then the Case,

And thus broke out—“My Lord, why, what the Devil?

Z[ound]s! damn the Lock! ’fore Gad, you must be civil!

Plague on’t! ’tis past a Jest—nay prithee, Pox!

Give her the Hair”—he spoke, and rapp’d his Box. (IV.126–30)
The Baron’s retort is devastatingly elegant—and negative: “It grieves me much . . . / Who speaks so well shou’d ever speak in vain” (131–2). But that is not all, for Umbriel ends all negotiation by emptying the vial of sorrows on Belinda, who now appears “in beauteous Grief” (143)—yet another equivocal praise. The canto ends with her mourning speech (based, quite exorbitantly, on Achilles’ lament for Patroclus, Butt 236n), finally understanding the ominous events which should have warned her but which she did not heed (147–76). Even here, Pope does not fail to dwell on Belinda’s questionable attitude; the “tott’ring China” (163) is a clear sexual allusion (see below, in Influences), while the last part of her speech suggests that it is not the rape itself but the object of the rape she deplores: “Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!” (175–6).
Canto V follows without a pause: the audience is moved by Belinda’s lament—but the Baron not so. A new character, Clarissa, is now introduced. Her purpose, Pope explains in a footnote, is “to open more clearly the Moral of the Poem, in a parody of the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus in Homer” (Butt 237n), an episode Pope had happened to translate from the Iliad as early as in 1707 (Butt 60–2). Clarissa begins her speech with a series of rhetorical questions to the point of what outward beauty, glory, and even chastity avail without “good Sense” (V.9–16). The moral, then, is—even though it should not be taken all too seriously, in view of Pope’s suspiciously obvious footnote:
What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,

And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?

And trust me, Dear! good Humour can prevail,

When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.

Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;

Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul. (V.29–34)

But Clarissa’s sober words fall on deaf ears and Thalestris calls everyone to arms (37). The final battle unfolds and Pope describes it in truly heroic terms—but with a touch of equivocation: “No common Weapons in their Hands are found, / Like Gods they fight, nor dread a mortal Wound” (43–4). What in real epics would be the praise of armaments by means of the rhetorical figure of litotes (denying the opposite; saying “not common” instead of “extraordinary”) is here a simple fact—after all, scissors and other household accessories are no common weapons, indeed. The same applies to the formulation that the fighters did not “dread a mortal Wound”: what is heroism in a real battle is common sense reaction here—after all, why should they dread death?
But Pope goes even further, comparing the scene to Homer’s gods engaging in earthly skirmishes in what might superficially be considered sheer impudence if it were not for the immense absurdity and disproportionateness of the entire scene. The sprites also join the combat (53–6), while the ladies deal “Deaths” from their eyes (58). The male characters evoke well-known roles from Restoration comedies: “One dy’d in Metaphor, and one in Song” (60).
Jove now weighs the two armies against each other, “the Men’s Wits against the Lady’s Hair” (72), and the ladies are victorious. Belinda eventually clashes with the Baron, demanding her lock—only to discover that the lock is gone, nowhere to be found (103–112). There are wild conjectures as to where it might now be, but the Muse rounds up the narrative by informing us that “A sudden Star, it shot thro’ liquid Air, / And drew behind a radiant Trail of Hair” (127–8). After this apotheosis of the lost lock, Pope ends the poem with an appeal to “Belinda”:
Then cease, bright Nymph! to mourn thy ravish’d Hair

Which adds new Glory to the shining Sphere!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame,

And mid’st the Stars inscribe Belinda’s Name! (141–50)

Epic elements parodied
What makes “The Rape of the Lock” a truly brilliant mock-heroic epic is the conscious and well-composed use of traditional epic elements, based primarily on Homer and, to a comparable extent, Virgil. The poem begins with an invocation to the Muse, whose only other function is to bring conclusive evidence for the miraculous transformation at the end of Canto V. This is followed by a dream vision, in which a supernatural being warns Belinda of the dangers the day will bring (such warnings, or paraeneses, are repeated several times later on, e.g. II.101–4, or III.121–4).
Antique religious ceremonies are parodied in Belinda’s “rites of Pride” (I.128) and the Baron’s sacrificial offering (II.35–46). This is neatly followed by the enumeration of Ariel’s army and his exhortation to his troops (II.73–136).
In the actual battle, however, the sylphs do not take part directly; it unfolds in the form of a card game and is preceded by another enumeration, that of the deck of cards. This is also one of the best examples of how Pope transcends mere “parody” and fills epic conventions with new meaning. To illustrate his method, let us consider the various names with which he denotes the card table: it is “the Velvet Plain” (III.44), the “verdant Field” (52), the “level Green” (80). These synonymous metaphors and metonymies are not used arbitrarily, though; what is a metaphor in describing a real battle (such as “velvet plain”) is absolutely literal here, the card table being covered in velvet. Conversely, “verdant field,” which may be the literal description of a real battlefield, is metaphorical in the halls of Hampton Court. And again, the “level green” may be taken as a metonymical expression in both contexts, thus showing that all three terms have something unique to them and are capable of reinvigorating an antiquated cliché.
The battle is followed by a ritual feast (or symposium), whose sacred nature is underscored by the reference to the coffee-tables as Japanese altars (III.107). After the Baron cuts off Belinda’s lock, Umbriel ensures that chaos ensues through a journey to the underworld, a well-known topos from epic literature (IV.11–88). This leads to the ultimate impossibility of negotiation and the situation culminates in an all-out war (V.35–102), which even prompts divine intervention (V.71–4). Once again, Pope subverts the conventional elements of the narrative of war; when, for instance, we learn “Nor fear’d the Chief [the Baron] th’ unequal Fight to try, / Who sought no more than on his Foe [Belinda] to die” (V.77–8) and consider the sexual overtones of the verb “die,” that “death” might no longer seem so loathsome.
Once the war is resolved (and its actual cause, the casus belli removed), apotheosis, or the glorification of the stolen lock becomes possible. The way this takes place—through the transformation of the lock into a stellar constellation—yet again echoes the formulae of epic tradition.
To these overall epic elements, one should add those obvious and less obvious allusions which Pope makes to Homer and Virgil (some of which he found important to point out in footnotes), as well as the mythical references and the supernatural machinery, Pope’s substantial addition to the 1714 version of the work.
“The Rape of the Lock” is composed in heroic couplets (two lines of iambic pentameters, linked by an end rhyme). The lines are almost exclusively closed couplets (i.e. couplets which also form complete syntactical or sense units); the most notable exception—showing that Pope truly observed his own rule formulated in a youthful mixed metaphor: “The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense” (“An Essay on Criticism,” 365)—is the following run-on line expressing the dynamism of a storm:
To draw fresh Colours from the vernal Flow’rs,

To steal from Rainbows ere they drop in Show’rs

A brighter Wash. . . (95–7)
Pope generally operates with decasyllabic lines ending on rising (masculine) rhymes; ironically enough, a rare feminine rhyme emerges from Sir Plume’s rather “macho” passage in the following couplet: “My Lord, why, what the Devil? / Z[ound]s! damn the Lock! ’fore Gad, you must be civil!” (IV.127–8).
The use of the heroic couplet is logical for practical as well as theoretical reasons. Theoretically speaking, the use of the English epic form of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dryden’s existing translation of the Aeneid, and Pope’s prospective translations of Homer, was the only logical choice for a mock-epic that would parody its grand epic models. Added to this are those pragmatic considerations that Pat Rogers (29–31) lists concisely but comprehensively: (1) The heroic couple is “perspicuous” and invites a “lucid approach”; (2) it is flexible, and in it Pope can be “high and sententious, obscene, skittish, tender, or whatever he pleases”; (3) it is “poetically neutral,” suitable for all genres of poetry from narrative poems through epitaphs, epistles, topographical poems, and even lyrical pieces; (4) its twice dual nature is excellent for many rhetorical figures popular with Pope; (5) the heroic couplet “obliges the reader to attend carefully.”
In addition to the epic (and mock-epic) tradition, “The Rape of the Lock” draws on numerous other sources as well. These were excellently gathered and contextualized by William Kinsley (1979), whose work I will rely on in the following brief summary.
Some parallels have been established between Pope’s poem and the Bible; the most obvious one is Belinda’s commencement of the game of ombre: “Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were” (III.46), echoing Genesis 1:3: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
Perhaps a more substantial connection, especially in the overall attitude and language of the poem, can be established with Restoration comedy. The link is partly personal—Pope knew Wycherley—partly epochal: Restoration comedy was such an organic part of city life that a poet could hardly escape its influence. And shun it one did not need, either; after all—as Kinsley observes—Restoration comedy provided “piercing analyses of relations between the sexes in general and of marriage in particular, the relentless pursuit of sexual gratification . . . and an outspoken, blunt treatment of sexual themes . . . with an insistence on elegant conversation and witty repartee” (230). The Country Wife, for example, established china as the cliché for sexual intercourse, a commonplace Pope utilizes on several occasions in “The Rape of the Lock.”
To illustrate this point, Kinsley’s reprinting of Act IV Scene iii of this play should be referred to briefly. The main character, Horner, pretending to be impotent, is about to seduce a lusty woman, Lady Fidget—and, in keeping with his name, cuckold her husband—when her spouse, Sir Jasper, enters unexpectedly. “I am trying if Mr. Horner were ticklish, and he’s as ticklish as can be, I love to torment the confounded Toad; let you and I tickle him,” exclaims Lady Fidget, in a desperate attempt to save the day, to which the deceived husband replies: “No, your Ladyship will tickle him better without me, I suppose, but is this your buying China, I thought you had been at the China House?” In the rest of the scene, china remains the dominant catch phrase. Soon Lady Fidget steals into Horner’s bedchamber in order, of course, to look for his “china.” She locks the front door, and when Horner follows her through the other door, Sir Jasper—with a touch of quite unequivocal ambiguity—shouts to her wife, laughing at his own joke: “Wife, he is coming in to you the back way.” (It must be noted that “in to” has alternatively been spelt “into,” but considering the fact that the comedy is meant to be spoken, rather than read, spelling makes little different here: the fun of the situation is not lost on the audience.) After the appearance of another woman, Mrs. Squeamish, and further intricacies (and scarcely concealed off-stage sexual intercourse), Lady Fidget comes back on stage, with a piece of china, explaining how she has been “toyling and moyling, for the pretti’st piece of China.” In light of this, when Mrs. Squeamish demands some china for herself, and Horner denies it by stating, “Upon my honour I have none left now”—unmistakably meaning sexual exhaustion—the image of china has come full circle, loaded with all the wildest associations sexual fantasies might possibly raise.
The composition of the work shows traits of Restoration comedy—and Neo-Classical drama—as well. The five cantos are comparable with the standard five-act structure of Restoration plays. Even the plot of “The Rape of the Lock” is arranged somewhat similarly to that of The Country Wife, for instance; without pushing this comparison too far, let it suffice to say that the first two acts and cantos, respectively, introduce the audience to the perspective of either sex, while the third act or canto brings the first climactic clash of the two (see the orange scene in The Country Wife, with all its ambiguity). Similarly, the reconciliation in the fifth act or canto cannot be quite complete; after the conflicts that precede it, and the somewhat forced resolution (which in “The Rape of the Lock” complies with the epic tradition of divine intervention, though) some uneasiness remains with the reader or spectator.
As to Neo-Classical dramatic standards: the loss of Belinda’s lock is preceded by Ariel’s anagnorisis (he finally understands that in her secret thoughts Belinda very much wants the Baron to commit his “crime”), which demonstrates the ideal coincidence of anagnorisis and peripeteia, i.e. the crucial turn in the plot, usually the beginning of the “fall” of the main protagonist—or, at least, her hair. What is more, in keeping with the Aristotelian ideal of a complex plot, Belinda has to go a longer way before she is illuminated; her anagnorisis finds its expression in her mourning speech ending Canto IV.
And last but not least, the work also parodies contemporary conventions of pantomime and opera, both in scenery (see Butt 233n on the catalogue of the hallucinations in the Cave of Spleen) and speech (see V.57–66, where even the names of male characters allude to the popular theatrical shows by Wycherley and Etherege). Also, Sir Plume’s short “address” to the Baron (IV.127–30) might even be read as a comically exaggerated merging of the colloquialisms of the male side characters in Wycherley’s Country Wife.
Historical Contexts
The early 1700s are also known as the Augustan Age in English history, the term deriving from the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC–14 AD), with which Pope and his contemporaries liked to compare their own era. This period more or less covered the reigns of Queen Anne (1665–1714, reigned 1702–14), George I (1660–1727, reigned 1714–27), and George II (1683–1760, reigned 1727–60) and was characterized by prosperous economy, fast scientific and cultural development, and the dawn of the British Empire, which would in subsequent centuries rule up to a third of the inhabitable areas of the globe.
Within a mere 50 years after the Restoration of the monarchy (1660), England was once again at the peak of its powers, which was also reflected in the literature of the time. The Scottish-born James Thomson composed the masque Alfred, celebrating the glory of Britain, which included the famous patriotic song “Rule Britannia,” set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740. A similar joy over the economic riches available to the English shines forth in Pope’s description of Belinda’s toilet (I.121–36) and—though tinged with mild satire—the presentation of Hampton Court at the beginning of Canto III also boasts of Queen Anne’s grandeur.
Pope associated his own age with antiquity so much that he even dedicated his imitation of Horace’s “First Epistle of the Second Book” “to Augustus” (Butt 634), that is, to King George II (whose second name, incidentally, also happened to be Augustus). In fact, the great minds of the time could be neatly matched with Augustan counterparts, and though Pope would never venture to make this explicit, his imitations of Horace reveal that he secretly identified with the great Roman poet.
Societal Context
After the “Glorius Revolution” of 1688/89, when the succession of the Catholic King James II was ceased, and the Dutch Protestant King William III was enthroned, there began severe discrimination against the Catholics living in England. Those faithful to King James II—the so-called Jacobites—were persecuted and their resistance merely aggravated the predicament of English Catholics. The 1701 Act of Settlement automatically disqualified any Catholic from becoming monarch of England, while a series of other discriminative laws—some of which are still in force today—made the life of Catholics very difficult.
For Alexander Pope, Roman Catholicism was a mission, an ideal to be lived up to. He could easily have converted to Anglicanism and gained full membership of the English society, but instead, he chose to remain somewhat of an outsider. His resolution is beautifully expressed in a letter to Jonathan Swift (1729): “Yet am I of the Religion of Erasmus, a Catholick; so I live; so I shall die; and hope one day to meet you . . . in that place, To which God of his infinite mercy bring us, and every body!” (Sherburne III:81).
It is important to note the subjunctive “bring” here: rather than negating the possibility of damnation, Pope implores God to bring humankind to that blessed place. Religion in this sense also implies a resistance to the temptation of sectarian thought, as Pope defines it in another letter: “the things I have always wished to see are not a Roman Catholick, or a French Catholick, or a Spanish Catholick, but a true Catholick: and not a King of Whigs, or a King of Tories, but a King of England” (Sherburne I:454). This is a moral imperative that must have facilitated Pope’s decision to comply with John Caryll’s request of a poem to reconcile two Roman Catholic families whose strife would have undesirable effects on the Roman Catholic minority in England.
The other aspect of religion which surfaces in the form of powerful social satire is the false priority of worldly qualities first, at least on par with spiritual concerns, if not before them. This is mocked in the alliterating catalogue of “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” (I.138) on Belinda’s “unveil’d Toilet.” Kinsley (263) claims convincingly that this may have been inspired by a sarcastic couplet published in The Spectator (No. 79, May 31, 1711): the average upper-class lady “has constantly before her a large Looking-glass, and upon the Table, according to a very Witty Author, // Together lye her Prayer-Book and Paint, / At once t’improve the Sinner and the Saint” (reprinted Kinsley 263). Richard Steele’s subtle syllepsis of “improve” used once in the sense of increasing the physical appeal, i.e. the lady’s means to sin, and then in the sense of bettering the saintly spirit is countered—in a different rhetorical figure, the paradox—in Clarissa’s speech (V.23–4), a parallel locus which Kinsley does not mention but which supports his claim: “To patch, nay ogle, might become a Saint, / Nor could it sure be such a Sin to paint.”
The description of Belinda’s cross also hints at religiosity relegated to the level of showy decoration: “On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore, / Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore” (II.7–8). This passage must not be misinterpreted as religious discrimination; it is more of an ironic reproach for the lack of religious spirit behind the shiny surface of religious signs.
Women and Culture
The Tatler and, subsequently, The Spectator—both periodicals initiated by Richard Steele and his friend Joseph Addison in the early 1700s—were instrumental in creating the cultural climate of the early 18th century. As Kinsley (248) remarks, they “helped to encourage the habit of reading among the middle classes and especially among women, whose readership they wooed persistently and persuasively and over whose intellectual development they hovered solicitously.” This fact has two crucial bearings on “The Rape of the Lock”: firstly, Pope could calculate with a large number of women readers and secondly, he could join the campaign to spread the written word among the ladies.
The dedication to Arabella Fermor (in whose name the title “Mrs.” indicates no marital bond, merely the fact that she was no courtesan and no child) confirms both considerations. When it was appended to the 1714 edition, the separation of Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre had long become conclusive and the tone of the dedication reveals a far more general appeal than that aimed at the resolution of a trivial affair of London society. “I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard Words before a Lady; but ’tis so much the Concern of a Poet to have his Works understood, and particularly by your Sex, that You must give me leave to explain two or three difficult Terms,” Pope writes before going on to explain the “Rosicrucian Doctrine of Spirits” (Butt 217). One might read this as a sign of misogynism; in view of the social and cultural standards of women at the time, however, the condescension the 21st-century reader might sense here gives way to the noble purpose of education. If there is any trace of arrogance, it is the contemporary society’s and not Pope’s own. Besides, where would our “emancipated” 21st-century reader be without the author’s helpful explanation of the esoteric system of “Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs, and Salamanders” (Butt 217)?
The idea of bettering women was a shared mission of The Spectator and “The Rape of the Lock.” As Kinsley (256) points out, “Like a long tradition of antifeminine satirists, Mr. Spectator [Addison] believed that women needed improvement; unlike many of his predecessors, he also believed that they were capable of it and that many of their faults were the product of social and economic conditions over which they had much less control than men.” Or, as Addison himself explained in one of the inauguration issues (No. 10, March 12, 1711):
there are none to whom this Paper will be more useful, than to the female World. I have often thought there has not been sufficient Pains taken in finding out proper Employments and Diversions for the Fair ones. Their Amusements seem contrived for them rather as they are Women, than as they are reasonable Creatures; and are more adapted to the Sex, than to the Species. . . . This, I say, is the State of ordinary Women; tho’ I know there are Multitudes of those of a more elevated Life and Conversation, that move in an exalted Sphere of Knowledge and Virtue. . . . I hope to encrease the Number of these by publishing this daily Paper. . . . I shall endeavour to point out all those Imperfections that are the Blemishes, as well as those Virtues which are the Embellishments, of the Sex. (Reprinted Kinsley 257)
It is in the same spirit Pope praises and criticizes her female characters. To mention just one typical concern, lapdogs may be discussed. To the reader it must be conspicuous that “The Rape of the Lock” is obsessed with pets; lapdogs are mentioned in highly emphatic contexts four times; Belinda’s own pet, Shock on another four occasions. What might at first sight seem a cunning use of anti-climax turns out to be a realistically perverted priority of “human” relations. In this system, it is absolutely justified that the leader of Belinda’s sylphs, “Ariel himself shall be the Guard of Shock” (II.116). Or the same status quo, in a more comic tone, combining the great and the petty in various parallel structures of rhetoric: though signs are ominous, it is unclear whether Belinda might “lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball; / Or whether Heav’n has doom’d that Shock must fall” (II.109–10). Even more hyperbolic is the seeming anticlimax of Belinda’s cry of horror: “Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast, / When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last. . .” (III.157–8). The shared concern of Pope and Addison is illustrated by the latter’s article in The Tatler (No. 121, January 14, 1709), which “helps Pope’s readers realize that such misplaced love may be more than an innocent foible” (Kinsley 251).
Men and Politics
Men also receive, if not their equal share, at least a due amount of satire and criticism from both Pope and Addison. The Baron’s curious attitude to love letters has already been discussed and the maleficent effects of coffee touched upon; some more attention will be paid the latter below, in order to show how men also had their laughable weaknesses in this rather imbalanced society of early-18th-century England.
The basic distinction is that between the fashionable Court and the City as the center of finances and commerce. The aristocratic plot of the poem takes place in the elevated court quarters but some mention is made of the City as well, particularly in the satirical introduction to Canto III. Coffeehouses, established in all areas of London—and differing in nature, according to region—were seen as centers of amateur political interest (Kinsley 276). Pope notes this in what may parallel a dramatic “aside”: coffee “makes the Politician wise, / And see thro’ all things with his half-shut Eyes” (III.117–8); in this, he draws on the fact that coffee had already become something of a commonplace, also exemplified by Addison’s contemporary treatment of it in The Spectator (No. 403, June 12, 1712):
as every Coffee-house has some particular Statesman belonging to it, who is the Mouth of the Street where he lives, I always take care to place my self near him, in order to know his Judgment on the present Posture of Affairs. . . . [I]n the inner Room within the Steams of the Coffee Pot . . . I have heard the whole Spanish monarchy disposed of, and all the Line of Bourbon provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour. (Reprinted Kinsley 277)
One last question in regard to the radically different social status of men and women might be raised. Though “rape” in the title of the work obviously does not denote sexual abuse, one might ponder whether the act of the Baron—who is invested with power due to his sex—to cut off a lock from the hair of Belinda is not slightly more than just a trifle as it is usually dismissed. “The Rape of the Lock” presents Pope’s—a man’s—interpretation of the events; would it make a difference if it had been composed by a woman onlooker?
Religious Contexts
Though it is always emphasized that Alexander Pope was a firm Roman Catholic in an era that did not favor that confession, not much of this finds its way into the actual text of “The Rape of the Lock.” In terms of religion, “The Rape of the Lock” owes much more to the antique mythological and ritual traditions embodied in the classical epic genre. The sacrificial offerings of the main protagonists as well as the active intervention of mythological gods contribute to the overall religious spirit expected of an epic work. If Christianity permeates “The Rape of the Lock,” it is due to and restricted to the model of John Milton’s great Christian epic, Paradise Lost, which is a clear prototype for all English works written in this genre, including Pope’s mock-epic.
It has been conjectured that the union of the tortoise and the elephant (I.135) might hint at a myth of Hindu cosmology, “according to which the earth rests on a giant elephant which in turn stands on a giant tortoise” (Kinsley 6). Since India is mentioned in the same passage—also glorifying the imperial aspirations of the British crown—and the entire section deals with a mock-sacrificial event, this tentative speculation may even be justified; all the more so, as Pope must have been familiar with this idea also mentioned twice in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Kinsley 6–7). If so, this allusion might underline Pope’s enthusiasm for the common root of all true belief, also expressed in his “Universal Prayer,” which sprung from Christian inspiration (the Lord ’s Prayer) but nonetheless shows a non-exclusive open-mindedness towards other religious traditions as well.
Scientific & Technological Contexts
“The Rape of the Lock” makes use of several scientific elements. One is the esoteric system of Rosicrucian symbolism, which derived its name from the secret Order of Rosicrucians, so called because of their dominant sign, the rose cross; another, the theory of ether, which was a popular hypothesis of the time, used to explain how objects far from each other may exercise influence on one another.
As to the first one, it is extensively treated by Pope himself in both the dedication and the poem itself and therefore will not be discussed at length. As to the other, Sitter has some possible interpretations, remarking that the “sylphs also suggest a playful solution to a large and related problem of eighteenth-century Newtonianism, ‘action at a distance’ ” (130). What is more, they explain the effects of light, as, for example, in II.59–64, where, according to Sitter, the sylphs are used “almost as individual light particles” or Newtonian “corpuscules” (130). The scientific yield of this is the following:
The problem . . . is how one physical body could affect another without touching it either directly or indirectly, through intervening matter; there was some speculation that gravity, for example, operated through a “subtle medium” of “aether.” One might regard Pope’s “Aerial Kind,” some of whom dwell in the “Fields of purest Æther” [II.76–7], as connecting as well as insulating the poem’s larger bodies. (Sitter 133n2)
The hypothesis of ether transmitting light was eventually made obsolete by Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory.
In terms of technological development, the connection of celestial constellations with astronomical observation must be added. When the Muse confirms that the lock has found its due place in the night sky, Pope makes a sarcastic remark about one Partridge, “a ridiculous Star-gazer, who in his Almanacks every year, never fail’d to predict the downfall of the Pope, and the King of France, then at war with the English” (Butt 241n, Pope’s own footnote): “This Partridge soon shall view in cloudless Skies, / When next he looks thro’ Galilæo’s Eyes” (V.137–8). Such a ludicrous parallel between mythical fiction and hard science also enhances the comic potential of the work, crowned by Pope’s derision of Partridge, himself an inherently comic character.
There is one more, psycho-physiological theory that must be mentioned here: the long tradition of attributing various effects to spleen. The spleen, an organ that destroys the excess of red blood cells, had closely been related to the system of tempers or humors since at least the 16th century (a possible link to Clarissa’s speech in Canto V); its function, however, was subject to much controversy and confusion. It is important to note that the later, 19th-century meaning, adopted by Butt’s edition (“The fashionable name for an ancient malady, the incidence of which was jealousy confined to the idle rich,” 232n), is slightly misleading. As the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, several, now obsolete meanings of the word were still contending in the early 1700s, such as “violent ill-nature or ill-humour; irritable or peevish temper” (characteristic of Belinda), “a fit of temper; a passion,” “a grudge, a spite or ill-will,” “indignation,” and, finally, “excessive dejection or depression of spirits; gloominess and irritability; moroseness; melancholia” (OED XVI:277).
The scientific theory behind this—dating back to approximately 400 BC, originating in Greece, first “codified” by Hippocrates—is that the human body is governed by the four humors (or bodily fluids): phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. Depending on the dominance of one or another of these, the psychological traits of people also differ. Sanguine people, in whom blood prevails, are generally merry and easily become enthusiastic. Spleen counteracts this humor—but in what precise ways this happens was so undecided at the time that a century before the Augustan Age, in Shakespeare, for instance, the word might even mean “merriment, gaiety, sport” or “amusement, delight” (OED XVI:277). Though by the 18th century its meaning had been limited to the pejorative realm, there is no reason why one should exclude “fit of temper” from consideration, which, after all, describes Belinda’s behavior rather aptly.
The theory of humors, of course, hardly counts as science today. It was, however, an important development in terms of the philosophy of science, as well as literature and culture in general.

Biographical Contexts
Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was the leading poet of the Augustan Age. His style is usually called Neo-Classical, due to the fact that after the convolution of Miltonic idiom and the easily emptied, flamboyantly superficial wit of the later branches of Restoration literature, he and his contemporaries developed a far more regular, moderate and logically ordered poetic language. This, however, did not prevent him from resorting to ample equivocation, an obsession he shared with his chosen Roman model, Horace; according to James Noggle, they prefer “having things both ways” (132).
Pope, son of a Roman Catholic linen merchant, received private tuition—and occasional classes in illegal but tolerated Catholic schools—due to the restrictions on Catholics in England at the time. He suffered from several illnesses, the most severe of which, Pott’s disease (a variant of tuberculosis) left his spine deformed; he never exceeded 1.4 m (roughly 4 ½ feet) in height.
What he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in intellectual development and poetic talent. According to his own account, he composed his first poem, “Ode on Solitude,” a Horatian imitation, at the age of 12. At about the same time the strictures of the law repelled all Catholics from within 10 miles of London, so the Pope family had to move to the country. In subsequent poems, Pope was thus able to contrast city and country life on the basis of first-hand experience; he cherished ambivalent feelings for the extremes of both.
In 1704 he made the acquaintance of the aging William Wycherley, who was impressed with his early poetry. In 1707 he first tried his hand at translating passages of the Iliad, and 1709 saw the publication of The Pastorals. By 1711, the age of 23, he had completed his large-scale theoretical work, “An Essay on Criticism,” which, in spite of its title, is written in neat heroic couplets (with occasional Alexandrines, if need be). The subsequent year saw the publication of the first, 2-canto version of “The Rape of the Lock,” which was hastily printed for fear of a pirate edition. Pope then extended and transformed the work, whose 5-canto version was published with a dedicatory letter to Arabella Fermor in 1714.
His early works were an immediate success and, consequently, Pope soon made friends with Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, with whom he founded the Scriblerus Club to mock bad taste and misdirected learning (1710s). In the late 1710s and early 1720s, Pope was busy translating Homer’s Iliad (1715–20) and Odyssey (1725–6). His later masterpieces were the Dunciad (1728), aimed to satirize his enemies, and An Essay on Man (1733–4), published anonymously, for fear that the author’s person might devastate the reception of the work. His Imitations of Horace also appeared in the first half of the 1730s and conclusively established him as one of the great Neo-Classical poets, and an outstanding satirist of Augustan England.
By 1717 he had earned sufficient literary renown to publish a volume of his Works. But financial success was accompanied by domestic tragedy: after his father died in October 1717, Pope bought an estate in Twickenham, where he moved with his mother. Since he never married, after his mother’s death in 1733, he remained in Twickenham alone. He died there in 1744, a week and a half after his 56th birthday.

Discussion Topics

  1. Pope makes ample use of wordplay. Homonymy is often capitalized on; finding various uses of bodkin, temples, china, and honor, try to explain how this achieves to comic effects. Check out the various meanings of the words in OED—or another dictionary of your choice.

  2. Discuss how various meanings of spleen might at different times dominate the scene of the epic action.

  3. Study the rules of ombre and try to reconstruct the card game in which Belinda is victorious. How is it possible to take the last trick with a King of Hearts if the Ace of the same suit is played first?

  4. Is the Baron’s practical joke really an innocent trifle? How far does the sexual imagery of the poem give a different shade to the events?

  5. What might have made Alexander Pope compose a mock-heroic epic instead of undertaking the much more noble task of writing a real epic about the glorious British Empire—or, indeed, any other theme?

  6. Try to spot Pope’s departures from the standard heroic couplet (metrical inversions, run-on lines, open couplets, etc.) and decide whether they are warranted by any element of the content of the particular passage.

  7. Imagine the point of view of a woman observer and try to tell the story from her perspective. Include any criticism of the male characters involved in the action.

  8. Which passage of the poem do you find funniest (or most comic) and why? What devices does Pope use to make the reader laugh—at themselves, even?

  9. Read the whole of or excerpts from “An Essay on Criticism” (1711) and see whether Pope really remains faithful to the poetic ideals he set down there.

  10. Is the conclusion of the poem justified? Is it satisfactory? If you were a stage director commissioned to have the epic poem performed with the same or an altered ending depending on your choice, would you change anything?

Essay Ideas

  1. The 1712, 2-canto version is significantly different from the 1714, 5-canto edition. Using the first variant as a copy-text, attempt to analyze Pope’s additions and their respective function in terms of epic devices. (In case no copy of the 1712 version is readily available, use the approximate selection from the 5-canto version suggested by John Sitter [128]: I.1–18; II.1–46; III.1–24, 105–34, 147–8, 153–78; IV.1–10, 93–140, 143–74; V.1–6, 37–52, 57–88, 97–150.)

  2. Place “The Rape of the Lock” in a tradition of epic works in the English language and/or foreign.

  3. Identify the rhetorical figures and epic themes used in Umbriel’s descent into the underworld and try to accommodate them with the established conventions of epic poetry. (Kinsley 1979 may be a highly valuable resource for this task.)

  4. Expand Pat Rogers’s analysis of the heroic couplet and apply it to various aspects of the meter and verse structure of “The Rape of the Lock.”

  5. Survey the satirical elements of “The Rape of the Lock” directed against Pope’s contemporary society.

Complementary Texts
Homer. The Iliad & The Odyssey. (With special regard to the passages highlighted by Pope’s own footnotes.)

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.”

– – –. Horatian Imitations.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels.

Virgil. Aeneid. (With special regard to the passages highlighted by Pope’s own footnotes.)

Wycherley, William. The Country Wife.

Works Cited
Butt, John (ed.). The Poems of Alexander Pope. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.

Kinsley, William. The Rape of the Lock: Contexts. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979.

Noggle, James. The Skeptical Sublime: Aesthetic Ideology in Pope and the Tory Satirists. Oxford: OUP, 2001.

OED. The Oxford English Dictionary. 20 vols. Ed. J. A. Simpson & E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press & Clarendon Press, 1989.

Rogers, Pat. “The Politics of Style.” Essays on Pope. Cambridge: CUP, 1993. 27–36.

Sherburne, George (ed.). The Correspondence of Alexander Pope. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Sitter, John. “What the Sylphs Do: Studying The Rape of the Lock.” In: Approaches to Teaching Pope’s Poetry. Ed. Wallace Jackson and R. Paul Yoder. New York: MLA, 1993. 128–33.

Essay by Boldizsár Fejérvári
The author holds MAs in Scandinavian Studies and English. As of December 2005, he is a doctoral student specializing in 18th-century English poetry, with special regard to Thomas Chatterton. He has been teaching at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest (since 2001) and Pázmány Catholic University, Piliscsaba, Hungary. His publications include a comparative reading of Pope’s and Chatterton’s Horatian odes and a complete Hungarian translation of Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.”

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